You don’t have to be a slasher fan to find the premise of Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street compelling. Though it shares superficial similarities with movies like Halloween and Friday the 13th, where mysterious killers hunt sexually active teenagers one by one, it also differs in some significant ways. Most notably, it has a supernatural element: the monstrous Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) is already dead before the movie begins, and he is only able to harm his victims through their dreams. But A Nightmare on Elm Street is also the rare slasher where the narrative arc rests not only on the survival of the Final Girl but also on her power and agency. Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) is more resourceful than most slasher protagonists, defeating Freddy not through defensive resistance but instead through direct, orchestrated confrontation. In the end, she is victorious because her personal power is far stronger than his.
I have loved A Nightmare on Elm Street since I first watched it over a decade ago, but it has developed a special resonance for me in the last two years, since I began treating my post-traumatic stress disorder with a therapy known as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). EMDR is a highly structured treatment that lowers the distress and discomfort of traumatic memories. While recalling a traumatic memory, the patient is directed by their therapist through a method of rapid bilateral stimulation, such as side-to-side eye movements, tapping, or aural tones. This bilateral stimulation is believed to simulate the brain activity that occurs during REM sleep. It causes the brain to reprocess memories that have gotten “stuck,” fully integrating them into the body, much like how REM sleep facilitates the integration of memories from the previous day. In other words, EMDR is a kind of waking dream state that induces rapid visual images and physical and emotional sensations in an effort to heal deep personal wounds.
A Nightmare on Elm Street premiered in 1984, four years before psychologist Francine Shapiro conducted the scientific study that led to the development of EMDR therapy. I’m not here to propose that Shapiro was inspired by Craven’s movie or that Craven had clairvoyant knowledge of the discoveries Shapiro would later make. Nevertheless, watching A Nightmare on Elm Street in the context of EMDR illuminates some fascinating parallels.
The nature of dream states allows dreamers to travel through space and time while remaining physically stationary. Unlike most slashers, where the killer invades their victim’s physical space and pursues them through a house or outside in the darkness, A Nightmare on Elm Street depicts Freddy invading Nancy’s mental space and allows her to travel far outside of her lived experience — to places like Freddy’s boiler room lair — without physically taking her anywhere at all. She is still at home, in her classroom, or at a sleep clinic, yet she finds herself in environments that are completely unusual and deeply frightening. Contributing to her fear are the physical remnants of her psychic experience, like blood on her body and clothing. She knows that what she experienced is real, even if it all plays out in her mind.
Watching Nancy’s nightmares reminds me of how, during an EMDR session, I will visualize places I haven’t visited for many years (or, sometimes, ever), which are far removed from my current day-to-day life but feel vivid and visceral in my mind. And though I’ve never ended a session with a bruise on my arm or rips in my clothing that weren’t there before, I regularly experience body aches and other effects of physical exertion after an EMDR session, despite having physically remained in one place. Nancy’s experiences with nightmares are a perfect visual representation of how physically and emotionally intense the experience of mentally confronting fear can be in reality.
Throughout A Nightmare on Elm Street, the adults around Nancy remind her that her sleep and dreams are important to her well-being — a statement that couldn’t feel more false given the steadily increasing horror she begins to experience in her sleep. Rather than give her medicine to stop her from dreaming, her doctors put her to sleep for the purpose of monitoring her dreams in an effort to understand them. Though at first this feels wrong, since Nancy’s dreams are what put her in danger, her dreams are also ultimately what save her. It’s because of her dreams that Nancy is able to develop a deeper understanding of the immediate situation she’s in and how it relates to the generational trauma passed down to her. She figures out who Freddy is before her mother (Ronee Blakley) even admits he’s real. Though Nancy doesn’t know what Freddy’s done, she instinctively understands his danger and knows that he is a far more threatening force than anything she has encountered in her waking life. Nancy’s dreams are her key to understanding truths that are frequently too complicated to grasp logically.
In my experience with EMDR, I have seen strange images and recalled seemingly random memories that, taken together, feel puzzling. I don’t always understand what my brain is trying to communicate as it sorts through all of the information it wants to process. But long before I have an intellectual and rational understanding of what’s happening, I have an intuitive sense of knowing that guides and centers me. Trauma often fragments memory — you may remember moments within a traumatizing event viscerally and in great detail, while others are completely blank and lost to time. It’s hard to understand what’s true when you aren’t certain about what your brain is trying to tell you, and memory is difficult to trust even in the best of circumstances. But even when the process feels most confusing and challenging, I have a sense of internal knowledge that feels similar to Nancy’s. The drive to persevere is there for a reason, even if the reason isn’t immediately clear.
Nancy’s strongest moments of empowerment arrive once she knows the full truth about Freddy: that he was a child murderer who was killed by the parents of Elm Street — including her own — in order to protect their children. Through honest conversations with her mother, Nancy begins to understand that Freddy’s power grows because of his victims’ fear. He wants to harm children and teenagers, and he is able to do so when they are afraid of him. Understanding this allows Nancy to claim her own right to safety by luring him into her home and turning her back on him. She refuses to give him the one thing he wants, and in doing so, she is able to let go of her family’s unprocessed legacy of trauma. Once trauma is directly confronted, it needs to be released so that the body can heal. While the final scene of the film suggests that Nancy’s healing journey is a long one and that she will continue to have nightmares about her experience, she is now at least able to separate the past from the present so that the past cannot continue to cause her harm. This, too, is the ultimate goal of EMDR: to face that which has caused harm in the past in order to prevent it from continuing to harm you.
What I love most about horror is its ability to allow for visual representations of emotions and experiences that are challenging to depict literally. If I ever wanted to write a movie about my experience with trauma, I know that it would have to be a horror movie — not because my experiences involve murder or monsters or demons, but because the fear, anxiety, and destabilization of trauma feels best expressed through the nightmarish imagery and dread of the horror genre. I don’t believe that Craven necessarily intended to make a profound statement about recovering from generational trauma in A Nightmare on Elm Street, but he managed to do so in a way that rings true. I appreciate having this film to turn to, not only for the enjoyment of Halloween viewing, but as a brilliant artistic representation of an experience that is often misunderstood and difficult to verbalize.