The Sociology of Freddy
A psychoanalysis of the Elm Street Series
The character of Freddy Krueger is truly a fascinating one. More than an iconic pop cultural figure, he has become something of an symbolic sociocultural ambassador of the American way of life. Although on the forefront, it may seem odd, and honestly, somewhat troubling to espouse a fictitious serial killer and child molester as an emblem of American mass culture, that has indeed become the case over the last thirty years.
There is a character exchange in New Nightmare in which Heather Lampenkagen has a discussion with a portly nurse about the character of Freddy Krueger. She tells the nurse that all children know who he is, that he is a figure akin to Santa Claus or King Kong. His influence on the culture, she states, is inescapable.
Although the children of the post-Reagan years may not have a fondness, or fear, of Freddy Krueger embedded in their corpuscles the way us 80s children had, and still carry to this day, the character is still widely regarded as one of Hollywood s most memorable creations, a character that epitomizes all that is despicable and detestable in society, a sort of boogeyman incarnate for Generation Y. Assuredly, most Americans cannot even name their district congressman, but virtually all adults over the age of twenty can at least give you the fundamentals of the Nightmare on Elm Street mythos. Not only has Freddy Krueger had a more magnanimous impact on the culture than most heroic film characters, he has had more influence than a majority of the nations politicians!
To talk about Freddy Krueger, and the Elm Street series, one must first take a look at the culture that, for all intents and purposes, shaped the Freddy Krueger character. According to legend, Wes Craven based the character of Krueger upon a drunken bum that would wander aimlessly up and down his childhood block. From that very conception of the character, Freddy Krueger is a creation that harkens back to the state of childhood, of being an undeveloped person, socially and mentally as well as physically. Craven himself was born into an ultra strict religious sect, and in many ways, the character of Krueger could be construed as something of a pervasive, insidious secular threat to the Christianized mandates he grew up surrounded by. That, I note, is the secondary constant behind the character of Krueger, that being that he is a creature that is tied to the child and his empirical observations of the culture around him or her.
Since we all frequent a site dedicated to the retro, I think we all agree that the aspects of ones childhood has a massive effect on the way that person thinks, and functions, in adulthood. Without getting too Freudian here, I believe we all have some mental scarring from our childhood, that in some way, shape, or form, ties back to our parents, and the way they interpreted the world to us. To a lot of film analysts, and fellow sociological nerds, the character of Freddy Krueger represents the externalized threat of society outside of the parent. Hey, remember when your mom told you not to wander off at the store that one time when you were six because there were bad people out there? Well, a lot of observers have noted that the inordinate amount of fondness for the Krueger character is born of that same sentiment, that as children, we are aware of some sort of enigmatic threat stemming from society, yet cannot determine what that social threat is. Since very few parents are keen to tell a kindergartner about child molesters and sexual predators, that parental fear is transferred by the child and interpreted as some other form of externalized threat. Therefore, that element of bad people is interpreted by the child as being a character akin to Freddy Krueger. Therefore, the character becomes a universal symbol of the mysterious, predatory nature of culture to the child.
And us kids of the 80s, we LOVED us some Freddy Krueger. Sure, the character scared the living dog mess out of me, but at the same time, I was quite amused by his antics, and found him to be, in a very perverse manner, sort of a clown-like figure. Seeing as how the exact mechanism was, and still is, implemented by a majority of child abductors and other assorted varieties of human scum, the idea of Freddy Krueger as a symbol of predatory adulthood in general is certainly a feasible, if not an out and out forgone, conclusion.
The original Nightmare on Elm Street was released in 1984, by the fledgling New Line Cinema production company. Purportedly, Craven came up with the idea of a dream demon after reading an article in the LA Times that stated that several teenagers, all of whom were fugitives from the Khmer Rogue regime in Cambodia, developed an irrational fear of sleeping, and all of whom later died after finally falling into slumber. Although more than likely not the intentional case, this again harkens back to the idea of predatory adulthood, that these young men that survived the real life horror of the Pol Pot regime were but victims in the social construction of the world their parents had, perhaps unknowingly, weaved for them. This element of generational dissonance would later become a recurring theme throughout the Nightmare films.
By now, the behind the scenes success and failures of the movie have been well documented. The film become a surprise hit, and gave the up and coming film studio its first bona fide blockbuster. To this day, many insiders still refer to New Line, perhaps lovingly or perhaps not, as The House That Freddy Built.
It is kind of hard to tell what Cravens originally wished to state within the first Elm Street film, which itself, is the bedrock of the entire Krueger mythos. As with Cravens earlier films Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, the movie can perhaps be viewed as something of an anti Absolutist film, a movie that declares that the idea of a universal justice is null if malicious means are utilized to secure a, purportedly, justified end. In many ways, the character of Freddy Krueger, the victim of a so called righteous slaying, can be seen as the inversion of the old eye for an eye principle, a case example of the morally unjust foundation of Absolutist thought. Once again harking back to Cravens ultra religious upbringing, that very well could be seen as an indictment of the inherently faulty and amoral nature of organized religion on the filmmakers behalf.
No doubt about it, the PTA of Elm Street is wholeheartedly responsible for the creation of Freddy Krueger. While this is something of an on the nose indictment of 80s over parenting, it goes back to the series theme of generational dissonance, of the clashing of the parent and the child. Never in history have the two cultural worldviews of the parent and the child been equivalent, and in a very sly way, perhaps the character of Krueger is the physical manifestation of the parents overbearing nature, in both the role of both household AND societal leader.
Of course, it was only a matter of time until a sequel was authorized, and since Craven waived his rights to the property in order to finance the original film, the helm of auteur was handed over to Jack Shoulder, whom abandoned the generational dissonance theme of the first film in favor of telling a totally different story.
Sure, sure, the second Elm Street movie may be a Freddy Krueger picture, but in all sincerity, it is a film about homosexuality. Many, many articles have been written on the incredibly blunt subtext of this film, so I shall not annex anything more to the discussion. Let us just say that if you could not figure out that this film was trying to make a gay rights statement by the time the lead protagonist of the film found himself in the shower with an S and M enthusiast, you are an incredibly naive human being.
The third film, considered by most Elm Street purists to be the best of the series, is a film that totally paints the character of Krueger as the physical manifestation of adolescent societal fears. Set in a psychiatric hospital, each of the characters in the film are offset by some societal adversity, which the parent is either apathetic or avoidant to address.
Some people believe that the character of Freddy Krueger is a metaphor for being the child of an alcoholic, of being a person that is truly and completely devoid of true parental governance. Although I personally believe that is a stretch, if you have ever sat down and watched the series, you will note that the inclusion of alcoholic parent figures are fairly common. In fact, the third movie has two of them, so whether or not that is an intentional statement or just coincidental is up to the viewers interpretation.
The third film emblemizes Krueger as not just the symbol of parental distrust, but peer group distrust as well. The retort of the adult figures, of the society of the teens, are to put them on medication for their affliction. Although some may be quick to cite Dream Warriors as an incredibly early anti-mass psychiatric medicine picture, I believe that is, more than likely, a coincidence. A look at the cast of the third film paints a varied portrait of teen angst, in almost all of its incarnations. The characters are afflicted by chemical dependency issues, sociocultural prejudices, and in some cases, just out and out social awkwardness. In the third film, Krueger is most definitely emblematic of that trying transition from child to adulthood, and the individual and his or her worries of societal assimilation.
The fourth film, however, eschewed the social commentary of the third picture in favor of producing a fairly formulaic, hum drum popcorn film instead. Although there are still some traces of sociological commentary here and there, it is nothing that the series has not already stated, and most certainly as effectively, as the earlier films in the series.
The fifth film, which may be the most underrated in the series, once again returns to the idea of symbolizing Krueger as sort of a universal embodiment of societal ills. Through means both effective and dulled, the movie touches upon the issues of teen pregnancy, drunk driving, and eating disorders, once again displaying Krueger as an enforced product of the society that the teen, begrudgingly, must encounter.
As the 90s began, it was clear that the Krueger character was no longer a valuable commodity in the rapidly developing 90s culture. Seen as an archaic byproduct of the Reagan years, Freddy s Dead The Final Nightmare was released in 1991, to little fanfare. By this point, Freddy had become a parody of himself, and many fans of the series deem this installment to be, for all intents and purposes, a parody of the former movies as well. Featuring a diverse set of pop cultural references, citing everything from Nietzsche to the Nintendo Power Glove, the sixth Nightmare film fundamentally stated that Krueger, once the embodiment of all that was socially terrifying, had become nothing more than another antiquated, laughable element of disposable entertainment.
Wes Cravens 1994 film New Nightmare is, sociologically, the most intriguing film in the series. Evidently, the film was crafted as sort of an allegory for Cravens own difficulties with the franchise, of being the creator that watched his creation transmogrify into a caricature. Whereas the prior films in the series were crafted from the perspective of the child, New Nightmare is very much anchored from the perspective of the adult, of being in a perpetual state of societal apprehension over the world the parent, fundamentally, created. Ultimately, the seventh Elm Street film is about the disappointment and disdain of adulthood, of becoming a creature that you never really wanted to become. The first six films were about fear of cultural absorption. This film, unquestionably the most mature and refined of the series, is about the bitterness of the adult after he or she becomes absorbed into the culture that he or she spent his or her teenage years fearing. Alike the third film, there is a strong anti medicinal vibe to the offering, and once again, it is difficult to not view the film as being an allegory for at least some sort of antipathy towards religious indoctrination. If for a single film, the character of Freddy Krueger, once again, became something terrifying.
For years and years, fans clamored for a cinematic throw down between Jason Voorhees of Friday the 13th fame and Krueger. After languishing in developmental hell for almost two decades, Krueger made his onscreen return after nearly a decade of exile in the 2003 film Freddy Vs Jason.
Now, the duality between Jason and Freddy has been diagnosed as everything from a statement about the nature of criminal activity in the United States, with Jason representing street crime and the more intellectual Freddy representing white collar crime, to a comparison of the Freudian concept of the ego and the id. There is a very telling line at the beginning of the film in which Freddy states that he despises being forgotten, and in that, that may very well be the furtive meaning behind the film. Jason and Freddy represent two archaic institutes, these obsolete relics of yesteryear, forced to do battle in the name of throwaway amusement. As either a condemnatory statement about the trivial nature of popular culture, or perhaps even a statement about the way we retroactively view society, the dynamic of Krueger and his masked sparring partner can be construed to fit almost any philosophical view.
Of course, one cannot talk about the series without talking about its latest installment, that being the 2010 reboot that was released earlier this year. Although response to the film has been, well, to put it nicely, harsh, that same criticism may very be the same locus of our society s current fascination with the past. We have no interest, or incentive, to better or alter the state of the world, so why not go back to the good old days and rehash another relic of yesteryear.? As a statement that declares us glaringly uncreative, or just flat out lazy, the mere fact that the latest Elm Street film exists is more than enough ammunition for more fiery analysts than me to lob at the state of modern day American culture.
So, what does the character of Krueger, and by proxy, the Elm Street series really say about American culture? Well, the series has been viewed as everything from a condemnation of suburbanization to the Catholic Church, so that is most certainly a judgment call for the individual to make if there ever was one. That being said, the character of Krueger, and his films, fascinate and entertain us for the very same reasons we are fearful of them. The character represents the viewers preexisting worries, about the terrors that lurk about in the abyss that is our own mind. To some, Krueger may be a bully that lives down the street, or he may be an emotionally abusive father, hell, to some, he may even be a reminder of ones own credit card debt. Ultimately, as Robert Englund, Freddy Krueger s alter ego himself stated in the Nightmare Collection DVD set, the character is feared because he represents the child s interpretation of adulthood, of the impending inevitability of individualistic responsibility and absorption into the real world. From his own mouth, that may very well be the center of our love, and loathing, of the Krueger character, for he is, if nothing else, the physical embodiment of growing up.
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James Swift is a twenty-something writer currently residing in the metro Atlanta area. His first book, "How I Survived Three Years at a Two-Year Community College", is currently available from I-Universe Publishing.