From the Yellow Brick Road to Freddy’s Razor Claws: Films, Dreams, and American Society

Based on a Presentation Made at the
1996 Annual Meeting
of the American Academy of Religion

The relationship between films and dreams has received a modest degree of scholarly attention over the past few decades. Some directors have described how they occasionally take images from their dreams and incorporate them into their films.[i] A handful of film critics have noted the dream-like quality of the experience of viewing movies.[ii] Several psychological studies have examined the influences of films on the dream contents of subjects sleeping in a sleep laboratory.[iii] And a number of psychologically-minded scholars have used the dream theories of Freud, Jung, and other to interpret the symbolism in various films.[iv]

In this essay I want to examine each of these dimensions of the complex interplay between films and dreams, focusing on two films in particular: The Wizard of Oz (1939, directed by Victor Fleming) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984, directed by Wes Craven). Both of these films portray the dream adventures of an adolescent girl struggling to survive in and make sense of a world filled with danger, evil, and injustice. However, the two films offer strikingly different portraits of adolescent experience, with The Wizard of Oz presenting a grandly staged and highly polished fairy tale, and the low-budget A Nightmare on Elm Street telling a crude, blood-drenched horror story. While both films have enjoyed tremendous and enduring popularity among adolescent audiences, adults have generally praised the former film as a treasure of American cultural heritage, while vilifying the latter film for its corrosive effects on the moral development of our nation’s youth.

Looking at these two dream-oriented films from several different angles–considering their narrative plots, their cinematic artistry, their treatment of religion, their psychological impact on their audiences, and their relations to their social and historical contexts–will give us valuable insights into what may be called “the American unconscious.” By that somewhat mysterious phrase I mean the distinctive cluster of instinctually-rooted desires, fears, hopes, and conflicts which bond the American people together at a deep, though largely unconscious, psychological level. My goal in this essay is to show that a careful exploration of The Wizard of Oz and A Nightmare on Elm Street reveals important features of a certain realm of the American unconscious: namely, the dreams and nightmares of American adolescents.

To begin with, I’d like to look at the influence of dreaming on these two films, and at how the films make narrative use of common themes and patterns in people’s dream experiences. I trust that most readers are familiar with the three-part narrative structure of The Wizard of Oz: The film opens with Dorothy’s waking life experiences in Kansas, then follows her through a long series of fantastic dreaming experiences in Oz, and then finishes with a second, much briefer set of Dorothy’s waking experiences back in Kansas. The basic trajectory of the film’s plot involves Dorothy’s efforts to get out of Oz and return home, and it concludes with her succeeding in these efforts and passionately declaring, “Oh, Auntie Em, there’s no place like home!” The moral of the story, then, seems to be that the waking world of home and family is the best place, the place we should be, the place we should never wish to leave, the place towards which we should always strive to return.

But the film has a second plot trajectory which parallels the first and reverses its moral message. According to this second trajectory, Dorothy temporarily escapes the dry, dusty tedium of waking life Kansas and discovers Oz, a world of dreams, a wonderous, exciting, beautiful world filled with mystery and adventure. The sharp contrast between the utter dreariness of her waking world and the enchanting magic of her dreaming world is established with stunning power by the use of a cinematic technique that will never again be used to such breathtaking effect: the sudden transformation, as Dorothy steps out of her tornado-tossed house, from the black-and-white of Kansas to the lush, vibrant, almost gaudy technicolor of Oz. Paralleling this visual contrast is a moral contrast: in Oz Dorothy finds the justice she could not find in Kansas. In the first, “waking life” section of the movie nothing can stop the cruel and socially powerful Mrs. Gulch (who, we’re told, owns “half the county”) from seizing Dorothy’s beloved pet dog, Toto. Dorothy discovers that the adult social order of the waking world cannot protect her most cherished interests, cannot care for her deepest needs. But in the dreaming world of Oz, she learns that good can triumph over evil; Dorothy and her friends do finally succeed in defeating the Wicked Witch, thereby restoring to preeminence the principles of right and fairness. So the second, more covert moral of Dorothy’s story is that while there may be no place like home, there’s no place like Oz, either: for the dream world of Oz reveals to her visions of sublime beauty and moral justice far surpassing the imperfections of her waking world.

I don’t know if Victor Fleming drew directly upon his own dreams in the making of The Wizard of Oz. But it’s clear that the film deliberately, and very effectively, evokes common features of dreaming experience: e.g., the magical animism of the dream world (e.g., talking trees, flying monkeys), the transformation of people from waking life into dream characters (Mrs. Gulch -> the Wicked Witch, the three farm hands -> the Scare Crow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion, the huckster fortune teller -> the Wizard), and the exquisite sense of beauty and wonder which simply can’t be communicated to others (as Dorothy discovers when she awakens at the end of the movie and tries unsuccessfully to describe to everyone what her dream was like). In all these ways, the movie’s many references to common features of our dreams serve to intensify the audience’s emotional immersion in Dorothy’s story.

Very much like The Wizard of Oz, A Nightmare on Elm Street generates its narrative power by tapping into people’s common dream experiences–in this case, the experience of recurrent nightmares. Wes Craven, the film’s director, has acknowledged a fascination with dreams and nightmares, and has said that the basic nightmare theme of being relentlessly pursued by a malevolent antagonist is the backbone of his film’s story.[v]

I imagine that very few readers have ever seen A Nightmare on Elm Street, so let me recount the basic story. A nice, average high school girl named Nancy Thompson lives with her parents in a nice, average house on nice, average Elm Street (Nancy’s mother is an alcoholic housewife, her father the stoic chief of police of their nameless middle-American town). Nancy and her teenage friends start having the exact same recurrent nightmares of a horribly disfigured man in a dirty red and green sweater who attacks them with his razor-blade fingers. When two of her friends are found brutally murdered, Nancy desperately tries to tell her father that it’s the fiend from her nightmares who killed them, and that he’s trying to kill her, too. Her police chief father, however, refuses to believe that any such thing could possibly happen. But when Nancy mentions to her mother that she’s learned the nightmare man’s name–Freddy Krueger–her mother realizes what’s been happening. Reluctantly, she tells Nancy that ten years ago their town was terrorized by a sadistic child murderer, who turned out to be a seemingly ordinary neighbor named Fred Krueger. Krueger was caught, but he escaped conviction on a legal technicality. So the outraged parents of their neighborhood (including Nancy’s mother and father) secretly formed a vigilante group, trapped Krueger in an abandoned boiler room, and burned him to death. They all made a vow to keep the truth of what they did to punish Krueger forever hidden. When Nancy hears this story, she decides she must go back into her nightmares; with no help from her father or her boyfriend (who is the fiend’s next victim), she confronts Freddy and declares that she knows his secret now, and she isn’t afraid of him anymore. This courageous assertion finally breaks the power Freddy has had over her, and with a agonized shriek he vanishes as Nancy safely awakens to a bright, sunny morning.

A Nightmare on Elm Street does everything it can to recreate the sensation of being trapped within a recurrent nightmare. Feelings of fear, helplessness, impotence, and vulnerability pervade the film. Nancy and her friends (and we in the audience) are repeatedly startled and disoriented by abrupt shifts from waking to dreaming and back again, and we are relentlessly assaulted by sudden, shocking bursts of violence and bloody physical mutilation. Like Dorothy, Nancy is unable to convince the adults out in the waking world of the reality of what she’s experiencing in her dreams. And also like Dorothy, Nancy ultimately finds in her dreams the deep resources of personal strength to overcome an evil which the adult social world had failed to defeat.

In both films, Christianity plays a small but significant role as an emblem of the impotence of the adult world in helping adolescents fight off evil and injustice. In the first section of The Wizard of Oz, when it becomes clear that nothing will stop Mrs. Gulch from impounding Toto, Aunt Em emotionally declares that she’s been waiting for many years to tell how she really feels about Mrs. Gulch–but “being a Christian woman, I can’t.” In A Nightmare on Elm Street Nancy has a crucifix hung over her bed, which conspicuously fails to protect her from Freddy Kruger’s nightly attacks. Christianity in these two films represents the adult world’s highest ideals–and the failure of those ideals to save adolescents from the dangers that threaten them.

In evoking so powerfully a variety of common dream and nightmare sensations, the two films build upon qualities shared by all movies. Film critics have long recognized the dream-like nature of watching movies: we sit relaxed and motionless in a quiet, darkened space and become immersed in a flow of narrative, allowing vibrant waves of sound and visual imagery to wash over us. In this sense, every film works to simulate the experience of dreaming; every film draws its power from its capacity to recreate the formal experiential qualities of a dream.

This is one reason why films have been used so frequently in experimental dream research. From the earliest days of sleep laboratory examinations of REM sleep, researchers have been using films to examine the impact of waking stimuli on dream content. A number of experiments have involved subjects watching films with especially strong emotional content (e.g., pornographic films, movies showing the autopsy of a human corpse). The subjects are then awakened during their REM sleep the next night to see what impact the films had on their dreams. The basic result of these studies is that material from the films does frequently become incorporated directly or indirectly into the subjects’s dreams, although it remains unclear why some subjects have more film references in their dreams and other subjects less.[vi]

I know of no studies focusing on the impact of these two particular films on people’s dreams. However, my own research and experience suggests the following:

The Wizard of Oz has been the primary source of the American people’s fascination with the question of whether we dream in color or black-and-white. This is a question that could never have arisen in a pre-modern society, without exposure to the technologies of photography and cinema.

A Nightmare on Elm Street has helped to stimulate the capacity of American teenagers to experience lucid dreams (i.e., becoming conscious within the dream state that one is dreaming), beyond what most adults seem to have experienced in their lives. I suspect that this movie has had a huge influence on this generation’s understanding of what dreams are and what is possible within them.

One of the biggest differences between films and dreams, of course, is that while dreams are purely private experiences, films are collective experiences. We have our dreams in the privacy of our own personal imaginations (setting aside, for this chapter’s purposes, the interesting question of whether dreams can be shared), but we usually watch movies with groups of other people. This brings up another interesting feature of the two films under discussion, namely that both films have become the objects of what I would call “ritual viewing practices.” For many decades, in the pre-VCR era, the annual showing of the The Wizard of Oz on network television was an eagerly-anticipated family event. I myself still have glowing memories of getting settled on the couch with my parents and my sister and watching, for the umpteenth time, the wonderful adventures of Dorothy and Toto in the land of Oz. There are also ritual viewing practices associated with A Nightmare on Elm Street (and its half-dozen sequels), but they take a quite different form. This movie is very much a product of the VCR revolution in the viewing, and the making, of contemporary films. Produced with little money and less technical sophistication, A Nightmare on Elm Street had only a brief original run in theaters; and of course it has never been shown on network TV. The film’s spectacular success has depended entirely on the VCR rental market, and more specifically on the phenomenon of teenagers renting the movie again and again and again. I first learned about this from my brother Alex, who’s twelve years younger than I am. He knows of my interest in dreams, and several years ago, when he was in his early teens, he said, “Kelly, you’ve got to check out the Nightmare on Elm Street movies, Dude, they’re all about dreams!” As I talked with Alex about the movies, I discovered that he and his friends had all seen them at least six or seven times each. The usual routine was for everyone to gather at someone’s house on a Saturday night, turn out all the lights, and (with no grown-ups anywhere around) watch yet again Nancy’s terrifying nightmare battles with Freddy Krueger.

I find one especially significant difference between the ritual viewing practices associated with these two films, and that is that the audiences for The Wizard of Oz tend to be intergenerational: parents and children all watching together, as a family. The audiences for A Nightmare on Elm Street, however, are usually composed of adolescents only, and primarily adolescent boys.

I believe this difference in ritual viewing practices gives us some insight into the bottom-line question of what the dreams in The Wizard of Oz and A Nightmare on Elm Street can be said to mean. At the most basic level, the dreams in both films are about the struggles of adolescents in American society: struggles which in our society are conceptualized as a transformation from childhood to adulthood, from dependence to independence, from innocence to sexuality, from a life of play to a life of work. The dreams in both films work to stimulate profound empathy for and identification with the fears and sufferings of adolescents as they go through this transformation. And the dreams in both films sharply criticize the failure of parents, and of the whole adult social order generally, to protect adolescents from evils, injustices, and threats to their budding sense of emotional and physical integrity.

The Wizard of Oz concludes on a note of stirring hopefulness and optimism. Dorothy ultimately survives her frightening trials in the land of Oz, and at the end of the movie returns, with a newfound sense of devotion and trustfulness, to her home and her family. This is a moral message that naturally makes the film appealing to family audiences. It’s true that this message is clouded somewhat by the fact that Mrs. Gulch is probably still around and thus is likely to continue her vendetta against Toto (unless the tornado managed to get her–a nice possibility, but we never hear one way or the other). And it’s true that what I’ve called the film’s second, covert moral message points Dorothy, and we in the audience, towards the enchanting reality of a very different kind of world. But in the end, the two messages work together to propel Dorothy (and the audience) back into waking life with renewed commitments to her community. Recalling that The Wizard of Oz was released in 1939, I think the film can be seen on one level as a response to the challenges facing adolescents of that historical period: overcoming the despair engendered by growing up during the Great Depression, resisting the temptations of escapist fantasizing, and finding the inner strength to confront the mounting danger to the American community posed by World War II.

So I would say the meaning of Dorothy’s dream is this: always remember the beauty, the friendship, and the strength of purpose you experienced in Oz–never forget that. But now it’s time to go back, rejoin your family, and do what you can to help them through their hard times.

The conclusion of A Nightmare on Elm Street is quite different. If The Wizard of Oz ends on a note of hope, A Nightmare on Elm Street ends with a mixed message at best. Yes, Nancy has defeated Freddy Krueger, and yes, she’s back with her mother and father, in their nice suburban house with the white picket fence on Elm Street. But Freddy’s not really gone. Everybody in the audience knows that Freddy is going to come back–it’s simply the nature of recurrent nightmares, and of the low-budget horror movies patterned after them, that the evil fiend will come back. Thus, the reassurance that Nancy and we in the audience receive at the end of the movie is only temporary, only provisional. We’ve got a bit of a breather, but that’s about it.

This moral message–that evil may be defeated, but it’s going to come back–has a special resonance, I believe, for the adolescent boys that tend to be the film’s primary audience. This is because they identify not simply with Nancy and her teenage friends, but with Freddy Krueger: for adolescent boys, Freddy expresses all the terribly urgent sexual desires they feel rising up within themselves. The Nightmare on Elm Street movies are brutally honest about how frightening these desires can be, stimulating fears and fantasies of violent fragmentation and destruction. By watching these horrible movies again and again, in small, furtive, emphatically non-family gatherings, adolescent boys seem to find a small measure of comfort in sharing their inner experiences of trying to come to terms with the Freddy Krueger within each of them.

The importance of this comfort should be evaluated in the context the movie’s distinctive historical period. In 1984, the year the original Nightmare on Elm Street movie was released, the U.S. economy was booming, Wall Street was awash in merger-and-acquisition money, the armed forces were busily building new planes, tanks, and missiles to defend against the “Evil Empire,” and Ronald Reagan was gliding to reelection on the theme that “It’s Morning in America.” Culturally speaking, it was a time of vigorous masculine assertiveness, when vulnerability was scorned and raw power glorified. The challenges facing an adolescent boy growing up in such a culture are portrayed quite starkly A Nightmare on Elm Street: the adults think everything is great, and they don’t want to hear anything about being scared, feeling helpless, or worrying that there’s something very powerful and very dangerous lurking in the dark. So the meaning of the dreams of Nancy and her friends, in my view, is this: there is a real and terribly powerful force of evil haunting our dreams, but the grown-ups can’t, or won’t, acknowledge it; so adolescents have to join together, use their wits, and be prepared to face that evil when it comes again–for it will come again.

Notes

[i].. See Gabbard and Gabbard 1987.

[ii].. See Ebert 1996.

[iii]..See Koulack 1991.

[iv].. This essay was originally presented at a panel titled “Cinema, Psychoanalysis, and the American Unconscious,” sponsored by the Religion and the Social Sciences Section at the 1996 American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting. The other papers presented at the panel were “From Separation to Merger: Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Jews in American Film,” by Fredelle Spiegel; “Euro-American (Christian) Fantasies of Love and Genocide,” by Roy Steinhoff-Smith; “The Marginalization and Destruction of the Female Body in Popular Women’s Films,” by Peggy Schmeiser; and “Terminator 1 and 2: A Cinematic Construction of Religion in Popular Culture,” by Rubina Ramji. Each of these papers drew upon psychoanalytically-oriented theoretical resources to analyze contemporary films.

[v]..Cooper 1987, p. 10.

[vi]..Koulack 1991.

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