A grainy picture, speckled with static and imbued with blue as if someone had taped cellophane over the television: this is how I saw the original, the first, the best. The sound was harsh or, at times, muffled and inaudible. My parents had left me with my brother Owen for the evening. He was fifteen, five years older than I, and said, “Tonight, we’re going to watch what I want to watch.”
The commercials for A Nightmare on Elm Street had been playing for weeks, and the other kids in my elementary school were already talking: “There’s this burned-up guy, and he kills you in your dreams.” Until then, the scariest movie I had seen was Godzilla vs. Megalon, and I cowered in the couch as Godzilla battled a humongous cockroach with a drill on the top of its head. They trampled Tokyo, kicking cars out of their path, snapping telephone poles like toothpicks. When it seemed as if the cockroach had won—Godzilla lying on the ground, foam oozing from his mouth—I started to cry, and when my brother saw what I was watching, he said, “Paul, you’re such a wuss.”
Our parents forbade Owen from seeing A Nightmare on Elm Street, but he snuck in after buying a ticket for Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan. He smuggled our video camera—the size of a cereal box—into the theater. And now, I was his test audience.
He watched as I squirmed and shuddered. At one point, a silhouette rose, and I thought Freddy was emerging from the television screen (he has a penchant for materializing out of solid objects), but it was only a lady going to the restroom. On the tape, Owen admonished: “Move it, bitch!” Occasionally, the picture jiggled as he repositioned the camera on his lap. His jeans rustling, the squeaking of the seat: these became dead leaves blowing down Elm Street, the scrape of Freddy’s fingernails against pipes.
I thought Owen would protect me, but when Freddy sprang from the shadows, I jolted from my seat, and he pushed me away. “God damn it,” he said. “If you’re going to be a pussy, I’ll turn it off right now.” He pulled the bag of potato chips closer to him, and his tube-socked foot pushed a Coke can off the coffee table. The music started screeching, and I covered my eyes. “This part isn’t scary,” he said. “It’s cool.” When I unlaced my fingers from my face, a geyser of blood erupted from a bed.
For weeks afterwards, I had nightmares. None involved Freddy, but I remembered Owen walking ahead of me, wearing his blue NASA T-shirt. I saw the back of his head, brown curls sticking out like coils of wire. I ran towards him, but my movements were labored, as if I were running through Bisquick batter. I fell further and further behind, and with each step, I became more and more frightened that I was going to lose him.
After the movie was over, he asked, “Wasn’t that awesome?”
I was still quivering.
“I bet none of your friends have seen it yet.”
I shook my head, not wanting to seem uncool.
“You should tell all of your friends how sweet that was.”
“Okay,” I said.
He leaned towards me. “Good,” he said. “If any of your friends wants a copy, tell them to give me a blank videocassette and six bucks.”
Part II: Freddy’s Revenge
Once Owen got his driver’s license, he disappeared frequently. He saw Freddy’s Revenge at a drive-in with two friends Dad disapproved of. He skipped dinner that night, and my parents and I ate in tense silence. Dad stabbed his pork chop with his fork and chewed as if the meat wouldn’t break apart.
I stayed up until I saw headlights come into the driveway. I listened: the grind and crank of the parking brake, the transmission winding down like an asthmatic. Owen, smelling of beer, stumbled up the stairs, and I tried my best to quiet him. I didn’t want Mom and Dad waking up.
“How was it?” I whispered.
“Not as good as the first.” He put his hand on my shoulder and pushed down, propping himself up.
“Was it scary?”
“Nah,” he said. “It was kind of gay.”
The floor creaked. He had trouble going faster than a shuffle.
“What do you mean, “gay”?”
“Like in the first one, you see a tit, but in this one, there’s no boobies anywhere. Just sweaty guys walking around in their underwear.” He leaned against the wall. “And there’s this one part where an old guy’s naked ass gets whipped bloody. That’s totally gay.”
Looking back, Part II is totally gay; or at the very least, homoerotic. Phallic signifiers include a pop gun held crotch-high, a snake wrapping itself around the protagonist, and, of course, Freddy penetrating male bodies with his trademark fingerknives. I won’t even mention the disco-housecleaning scene. Some critics contend that the film reflects mid-80s conservatism; for instance, the predatory coach who sets his lascivious sights on the protagonist arouses a horror rooted in homophobia, rather than in Freddy himself.
But back then I was eleven, intrigued. “Gay” was how you described someone one step down in the social pecking order; how could a movie be gay? I’d never seen another man’s backside before, although I’d been spanked: once for talking back to my mother, then again for skipping school. But whipped bloody? The thought made me shiver.
“Gross,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said, “gross.”
Months later, my parents and I were browsing the video store when I saw the cover for Part II. The still photo: a shirtless guy, hair wet and slicked back, water beaded on his face, holds up Freddy’s glove. Was he in his underwear? Was he the one that got whipped? I brought it to my parents and begged to see it, but Dad replied: “You’re too young for that trash.”
So I did what every red-blooded adolescent does: I finagled a sleepover at a friend’s house. He had laissez-faire parents who had no problem renting an R-rated movie for us. I sat on the far side of the sofa, away from my friend as the movie flickered into life. I clasped a pillow to my chest and pretended not to be transfixed when this ugly, scarred monster, who had slowly been taking possession of a teenager, burst fully formed out of the beautiful boy’s body.
Part III: Dream Warriors
This is where everything changes.
With Dream Warriors, Freddy hits the big time. Dokken, whose logo embossed three-ring binders of countless freshman girls, sings the theme music. Indeed, Freddy, with his sardonic one-liners and uncanny ability to pinpoint his opponent’s weakness and exploit it in the most gruesome way possible, becomes a pop- culture phenomenon. Part of the thrill of a prototypical slasher film, I’ve read, is the conflicting identification process that the audience undergoes: they see themselves as both monster and hero.
In the meantime, Owen fed me a stream of gore: the entire Friday the 13th opus, Sleepaway Camp, any movie featuring a knife, blood spatters, or a chainsaw on its cover. He also used me as an alibi: “I’m taking Paul to the movies.” If my parents gave me money for candy or popcorn, Owen confiscated it. Babysitting fee, he called it. He bought my ticket, and while I watched the movie, he went elsewhere. Afterwards, I was expected to wait. Every Friday night around eleven, I sat on the curb and watched boys leaving with their arms around their dates, watched them drive cars blaring heavy metal from tinted windows, rolled down halfway. The parking lot emptied before Owen picked me up, the theater lights off, me in the dark.
After Dream Warriors let out, I waited three and a half hours. Security drove by twice, and I told them that my ride was coming any minute now. On their third and fourth patrol, I lay in the shadows near the dumpsters, imagining what my super power would be. Magic? Kung fu? More than anything, I wanted to be like Kristin, the heroine: able to bring anyone I wanted into my dreams.
When my brother finally arrived, I was standing in a field of broken glass. For the last hour, I wandered the parking lot, picking up empty beer bottles, and throwing them hard against the wall of the theater. The shattering, the shards, the glints of light from the highway—I felt powerful.
“I’m sorry, man,” Owen said. “Guess I lost track of time.”
I crossed my arms, refusing to speak.
“Are you hungry?” he asked. “Let’s get something to eat.”
We went to a Village Inn far from our house. “Get whatever you want,” he said, eyes bloodshot. The lamp hanging over our table gave him a dusty aura.
I ordered a hot chocolate, which my parents never let me get because it had too much sugar. We ate our burgers in silence. He reached for my French fries, but I pulled the plate away from his greedy hands.
“If Mom or Dad asks why we’re late, tell them the truth, okay?” He slumped in the booth, his boots sticking into the aisle. “Tell them I took you to get something to eat.”
The waitress came by with our bill.
“I know you’re mad at me,” he said, sitting up. “Let me make it up to you. Do you want to drive my car?”
I nodded. I’d never driven my brother’s car.
“I can’t hear you.”
“Yes,” I said. I was willing to make that concession.
“Good. Pull the car around front and get in the passenger seat. Honk the horn when you’re done.”
My father had been giving me lessons in the family Buick, but kept one hand on the parking brake, ready to pull it back at a moment’s notice. Even though my brother’s VW Rabbit was smaller, the seat was set way back so that I couldn’t reach the pedals. As I fumbled underneath for the lever, I found a chain of foil-wrapped condoms.
Five seconds after honking the horn, my brother tore out of the restaurant and jumped into the car. We squealed out of the lot. I looked behind us and saw the manager, his red tie flapping like a panting dog. He was yelling, but I couldn’t hear anything over the revving engine.
“We should do this more often,” Owen said, accelerating into the night. “Just the two of us.” I was hyperventilating, the buzz running through my hands and feet. I was scared. Not jump-scared like when a cat comes screeching out of nowhere, but scared like the person in the audience who murmurs, Look out, look out, he’s right behind you!—the fear of a person who isn’t prepared for what comes next.
Part IV: The Dream Master
I admire the series’ willingness to kill heroes. Nancy survives Part I, but dies in Part III. Kristin bests Freddy in Part III, only to succumb in Part IV.
Owen had gotten kicked out of the house by Part IV. He couldn’t hold a job for more than three weeks. His stints as a line cook, golf caddy, and parking valet ended when he, respectively, slept through three shifts, smoked weed in the clubhouse, and stole money from people’s glove compartments. When he drove drunk into a ditch, totaling the Rabbit, my Dad told him to leave. He packed his belongings in black trash bags. He crashed at a friend’s place before finding an apartment, which he shared with three roommates.
For a while, I worried that my parents would tighten the screws on me—curfew, withholding car keys—but I was the good son. I had compiled a list of colleges I wanted to attend and left it where they could see it.
Every three weeks, Owen called for money. Dad obliged, mostly, but those times he refused, Mom would send me out the next morning with an envelope. I usually skimmed ten dollars off the top. Deliveryman’s fee. So when Owen called to talk to me, I was surprised. Mom said, It’s for you, in a voice that made me think that someone had died.
“Do you want to go see the new Nightmare on Elm Street?” he asked. Metal clanged in the background, as if he were in a junkyard. “I hear it’s awesome.”
“Sure.” Our conversation felt like a long-distance call, like we didn’t want to rack up charges.
“Cool,” he said. “I’ll pick you up.”
When I told my parents that I was seeing a movie with Owen, they looked at each other like it was a bad idea. My horror movie habit was worrisome enough. Now, they were concerned how else my brother might influence me.
“Midnight,” Dad said. “No later.”
In the car, Owen reached towards me like he was going to muss my hair, like he did when we were younger, but punched me in the arm instead. “Why do you always have to dress like a doofus?” he asked. At the theater, he made me buy the concessions and upgraded the large popcorn to an extra large tub with lots of butter. He kept it in his lap until there were only broken pieces and old maid kernels left. When Freddy made his first kill, my brother raised his arms in a headbanger’s salute, and I saw that the lettering on his Poison T–shirt had chipped off until only a ghost of a lower-case “s-o-n” remained. His jean jacket had holes in the wrong places for them to be deliberate. And he smelled the way Freddy might: smoky, sour, stifling. When he laughed, people in the rows ahead of us turned and glared. I sank low and shook my head when he offered me a sip of the soda I had bought.
Afterwards, in the lobby, he clapped my shoulder. “Wasn’t that great?” he asked.
“Don’t be gay,” I said, ducking away. I let him walk a few steps ahead. I knew I could catch up if I wanted.
Years later, in grad school, I defended the movie: “Clearly, it’s a Marxist text,” I said. “Freddy, a patriarch who commidifies and consumes souls, is defeated when Alice, in a show of unity within social class, absorbs the powers of her dead friends. Sure, its surface is capitalist and bourgeois, but the use of Brechtian aesthetics and alienation effects add a subversive, avant-garde subtext.”
“Yes,” my professor said, “but you seem to ignore the fact that the film was crap.”
Part V: The Dream Child
Coolest death ever: The victim, Mark, is sucked into a black-and-white comic book by Freddy. Mark is still full color and whimpers as Freddy terrorizes him, destroying the scaffolding around them. But when Freddy mocks a girl that Mark had loved, he morphs into a superhero with guns strapped to his arms and shoots repeatedly, until Freddy falls to the ground, perforated. But before the audience can relax, Freddy rises as “Superfreddy,” impervious to bullets. Mark quickly runs out of ammo and backs into a wall. With the first slash, Mark, who has now been transformed into a two-dimensional drawing, bleeds out his color, which collects in a pool at his feet. He’s as pale as a pen-and-ink drawing, and Freddy rips him to shreds.
Or so I’ve been told.
Owen was serving an eighteen-month sentence for driving with a suspended license. The car was stolen. And there was a switchblade under the passenger seat. Dad didn’t disown Owen as much as he started forgetting Owen. He took Mom and me to the photography center at Sears and slid the new three-person family portrait in front of the one that included Owen. Whenever someone asked, “How’s your son?” he’d reply, “Oh, Paul is doing great.”
Mom and I paid Owen a visit in early September, a month after the movie’s release. Our time was limited to twenty minutes, and as Mom spoke with him, she started choking up. Owen rolled his eyes. She beckoned me over to talk while she composed herself.
Owen had grown a beard, and his hair was long and shaggy, covering his neck. His hands were brown and rough, like he’d been breaking rocks all his life. People had always said that the resemblance between us was strong—I thought I was better looking—but when my reflection on the plexiglass superimposed onto his face, I felt like I was looking into my future: me, with a few extra pounds, six inches taller, dark lines of worry etched into my face.
“I need you to do me a favor,” Owen said. His voice had ragged edges. “Go to my apartment and grab my stuff. Just cram everything into some bags and hide them in the storage room at home. Can you do that?”
Here he was, behind bars, still bossing me around.
“I’ve got a Nintendo,” he continued. “Keep that for yourself.”
Most of my friends had Nintendos, and it was a pain going over to their houses to play Super Mario Brothers. Whenever it was my turn, they chastised my lack of gaming abilities: No, you’ve got to jump on the mushroom, then over the pit.
“Just promise me something,” he said. “Promise that you’ll wait to see The Dream Child. You can’t see it without me, okay?”
“Sure,” I said. “It’s a deal.”
“All right!” We high-fived either side of the inch-thick glass.
I was too late, of course: his roommates had already sold the stereo system, the cassette tapes, and rifled through his closet. At the foot of his bed, however, was a two-foot-high pile of clothes that reeked of cigarette smoke. To my surprise, at the very bottom of the pile, as if he’d hidden it for me, was the Nintendo. I wrapped it in a pair of jeans to slip it out, and when I got home, my fingers trembled as I connected the cables. On the underside of the console, written in permanent black marker: Property of Danny Biemiller. I’d never heard of him.
I never got the chance to see The Dream Child with Owen, and only recently put it in my DVD player for my dissertation. Drew, my boyfriend, who freaks out if you yell “Boo!” in a dark room, sat down to watch it with me.
“These movies are hilarious,” he said.
I had read about the movie extensively; I knew its plot, its structure, its contribution to the Freddy mythology. It was all spectacle, no specters. And yet, when the sound of ripping flesh heralded the opening credits, I had trouble breathing. Drew paused the movie, and red slashes froze on the screen; the words A Nightmare on Elm Street had not yet emerged from them. I hit stop and buried my head into Drew’s chest.
It’s still the only one I’ve never seen.
Part VI: Freddy’s Dead, The Final Nightmare
Lamest death ever: Freddy draws a stoner into a psychedelic television show, which devolves into a poorly animated video game. Using a joystick, Freddy knocks the guy around, makes him hop back and forth. His friends attempt a rescue by detaching the controller, but Freddy has a PowerGlove, which was, back then, an exciting development in Nintendo gaming. The stoner is knocked into a mob of angry father figures wielding tennis rackets and is, presumably, pummeled to death.
I wanted the movie to be better than it was. During the previews, I jittered. Owen knuckled me in the leg and whispered, “Quit shaking the whole goddamn row.” I couldn’t help it: not only had this movie been touted as the definitive end of the series, but I had also sneaked out of the house for the first time. I followed the path Owen had taken for years: open the second-story bedroom window, dangle from the ledge, drop into the wet lawn below. Nothing was going to keep me from enjoying this movie, not even the fact that my parents had grounded me for two months.
Earlier in the week, I had been at K-Mart to buy a new game, but the Nintendo cartridges were stored in a cabinet that had to be opened by a cashier. It was a lot of trouble. But as I was leaving, I noticed Marble Madness on a stack of steering wheel covers in the automotive aisle, as if someone had changed his mind on the way to the checkout. It wasn’t a game I particularly wanted, but no one was around: no shoppers, no workers in their red polyester vests. So I shoved the game into my waistband and untucked my shirt. And suddenly, I was no longer a Goody Two-shoes who collected comic books and occasionally cheated at Dungeons and Dragons; I was bad. My fingertips and toes tingled. It felt like I was breathing helium. When I noticed the rectangular bulge in my stomach, I hunched over. I looked for security, double-checking each aisle, but no one was following me, no one that I could see. But, at the exit, a heavy hand grasped my shoulder with a grave, “Come with me, son.”
Dad picked me up from the holding room. In the car, the air between us crackled. I rubbed my wrists, trying to erase the red handcuff gouges on my skin. At home, Mom was preparing dinner. When I explained what had happened, she slapped me, then went back to chopping celery. I remembered this same silence from when Owen had lived at home. Each time the school called with a delinquency report, we ate dinner with disappointment hard and cold in our throats. I only caught the periphery of the emotion then, a hand-me-down sadness. Now, I felt as Owen must have: caught in a nexus of shame and resentment, unable to say either I’m sorry or Why won’t you say anything?
I think the early ’80s mantra of teenager control—never yell—had affected my parents unexpectedly. When my father’s anger emerged, it resulted in a complete communication collapse. That night, he only said one thing: “Jesus, two fuckups in one family.” But the comment wasn’t directed at anyone. It was a thought that had mistakenly taken form. Mom wrote her feelings on a yellow legal pad, in which she apologized for striking me and outlined my punishment. I found the note pinned to my door the next morning as I was getting ready for school.
This was in my mind as I sat in the theater. I wanted to have a good time—that was the whole point of sneaking out—but the movie was a total letdown. Owen laughed out loud at scenes that made me cringe. The 3-D effects gave me a headache. Even worse, Freddy was given a bizarre backstory: he had a wife and a daughter. America’s favorite psychopath was a father.
After the movie, I ripped the earpieces off my 3-D glasses, punched my thumbs through the red and blue cellophane, and threw the scraps at the screen. As he drove me home, Owen talked about how cool it was when the girl wrapped the cord of an electric coffeepot around her arm and pounded her abusive father’s face into putty. I commiserated, telling Owen of my grounding, adding the same indignant huffs that I’d heard him use. When I was done, he said, “You’re such a dumbshit, Paul. Don’t you know that those globes in the ceiling actually hide cameras?” Without swerving the car, he nailed me hard in the chest, in the muscle where it would leave a bruise.
At home, my parents’ bedroom was dark. As I unbuckled my seat belt, Owen leaned over and said, “If anything ever happens to Mom and Dad, you’re the one who has to bail me out. You know that, don’t you?” When I didn’t answer, he opened the ashtray and threw the contents at me. “Stupid fucking idiot,” he said. The passenger door shut itself as he peeled away. I brushed myself off, then realized that I was locked out. There was no way to reach the window. When Owen snuck out, I had always been there to open the door for him. But I had no superpowers, not even in my dreams. I couldn’t conjure someone to open the door for me.
The ash stung my eyes, and I closed them. I sat on the stoop, shaking my head, trying to wake up.
Part VII: Wes Craven’s New Nightmare
Owen called my dorm at Columbia. He didn’t announce himself. Just asked, “So what was that all about?”
He was working as a bouncer; I was preparing for midterms. The previous semester, I had been given a foundation of Freud, Jung, and Foucault and was now wading through Mulvey, Bazin, and Silverman. The twice-weekly screenings in an auditorium classroom, sitting at cramped desks designed to prevent comfortable slouching, had already resulted in three nervous breakdowns. A group of us realized that our sanity required a momentary escape from the Bergman oeuvre, and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare was our trashy fun du jour.
But I found the film fascinating rather than mindless, and now that I was a film studies major, I wanted my brother to cease being a passive observer. I wanted him to engage in the issues the film raised: the collapse of the nuclear family; suburbia as wasteland; the narrative of self-esteem and self-reliance. I wanted him to go beyond the body count.
So I explained: New Nightmare jettisons the schema of the original series for a more postmodern, self-reflexive stance. It creates a liminal space that exists between story and reality. Its meta-movie qualities (the “fictional” Wes Craven writes a script which is exactly what the actor Wes Craven performs) help blur the lines between ‘real’ and ‘not-real.’ The parallelism between the ‘real’ of the movie/the ‘not-real’ of the movie-in-a-movie and the ‘real’ of the audience/the ‘not-real’ of the movie evokes a disjunction, a fission between levels of reality. It begs the questions: What is reality? What is fiction? What is a story, and what are actual events in someone’s life? Are these lines as distinct as we’d like? And what happens when someone (or something) transgresses these lines?
“Oh,” said Owen. “So that means Freddy’s dead for good, right?”
Yes, I assured him. Freddy is dead.
Part VIII: Freddy vs. Jason
For years, a rumored showdown between the two great horror franchises of the ’80s circulated on the Internet. Various treatments and scripts had been pursued and rejected. And now, almost twenty years after the first Nightmare on Elm Street, the two icons will go head-to-head.
I can already imagine Owen’s enthusiasm: Wasn’t that cool how Freddy burned that dude alive? I really hoped that it was gonna be gorier, but they’re probably saving some for the sequel. I’m glad he’s back, after all this time. I’m sorry we didn’t see it together, but it’s in my blood, man, and I know it’s in your blood too.
Owen had cleaned up: he had a steady gig as a warehouse night watchman, a girlfriend—all the trappings of reality. Dad had even welcomed him back into the family. He told me how Owen had him pretend to be a former landlord so that he could rent an apartment, how Owen tried to get him to invest in a downtown parking lot that would be converted into condos any day now.
“Since when did your brother know anything about real estate?” Dad asked me.
I had just started my master’s program and lived in a studio above an Italian restaurant.
“Search me,” I said.
When I last spoke with Owen, he was still freaked out about my being gay, but said that as long as I was happy, he was fine with it. He was proud that I had gotten so far in school; he couldn’t wait for my graduation, and I made him call me Dr. Paul, even though I hadn’t finished.
He’d already been dead for three years when we had that conversation. The police said that there’d been a robbery at the warehouse, and he was shot trying to stop it.
Bullshit, he said. I fell asleep on the job and you-know-who got me.
God’s honest truth.
Am I in trouble? I asked. What’s keeping him from getting me?
He started to answer, but I woke before he finished.
I only catch glimpses of him now: his elongated face in the convex security mirrors that stores hang high in the corners. Or, on the street, a whiff of dusky cigarette smoke makes me suspect he recently passed by. Once, when I was stuck on a Byzantine problem in my dissertation, his voice, distant, distinct, called out: Duh, Dr. Paul. Lacanian levels of observation.
I relish the signs of the new movie’s arrival (the machete-versus-claw poster, the trailers pulsating with subsonic bass and sharpened knives) because it is in my blood, the blood that brings life to fear, that gives meaning to anyone who’s ever walked down a dark street by himself.
We who watch horror movies know three simple truths: first, you can never escape your dreams; second, when you’re alone, the world is a darker and much more dangerous place; and finally, most importantly, you can never kill the monster.
But you can be ready for him. When Freddy comes for me one of these terrible nights, when even Drew can’t wake me, my brother will rise up and say, Man, you’ve picked the wrong brothers to fuck with.