Recently, because I’ve had the boxset forever and it’s just been staring at me from my shelves, I’ve been re-running the Nightmare on Elm Street series, something I’ve never actually done from beginning to end. I’ll watch a film here or there, as something occurs to me, but never just straight through. Tonight, as I started writing this, I’d gotten to Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, and our opening POV guy was just smacked by a bus driven by Freddy Krueger, out of the doomed town of Springwood, Illinois, and, thus, out of Freddy’s clutches, kicking the movie’s plot (such as it is) into gear.
This entire movie has always bugged me, but the reasons have shifted over the years.
Freddy’s Dead came out in 1991, but I first saw it in 1993/94, when I was ten, at a sleepover. I watched most of it either out of the corner of my eye or from the doorway of the kitchen, where I could easily turn away when it got to be too much. At ten, I was still two years from falling absolutely in love with horror.
Rewatching it 26 years later, though, is like watching it with different eyes entirely. I’m a devoted fan of horror; when teaching, I always have to think of ways to illustrate concepts without using horror examples. I’ve been a writer working in horror for almost a decade now, and have a new horror novella, Standalone, now available from Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing.
Under these circumstances, I can now see the horror elements are muted in Freddy’s Dead, with pure slapstick comedy filling in the gap. Freddy, still played by Robert Englund, chews the scenery to such an extent that even the late great Vincent Price would go, “Tone it down, good sir.” The character we opened the movie with, John, will suffer a dream murder where he falls from a great height and gets impaled on an exaggerated bed of spikes Freddy has rolled out, mugging at the audience as he does so. He kills another character with an off-brand Nintendo Power Glove, whipping off one-liners left and right, presumably to the audience (one supposes!). Straight out of a Looney Tunes short. You could almost expect Bugs Bunny doing the same thing to Elmer Fudd, except Freddy occasionally calls his victims “bitch”.
The problem, though, is that, in those old Looney Tunes shorts, Bugs was the good guy. When he rigged Elmer Fudd’s rifle, or tricked Yosemite Sam off a cliff, you cheered Bugs on. Were…were we, the audience, supposed to be cheering Freddy Krueger on?
It’s an unsettling notion, mainly because, like I did when I was ten, I physically recoiled when Carlos, a character partially deaf due to the abuse he suffered at the hands of his mother, takes a medical Q-Tip to his ear in a dream. It’s not how Carlos will die (spoiler alert to a twenty-nine-year-old film: his head explodes), but the entire setpiece is composed strangely—the camera looks down on Carlos, from over the shoulder of his abusive mother, making him seem weaker, smaller. He begs his mamma for mercy, something she ignores as she jams the Q-Tip in, puncturing his brain, the bloodied tip poking out of his other ear.
Not a chuckle in sight. Played straight. It’s downright mean-spirited, particularly compared to the other deaths in the film, but even those have undertones of vindictiveness. Parental abuse and molestation creep up frequently throughout as plot beats. Remember: I said this movie was, as opposed to the others in the series, played for laughs. Not horror. Not discomfort. Chuckles. I mean, Freddy grins right at the audience as he hits a character with a bus!
This got me thinking about morality in horror, the use of transgressions as a means of reaffirming personal ethics or societal mores. Everyone wants to analyze the morality of horror fiction—including myself; I’m not throwing stones here—and there are certain accepted “truths” about transgressions and morality in horror. There’s a school of thought—I first read it in Stephen King’s 1981 book Danse Macabre, but I don’t think it was an original thought of King’s—that horror exists to perpetuate the status quo. Horror shows us the Outsider, the breaking of societal or personal norms, and then shows us the consequences of those transgressions. Horror, King said, is like a Republican in a three-piece suit.
King himself was pulling from the horror of his youth—I Was a Teenage Werewolf, Peeping Tom, Dementia-13, etc—where those who broke taboos either became hideous monstrosities, or had hideous monstrosities done to them. The reset back to the status quo at the end could only be achieved through the actions of moral, virtuous people.
When someone talks morality in horror, this is what is meant, and it’s a standard for critical analysis of horror, but there are problems with it, most notably in the fact that the theory isn’t played to its logical end within the context of modern—and we’re talking “modern” in the sense of roughly 1980 until present day—horror. Using that foundation is kind of like using only half of an idiom—saying “curiosity killed the cat” and ignoring “but satisfaction brought him back”.
I think this stems from the fact that, up until the rise of the slasher subgenre in the 1970s, horror had a specific purpose not unlike the original Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Horror showed the audience—mainly children and young adults, groups that have particular overlap between the two modes of storytelling—What Not To Do®, and what would happen to you if you did Certain Things™.
But then horror became entertainment for entertainment’s sake. The story’s lost their didactic undertones (or overtones, depended on how heavy-handed the creators were), and just existed to come along and mess with anyone who wanted to, in the words of today’s youth, fuck around and find out. There might be theme, there might be a message, and you could argue some creators still exist in the mode King examined in his youth, but they weren’t primary.
(Let me pause here and point out, yes, of course, most of the works King referenced were made by creators working under the primary motivations of money, like everyone else, but similar to the case of Richard Matheson taking horror out of the gothic castles and setting it in suburbia, horror fiction of the 1950s and ’60s, too, owed a lot to its Germanic and Puritanical forbearers and that was deliberate. Predictable was and is a viable commodity in the marketplace.)
Take John Carpenter’s Halloween¸ arguably the first slasher (it isn’t, but not enough people have seen 1974’s Black Christmas). Michael Myers is given no motivation, no purpose—and, to that end, none of his victims “deserve” to die. They were just…there, on either side of the killing floor, Myers and babysitters. Jamie Lee Curtis didn’t survive because she was a “good girl”—it was just dumb luck.
You can’t fit a moral criticism angle on a story like that because then, inadvertently, Michael Myers becomes an agent of the status quo, meting out punishment to, for example, the horned-up babysitter. Do…do you want Michael Myers on your ideological side?
More fittingly, modern horror fiction took the whole “why do bad things happen to good people?” question and ran with it, and, slowly, the argument of morality as either a driving force or a plot sticking point faded from view. The breaking of taboos, punishment for transgressions done stopped being viable reasons for why a character had to die. Again, wouldn’t that make, in the bizarro focus on morality we’re playing with, someone like Jason Voorhees the righteous consequence of doing Certain Things™? Did those under-age drinkin’, pre-marital-sex havin’ campers and teenagers deserve to be killed and terrorized? Did Kevin Bacon deserve the arrowhead?
Even King’s own work is not immune to this shift in horror fiction’s purpose. Take The Shining. Did Wendy and Danny Torrance in The Shining deserve to be tormented by a haunted hotel and their murderous family member because of some moral failing on their part? And what about Jack Torrance? One could argue that he was an abusive drunk, so he deserved to become a monstrosity. But, he’d stopped drinking, he was attempting redemption in the eyes of his family and himself. His moral failings had, to some extent, already been dealt with, were being worked on. Under this critical theory, did he deserve what had happened to him? Doesn’t the horror of the story stem, actually, from two fronts—the helplessness of Wendy and Danny, and also watching Jack self-destruct and attempt to destroy everything he’d worked hard to hold on to? Under that light, the creature in Room 217 is an effect as a cheap Halloween mask—a false face, to use the book’s nomenclature.
I kind of give myself away here. See, I have this view of horror that has nothing to do with bloodshed or gore or how hulking your monster is. Horror, to me, is empathy, stemming from bursts of guilt and confusion and helplessness, and while gore and bloodshed can be parts of the emotional reaction, they don’t necessarily need to be. Being grossed-out isn’t scary. For me, one of the great horror scenes in modern cinema is when the mother in The Hours abandons her child to go commit suicide and we watch the child recede from view as her car drives away. Brrrr. Jesus Christ. That, to me, is the good horror.
Bringing it back to slashers, though, the viewpoint of modern horror fiction as morality play just doesn’t fly. The slasher genre has a formula, where a traumatic event occurs (death of a child, a maiming, a near-death experience, a shunning of some type), and the central figure of that event comes back on an anniversary to wreak havoc on various victims. It’s in this formula that people bring morality into the chat, and it never goes well. The argument goes that victims are distracted through some form of moral failing—drinking, premarital sex, maybe they’re just jerks—and the one who survives the villain is what we would call morally virtuous, often assumed to be virginal. But is that a fair judgement on those victims?
Take Freddy Krueger. Krueger was a child murderer (and it’s more-than-hinted that he was a molester, as well) who was burned alive by the parents of Springwood. Pretty straight forward in terms of action and consequence—even morality. The bad guy got punished.
But all that happened before the events of the films, and he comes back, terrorizing and murdering the children of those parents. Under the angle of morality criticism, who’s being punished? Not Krueger, who achieved a form of immortality. Not the parents, who are never shown suffering as they lose their children (because to highlight that would make a murky story even murkier, although I would argue there’s a damn good tale there). In the paradigm of those films, the children are innocent and Craven, to his credit, doesn’t hint at unsavory actions or personality flaws leading to anyone’s deaths. Recall Carlos from Freddy’s Dead. Carlos is, by all accounts, a “good guy” who gets his trauma revisited to the nth degree.
But there’s Krueger mugging and making the audience laugh. Is he the “good guy”, the one we should be rooting for? Are Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees or the World War II soldier in The Prowler or Cropsy in The Burning, actually serving a moral purpose by executing the humping camp counselors?
Christ, no, on all accounts. The concept is ridiculous. What happens in slashers—hell, in regular old horror movies—is that two elements come into play when crafting the plot: creator’s motivation to make money and creator’s implicit biases, often shaped by the time period they were in. The height of slashers was in the 1980s, and built around the idea of “well, these guys did that, so we can do this, too”, which is why there are so many holiday-themed slashers. Carpenter’s Halloween was the starting gun, and everyone else was in last place.
It was in the 1980s, too, that we saw a real backlash towards the feminist movement. The women in slashers that get killed are often rendered as stereotypically loud, brashy sluts, and the heroes are mousy and quiet, really only coming into their own in the third act, and abysmally virginal. (That’s why Wes Craven, in 1996’s Scream, really, really leaned into the idea of Sydney Prescott being a virgin—or why, in the far superior Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon the titular killer flat-out explains the supposed sexual dynamics between the heroine and the villain.)
Mental health also crops up in these films, often as a motivation for the villains to begin doing villainous shit. You have to recall, this was during and after a period where most of America’s mental hospitals were either shut down or had their budgets slashed, leading to an abundance of so-called “dangerous” lunatics on the streets. Some went to prison for menial shit. Some became homeless. Most…just went home to their families. Very few were dangerous. But, in the slashers of the day, the villains are portrayed as bugfuck crazy—Mrs. Voorhees in Friday the 13th, Frank Zito in Maniac, Cropsy in The Burning, and on and on and on—which, looking back, is exploitative as hell.
But these story elements didn’t crop up in a vacuum, and it’s also why you don’t see them nowadays. Take You’re Next, an excellent slasher from 2011. The killers want money and the victims are a rich family. You’re not going to find 1980s sentiments there. While slashers continue to be made, they don’t reflect the views of their heyday, leading to original, different storytelling.
I have to admit Freddy’s Dead has aged better than I’d imagined it would, given the time period it was made, the series that had preceded it, and the formula beats it carried. It attempts to be funnier than it was or should’ve been, but this was a vehicle for a child killer who had, by 1991, appeared in everything from metal records, to hip hop songs, to a 1-900 number, to kids pajamas (yes, that was real). Some of this is to be expected, I guess.
Still, though, Carlos. You can take away all critical analysis, all attempts at defining a story’s morality, but if you get a moment like Carlos’s death, a moment where the audience reacts not just because of what is happening (the Q-Tip in the ear) but also why it’s happening (abused by his mother, his death is a revisitation of that very trauma), you succeeded at creating “good horror”.