Recently I began watching all the movies from the Nightmare on Elm Street series with one of our former authors, Fiyero, who has written a whole series of fantastic posts on these movies. While watching the final movie of the series, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, I noticed that director Wes Craven seemed to be pointing out one issue with the series: fan obsession with the villain Freddy Krueger over female protagonists who have fought Freddy, especially Nancy, who is arguably the heroine of the whole series. This favoritism of a monstrous child killer over a strong, well-rounded female protagonist says a lot about both our antipathy toward women and our glorification of violence toward women.
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare begins after the “conclusion” of the Nightmare on Elm Street series. The movie takes a somewhat meta approach, showing us Heather Langenkamp, the actress who played Nancy Thompson, living in her home in Los Angeles. She has a nightmare about her, her husband, and her son Dylan on the set of yet another Nightmare movie only to be attacked by Freddy Krueger. But Heather puts her dreams out of her mind to go do a TV interview to talk about the Nightmare on Elm Street movies because it is the anniversary of the first movie she starred in. After her interview, she has a meeting with New Line Cinemas, who pitch to her the idea of doing another Nightmare movie because Wes Craven is writing a new script. Heather is fearful upon hearing this because of the dream she had recently. She heads home only to find her son watching the first Nightmare movie in a daze, but when she turns it off, he has some sort of episode and starts screaming. Heather calls her husband to come home and on the drive back he falls asleep at the wheel and is killed by Freddy.
After her husband’s death, things get worse for Heather. Her son starts sleepwalking and complaining of being attacked at night by a scary man. Heather’s dreams get worse as well and she even hallucinates Freddy dragging her son into the ground with her husband’s coffin. She eventually decides to meet with Wes Craven and reads his script, and he’s been writing about the exact same events that are happening. She discovers Freddy is actually a supernatural entity drawn to the films and has taken on the form of the character Freddy Krueger from the movies. As Freddy continues to attack her son, Heather becomes more and more determined to defeat him. She eventually travels into his dream world where she saves her son and defeats Freddy once and for all.
This definitely is one of the best Nightmare movies, particularly because Wes Craven brings up an issue that really bugs me about horror movies: people seem to support and root for the monster over the heroine. While Heather is being interviewed, the camera pans over to the audience where almost every person is dressed in a Freddy Krueger costume of some kind. Heather’s interview is interrupted by a surprise guest appearance by Robert Englund, the actor who played Freddy Krueger. He comes out in full Freddy gear to uproarious applause as fans stand and cheer. Afterward, Heather waits for Robert as he and only he is mobbed by fans asking for autographs. Despite Nancy being probably one of the best horror movie heroines, she is all but ignored in favor of the villain. Now it is true that Nancy/Heather have only been in three of the seven movies while Freddy has been in all of them, but let’s be honest: those three were definitely the best of the bunch. She is definitely Freddy’s main protagonist; even the movies without Nancy all feature Nancy’s legacy. Freddy often brings people back to Nancy’s house and in the dream state, and many of the other characters use techniques they learned from Nancy in order to defeat Freddy. Nancy is very clearly the star, but for some reason it’s Freddy who is given all the fame and glory. Why is this? Why are we more interested in a supernatural child killer than a female heroine who despite all odds defeats a monster?
The horror genre, particularly slasher films, regrettably seems to try to get the audience to sympathize more with the monster than with any of the heroes, most of whom are women. Siskel & Ebert do a great discussion of this issue in a video called “Women in Danger” where they discuss these slasher films and how they often encourage audiences to identify with the villain to the point where people may even be rooting for him to “cut the bitch”. The problem is that many horror movies like Friday the 13th, for example, specifically film things in such a way that you see things through the killer’s perspective, almost as if the filmmakers are asking the audience to identify with the killer instead of the victim. It shouldn’t be a staple of any movie or genre to glorify torturing women and cheering on those doing the torturing. The issue here is that none of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies ever utilize this type of filming. The audience is clearly meant to identify with the victims—never with Freddy. And yet, Freddy is the most popular character. I believe this has a lot to do with the general nature of the horror genre. There are always victims trying to overcome some ultimate evil in every horror movie; what makes the movies unique is often the villain. But ultimately I think the reason that Freddy Krueger becomes so much more famous that heroines like Nancy/Heather is because of sexism. Nancy/Heather is one of the most interesting and powerful characters in the series, but the draw still seems to be basic violence toward women.
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare doesn’t display any sexualized violence and definitely shows favoritism toward Heather naturally as the heroine. In this movie, Wes Craven critiques how much fans love Freddy, but nothing in the movie ever changes for Heather. She doesn’t gain a big fan following at the end of the movie. The movie ends with her saving her son and the world, and still her amazing achievement is only recognized by Wes himself. It makes me wonder if that is how he actually felt as a writer. The Nightmare films that Wes wrote are the only ones that feature Nancy, and he clearly saw her as essential to the Nightmare films. He sees that Nancy is equally important to the story as a heroine as Freddy is as a villain, and that is clearly something that he wanted to get across in this movie to the fans.
While monsters and villains in horror movies can be powerful, terrifying, and interesting characters, that shouldn’t mean that we ignore equally interesting, well rounded, and fantastic female heroines. And yet, the sexism in our society seems to lead people to sympathize even with a vicious killer over a great female character.