The link between genre films and how they relate to the social and political context they derive from has long since been a generative topic of discussion. This piece will discuss Robin Wood’s theory of the ‘American Nightmare’ in relation to The Last House on the Left and then if we can still see an American Nightmare in later films such as Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street.
The end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s was a turbulent time in American history. While the optimism of the early sixties began to fade with events such as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the beginning of the Vietnam war, it was extinguished by 1969, when the Manson family murders took place. Events like the Kent State shooting, where the National Guard opened fire on protesters (History 2018), further challenged America’s self-concept. For a country with a core belief in optimism expressed through the sacralised American dream, it was a moment of crisis.
Film critic Robin Wood connected this period of American history with horror films being produced in the country at the time. Wood conceptualised horror movies as our ‘collective nightmares’ (Wood 1986). Elaborating further, he theorised that horror movies represented a conflict between normality and the other, the other being represented by the monster. He proposed that the horror movies of the late sixties to early seventies were an illustration of the American nightmare, arguing that the turmoil of the period was mediated through film. The difference was that American film now featured monsters and nightmare scenarios which were distinctly American.
One of the films Wood points explicitly to as an example of the American nightmare is Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972). Inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960), the film depicts the brutal rape and murder of two young women, and the subsequent revenge enacted on their killers by the women’s family. When watching The Last House on the Left, I was struck by the difference in the film’s style from the glossy, major studio horror movies being produced today. The horror of The Last House on the Left lies in its gritty, realistic style, and its unflinching gaze, never allowing the audience distance from the extreme violence on screen. This lack of respite makes the audience feel part of the violent events depicted on screen, unwillingly present for a horrific event that they are powerless to influence. Even when the revenge comes, the violence enacted on the perpetrators by Mari’s parents never feels cathartic, just desperate and sad.
The differences between The Virgin Spring and The Last House on the Left further illuminate Wood’s conceptualisation of the American nightmare. The lone victim in The Virgin Spring was repeatedly portrayed as the picture of innocence, their errand to take candles to a church. There is a marked difference in the construction of the victims in The Last House on the Left, who were on their way to a rock concert where the band sacrificed animals on stage. Mari is given a peace symbol necklace while the family discuss her attire; she uses an unusually violent metaphor, threatening to “get some sandpaper” when her father asks if she is wearing a bra. While this could be understood as merely foreshadowing the later violence, looking at the movie in the terms laid out by Wood, it could be said that the gang did not bring brutality into the Collingwood house; it was already there. We can also look at the house as the ‘terrible place’, conceptualised by Carol Clover (1992), the family home which should be a place of security and safety transforms into a place of violence. Together, this could almost certainly be said to mediate the events of seventies America, further emphasising the turmoil felt in the 1970s.
There are other changes from the narrative of The Virgin Spring that could support Wood’s reading of The Last House on the Left. The assailants have transformed from goat-herders to a criminal gang evocative of the Manson family. The peace symbol necklace again comes into play. Mari is wearing it as she is murdered, and the gang then takes it. Academics such as Jeffrey Podoshen (2018) have suggested that the necklace “signifies the peace and love present in the 1960s that has now ended in the more turbulent early 1970s”. The violence and death inflicted on Mari by the gang could be said to be evocative of the way the Manson family were have said to ended the sixties in an ideological sense (LA Times 2017).
Perhaps the most political statement of The Last House on the Left is the equivalence Craven draws between the gang and Mari’s parents. Although the violence from the parents is reactionary, both groups enact acts of extreme violence. Certainly Becker (2006) argues that this is Craven’s overt political statement of the film, and that he draws the comparison between the violent acts carried out by the parents, and the violent acts carried out by America in Vietnam. This reading of the film positions The Last House on the Left as an essential text concerning the American nightmare.
While Wood believed in the revolutionary potential of horror movies in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he did not see the same in the popular, ‘slasher’ horror films of the 1980s, which he reduced to “teenagers being endlessly punished for having sex” (Senses of Cinema 2001). Even Craven himself discussed what he believed to be the decline of horror, pointing to a lack of studio interest in the genre due to the pressure to put out ‘positive’ images (Sharrett 1985).
These changes in the genre were ushered in with the release of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), a glossy, polished film entirely at odds with the exploitation horror of The Last House on the Left. Whereas the power in The Last House on the Left derived from never allowing the audience to look away from the unimaginable, Carpenter tightly contained the horror in Halloween to develop tension, expertly controlling the pivotal point of release. While The Last House on the Left released that which was repressed in the American psyche, Halloween was a film constructed primarily to entertain.
However, not all critics saw later American horror films in this way. At first glance, Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) has more in common with Halloween than his previous work. It is still very clearly a horror film, but one with slick production values and more narrative similarities to Halloween, both incorporating a grotesque figure picking off a group of young teens one by one. A Nightmare on Elm Street follows a female protagonist, Nancy, as she battles an assailant who can only harm her while she is asleep.
Looking specifically at Nancy’s arc, some have rejected Wood’s appraisal of 1980s slasher horror as unimportant and lacking political message. Christensen (2011) has pointed to Nancy as a significant feminist figure in horror film, particularly in comparison with Halloween‘s Laurie Strode. He argues that among other aspects of her characterisation, Nancy’s active resistance towards Freddy compared with Laurie’s submissiveness makes her a stronger model of feminism than Laurie, whom he considers somewhat anti-feminist. I disagree with his assertions, as I feel it is reductive to compare female characters in this way. It is simplistic to view feminism as a set of attributes that can be checked off a list rather than a complicated, multi-faceted movement consisting of different waves throughout history that not even feminist theorists can unanimously define. However, what is important here is the understanding that horror films of the 1980s primarily reference the political through the personal.
Wood’s assertion that horror no longer mediated political events in the same way it did in the 1970s could be accepted with caveats, but it is somewhat more challenging to argue that the films of the 1980s are apolitical. In the specific case of A Nightmare on Elm Street, it is not that the film has nothing to say, and there is an argument to be made that more serious topics are being addressed than the ‘teens being punished’ narrative Wood has associated with the genre. Craven is still using the American family as a device to comment on America itself. In The Last House on the Left, young women were brutally raped and murdered as a device to discuss the plight of America in the 1970s. Conversely, A Nightmare on Elm Street covers thematic ground that was of vital importance in the 1980s; the breakdown of the nuclear family through divorce, the role of women, and the legacy parents pass on to their children. If we go beyond A Nightmare on Elm Street, Carol Clover’s Men, Women and Chain Saws (1992) points to the final girl of the slasher movies as a figure worthy of evaluation from a feminist perspective.
Perhaps the change in focus is illuminated when looking at the political factors presenting themselves in the 1970s. Ronald Regan, elected president in 1981, embraced individualist policies, de-emphasising the importance of government and collectivism (Washington Post 1991). Perhaps the most significant distinction between A Nightmare on Elm Street and the films of the American Nightmare is the focus on individualism. Even Nancy’s active resistance that has been held up as a bastion of feminism could be said to be an example of the actions of an individual, taking charge of her destiny while the institutions who are supposed to provide security and support fail her. It is not a new theme in Craven’s work; it was present in The Last House on the Left, where tonally jarring scenes depicted the failure of the police to help the girls, but it is perhaps more overt here.
If we take Wood’s assessment of the 1970s as a time of turmoil and change in concert with the individualism so prevalent in the 1980s, it may be that the idea of what it meant to be American had changed so much there was no longer a collective America to disseminate through film. This criticism of Wood’s theory is similar to criticism of Kracauer’s public psyche theory of film (Kracauer 1947). Kracauer asserts that film is predictive as it mediates the collective psyche of the country from which it has emerged. On Kracauer, Carroll (1998) argues that it is impossible to judge the collective psyche of a nation when such a thing is nebulous and impossible to define due to a lack of a shared consensus, which is a criticism that can undoubtedly be levelled at Wood’s American Nightmare.
In my view, Robin Wood’s American Nightmare is essential concerning the cycle of 1970s horror films that he identifies in his conceptualisation of the theory. The connections Wood makes are evident in the film texts, specifically in The Last House on the Left as discussed here. Where I disagree is his assertion that the horror movies of the 1980s were not political. While I agree that they were not political in the same way, there are critical political applications, as I have discussed here specifically concerning A Nightmare on Elm Street. It is not that the American Nightmare has disappeared from film; it is just that the nature of the nightmare has changed.
In light of this, it would seem that the way the social and political contexts are mediated in the film is unique to the era in question, and we must view films alongside their cultural context to elucidate political meaning. There are interesting implications for the horror films currently being produced in the political atmosphere of the 2010s, a time that many would describe as tumultuous. Many critics have pointed to films such as Get Out (2017) as indicative of a new wave of horror that effectively mediates current events; it remains to be seen if these films will be given the same importance as the films of Wood’s American Nightmare in the future.
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