Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Nancy Thompson, Freddy Krueger, and feminism

Tomorrow is Halloween and that means I will be doing several things:

-       Handing out candy
-       Playing spooky music all day
-       Dressing up
-       Watching A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

I’ve written about A Nightmare on Elm Street before and how much I love this film. At the risk of repeating myself, I want to discuss the original Nightmare on Elm Street again if only because of how important this film was to me as a young teenager and now, as an adult feminist.

It may seem strange for a feminist to love a film in which a deformed child murderer stalks and kills teenagers, most famously after sex. When I first saw this film as a fourteen year old, however, I was astonished by the originality of the premise. I had already seen a masked and typically silent killer slash his way through sexually promiscuous teenagers but I had never seen a killer with a personality. And I had never seen any death scenes as unsettling as the disquieting dreamscapes in which Freddy Krueger tormented and killed his victims.

I still maintain that the scene in which the dead Tina appears in a bloody body bag in the middle of English class to the sleeping Nancy is one of the most disturbing scenes in 1980s horror (it’s also the reason why my favorite Shakespeare line is from Hamlet).

Nancy, played by the underrated Heather Langenkamp, is my favorite Final Girl and the main reason why, as a feminist, I adore this film. I highly recommend this Halloween, checking out Carol J. Clover’s seminal Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, the book that gave us the term Final Girl. Rather than simply being the person who happens to survive until the end of the film, the Final Girl is often masculine in order to shift the stereotypically male audience’s identification from the male killer to the final female victim. She also wrote that the Final Girl possesses an “active investigating gaze” (48) which goes against the other groundbreaking work of feminist theory, Laura Mulvey’s  Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. Mulvey argues that cinema demonstrates that “pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female” (39) and that the film “narrative supports the man’s role as the active one of advancing the story, making things happen” (41) while women are merely one-dimensional icons to be gazed upon by the audience (41).

Heather Langenkamp as Nancy Thompson in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Nancy is not one-dimensional. She is one of the most engaging and authentic horror film characters I have ever encountered and as a young teenager, I was able to identify with her as hero rather than the monster as Other.

In fact, Freddy wasn’t really much of an Other to me: he’s a white male murderer. While his sexuality is called into question in the later films, in the original, he makes heteronormative sexual overtures to the victims, especially to Nancy in the famous leer, “I’m your boyfriend now, Nancy” over the phone. He even makes a reference to rape when he threatens our female hero, “I'm going to split you in two.”

Again, as a feminist, I’ve had plenty of people think this would upset me too much to enjoy the film. And I agree that Freddy Krueger is disgusting and his sexual assaults against women in the films are one of the most despicable things about his personality. It’s also problematic that in the later and lesser films, these assaults are often played for laughs. In the first film, however, he wasn’t the wisecracking smartass that he evolved into but a truly grim and dangerous shadow figure. He wasn’t funny and the things he did to his victims weren’t either.

Returning to Nancy, she was and remains the female hero that I needed in my life as a feminist. While Clover claims that the Final Girl must be masculine, I always found Nancy very feminine. Yes, she remains a virgin and yes, she employs power tools to basically Home Alone her house in her final confrontation against Freddy but throughout the film, her femininity is never hidden or neglected. She giggles with her best friend during a sleepover; she refers to her father as “Daddy”; she sobs in the police station after the first death; she complains about her looks after spending nights staying awake; she even wears a pink outfit in her first dream sequence with Freddy. These are all signifiers that Nancy equals stereotypical femininity. Yet at the same time, she is our hero; she is the subject of the narrative and while Freddy is the first instigator of the plot, she propels the rest of it along.

She refuses to back away from Freddy. She is going to defeat him no matter what, while her boyfriend just seems nonchalant about the entire situation (and it should be noted that he famously is killed in bed not long after cracking a joke about leering at beauty pageant contestants). As Nancy declares, “I'm into survival.” No one else in the film seems to be.

“I take back every bit of energy I gave you. You're nothing. You're shit.”
Furthermore, she is only one who figures out Freddy’s true weakness. Like other sexual predators, Freddy’s power lies in the fear and control he holds over his victims. At the climax of their battle, Nancy turns her back on Freddy and says, “I take back every bit of energy I gave you. You're nothing. You're shit.” He is instantly powerless to hurt her in any way now.

This moment blew me away as a teenager and it still affects me today. Never before had I seen a female hero defeat a male tormentor by simply refusing to allow him to have any sway over her. I still see a lack of this in contemporary films and I wish we had more women like Nancy in the horror genre.

This Halloween, I invite all of you to take another look at the original Nightmare on Elm Street and cheer on Nancy with me. And whatever you do, don’t fall asleep.

Clover, Carol J. Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film.
            Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 1997. Print.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Feminism & Film. Ed. E. Ann
            Kaplan. Oxford: Oxford U P, 2000. Print.


  1. This was an excellent blog post - I thoroughly enjoyed it, and your reading of Nancy's iconic role in the genre. One other interesting point of note, is that although this was Wes Craven's third successive film to feature protagonists turning the tables on their aggressors and fighting back with ingeniously improvised traps, this was the first one where the act of empowerment didn't dehumanise the hero. In Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, Craven's thesis seemed to be that, in order to defend ourselves against attackers, we must throw off the shackles of civilisation and descend to our aggressors' level. Nancy may toy with Freddy to weaken him, but the ultimate act of destruction is to turn and walk away. A powerful message, expertly delivered, and an interesting evolution in Craven's storytelling.

    1. I am so sorry I only just saw this comment. Thank you so much for reading! You also make a very interesting point regarding the heroes' defense against the villains. A lot of 70s horror (Martin, even Halloween to a degree) tended to make that same argument as Craven's earlier works but I think that started to change in the 80s. Even Shelley Duvall in The Shining was an early example of the victim defeating or at least getting away from the bad guy without losing her humanity or rationale. Thanks again for the comment!!