Cultural Human Sacrifice in Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street Films
by Brittany Caroline Speller
Abstract: [page 51] Wes Craven’s films often feature veiled or outright commentaries on their cultural context. With this trait in mind, a reexamination of his initial two entries in the Elm Street series is warranted. By utilizing a theoretical lens of cultural human sacrifice, combined with traditional film criticism techniques, this essay argues that Craven’s films A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987) can be seen as inclusive of instances of human sacrifice that were deemed necessary in order to perpetuate the hegemonic societal norms of the 1980s.
Keywords: Elm Street series, horror genre, human sacrifice, slasher films, Wes Craven
The 1980s have often been nostalgically portrayed in modern popular culture as a time of eased political tensions, new technologies, and feel-good cultural trends; however, the decade also represented a shift to more socially and politically conservative cultural norms. This reversal from the liberalism of the previous decade and a half roughly began with the election of Ronald Reagan as president, and continued on into the early 1990s following the succession of George H. W. Bush. The new rhetoric of conservatism was laced throughout the popular culture of the eighties, especially within horror films of the decade (Williams, Hearths 211). This conservative rhetorical platform included the following: abstinence only campaigns, a celebration of the nuclear family, and a resurgence of patriarchal values characterized by excessive antagonism towards feminism. These conservative foci created the need for a purging of the perceived negative elements or influences within society. However, as human sacrifice has long been deemed unacceptable in Western society, this purging effect was only available through cultural methods, such as motion [page 52] pictures, rather than physical or ritual ones. Thus, the Wes Craven films A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987) can be seen as inclusive of instances of human sacrifice that were deemed necessary in order to perpetuate the conservative societal norms of the 1980s.
In this study, only the first and third films of the Elm Street franchise will be addressed due to the lack of involvement by original creator Wes Craven in other entries for the series. Although the second film in the Elm Street sequence is interesting as part of a larger examination of the series as a whole, all installments aside from the first, third, and later meta-commentary New Nightmare were either unsanctioned or disapproved of by Craven (Never Sleep Again). Robert Shaye, owner of New Line Cinema, saw the franchise potential after the success of A Nightmare on Elm Street and utilized this situation, as well as his ownership of the rights to the film, for his financially struggling studio (Hutson 89). Aside from the films involving Craven, the next few installments after the original were geared more towards financial gain than any artistic or stylistic achievements. These films also were written as entertainment pieces within a franchise, rather than as individual works of cultural commentary, in contrast to Craven’s modus operandi as a scriptwriter and director.
As it is explored here, cultural human sacrifice is defined as the symbolic disposal through an artistic medium of an individual or group in order to ensure the perpetuation of a societal norm, secular value, or religious belief in the real world. The artistic mode through which cultural human sacrifice most often occurs is in motion pictures, and more specifically, within the horror genre of the 1980s. This trend is explicitly seen within the first and third entries of the A Nightmare on Elm Street series, with protagonist Nancy being the chief sacrificial victim, but far from the only one. Along with her friends, and later the remainder of the Elm Street children, Nancy is sacrificed in order to reinforce hegemonic order through the perpetuation of conservative societal norms of the eighties. Furthermore, supernatural villain Freddy also acts as a sacrifice, which inspires numerous questions about the nature of evil presented in the film. Each of the characters who die in the films discussed is killed due to an inability to adhere to the dominant social and cultural norms. These characters defy [page 53] traditional gender roles, fail to practice abstinence, or undermine the nuclear family.
With the hopes of better understanding the first and third Elm Street films and their place in cultural history, an examination of how cultural human sacrifice operates in these entries is necessary. As it is discussed here, cultural human sacrifice is a mode of societal cleansing utilized to ensure stability or restore hegemonic order to a given society. When examined culturally, human sacrifice has nuanced differences from other religious, ritualized, or legalistic forms of violence like executions, schadenfreude, or terrorizing spectacle. In general, criminal execution is, for the most part, a private affair. While executions are public in the sense that individuals, especially those impacted by the execution on a personal level, may view the process as it occurs, these events are not typically televised in the United States. The private nature of execution is unlike the public, marketed, and televised function of cultural human sacrifice on film. Furthermore, criminal execution is based on a complex legal system instead of cultural norms or taboos, unlike sacrifice on film, which is extralegal and focused on symbolically punishing those who deviate from hegemonic discourse. Just as with criminal execution, schadenfreude is of a private nature. By definition, schadenfreude is where one feels joy on a personal level over the misfortune of another individual (Smith xi). Richard H. Smith notes that schadenfreude is not used to police, discipline, or punish entire groups of people, but rather involves personal gain in the sense that it boosts self-worth as a result of the ability to make a downward comparison between oneself and another person (xii). In this way, schadenfreude is uninterested in societal cleansing and is often aimed at those who are already in high-ranking positions of society, such as politicians or celebrities, or individuals known on a personal level who are subjects of envy in some fashion. On the other hand, cultural human sacrifice targets populations who are identified as Others and presents their deaths as an admonition to fellow Othered individuals or groups.
Cultural human sacrifice has a rich history and literature, with its roots in literal sacrifice. For instance, René Girard postulated in his book Violence and the Sacred that “scapegoat effects are more deeply rooted in the human condition than we are willing to admit” [page 54] (101). Walter Burkert agreed with this idea in the opening of his book Homo Necans, stating that “more can be said for the thesis that all orders and forms of authority in human society are founded by institutionalized violence” (1). For him, this kind of violence included human sacrifice. The idea of a scapegoat, as Girard suggested, is recurrent throughout human history, and instigates a more thorough investigation of human nature and culture. Therefore, human psychology in a group and as a societal process can be conducive to cultural human sacrifice if literal sacrifice is deemed unacceptable.
After his initial study of violence and human nature, Girard later went on to associate sacrificial practices with literary works, notably the plays of Sophocles (Hughes 10). Literary scholar Derek Hughes also ties human sacrifice to Greek literature, contending that ideas about sacrificial practices were directly linked to those of human progress (16). Based on the theories of Girard and Burkert, Mark Pizzato applies the idea of human sacrifice to a variety of popular culture products, such as plays, films, novels, and even the National Football League (NFL) in his book Theatres of Human Sacrifice. Pizzato theorizes that through certain “social pressures, we make further sacrifices, consciously or not, scripting the drama of our lives as a performance for others, including the audience that will outlive us” (1). When this self-enforced performance is enacted onscreen for a mass audience, performative habits are reinforced as societally customary. According to Pizzato, popular culture serves the purpose of a “superficial expression and temporary purging of current fears and desires through normative, melodramatic violence (addictively masking deeper traumas): a purely good hero saves or avenges innocent victims by almost losing to, yet triumphing over clearly evil villains” (2). Consequently, the observed performance of violent human sacrifice onscreen works as a cathartic mechanism on audiences in which the scapegoat symbol becomes figurative rather than literal. Cultural human sacrifice, then, is the logical next step in a society that feeds on mass-marketed media products such as film.
For those unfamiliar with the Elm Street franchise, a brief summation is warranted. The original A Nightmare on Elm Street begins with four teenagers, led by Nancy (Heather Langenkamp), who find that they have been sharing an identical nightmare about [page 55] a man with knives for fingers. As they later find out, this man is Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), a serial child murderer, who was hunted down by the Elm Street parents and burned alive after being freed on a technicality. Freddy comes back as a malevolent spirit to systematically kill, through their dreams, each of the children whose parents are responsible for his death. Then, the third film in the series, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987), introduces and follows the remainder of the Elm Street children, who are all checked into a juvenile mental health facility, as they are joined by Nancy to battle and finally defeat Freddy.
One aspect of society that human sacrifice is concerned with preserving in the Elm Street films is normalcy; however, this is not the concern only of the series, but rather of horror films in general. In Looking At Movies, Richard Barsam and Dave Monahan explain this characteristic of the genre in more detail:
A typical horror narrative begins by establishing a normal world that will be threatened by the arrival of the other. This monster must be vanquished or destroyed in order to reestablish normalcy. Often, the protagonist is the only person who initially recognizes evidence of the threat . . . .When her warnings are ignored, the central character is directly targeted by the other. She must either enlist help or face the monster on her own. (93)
The protagonist, as the only member of the cultural collective with knowledge or an understanding of this threat, is forced to act as a sacrifice or savior for the group. As Barsam and Monahan suggest with their use of a female pronoun, protagonists in the horror genre are overwhelmingly women or young girls in their mid-to-late teens or twenties, yet this gender imbalance was not always the case.
Perhaps the most defining feature of the post-Halloween slasher film was the existence and codification of a character trope that became known as the Final Girl (Clover, Men 35). This character, as the title suggests, is typically the last character standing at the end of the movie’s bloodbath. Although her presence is defining in the end of the film, it in no way ensures her survival to the credits; she may merely be the last character to die, often during a face-off with the killer. She is the sacrificial figure who is chosen based on her [page 56] status as the protagonist and the qualities that make her more worthy than others in her collective, which also happen to define her as the Final Girl. As Carol Clover points out in her celebrated article “Her Body, Himself,” the Final Girl “is introduced at the beginning and is the only character to be developed in any psychological detail” (207). Therefore, the audience automatically identifies with this character, and understands that she is somehow different from her companions. Generally, this difference is based on several qualities of the Final Girl: her asexuality, her ingenuity or intelligence, an indispensable resourcefulness, her boyish and athletic physicality, and an articulated level of maturity that is contrary to that of her promiscuous and carefree friends. She also seemingly possesses an introverted nature that is contrasted by an astounding amount of confidence when later confronted by the killer.
Just as the audience recognizes the Final Girl as the protagonist due to her being set apart from her companions, the killer soon becomes aware of this fact as well and begins to obsessively focus on her. Robin Wood explains this phenomenon in relation to its origins in Halloween when he states that “the basic premise of the action is that Laurie is the killer’s real quarry throughout (the other girls merely distractions en route)” (172). The killer demonstrates this premise by either stalking the Final Girl or by proceeding to systematically destroy the world around her. The destructive approach of the killer is usually enacted on the Final Girl by brutally murdering her friends, boyfriend, family, or others in her community. He may also attempt to destroy her sanity by distancing her from those around her; this is usually aided by her role as the only one with knowledge of the killer or threat to society, which leads those around her to deny that anything is amiss. In A Nightmare on Elm Street, Freddy uses both of these tactics in order to isolate the Final Girl Nancy so as to have a climactic confrontation with her.
In the counter-interpretation of the Final Girl as an object of punishment, there is also the possibility to interpret her as, at least for a while, a rewarded individual. This reward comes in the form of survival, and although this reprieve proves ultimately temporary, the Final Girl is allowed to see the film through to the end, and perhaps even to a sequel. However, these sequels usually involve [page 57] the death of the Final Girl in order to amplify the tension, or to reinforce traditional values that mimic those of what is commonly known as the Hays Code, which indicated that nonconformists must be punished in the end of any film (“Motion Picture Production Code” 40-42). Nancy serves as a perfect example of this theory. She survives the first film in the series, only to be brought back as a sacrifice in the third installment of the franchise.
Although Nancy, and most Final Girls until Sidney Prescott in Scream, are seemingly protected by their adherence to abstinence, they are also presented in ways that make them deviate from traditional feminine gender roles. Clover suggests that “the gender of the Final Girl is likewise compromised from the outset by her masculine interests, her inevitable sexual reluctance (penetration, it seems, constructs the female), her apartness from other girls, sometimes her name” (“Her Body” 80). Nancy exemplifies this principle in that she exudes traits that are more masculine than feminine. She is negligent of male attention or advances and is “boyish” in looks or behavior (Clover, Men 40). Nancy rebuffs the advances of Glen on multiple occasions throughout the first film, and is presented as a workaholic career woman who has no romantic prospects in the third film. Her ability in Dream Warriors to convince her senior male coworker to follow her professional advice at the risk of his own career demonstrates her power as a persuasive leader, a role typically reserved for men alone. Nancy constantly demonstrates a commanding presence in the both the first and third films, and takes charge of dangerous situations in a manner that is traditionally male.
Additionally, she is described in the original Elm Street script as “a pretty girl in a letter sweater, with an easy, athletic stride and the look of a natural leader” (Hutson 106). When presented onscreen, Nancy is never seen in revealing clothing, but rather appears predominantly in oversized sweaters in the first film and in pantsuits or business attire in the third. In both films, Nancy’s wardrobe often includes belted clothing, perhaps indicative of her self-restraint or as a barricading symbol against men. Interestingly, Nancy spends a good portion of the first film in Glen’s letterman jacket, while he is shown in a feminine crop top during his death scene. This wardrobe swap brings to mind a clearly gender-bent [page 58] relationship in which Nancy is in the authoritative role typically attributed to the male partner. Even her relentless efforts to save Glen throughout the film invert the usual cultural dichotomy of the female damsel in distress and male savior. Thus, Nancy is shown consistently as an asexual figure who is disinterested in men and who refuses to attire herself in provocative clothing, which is contrary to the 1980s desire for women to be available for the male gaze (Williams, “Trying to Survive” 192).
Moreover, Nancy exhibits proactively violent behavior when confronted by Freddy. For instance, Clover notes that “when he enters the house, she dares him to come at her, then charges him in direct attack . . . . When he rises yet again, she chases him around the house, bashing him with a chair” (Men 38). Nancy also represents a transition from the Final Girl who survived by merely running away from the killer into an active fighter of threats. Peter Hutchings argues that “it is notable in this respect (especially in the Elm Street films) that the post-slasher final girls tend to be far more proactively violent than their slasher predecessors. One thinks here, for example, of Nancy luring Freddy Krueger into a series of home-made booby traps in the first Nightmare on Elm Street film” (209-210). Furthermore, during a phone conversation in which Nancy and Glen discuss Freddy, she shocks Glen with her threats of violence. At first, she suggests that Glen take the traditionally masculine role of protector, saying, “good, then you won’t mind cold-cocking this guy when I bring him out,” at which Glen is horrified and replies, “what!?” (A Nightmare on Elm Street). As she elaborates on this plan, including beating Freddy with a baseball bat, Glen grows increasingly frightened. Nancy, however, remains completely pragmatic and calm, seeing nothing strange in her proactive violence.
The increased aggression of Final Girls often causes their deaths to be more violent or phallically charged than the murders of other characters. As Clover points out, in Slumber Party Massacre, which falls within the same slasher genre as Elm Street, the weapon of choice for the killer is a large power drill, which carries obvious phallic connotations (Men 28). The same rules of phallic weaponry apply to most other slasher films, including the kitchen knife in Halloween, the chainsaw in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the machete in the Friday the 13th series. In much the same way, Freddy’s knives [page 59] for fingers not only have a phallic connotation, but also carry the suggestion of other kinds of sexual penetration. When Nancy is finally killed in the end of Dream Warriors, Freddy jams his knives into her abdomen, then forcefully cranes Nancy’s head back by her hair, while shoving the blades in as far as they can go as Nancy screams in agony. The scene is shot in a way that emphasizes the penetration, as well as the excruciating pain that Nancy experiences as a result, by using a close-up of the stabbings and by focusing on Nancy’s facial expression in each moment. After Freddy has stabbed her, he then throws her across the room carelessly while moving to attack another female character. While the death scene here is portrayed as markedly brutal, and further illustrates the punishment that Nancy must endure as a victim of cultural human sacrifice, it also serves as a commentary on Freddy’s relationship with the female womb and motherhood.
In Phallic Panic, Barbara Creed distinguishes Freddy as a “womb monster” who is “perversely maternal” in that he “keeps the souls of his victims trapped inside his body like a collection of unborn babies” (162). Indeed, his obsession with mothers and wombs can be seen in a number of instances, beginning with his tendency to target the abdomen of female characters. When Tina awakens from her first dream about Freddy, her nightgown has been clawed directly over her stomach. Later, when he does kill Tina, it is her abdomen that he eviscerates, as she is shown holding her stomach while being thrown around the ceiling. His brutal invasion of the womb is seen too in Nancy’s death scene, given his overtly sexual mutilation of her lower abdomen during the attack. Her role as a mothering figure during the third film is evident as she teaches, cares for, and attempts to protect all of the children at the clinic. Moreover, the final victim in the first film is Nancy’s own mother, who is dragged through a window in her front door, with Nancy trapped and forced to watch from inside a car.
As the Final Girl, Nancy enacts behavioral traits that can be interpreted as vehemently self-reliant and independent, which is why as a female character within a period of cultural backlash against women’s movements, she has to be sacrificed. In her seminal book, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, Susan Faludi states that “just as Reaganism shifted political [page 60] discourse far to the right and demonized liberalism, so the backlash convinced the public that women’s ‘liberation’ was the true contemporary American scourge—the source of an endless laundry list of personal, social, and economic problems” (xviii). Of course, following the Reaganite rhetoric of the eighties, and its influence on Hollywood, it is understandable that the films of the decade reflected this negative perspective regarding women, particularly any female character who contained too many so-called feminist traits. Film critic Tony Williams found this during his exploration of eighties horror films and states that “most 1980s horror films represent patriarchy’s last stand” (Hearths 215). Faludi herself discusses films from the decade in her book. She explains that “the backlash shaped much of Hollywood’s portrayal of women in the ‘80s” (113). She notes these misogynistic attitudes in movies such as Fatal Attraction and the action films that were so popular during the period, which effectively reduced women to “mute and incidental characters or banished [them] altogether” (138). Therefore, as historian Bradford Martin notes, “the women’s movement was subject to the same conservative forces that pervaded the rest of American life in the 1980s” (146).
Perhaps the most aggressive alteration to the treatment of women in motion pictures involved presentations of female sexuality. Following the radical sexuality of the 1970s and its sexual revolution, the eighties were reactionary in that the wave of conservatism that had built up since the seventies finally spilled over into both mainstream culture and politics. These conservative influences helped to ensure that Ronald Reagan became president and that more traditional values were the new social norm. These traditional values, as espoused by Reagan, “urged pre-marital chastity” and emphasized the importance of marriage as the center of family life (Schaller 92). Horror films of the decade often became proponents of abstinence by punishing those characters who are sexually active, especially the female characters, and through their focus on abstinent Final Girls. Williams explains that “most eighties horror films . . . reproduce the virulent conservative reaction of more mainstream productions . . . whose unattached females threaten the family” (212). An “unattached” or unmarried woman was viewed as being dangerous due to the perception that such women were practicing pre-marital sex, and were therefore [page 61] prone to promiscuity.
Although this trend of punishing those who do not choose abstinence began in Halloween, and is most popularly seen in the later Friday the 13th series, punishment for promiscuity also takes place in the Elm Street series, but on a less frequent scale. For instance, the first deadly attacks in the original Elm Street film are on Tina and Rod, who are the only pair of sexually active teens presented, and who are also juxtaposed with the abstinent Nancy and Glen. Furthermore, not only are the earliest attacks and the initial two victims of the film sexually active, but Tina is killed immediately post-coitus with Rod. As Amanda Wyss, the actress who played Tina, pointed out, “ultimately, having sex with Rod killed her. In horror films, the whore-y girl has to be murdered” (“An Oral History”). Just before she and Rod are killed, the two are overheard engaging in loud lovemaking, while Glen lays listening in another room, mumbling a disgruntled “morality sucks,” which immediately frames sexual activity as immoral in the world of the film. The scene then turns back to Rod and Tina having completed their romp, when Tina seductively quips, “I knew there was something about you I liked” (A Nightmare on Elm Street). In retribution for her open sexual enjoyment, Tina is killed in an elaborate death scene where her half-naked body is dragged around by an invisible Freddy in the bedroom where she and Rod have just had sex, with her moans and gyrations as she is being killed having obvious sexual connotations, and serving as a perverse mimicry of her earlier pleasure. Additionally, all of this occurs as Rod stands horrified and screaming against the wall in his underwear. Not long after Tina’s death, Rod is forcefully asphyxiated with a bedsheet in his jail cell by Freddy as Nancy unsuccessfully rushes to try to save him, but is ultimately prevented by her father, who fears for her safety.
Tina is also punished through constant threats of rape from Krueger throughout her limited time the film. Aside from Freddy, Tina is the first character and Elm Street child whom the audience meets, with the opening credit sequence watching her as Freddy sadistically hunts her through the maze of the boiler room; this scene is one of several with obvious connotations of rape, especially when it comes to Tina’s character, who is subjected to a [page 62] similar scene right before her death. As the perspective flips back-and-forth from Freddy to Tina, Krueger demonstratively claws through sheets or wiggles his knifed fingers provocatively at the audience and Tina, which keeps the threat of penetration in the forefront. In comparison to Freddy’s menacing and predatory gaze, Tina appears childlike and fragile in a lightweight, white nightgown, attempting to navigate the tight spaces of the boiler room, while Freddy taunts and voyeuristically watches her from above, leering out at her from behind pipes and walls. Despite the childish appearance of the nightgown, at other times, the negligée is almost sheer and formfitting, which also identifies Tina as a sexual object. There is a dual presentation of Tina as a childlike innocent, with her character even spotting a lamb at one point, and a sexual body available for penetration. Just before she wakes up from the dream, Tina is backed into a corner where Freddy pops up behind her, grabbing her with one hand as the other knifed hand is held aloft suggestively.
Tina is again presented in a scene with rape connotations later on in the film. In the dream sequence leading up to her fatal encounter with Freddy, Tina is lured from bed with Rod and chased down a dark alley. Krueger slowly walks down the alleyway towards her, trapping her by freakishly extending his arms the full length of the space, as Tina stands terrified in a pajama shirt and her underwear. Her lack of clothing in this instance marks her as a vulnerable young woman, while her leaving Rod asleep in bed before going outside also reinforces to the audience that whatever happens to her is because she was sexually active. Freddy then proceeds to chase her down the length of the alley and back into her yard, with Tina being heard screaming “no” repeatedly as she frantically tries to get away. Before returning to reality from the dream, audiences are shown Tina and Freddy wrestling on the ground, with Freddy forcefully on top of her, ready to penetrate her with his knifed hand.
National and parental anxiety surrounding children and their protection spiked during the 1980s. The period’s obsession with child safety is seen both in A Nightmare on Elm Street and in news headlines of the time. One of the most unsettling occurrences for parents during the eighties was the satanic cult hysteria that spanned roughly from the mid-eighties until the mid-nineties. This [page 63] cultural paranoia reflected societal trends of the time, such as the increase in discourse regarding child abuse and questions surrounding the integrity of those professionally responsible for groups of small children. Richard Ofshe and Ethan Watters explain in their book Making Monsters that this trend was part of a larger cultural period of newly discovered concerns for parents. They state that “the 1980s were a reckoning time for many of the darker issues relating to human sexuality, including date rape, spousal battery, and sexual harassment. In particular, sexual crimes against children became a national concern” (Ofshe and Watters 10). These anxieties coincided with alleged new breakthroughs in psychology that were focused on the retrieval of repressed memories. Usually, these cases involved family members whom the patient claimed had abused them at some point in the past. There were several famous cases of repressed memories and abuse, which often were sensationalized by the mass media, as well as through talk shows, self-help books, and survivor memoirs (Maran 8-9). Additionally, satanic cult claims dominated the local and national news at the time, with no news story exemplifying the panic over child abuse and satanic cults quite like the McMartin case.
In September of 1983, the small community of Manhattan Beach, California exploded with accusations of sexual child abuse at the McMartin Pre-School, a private daycare facility run by the McMartin family. Soon after the initial accusation, further claims of abuse sprang from the parents of enrolled children, which snowballed into three hundred separate counts of child abuse and seven people charged (Nussbaum). The trial dragged on until the end of the decade with constant media coverage of the proceedings. As John Demos explains, “McMartin, in particular, got the entire nation’s attention: newspaper and network television followed its winding course from start to finish” (Demos 279). Demos also makes note of the focus on the satanic nature of the allegations. He states that most of the children reported abuse that “ran roughly the same gamut as at Bakersfield, from predatory sex acts to ritualized Satanism” and that the charges against the defendants included “child rape, sodomy, and pornographic filmmaking, but also the ritual killing of infants and animals — plus black candles, strange disguises and other such accoutrements of [page 64] Devil worship” (Demos 276-277). While the McMartin case was by far the largest of these child abuse prosecutions, it was far from the only incident, with other large cases occurring in “Jordan, Minnesota (1983), Chicago (1984), Memphis (1984), El Paso (1984), the Bronx (1985), and Malden, Massachusetts (1986)” (Demos 278). It is interesting to note that three out of six of these cases occurred in or around the same year as the release of A Nightmare on Elm Street. Furthermore, the Minnesota, McMartin, and more satanically-focused Bakersfield cases all happened in the year or two leading up to the release of the film, or during the period when Craven was writing the script. After considering all of this, it is not that surprising that Craven incorporated a mob of angry and conspiratorial parents who chose to enact vigilante justice when the law failed to punish the man who endangered their children.
These cases and their media exposure became a source of inspiration when Craven was writing the Elm Street script and attempting to market it to studios. He explained, “the McMartin trial was going on endlessly. A school for children where the students had accused the teachers of molesting them in a very systematic way” (Never Sleep Again). After selling the script to New Line Cinema, Craven was forced to “soft peddle the sexuality” according to Englund (Never Sleep Again). This “soft peddling” took the form of altering the Freddy character from a child molester to a child murderer. Despite being pressed to tone down the sexuality and any insinuations regarding the McMartin trial, or other cases like it, Craven still managed to sneak in subtle references to child molestation and rape. For example, as Englund pointed out, “Freddy is in those teenaged girls’ bedrooms. He’s in their bed with them . . . and that’s about as much as you could ever hope to violate anyone” (Never Sleep Again). Other instances of sexual violation include a scene in the first film where the telephone turns into Freddy’s tongue and licks Nancy’s mouth while she is making a call, causing her to scream and drop the phone. Another occurs when Nancy is falling asleep in the bathtub as Freddy’s hand is shown sneaking up from between Nancy’s spread legs. Furthermore, the fact that Freddy is seen watching the girls while they unknowingly sleep, and then chasing them through dark alleys in their dreams, has obvious rape connotations. The later films in [page 65] the franchise took these undertones of sexual assault and made them explicit plot points, with the third film explaining that Freddy’s mother was raped repeatedly.
Due to these parental anxieties, the character of Freddy too acts as an example of cultural human sacrifice, as he is burned alive in order to protect the Elm Street children when they are little. However, this vigilante plan does not work out in the parents’ favor, with Freddy later returning for revenge. Frequent symbolic references to children and the innocence of childhood are scattered throughout the early films of the series. For example, the first film opens with small kids jumping rope and singing a nursery rhyme about Freddy. Furthermore, this rhyme is used again in the third film, as is a Popsicle-stick dollhouse of Nancy’s childhood home. Creed notes that Freddy “reveals the dysfunctional nature of the patriarchal family unit, exposing the myth that the family nurtures and protects children” (162). As a sacrificial figure, Krueger “signifies the buried fears of the children who have been emotionally and/or sexually abused by parental figures. An abused child himself, [he] knows exactly how to torment his victims before killing them” (162). The Elm Street parents attempt a human sacrifice (after all, they murder Freddy to perpetuate their normal, safe neighborhood, and to eliminate a deviant sexual predator), and then, by covering it up, they inadvertently open their children up to be killed. Craven brought attention to this and stated, “[Nancy’s mother] and her cohorts of the other parents have essentially caused the death of their own children” (Never Sleep Again). The safety of children is a key concern of the film, which is especially seen through Nancy’s father forcefully and intrusively monitoring her. It is also demonstrated by Nancy’s hovering, alcoholic mother, who incessantly refers to her daughter as “baby,” asks if she wants hot milk to get to sleep, and continuously inquires if Nancy is all right. Then, when Nancy finally learns the truth about where Freddy comes from, her mother essentially makes her a prisoner in her own home, even going so far as to put bars on all of the windows, all to try to protect Nancy from Freddy; however, as a sacrificial victim, Nancy has no hope of being saved, regardless of her parents’ actions. [page 66]
When actual ritual and physical human sacrifice became virtually extinct from Western cultures, they were forced to develop new ways to purge themselves of unwanted people who challenged the cultural or social norms. The only way that this purging could legally be done in modern society was through cultural modes such as film. This expunging effect can be seen in the Elm Street series, especially in the systematic approach to killing its characters who deviate from the societal norms that were espoused in the 1980s. The punishment of such unorthodoxies as these characters presented reflected fears of nontraditional gender roles, sexually active women, the breakdown of the nuclear family, child molestation, and satanic cults. As a Final Girl figure, Nancy is at the crux of sacrificial activity within the early Wes Craven-penned entries in the series, although she is far from the only character to be killed for a larger cathartic purpose. The first and third entries in the Elm Street series, and particularly the sacrificial aspects therein, participated in reinforcing and perpetuating prescriptive adherence to societal norms; and they did so by stressing that those who fail to conform are bound only to die.
A Nightmare On Elm Street. Directed by Wes Craven. New Line Cinema, 1984.
A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. Directed by Chuck Russell, New Line Cinema, 1987.
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Friday the 13th. Directed by Sean Cunningham. Paramount Pictures, 1980.
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MLA citation (print):
Speller, Brittany Caroline. "Cultural Human Sacrifice in Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street Films." Supernatural Studies, vol. 4, no. 1, 2017, pp. 51-68.