Welcome to the seventh part of our ongoing series, examining all the ways that the artistic and entertainment communities have been trying to warn America that Donald Trump (or someone like him) was up to no good.
In this installment of our series, we will examine a pop culture icon who, in his own special way, can educate us about why people have been so drawn to Donald Trump, and about the ways he can ultimately be defeated.
The somewhat-unexpected source? Freddy Krueger, the trash-talking villain of the horror series A Nightmare on Elm Street. Yes, in this election, we are living through the plot arc of a horror movie — which has somehow become a reality.
Freddy Krueger (played by Robert Englund) was a ghost that haunted 1980s suburbia; a serial child-killer who, after a lynch mob of neighborhood parents burned him alive — he had been released due to a technical legal defect in his initial arrest — became an even more powerful spirit who stalked and murdered teenagers in their dreams.
The movies represented the seedy underside of suburban life: dysfunctional and broken families, alcoholism and other substance abuse, and the secrets that people refuse to tell each other but gnaw away at our existence.
Freddy’s creator Wes Craven passed away last year from cancer, at age 76. During an appearance on Dr. Ruth’s talk show in the late 1980s, he explained the draw of horror for the human psyche:
“Since very primitive times, men and women have always tried to wear the costume of the thing that frightens them the most. In many cultures, they wear a tiger skin…it’s a rite of passage, that you feel you control the worst fears of your life. That’s what has to do with becoming an adult, is that you feel that the most frightening thing that can happen to you, you can somehow have control over it or have power over it. So when you wear the Freddy Krueger mask or T-shirt, you somehow have control over Freddy Krueger — he becomes something you can joke around about, instead of being afraid of.”
But in the same interview, fellow horror auteur Clive Barker (creator of the Hellraiser series) chimed in with an alternative perspective:
“I think it’s really important that we understand, these monsters are actually very attractive to us. I take what Wes is saying about wearing the Freddy Krueger mask — getting power over Krueger — but there’s also a part of us that actually wants to be these monsters. These monsters are very powerful figures. They’re things, they’re creatures who have powers that maybe we want. I would love to be able to fly; I would love to be able to turn into a wolf; and live forever; those are wonderful attributes. And so when I was a kid, Dracula was a very attractive, very sexy figure — I would like to be him.”
Barker’s insight about horror, as a wish-fulfillment of the viewers’ worst instincts, actually helps to explain the allure of Trump: When he was mercilessly insulting his fellow Republicans, and wiping the floor with such party luminaries as Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Lindsey Graham, people liked him. And because lots of people genuinely liked to watch the things Trump was doing, the media kept covering him.
But when Trump won the Republican nomination, the campaign transformed into the final reels of a horror movie: The audience (and the media) might have admired the monster before — and might have wanted to live vicariously through his carefree, chaotic deeds and his total lack of inhibition or shame — but they don’t want him to actually win.
And that is the part of A Nightmare On Elm Street we are all living right now, as we wait for a hero to rescue us before the terrible monster wins everything.
The opening scene of A Nightmare on Elm Street featured the shadowy villain stalking his first victim Tina (played by Amanda Wyss) through a mysterious boiler room before springing up to frighten her — only for her to wake up to her home life, where her clothes have been torn by Freddy’s claws. Her mother initially believed Tina did this to herself during a nightmare, telling her to cut her nails, and then went back to bed with some strange, drunken man. Thus, Freddy’s role as a representation of the broken home was firmly established.
Freddy also had a habit of exacting poetic killings upon his victims, adapting to their own vices or inner demons. This trend first began in A Nightmare on Elm Street Part II: Freddy’s Revenge — an eerie, under-appreciated piece of horror cinema from the 1980s, with subtextual themes involving the young male protagonist’s struggle with his repressed homosexuality. (In that more socially conservative era, and with the HIV/AIDS epidemic killing many thousands of people — and with its causes still not fully understood by the public — this was still a topic that dared not speak its name in a mainstream movie.)
In one scene, when a gym teacher is about to molest the teenage boy in the school’s shower facility, Freddy instead comes along and strips the coach naked, whipping him bloody with a towel before finally slashing him to death.
In A Nightmare on Elm Street Part III: Dream Warriors, Freddy also fought a tough girl named Taryn, who was actually doing pretty well against him. But then, Freddy distracted her with an appeal to her own weakness: Drug addiction.
“Let’s get high,” he said, as his fingers turned into a set of eight syringes. The track marks on Taryn’s arms then became puckering mouths, as if eager to suckle on milk. She was helpless to fight back. And as he drove the needles in, killing her, he commented: “Ooh, what a rush.”
So what does this have to do with Donald Trump, you might ask? Everything! A huge aspect of Trump’s appeal has come from insulting his opponents — and more profoundly, from insulting them in ways that could be so incredibly devastating, but that normal candidates would regard as too outrageous to touch.
Trump provided one genuine service to the American body politic: During the Republican primary campaign, he directly took on Jeb Bush and his “low energy” candidacy — but he also went after former President George W. Bush for his failure to protect America on 9/11. This attack drowned out almost 15 years of talk from the Bush family, including Jeb, and other members of their coterie who propagated the myth that Bush 43 had “kept America safe.”
“When you talk about George Bush — I mean, say what you want, the World Trade Center came down during his time… He was president, okay?”
Indeed, there was something seriously wrong with our political discourse that it took Donald Trump to bring into the open that Bush failed on 9/11. It was a dirty fact of life that nobody had wanted to acknowledge — and it took a monster to get people to talk about it.
After months of The Donald smacking around the Bushes, Jeb answered back at a debate last February in South Carolina: “While Donald Trump was building a reality-TV show, my brother was building a security apparatus to keep us safe — and I’m proud of what he did. And he’s had the gall to go after my brother—”
Trump interrupted: “The World Trade Center came down during his brother’s reign — remember that. That’s not keeping us safe.”
The GOP debate audience might’ve been booing Trump, but the voters were clearly starting to think differently. The following Saturday, Trump won the South Carolina Republican primary — while Jeb Bush, whose campaign and super PAC had raised over $100 million, came in at a pathetic fourth place, and that very night dropped out of the campaign.
Or there was the time in February, when he mocked Marco Rubio for not being able to get through his 2013 State of the Union response without lunging for water, dubbing “Marco” a “choke artist.” And to that, Trump began splashing a bottle of water around exclaiming: “It’s Rubio!” He then took a sip himself, and then imitated Rubio gasping desperately.
And let’s not forget one of Freddy’s signature superpowers: Trash talk — lots of trash talk. Among his favorite tactics was to taunt his victims (especially the female ones) by addressing them as “bitch.”
This trope kicked off in Dream Warriors, when Freddy killed a young victim named Jennifer — a troubled and lonely girl, who aspired to escape her suburban life for Hollywood TV stardom, by smashing her head into a television set.
“This is it, Jennifer: your big break in TV,” he told the screaming girl, as his head protruded from the TV, and he grabbed her with a set of metallic arms. “Welcome to prime time, b***h!”
And from there, a Krueger tradition of using this misogynistic slur was born.
Trump himself is of course famous not only for his insults — but for insulting women. This became clear at the very first Republican debate back in August, when Fox News host Megyn Kelly first called him out:
“You’ve called women you don’t like ‘fat pigs,’ ‘dogs,’ ‘slobs,’ and ‘disgusting animals,'” Kelly said, as the audience was already laughing. “Your Twitter account—”
“Only Rosie O’Donnell,” Trump interrupted — and the audience gave a massive round of applause. “Thank you,” he said.
Kelly tried to continue: “For the record, it was well beyond Rosie O’Donnell.”
“Yes, I’m sure it was,” he said.
This later led to Trump’s infamous comment about Kelly, when he said on CNN: “You know, you could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her — wherever,” a comment widely interpreted as attributing her tough questions and assertiveness to her menstrual cycle.
Even after Fox eventually ended the long war with Trump by arranging a softball interview between The Donald and Kelly, Trump’s storied record of insulting women has borne fruit: his record unpopularity among women voters, pushing even some Republican women to support Hillary Clinton instead.
But back to Freddy: A pivotal moment in the original movie came when hero Nancy Thompson (played by Heather Langenkamp) demanded some answers, and. her mother Marge (played by Ronee Blakly), an aloof alcoholic, finally confessed the truth about who Krueger was and what had happened to him.
“A bunch of us parents got together [and] tracked him down after they let him out. We found him in old abandoned boiler room, where he used to take his kids. We took gasoline and poured it all around the place, and made a trail of it out the door then lit the whole thing up and watched it burn,” Marge said. “But he can’t get you now. He’s dead, honey, because Mommy killed him. I even took his knives.”
And as Marge revealed that the knife-glove had been kept in a corner of their furnace, Nancy looked on in horror at the realization that part of the deep, dark secret the parents had all been keeping implicated even herself: Freddy’s murder weapon was inside her own house.
And that is what Trump represents: The deep, dark secrets that America has been keeping from itself, and which Americans have been keeping from each other.
But don’t worry, the horror movies give us cause for hope, too. Because in these horror movies, there is another pivotal character who plays opposite the monster: The “Final Girl”; the hero of the movie who can, after all the mayhem wrought by the killer, find the strength of character to defeat him.
In the original movie, the Final Girl was Nancy. After the deaths of her friends, Nancy came up with a plot: She would draw Krueger out into the real world — beyond the fantasy lands in which he held power — and into the hidden traps she was setting for him.
And after a chase through the house, in which Freddy was pummeled by all the traps — but then apparently killed Nancy’s mother — there came a final confrontation. Nancy realized that even this could be a dream, too. But then she comprehended a whole new power against Freddy: To call him out.
“It’s too late, Krueger. I know the secret now: This is just a dream; you’re not alive; this whole thing is just a dream. I want my mother and friends again.” Nancy declared.
“I take back every bit of energy I gave you,” she said, dismissively turning her back to Krueger. “You’re nothing. You’re shit.”
And we too have a Final Girl, the hero who can defeat Donald Trump just as he is on the cusp of victory: Hillary Clinton.
Similar to the way Nancy confronted Freddy, so too has Hillary Clinton called out Trump. It was Hillary who delivered a stirring speech a month ago: “Donald Trump’s ideas aren’t just different; they are dangerously incoherent. They’re not even really ideas — just a series of bizarre rants, personal feuds, and outright lies.”
And in another speech, she confronted the sheer absurdity of Trump’s economic ideas — but this line really applied to everything he has said: “I’d have my researchers and my speechwriters send me information. And then I’d say to them, ‘Really?! He really said that?'”
And in the way that Nancy set traps for Freddy, Hillary is hoisting Trump upon his own hypocrisy: “And interestingly, Trump’s own products are made in a lot of countries that aren’t named ‘America’… And I’d love for him to explain how all that fits with his talk about ‘America First.'”
So all of this does give us a reason for optimism. Even as Trump has marauded across the political landscape, there can still be a hero with the power to stop him.
But let’s not be too confident. Whenever Freddy Krueger was defeated, and the damage he had inflicted was repaired, he always found a way at the end of these movies to emerge again from out of the shadows. Nancy emerged to find her mother and friends seemingly alive and well, but it turned out Freddy still wasn’t finished.
So remember this: If (or when) Donald Trump is finally vanquished in November, the forces that he represents will still be there, lurking within America — and we must all remain vigilant.
This is the seventh in our series “Pop Culture Warned Us About Trump.”