When I sat down to watch A Nightmare on Elm Street for the first time the other night, I wanted a nightmare. I wanted the film to recreate the kind of fear I had as a child that had me truly believing that my life was in danger. I remember watching the original It on TV as a kid and being convinced that a killer clown was out to get me. My heart pounded at the sight of drains. I imagined blood everywhere. I wanted a movie that would worm its way into my unconscious and leave me dizzy with fear. I’m always looking for that unbridled, unmediated fear in a horror movie, and I never find it.
Last year, around this time, I watched Halloween, and while I enjoyed the craft of the movie, I didn’t find it scary. Michael Myers just couldn’t reach into the depths of my psyche and emerge clutching a handful of fear like I had wanted him to. Since then, I’ve watched a few horror classics in the hopes of finding something frightening. Suspiria was visually arresting but ultimately just gory. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre had a couple of tense moments, but I couldn’t get over how badly I felt for Leatherface, who, as far as I can tell, was just reacting badly to a home invasion. Maybe I just don’t have the ability to suspend disbelief anymore. Rather than being dragged into the nightmare of these films, I drag the film into my comfortable reality, where men with chainsaws don’t bust through doors and hang people on meat hooks. That’s why I was excited about A Nightmare on Elm Street. Maybe, if the movie is explicitly about nightmares, my mind will let go and let me get dragged into the world of the movie. Maybe for a couple of hours, I can believe that Freddie Krueger is real.
I was hopeful about A Nightmare on Elm Street at first because of its simplicity. It creates a supernatural world without resorting to elaborate explanations. Many horror movies, particularly modern ones, get bogged down in generating some sort of a mythology to explain the supernatural horror to come. For me, this kind of exposition tends to interfere with the horror experience because it sets up a logical structure around something that’s scary precisely because it’s illogical. Instead of being scared, I end up thinking about the plot of the movie. By setting a film in the nonsensical world of dreams, A Nightmare on Elm Street makes everything both plausible and unpredictable. The reality of the movie slowly starts to merge into the world of nightmare until, by the end of the film, they are one and the same. Geysers of blood erupting from a bed? Sinking into stairs? Turning a corner in your home and ending up in a hallway full of industrial piping? In the world created by A Nightmare on Elm Street, this bizarre imagery all works without any sort of elaborate set up. In fact, for a movie that’s over three decades old, the effects hold up well. Well, mostly anyway. When Freddy’s tongue comes out of the telephone and licks Nancy [Heather Langenkamp] in the face, I couldn’t help but chuckle.
While creating a perfect environment for horror, A Nightmare on Elm Street also explains away one of the greatest weaknesses of slasher films: stupid protagonists. How often have you watched a movie and questioned the judgment of its characters? Don’t investigate the creepy sound. Don’t separate from the group. Don’t unlock the door. These actions often defy any kind of common sense. Luckily, this movie takes place in a world where common sense doesn’t exist. Nightmares are frightening precisely because they rob us of our common sense. In a nightmare, we usually can’t control the action or even our feelings about our surroundings. Instead of retreating into our rational minds, nightmares force us to stare right into our fears and experience the terror, unmediated. In this context, any actions taken by the characters in A Nightmare on Elm Street are excusable. We can sit before the TV screen screaming for Tina [Amanda Wyss] not to open that door, but we know that she has as little control over this situation as the viewer.
So, it’s clear that I found the setup of A Nightmare on Elm Street compelling. But was it scary? As much as I was into a movie centered around the illogic of nightmares, I couldn’t make the film my own nightmare. In the end, it comes down to the imagery. Of all movie genres, horror is the most experiential one. Through the deft use of images, sounds, and situations, horror movies try to trigger our deepest fears and bypass our rational thinking. I guess a man with a horribly disfigured face and blades for hands doesn’t do it for me.
At this point, I’m willing to concede that I’m not the best person to ask whether a movie is still scary. As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if I never find a horror movie scary again. Yes, some of them are tense. Yes, some of them might make me jump. But I don’t think a movie is ever going to elicit the kind of existential dread that I want from a horror movie. Don’t get me wrong. I love the genre. I love ghost stories. I love serial killer movies. I love a good monster. A Nightmare on Elm Street is a wonderful concept that, for the most part has aged gracefully. I’m sorry that I couldn’t find it scary.