Nov 13, 2012

What can A Nightmare on Elm Street teach you about writing?

A Nightmare on Elm Street is a 1984 American horror film written and directed by Wes Craven, a Cleveland native who left his job as humanities teacher at Clarkson University in Potsdam, NY, to write, direct and edit... porn movies.

Craven's first non-pornographic outing was The Last House on the Left (1972), a movie he intended as a retelling of Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring. Translating the original story of rape, murder and parental revenge to an American setting, Craven did away with medieval lyricism and cranked up the violence. Last House strikes the viewer as a crude, low-budget affair of little merit. By the time Wes Craven directed A Nightmare on Elm Street, he already had 15 movie credits to his name and a lot more money to work with.  

Freddy Krueger, played by Robert Englund

Nightmare follows a teenage girl, Nancy Thompson, and her friends, as they contend with a vicious presence that appears to them in nightmares and feeds off their fear. It wasn't the first horror movie I watched -- that must have been the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which some oblivious programmer at an obscure station deemed appropriate for daytime viewing -- but few other movies have made me feel... steamrolled.

Yet this felt good somehow. The new, flatter me had succumbed to the allure of contemporary horror.

Nancy Thompson, played by Heather Langenkamp

Here was a film in which fear is not a giant ant or a radioactive pseudosaurus, but a sexual predator that taints dreams and robs you of the ability to tell dream from reality. A film where the monster, much like the urban rat, never lurks too far.

So, what can A Nightmare on Elm Street teach you about writing a novel, story or play?

King of Infinite Space

Have you ever asked yourself why the movie is called A Nightmare but not Nightmares on Elm Street?

Or why the border between dream and reality fades so often, so easily?

Teenagers dream and wake up wounded and bleeding.
Young Tina Gray has sex with her boyfriend and goes to sleep. Dragging her body up to the ceiling -- yes, it seems Freddy Krueger counteracts the force of gravity in the real world -- the killer cuts and stabs the life out of Tina while her boyfriend howls in despair.

How can such things happen without reality breaking? Only one answer comes to mind: We've never seen the waking world. The whole story is conjured up by someone trapped in a nightmare, someone who can't wake up. A few images hint at this terrible truth -- most of all that brief shot of a single feather floating down, right after Nancy emerges from a dream where Freddy Krueger slashes her pillow to ribbons. Hundreds of snowy feathers crowding the screen vanish the moment Nancy wakes up. Where did that one feather come from?

(Another question: Whose nightmare are we looking at, truly? To the film's credit, there is no one answer. I don't know about you, but I enjoy that kind of ambiguity.)

"I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams."
Hamlet, scene ii

Krueger inhabits a shifting landscape where he controls time, geometry and gravity. In the world of nightmare, Freddy rules as god-king or archon. This world possesses no stable order, rooted as it is on a torturer's whim.

But who plays Hamlet in this tale? Nancy, who sees Tina's ghost and bears her mother's misguided attempts to protect her? Krueger, who would bend the world to his will and brings death to the people around him?

When Freddy murders Nancy's athletic boyfriend and tells Nancy that he is her boyfriend now, does that turn them into a parody version of Hamlet and Ophelia? If so, Nancy is an American Ophelia who doesn't succumb to her prince's madness. Unlike Ophelia, Nancy doesn't drown.  

Ophelia by Alexandre Cabanel

Hunting in Elm-Shade
"Something is rotten in the state of Denmark."
Hamlet, scene iv

Wes Craven
At a first glance, Fred Krueger is a coward and a parasite -- he takes revenge on parents by preying on their children. Like any good predator, Freddy pounces on his prey when they let their guard down.

The film's visuals paint Freddy as a subhuman terror, a creature between animal and man. Krueger's a melted face, a claw and an ugly striped sweater; a derelict seeking shelter in underground mazes of rusted pipes and muddy light. Freddy's maze is the lion's den; Springwood, Ohio, the hunting ground.

Krueger comes up from the subterranean part of our conscience, from the violent impulses that we do not acknowledge. Such impulses gain power in the dark.  

Why do we seek safety? Because predators exist. Quiet suburbs provide a place of refuge from the megalopolis where Freddies push supermarket trolleys rattling with cans or sit beside ATMs, wrapped in torn blankets, hoping to shame some generosity out of you. Freddies walk up to you all smiles and ask, 'Hey, Aren't you Joe's cousin?' In the space of two shallow breaths they pull you into a side street and put a knife to your throat. Other Freddies attend meetings on the 30th floor of a glass-and-steel cage where they pretend to be part of a better world than this.

In the 'burbs, you can imagine that the homeless scavenger and the snake in a suit do not exist. Cinematic suburbs show you the dream world of love-as-domesticity, and how quickly the illusion of safety evaporates. Elms symbolized calm and coolness in pastoral poetry, so Elm Street should be another quiet no-place in peri-urban Springwood; instead it becomes a cradle of lies and vengeance. The city contaminates the verdant satellite town. The lion stalks the shadow's edge where home fires draw a precarious border. Et in Arcadia ego.

Wes Craven wanted Nightmare to have a happy ending, and he shot one -- but New Line Cinema insisted on a twist ending.
Depriving the viewer of near-absolute certainties, the movie becomes a much more open text. Ambiguity goes up to eleven. For once, I agree with the studio, even if Craven didn't.


Writing horror doesn't come naturally to everyone. It requires a love of transgression, subversion and sacrilege. But it's not enough to shock people; stories without coherent themes and flat characters fade away. The upcoming Sharknado ("It's a tornado... made of sharks!") sounds like a lot of fun, but its premise is abysmally stupid. No amount of fake blood or creative decapitations will change that.

Sharknado will be the kind of movie that motivates drinking games.

What we fear most is to be alone and hear a whisper in the dark, or a menacing, unfamiliar sound.

We fear sharp instruments in the wrong hands. We fear strange and comfortless places far, far from the sight of friends and loved ones.

We fear the sexual predator who doesn't just violate the body but also the mind. That's what Freddy does and that's what makes him repulsive and effective as an antagonist. His mind games never end. Krueger subjects his victims to the torture of hope

What can they teach you about writing? -- is a weekly series of articles drawing on public statements by talented people, and how such statements apply to the act of writing. “Talented people” does not mean they’re entertainers, nor do I expect you to agree with my definition of talent at all times. In early 2012, I decided to expand the scope of these articles to include remarkable characters in works of fiction. 

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