Favorites Nightmares from Elm Street: Sleep, Dreams, and Discerning Reality

Freddy makes an impression.

Freddy gets you at your most vulnerable - while asleep.

Although I have never been a fan of the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET films, Freddy Krueger, or slasher films in general, there are several aspects of the series that I find intriguing. They are all related, arising out of Freddy’s ability to enter into the consciousness of his victims as they sleep in order to launch his attacks. Like other films such as The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), and more recently Paranormal Activity (2009), the Elm Street films were able to tap into a basic human fear related to our extreme vulnerability when we sleep. We have all read news reports of sleeping homeowners awakened by intruders who have broken in in order to steal their belongings, and horror films like the Elm Street series take this one step further by suggesting that it is not merely human entities that we should fear during our nocturnal slumbers. Our childhood fears of the dark at bedtime continue into adulthood as filmmakers suggest that various slashers, monsters, aliens, or paranormal entities threaten to inflict harm, perhaps even to the point of fatality while we sleep.

But the Elm Street films take this further – into a realm where not only does the most basic and necessary of human functions such as sleep subject us to risk of attack, but our dreams become the entry point into which Freddy inserts himself to engage in his mayhem. Scientists and psychologists do not agree on why we dream, but it is certainly a common human experience, and this important part of brain functioning demonstrates another example of vulnerability exploited by Krueger.

Finally, the question of discerning reality in relation to dreaming and awakened states of consciousness is one of the frightening facets of the Elm Street films. In the series the victims try to stay awake, and when that ultimately proves impossible, they are also unable to realize they are dreaming, and thus vulnerable to Krueger’s attack. If they could awaken they might be able to avoid their doom. And yet this never seems possible. Perhaps the greatest cinematic treatment of this problem is found in The Matrix, in which Morpheus says to Neo as he begins his own journey of “waking up” from the illusionary dream world of his “reality”: “What if when you woke up, you didn’t know the difference between the dream world, and the real world?”

Freddy Krueger has been frightening filmgoers for generations. Perhaps the reason that so many have found this horror mythology intriguing is its ability to exploit some of our most basic human processes and needs.

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NOTE: This article was originally posted under an incorrect byline.

About the Author

John Morehead

I work academically and popularly in the area of intercultural studies, and apply these insights to the sociological and cultural study of the fantastic in pop culture through TheoFantastique, my website that explores sci fi, fantasy, and horror.

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