Oct 23: A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)


A Nightmare on Elm Street is a slasher film set in the fictional town of Springwood, Ohio. The plot revolves around Alice and her teenage friends who are stalked and killed in their dreams by the omnipresent, blade-gloved Freddy Krueger. The reason behind Freddie’s rampage lies in the parents’ sinister secret from years ago.

The greatness of Craven’s film is that the identification with the characters doesn’t end with the movie’s final scene. Instead, it continues following the movie. As anyone whose had a nightmare after watching this film will attest, it’s the moment after you wake up from the terrifying dream that is potentially horrifying, as it is then that you’re put in the exact same position as the main characters.


As the title implies, A Nightmare on Elm Street (Nightmare) depicts Nightmare Disorder (ND); repeated awakenings with recollection of terrifying dreams, usually involving threats to survival such as being hunted by a child murderer. Upon awakening from her nightmares, Alice is alert and able to recall the dream in detail. These details differentiate ND from Sleep Terror Disorder. With sleep terrors, there is no detailed recall of the dream. While the above sleep disorders (parasomnias) are in the differential diagnosis for what ails the teenagers in the film, so too is a dyssomnia.

Dyssomnias are disturbances in the quality, amount, or timing of sleep. While a discussion of sleep stages is beyond the scope of this blog, the movie is about a recurrent nightmare (REM sleep) that invades the teenagers’ wakeful states. In this way, Nightmare is a metaphor for a dyssomnia defined by REM invasion into the beta state (wakefulness), specifically, Narcolepsy. Narcolepsy usually has its onset in adolescence (e.g. Alice), is characterized by hallucinations (seeing the boogeyman), and is genetically predisposed. Metaphorically, Alice and her friends carry the (genetic) burden of their parents.

While it is established that Freddie Krueger was a child murderer, the backstory is that he’s afflicted with Pedophilic Disorder. His having a paraphilia provides depth to Nancy’s character. Tina, Glen, and Rod are all murdered in bed, the location being symbolic of Freddie’s sexual disorder. While the history of Freddie as a child murderer is ultimately provided by her mother, Nancy’s discovery is metaphorical of the recovery of her lost memories. When Freddie is pursuing her, she runs to the basement of her home which looks distorted, a product of derealization likely due to anxiety. One focus of Nightmare is the distinction between dreams and reality. Given the film’s ability to transgress “the boundaries between the imaginary and real,” Nancy’s experience in the basement may be a nightmare (sleep) or a flashback

(wakefulness) that is cued by the situation. Specifically, she was likely imprisoned in Freddie’s boiler room (basement). Unlike the other characters, Nancy is “kept alive” by Freddie, and slowly learns the truth/etiology about her nightmares. Freddie considered her special in some respect. Nancy’s mother, Marge, kept Freddie’s hat and glove; bizarre behavior if Freddie was “just a child murderer.” Years prior, Marge likely had an affair with Fred Krueger (which would be consistent with her having separated from her husband in present day), but had a blind eye to her boyfriend’s conduct towards her daughter. Alice and her friends are victims of the sins of their parents.

Nightmare then is not merely about Sleep and Awake Disorders such as Nightmare Disorder or Narcolepsy. Alice’s sleep pathology is likely due to Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, having been a victim of childhood sexual abuse.



An American Crime is a drama based on the true story of Sylvia Likens by an Indianapolis housewife, and is told through a series of flashbacks of eye witnesses during 1966 trial of Gertrude Baniszewski.

The movie accounts the life of sisters, Sylvia and Jenny Likens after their father leaves them in the custody of Gertrude so that he can travel with the carnival through Indiana. The carnival has long been the setting for folkloric myths intertwined with mental illness. From the human novelty exhibition of Joseph Merrick (the Elephant Man), to Erik from Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel The Phantom of the Opera, both man and mystery are “one combined.” However, the carnival has never been as unsettling of a backdrop as the one it provides for An American Crime.


We are first introduced to Gertrude (Gerti) Nadine Baniszewski upon her returning from church when she tells a fellow parishioner that she “is better,” and that now, she can pick-up more ironing as she tries to make ends meet. While the conversation on the bus establishes a history of mental illness, we are not initially provided any further details.

In addition to psychiatric themes such as Nicotine Use Disorder, and possibly Pedophilic Disorder, the focus of the film is Gerti’s disorganized behavior (impulsively whipping Sylvia when payment is late) which is initially observed upon adopting the responsibility of Sylvia and Jenny Likens. Despite Mr. Likens’s $20 coming soon after, Gerti’s violent behavior continues and progresses to torture. Further evidence of her denial occurs when she confronts Sylvia, “you flirt with Andy’I saw you!” What was a neutral interaction between Sylvia and Gerti’s ex-boyfriend was imparted a fixed belief shrouded in jealousy. While Gerti demonstrates psychotic symptoms as described above, she likely does not have a primary psychotic disorder given that she appears cognitively intact. As a formal thought disorder, we would expect Gerti to demonstrate deficits in attention, memory or speech if she was afflicted with a psychotic illness such as Schizophrenia.

Later, Gerti discloses that she’s addicted to Phenobarbital and Chlorpheniramine (an antihistamine). Taken together, Gerti’s chronic cough is likely due to asthma (and possible gastroesophageal reflux disease, GERD), both of which are worsened by cigarette smoking. Her self-medicating with the above drugs exacerbated psychotic and antisocial traits that directly contributed to the torture, rape, and death of Sylvia Likens. Given that Coricidin contains acetaminophen in addition to chlorpheniramine, liver toxicity (rule-out encephalopathy) may have further contributed to Gerti’s behavior.

The film may also be viewed through the eyes of the other children, who choose not to intervene when Sylvia is repeatedly tortured. Here, 2 characters deserve special mention; Johnny and Ricky. Johnny demonstrates cruelty to animals and a motivated disregard for others’ safety. Given his age, 13, he is therefore likely afflicted with Conduct Disorder. Conversely, Ricky’s behavior is likely the result of the Stockholm syndrome; stress resulting in his loss of identity and consequent identification with the aggressors.

Finally, the film itself appears to be an artistic expression of the double bind, a family dynamic where a person receives simultaneous mixed messages. For example, a child receives two conflicting messages about their relationship when a mother tells her son that she loves him, while at the same time turning her head away in disgust. In An American Crime, the disturbing content is balanced by the equal and opposite music from a soundtrack that includes Petula Clark’s Downtown and Lesley Gore’s You Don’t Own Me.

Last week’s movie: The Return of the Living Dead (1985)
Next week’s movie: Wrong Turn (2003)