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Dreams, Reality, and Freddy Krueger

One of the oldest philosophical cliches is this: “How do you know that you are not dreaming right now?” That one is right up there with the old “If a tree falls in the forest, and nobody is around to hear it, does it really make a sound?” Like a lot of philosophical questions, this one seems pointlessly airy-fairy, as if there’s no reason anyone should ever spend time thinking about it. However, there is one overlooked use of such philosophical concepts that proves to be very useful: art! A lot of art, and by extension movies, are based on the premise of playing with philosophical ideas like this one.

One such movie is Nightmare On Elm Street. The whole point of the movie is to toy with the audience’s perception. What is false and what is real? In a way, this movie is very similar to Inception, because both of them are movies that question the distinction between dreams and reality. At what point do you know that you’re not dreaming? At what point do you know that you’re awake? Can you doubt that you are awake right now? Is it possible that you’re dreaming right now? Could you be in the middle of a dream reading these very words?

Movies like Inception and The Matrix take this in a purely intellectual or sociopolitical direction. The Matrix calls us to question how much of our everyday life is a “dream” imposed on us by the institutions and cultures we grew up with. How much of what we do is what we really want to do, and how much of it is a game that we’re all playing without knowing it? Keep in mind that “matrix” is the Latin word for game. It’s an intellectual exercise.

Nightmare On Elm Street, however, takes a very different tack. The question is this: if you cannot distinguish between dreams and reality, then how do you know that your current reality will not become a nightmare? How do you know that this life you’re now living could not turn into something inescapable and hellish? If you were trapped in an eternal nightmare, what could you possibly do? This is the really frightening thing about the franchise, because it takes us out of control by sticking us in a nightmare that becomes reality. The actor who played Freddy Krueger in the original film has remarked, many times, that Freddy represents neglect, especially childhood neglect. This makes sense in context, because Freddy is a bad thing that happens to children who have nobody to care for them. This sense of being without a caregiver, or being without protection, is something experienced by many people in their childhood nightmares.

Art is much more powerful when it is undergirded by a deep philosophical concept. This is one reason that you still so many Nightmare On Elm Street t shirts.


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