“Mommy Killed Him”: Gender, Family, and History in Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Jay Daniel Thompson, Erin Reardon

Abstract


Introduction 

Nancy Thompson (Heather Langekamp) is one angry teenager. She’s just discovered that her mother Marge (Ronee Blakley) knows about Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), the strange man with the burnt flesh and the switchblade fingers who’s been killing her friends in their dreams. Marge insists that there’s nothing to worry about. “He’s dead, honey,” Marge assures her daughter, “because mommy killed him.” This now-famous line neatly encapsulates the gender politics of Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). We argue that in order to fully understand how gender operates in Nightmare, it is useful to read the film within the context of the historical period in which it was produced. Nightmare appeared during the early years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Reagan valorised the white, middle-class nuclear family. Reagan’s presidency coincided with (and contributed to) the rise of ‘family values’ and a corresponding anti-feminism. During this era, both ‘family values’ and anti-feminism were being endorsed (and contested) in Hollywood cinema. 

In this article, we suggest that the kind of patriarchal family structure endorsed by Reagan is thoroughly ridiculed in Nightmare. The families in Craven’s film are dysfunctional jokes, headed by incompetent adults who, in their historical attempts to rid their community of Freddy, instead fostered Freddy’s growth from sadistic human to fully-fledged monster. Nancy does indeed slay the beast in order to save the children of Elm Street. In doing so, though, we suggest that she becomes both a maternal and paternal figure; and (at least symbolically) restores her fragmented nuclear family unit. Also, and tellingly, Nancy and her mother are punished for attempting to destroy Krueger. 

Nightmare in 1980s America

Nightmare was released at the height of the popularity of the “slasher film” genre. Much scholarly attention has been given to Nightmare’s gender politics. Film theorist Carol Clover has called Nancy “the grittiest of the Final Girls” (202). Clover has used the term “Final Girl” to describe the female protagonist in slasher films who survives until the film’s ending, and who kills the monster. For Clover and other scholars, Nancy uses her physical and intellectual strength to combat Freddy; she is not the kind of passive heroine found in earlier slasher films such as 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (see Christensen; Clover 202; Trencansky). We do not disagree entirely with this reading. Nevertheless, we suggest that it can be complicated by analysing Nightmare in the historical context in which it was produced. We agree with Rhonda Hammer and Douglas Kellner that “Hollywood films provide important insights into the psychological, socio-political, and ideological make-up of U.S. society at a given point in history” (109). This article adopts Hammer and Kellner’s analytic approach, which involves using “social realities and context to help situate and interpret key films” (109). By adopting this approach, we hope to suggest the importance of Craven’s film to the study of gender representations in 1980s Hollywood cinema. Nightmare is a 1980s film that has reached a particularly large audience; it was critically and commercially successful upon its release, and led to numerous sequels, a TV series, and a 2010 remake (Phillips 77).

Significantly, Craven’s film was released three years after the Republican Ronald Reagan commenced his first term as President of the United States of America. Much has been written about the neoconservative policies and rhetoric issued by the Reagan administration (see, for example, Broussard; Tygiel). This neoconservatism encroached on all aspects of social life, including gender. According to Sara Evans: “Empowered by the Republican administration, conservatives relentlessly criticized women’s work outside the home, blocking most legislation designed to ameliorate the strains of work and family life while turning the blame for those very stresses back on feminism itself” (87). For Reagan, the nuclear family—and, more specifically, the white, middle-class nuclear family—was under threat; for example, divorce rates and single parent families had increased exponentially in the US between the 1960s and the 1980s (Popenoe 531-532). This was problematic because, as sociologist David Popenoe has argued, the nuclear family was “by far the best institution” in which to raise children (539). Popenoe approvingly cites the following passage from the National Commission on Children (1991): 

Substantial evidence suggests that the quality of life for many of America's children has declined. As the nation looks ahead to the twenty- first century, the fundamental challenge facing us is how to fashion responses that support and strengthen families as the once and future domain for raising children. (539)

This emphasis on “family values” was shared by the Religious Right, which had been gaining political influence in North America since the late 1970s. The most famous early example of the Religious Right was the “Save Our Children” crusade. This crusade (which was led by Baptist singer Anita Bryant) protested a local gay rights ordinance in Dade County, Florida (Winner 184). Family values were also espoused by some commentators of a more liberal political persuasion. A prominent example is Tipper Gore, wife of Democrats senator Al Gore Jr., who (in 1985) became the chief spokesperson of the Parents’ Music Resource Center, an organisation that aimed “to inform parents about the pornographic content of some rock songs” (Chastagner 181). This organisation seemed to work on the assumption that parents know what is best for their children; and that it is parents’ moral duty to protect their children from social evils (in this case, sexually explicit popular culture). 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the anti-feminism and the privileging of family values described above manifested in the Hollywood cinema of the 1980s. Susan Faludi has demonstrated how a selection of films released during that decade “struggle to make motherhood as alluring as possible,” and punish those female protagonists who are unwilling or unable to become mothers (163). Faludi does not mention slasher films, though it is telling that this genre —a genre that had its genesis in the early 1960s, with movies such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960)—enjoyed considerable popularity during the 1980s. The slasher genre has been characterised by its graphic depictions of violence, particularly violence against women (Welsh). Many of the female victims in these films are shown to be sexually active prior to their murders, thus making these murders seem like punishment for their behaviour (Welsh). For example, in Nightmare, the character Tina Gray (Amanda Wyss) is killed by Freddy shortly after she has sex with her boyfriend. 

Our aim is not to suggest that Nightmare is automatically anti-feminist because it is a slasher film or because of the decade in which it was released. Craven’s film is actually resistant to any single and definitive reading, with its blurring of the boundaries between reality and fantasy, its blend of horror and dark humour, and its overall air of ambiguity. Furthermore, it is worth noting that Hollywood films of the 1980s contested Reaganite politics as much as they endorsed those politics; the cinema of that decade was not entirely right-leaning (Hammer and Kellner 107). Thus, our aim is to explore the extent to which Craven’s film contests and endorses the family values and the conservative gender politics that are described above. In particular, we focus on Nightmare’s representation of the nuclear family. As Sara Harwood argues, in 1980s Hollywood cinema, the nuclear family was frequently represented as a “fragile, threatened entity” (5). Within this “threatened entity”, parents (and particularly fathers) were regularly represented as being “highly problematic”, and unable to adequately protect their children (Harwood 1-2). Harwood argues this point with reference to films such as the hugely popular thriller Fatal Attraction (1987). Sarah Trencansky has noted that a recurring theme of the 1980s slasher film is “youth subjugated to an adult community that produces monsters” (Trencansky 68). Harwood and Trencansky’s insights are particularly relevant to our reading of Craven’s film, and its representation of the heroine’s family. 

Bad Parents and Broken Families

Nightmare is set in white, middle-class suburbia. The families within this suburbia are, however, a long way from the idealised, comfortable nuclear family. The parents are unfeeling and uncaring—not to mention unhelpful to their teenage children. Nancy’s family is a case in point. Her parents are separated. Her policeman father Donald (John Saxon) is almost laughably unemotional; when Nancy asks him whether her boyfriend has been killed [by Freddy], he replies flatly: “Yeah. Apparently, he’s dead.” Nancy’s mother Marge is an alcoholic who installs bars on the windows of the family home in a bid to keep Nancy safe. Marge is unaware (or maybe she does not want to know) that the real danger lies in the collective unconscious of teenagers such as her daughter. Ironically, it is parents such as Marge who created the monster. Late in the film, Marge informs Nancy that Freddy was a child murderer who avoided a jail sentence due to legal technicality. A group of parents tracked Freddy down and set fire to him. This represents a particularly extreme version of parental protectiveness. Marge tries to assure Nancy that Freddy “can’t get you now”, but the execution of her friends while they sleep—not to mention Nancy’s own nocturnal encounters with the monster—suggest otherwise.

Indeed, it is easy to read Freddy as a kind of monstrous doppelganger for the parents who killed him. After all, he is (like those parents) a murderous adult. David Kingsley has argued that Freddy can be read as a doppelganger for Donald, and there is evidence in the film to support this argument. For example, the mention of Freddy’s name is the only thing that can transform Donald’s perpetual stoic facial expression into a look of genuine concern. Donald himself never mentions Freddy, or even acknowledges his existence—even when the monster is in front of him, in one of the film’s several climaxes. There is a sense, then, that Freddy represents a dark, sadistic part of Donald that he is barely able to face—but also, that he is barely able to repress. 

Nancy as Final Girl and/or (Over-)Protective Mother

In her essay, Clover argues that to regard the Final Girl as a “feminist development” is “a particularly grotesque expression of wishful thinking. She is simply an agreed-upon fiction, and the male viewer's use of her as a vehicle for his own sadomasochistic fantasies” (214). This is too simplistic a reading, as is suggested by a close look at the character Nancy. As Clover herself puts it, Nancy has “the quality of the Final Girl's fight, and more generally to the qualities of character that enable her, of all the characters, to survive what has come to seem unsurvivable” (Clover 64). She possesses crucial knowledge about Freddy and his powers. Nancy is indeed subject to violence at Freddy’s hands, but she also takes responsibility for destroying him— and this is something that the male characters seem unable or unwilling to do. Those men who disregard her warnings to stay awake (her boyfriend Glen) or who are unable to hear them (her friend Rod, who is incarcerated for his girlfriend Tina’s murder) die violent deaths. Nightmare is shot largely from Nancy’s point-of-view. The viewer is thus encouraged to feel the fear and terror that she feels about the monster, and want her to succeed in killing him.   

Nevertheless, the character Nancy is not entirely pro-feminist. There is a sense in which she becomes “the proverbial parent she never had” (Christensen 37; emphasis in original). Nancy becomes the mother who warns the neighbourhood youngsters about the danger that they are facing, and comforts them (particularly Rod, whose cries of innocence go ignored). Nancy also becomes the tough upholder of justice who punishes the monster in a way her policeman father cannot (or will not). Thus, Nancy comes to embody both, distinctly gendered parental roles; the nuclear family is to some extent restored in her very being. She answers Anita Bryant’s call to ‘save our children’, only here the threat to children and families comes not from homosexuality (as Bryant had feared), but rather from a supernatural killer.  

In particular, parallels are drawn between Nancy and Marge. Marge admits that “a group of us parents” hunted out Freddy. Nevertheless, in saying that “mommy killed him”, she seems to take sole responsibility for his execution. Compare Marge’s behaviour with that of Donald, who never utters Freddy’s name. In one of the climaxes, Nancy herself sets fire to Freddy, before he can hurt any other youngsters. Thus, it is the mothers in Nightmare—both the “real” mother (Marge) and the symbolic mother (Nancy)—who are punished for killing the monster. In the film’s first climax, the burning Freddy races into Marge’s bedroom and kills her, before both monster and victim mysteriously vanish. In the second climax, Marge is yanked off the front porch and through the front door, by unseen hands that most likely belong to Krueger.

In the film’s final climax, Nancy wakes to find that the whole film was just a dream; her friends and mother are alive. She remarks that the morning is ‘bright’; indeed, it appears a bit too bright, especially after the darkness and bloodshed of the night before. Nancy steps into a car with her friends, but the viewer notices something odd—the car’s colours (red, with green stripes) match the colours on Freddy’s shirt. The car drives off, against the will of its passengers, and presumably powered by the apparently dead (or is he dead? Was he ever truly dead? Was he just dreamed up? Is Nancy still dreaming now?) monster. Compare the fates of these women with that of Donald. In the first climax, he watches in horror as Freddy murders Marge, but does nothing to protect her. Donald does not appear in the final climax. The viewer is left to guess what happened to him. Most likely, Donald will continue to try and protect the local community as best (or as incompetently) he can, and turn a blind eye to the teenage and female suffering around him. 

Conclusion 

We have argued that a nuanced understanding of the gender politics at the heart of Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street can be achieved by reading the film within the context of the historical period in which it was released. Nightmare is an example of a Hollywood film that manages (to some extent) to contest the anti-feminism and the emphasis on “family values” that characterised mid-1980s American political culture. In Nightmare, the nuclear family is reduced to a pathetic joke; the parents are hopeless, and the children are left to fend (sometimes unsuccessfully) for themselves. Nancy is genuinely assertive, and the young men around her pay the price for not heeding or hearing her warnings. Nonetheless, as we have also argued, Nancy becomes the mother and father she never had, and in doing so she (at least symbolically) restores her fractured nuclear family unit. In Craven’s film, the nuclear family might be down, but it’s not entirely out. Finally, while both Nancy and Marge might seem to destroy Freddy, the monster ultimately punishes these women for their crimes. 

References 

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Trencansky, Sarah. “Final Girls and Terrible Youth: Transgression in 1980s Slasher Horror”. Journal of Popular Film and Television 29.2 (2001): 63-73. 

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Keywords


Horror cinema; gender in cinema; nuclear family; 1980s America



Copyright (c) 2017 Jay Daniel Thompson, Erin Reardon

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