Essays Horror Film

Ancient nightmare, modern guise: Elements of Greek mythos in A Nightmare on Elm Street

The nightmare was real. Sitting in Ava Chitwood’s course on Greek civilization, my phone starts going off. Loudly. Dr. Chitwood was the kind of professor who inspired both fear and fascination. No doubt, those of us majoring in classics adored her but nobody, and I mean nobody, wanted to get on her bad side. I remember once advising a friend of mine, “if you’re late, just don’t go.” Truth be told, she just didn’t have time for any college-age bullshit. This was the kind of professor (icon) that would throw you out for yawning too loudly. So, you can imagine the fear, the panic, and utter desperation I felt as my phone starts ringing. There I am, tearing through my bag, praying she doesn’t kick me out, when my hand finally finds the phone. I silence it, drop it back in the bag, and pick up my pen. Dr. Chitwood is just standing there silently, eyes locked on me. “In 44 CE,” she continued, “…there was a sudden outburst of music.” She winked at me and, I swear to God, it felt like a wink from Fate, herself!

Dr. Chitwood passed away during my senior year. Her loss was felt by the entire department and I’m still reflecting on just how much she taught and inspired me. Having been a lover of Greek mythology my entire life, I felt like I’d been waiting to take her myth course since…well, forever. I had a sense, even in childhood, that Greek myths were far more than just bedtime stories. It occurred to me, even then, that these narratives were sacred stories, a mythos to be regarded with the utmost respect. Dr. Chitwood’s perspective appreciated them, as such. Her lectures carried a certain air of gravity, as though what she was there to teach were among the most important things you’d ever learn.

Then came the day she said, “Let’s talk about Fred Krueger.”

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The Greek gods are undying. That is to say, they are immortal. While they may not be worshipped on a grand scale in modernity, one doesn’t have to look far to find traces of them. Indeed, the archetypes they embody, their stories, their iconographies, all of what makes them distinct and divine personas can be found represented in modern art and cinema. The Evil Queen of Snow White (1937) is easily a visage of the darker aspect of the goddess Hera, sitting crowned on a throne of golden peacock feathers. That same angry goddess could also be said to be represented with her son, the god Hephaestus, in the guise of Debbie and Billy Loomis of the Scream (1996) franchise. Indeed, the horror genre may be an unexpected place to search for the glittering gods of Olympus, yet we find the darker halves of their inherent dualities represented, nonetheless. In mythology, the gods are always presented as dualities. The god of healing is also the god of plague. The goddess of love might also inspire disgust. And the messenger of the gods, known for his practical jokes, might also visit us in our dreams and escort us into the arms of Death. The day Dr. Chitwood brought up Freddy Krueger, she was referring to the messenger god Hermes, for comparisons between the two entities are many and striking.

Interestingly enough, A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) is set from its very prologue to facilitate a Greek tragedy. The “blood curse” on the children of Elm Street is akin to the curse on the House of Atreus. To summarise this essential bit of mythology: the descendants of King Tantalus are cursed for his having killed and cooked his own son as a feast for the gods. From then on, the proverbial “sins of the father” are visited upon the children, exacting tragedy all the way down to King Agamemnon of the Trojan War. Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter, Iphigenia, to ensure safe travel for his army on their journey to Troy. For this act, he is in turn murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra. To exact justice for Agamemnon’s murder, their son, Orestes, kills Clytemnestra. Seeking justice as a victim of matricide, Clytemnestra’s spirit then returns with the power of the Erinyes to torment Orestes. While the Erinyes, or Furies, are separate entities from Clytemnestra, herself, it is at her beckoning and will that they are set against her son. Clytemnestra is often described as a Fury-ghost, herself, with the line between her/their vengeance blurred. I would direct the reader to Jane Ellen Harrison’s Prolegomena to Greek Religion (1908) for a really fascinating discussion on ghosts and bogeys of the ancient Greek world. She writes, “The Erinyes are from the beginning to end of the old order, implacable, vindictive; they know nothing of Orphic penance and purgatory; as ‘angels of torment’ they go to people a Christian Hell.”

In A Nightmare on Elm Street, we see these elements of generational curses and angry vengeance-ghosts. After all, Freddy attacks the children of his transgressors. But, our wise-cracking slasher is more than just an angry spirit. By Dr. Chitwood’s identification, he’s more akin to a god.

Adolf Hirémy-Hirschl, Souls on the Banks of the Acheron
Hermes conducting the souls of the dead in Adolf Hirémy-Hirschl’s The Souls of Acheron (1898)

Hermes is the messenger of the gods. He is also the god of travellers, thieves, and shepherds. He alone of the Twelve Olympians may travel between earth and the Underworld. It is his purview to guide the spirits of the dead to the shores of the River Styx, where they are carried into the afterlife by the ferryman, Charon. In this function, he was referred to as Psychopompos. It might be easier to identify Hermes simply as the god of liminal space. He is the god of spaces that are “in-between.” As a messenger, he would be invoked by travellers for safe passage. As one might imagine, travel was a dangerous activity in the ancient world. Herms, pillar-like sculptures erected at crossroads (again, liminal space), were meant to ward off evil, especially for those travelling by. So, while modern depictions of Hermes might focus on his more likeable, jovial characteristics, this was not a god seen in light by the ancient Greeks. For, in addition to luck and safe passage, he was also associated with the fear of death, the mercilessness of the thief, and all the superstitions represented by the crossroads. In fact, the Greeks viewed sleep as a sort of crossroads between life and death. The ancients believed that gods might communicate with us through our dreams. As such, mortals might encounter Hermes in their dreams…or nightmares.

Freddy comes armed with a finger-blades, while Hermes carries a staff (the Caduceus) that can compel one to sleep. Metaphorically, it might be said that Freddy also commands this power. “Whatever you do, don’t fall asleep!” Both figures, however, share an iconic bit of imagery that is inseparable from either: the wide-brimmed hat. For Freddy, it’s a dirty fedora, while Hermes wears the petasos, a traveler’s cap. In fact, Hermes cap was winged and, along with his winged sandals, granted him his ability of speedy flight. It’s interesting to note that Freddy’s hat is the first object to cross over from the dream world, when Nancy pulls it into reality. Travelling hat, indeed. Aside from iconography, Freddy Krueger and Hermes share a strikingly similar disposition, one prone to trickery and humour.

Hermes is a “trickster god.” He shares this designation with other deities, such as the Norse god, Loki, and the Egyptian god, Set. His reputation for defying divine order is well established, as early as the very day of his birth. Operating under the cover of night, he steals the cattle of his brother god, Apollo, slaughters two of them, then hides the evidence and denies all knowledge of the incident. Zeus was said to have been greatly amused by this plot. While this may read as unimportant, in the grand scheme of things, Walter Burkert points this out as a metaphor for violated taboo. In other words, Hermes breaks the rules and establishes himself as a trickster. One immediately recognises these characteristics in the ruthless but undoubtedly funny Freddy Krueger. While intended to be a more sinister force, Freddy is known for his playful, if not perverse, taunting behaviour.

Freddy Krueger is a thief in the night. He comes in the cover of dreams, commits his deeds, and leaves no trace of his supernatural origin. His claiming of “his children” is a chilling comparison to Hermes’ stolen flock. In a manner of speaking, Freddy is no less a shepherd than Hermes. While the god claims livestock as appropriate sacrifice, Freddy, in full Erinys-mode, claims the souls of the children of Elm Street. As such, I believe that he is an appropriate modern representation of the fear embodied by Hermes’ darker half. That being said, I feel it is important to emphasise that, by and large, neither ancient nor modern practitioner of Hellenic spirituality would worship Hermes in the form of a clawed serial killer. Freddy Krueger is not an avatar of the deity, nor do I mean to conflate the two. With this writing, I mean only to compare the fear Freddy embodies to the anxieties Hermes might have represented in the ancient psyche. I would also like to note that this little bit of writing has left out much detail in descriptions of mythological events and personas. If curiosity so inspires, I would recommend to the reader Edith Hamilton’s Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes (1942), Walter Burkert’s Greek Religion (1977), the Oresteia of Aeschylus or, of course, the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer.

The flaming Doric-style Greek temple at the end of New Nightmare

I write this article in the midst of a Nightmare on Elm Street marathon (no pun intended) with my partner, who hadn’t yet seen the films. When we got to New Nightmare (1994), he was intrigued by the idea of how Freddy might find his way into the real world. I have to admit, I’m also quite partial to the idea that Freddy is an ancient being taking on the guise of a modern nightmare. While New Nightmare has Freddy as a sort of dream demon, I suspect Wes Craven would appreciate Dr. Chitwood’s Greek comparison…and I have a bit of evidence. In the end of the film, Heather (playing Heather playing Nancy) and her son find themselves in trapped in Freddy’s nightmare realm. The set is a seamless blend of ancient motifs with Freddy’s classic iconography. And, as the camera zooms out, it is revealed that the set is contained inside of a Doric-style Greek temple. Perhaps Dr. Chitwood didn’t dream it up after all.

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