The Real Horror of ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’:The Mental Healthcare System

Television Set displaying the Title Card for A Nightmare on Elm Street, decorated with props from the film.
Ian Janas

Mental illness representation doesn’t have the best track record in film in general, let alone horror films.  While rarely malicious, mental illness has more often than not been a lazy writer’s crutch when it comes to creating villains.  Sometimes this can be done tastefully, for example: Norman Bates is almost as much of a victim of his other personality as anyone, Psycho was one of the first mainstream movies to give any air of sympathy to the mentally ill, two and a half decades later Nightmare stepped up and made it a focal point.

Nightmare On Elm Street is a much smarter, more progressive series than people give it credit for.  Plenty of people give the second film props for having a gay coded main character LONG before that was a safe move – as they should, but most people overlook the series’s overarching theme – when you strip back the fake blood and fever dream visuals, you find an unparalleled metaphor for not just mental illness, but the way society treats the mentally ill. 

Though the mental illness metaphor wasn’t completely fleshed out until later entries, even in a vacuum the first film does an admirable job representing the struggle mentally ill people face,  not just the literal struggle against illness itself, represented by Freddy Krueger; but also in the way that society prefers to ignore these issues until they reach a breaking point and kids start dying, most prominently represented by Nancy’s treatment by her mother.  Even after the first few deaths, the parents of Springwood chalk up their children’s nightmares to overactive imaginations.

Once things start to get more serious, Nancy’s mother responds by placing bars on the windows, closing her off from the support of her boyfriend Glen (portrayed by Johnny Depp in one of his first ever film roles), and deals with the situation primarily by drinking.  It’s only when drunk that Nancy’s mother even acknowledges Krueger is real, but insists that he’s not a threat since the parents of Springwood killed him: just as many parents expect their children to swallow their depression and forget about it,  because it worked for them way back when, and when suppression doesn’t work, they don’t want to have a difficult conversation about it.  Ultimately, after losing her mother and friends, Nancy narrowly survives her encounter with Krueger through her own self determination,  recognizing him as a parasite, and starving him of the fear and vulnerability he needed to do real harm. 

Johnny Depp as Glen, Nancy's Boyfriend
Nightmare 3: Freddy dangles a child from the roof of the Psych ward.

 It’s especially tragic since, as shown in later entries, if the parents had taken their kids’ struggle seriously to begin with, far fewer would have died, for example, in  A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, in which Nancy has become an intern at a psychiatric facility, wanting to give teens dealing with trauma the support she didn’t have. Once Freddy comes for them, she encourages them to fight back and support each other against him, and this is surprisingly effective.

Unfortunately, after one of the kids is trapped in a coma by Freddy, Nancy is relieved of duty by the old guard at the facility, who, like the parents of Springwood, simply dismiss Freddy as a shared delusion, and elect to ignore the pleas of the kids as they’re picked off one by one, ultimately the main kids are only able to survive through each other’s support.

It’s interesting that as silly and over the top as the series gets, for the most part it never seems to forget the true horror of going through a struggle that nobody else can see, especially when people you expect to protect you- parents, teachers, doctors, actively refuse to see it.

Thoughts on the film from one of today’s troubled youths.

It’s unfortunate that Nightmare is basically just lumped in with the other slashers of its day, I love Halloween and Friday the 13th as much as the next guy but it they are very much just low brow horror movies just made to fill seats, and while Nightmare certainly became silly later in the series, it never stopped making an effort to say something. Nightmare resonates really well with today’s teens, I showed it to my younger sister and she was incredibly impressed with its depiction of mental health, even compared to modern films. 

Nightmare may not always get the respect it deserves,  but its enduring popularity is a testament to how much it continues to resonate with new generations. And many of the people who rediscover the film become lifelong fans, the cult following is strong enough that its fan sites are evidently still able to pay the bills, as this absolute relic from the late 90s,, demonstrates.

screen displaying, an early fan site that remains active

All in all, this is a film series worth remembering for a multitude of reasons. It deserves all the hype it gets and more, not just for entertainment value, but for its social commentary.