Get ready for Freddy. Recurring Nightmares is a 10-week look at the entirety of the Nightmare on Elm Street series that started on Friday, Sept. 2, 2022, and runs through Halloween 2022. (Yeah, only nine movies, but also one TV series; the rhyme does go, “Nine, ten, never sleep again,” after all.) It will run parallel to other series we’re running in late summer / early autumn, including another round of No Sleep October essays. Every week will feature an essay about a piece of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise in chronological order, written by Midwest Film Journal contributors and staff writers. Some have seen the whole franchise. Some are novices and neophytes, jumping into the movies without watching the rest of them to offer unvarnished thoughts … or, as Freddy would say, “How sweet. Fresh meat.”
“My generation is gone. I have no friends my age. I want people to know their history. I want them to at least hear from somebody that the way the world is now, it wasn’t this way five minutes ago. They need to know what happened, and we need to keep telling them, because if we don’t keep telling them, there are a whole lot of people who would like to put them back in a box and put them back in their place where they belong. The world has changed since 1985, and you know why it’s changed? It’s changed because of people like me, who stand up and tell their story and say this is what happened to me.”Mark Patton — Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street (2019)
We’ve all had something we wanted to hide from others. Whether it’s a shameful secret, some physical imperfection, questioning a part of your identity, or even just harboring a general crippling anxiety as you move through the world (Hi! That’s me.). It’s always there, that real or intangible fear, feeding your deepest insecurities that if anyone were to find out, if people were able to see who you really are, they wouldn’t accept you. So we hide whatever that thing is, so desperate to bury it in the hopes that it never makes its way to the surface.
But it always does. We can only hide for so long before we have to speak our truth — even, or especially, when that truth is Freddy Krueger trying to take over your body.
A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge was released just a year after the first film in the Elm Street legacy left audiences begging for more. As Wes Craven wasn’t interested in continuing the story of his monster in the boiler room haunting kids while they sleep, the torch was passed to director Jack Sholder, and right out of the gate, this film was breaking all the rules.
Who doesn’t love a horror sequel? I have a soft spot for them because, if nothing else, I will always eat up new content from the things I love. Even when they don’t necessarily stick the landing, they still contribute something valuable to the lore. Friday the 13th: Part 2 introduced potato sack-head Jason, Scream 2 gave us its very own Mrs. Voorhees and a delightfully unhinged Timothy Olyphant, 28 Weeks Later teaches us a very good lesson about why you don’t break quarantine, Saw II (rightfully) said Amanda Young supremacy, The Conjuring 2 essentially invented romance, and Aliens is maybe the perfect movie. Lots to unpack here, I know. But for now I just want to talk about one underrated and frankly overlooked sequel.
Following the events of the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, Final Boy Jesse Walsh (Mark Patton) and his family have just moved into Nancy Thompson’s old house, and Jesse is having nightmares about a guy with knives for fingers who wants to take over his body. You know, normal teen boy stuff. Except those nightmares very rapidly become real over the course of the film, as Jesse enters into a battle with his inner demons — and Freddy — to maintain his bodily autonomy. As is tradition, the horror genre largely deals in putting female characters in peril, transforming them from victim to Final Girl through a gratuitous show of vulnerability and perseverance — a sort of blood-and-gore version of the transition from girl to womanhood. So how would that work with a male lead? Many might not have predicted a storyline about taking Freddy out of the dream world and into the body of a teenage boy for an on-the-surface possession story that’s really just a thinly veiled metaphor for coming out instead of coming of age.
Freddy’s Revenge has been affectionately (and not so affectionately) called the gayest horror film of the 1980s, which tracks. I mean, the movie starts out with Jesse waking up from a nightmare, covered in sweat and wearing only his underwear. Horror movies are often known for their unnecessary and exploitative female nudity, so in embracing the full spirit of the genre, the nudity in this one is almost entirely male. There’s also an early scene where Jesse and his friend get into a tussle during P.E. class that results in Jesse’s pants getting pulled down — and they continue to roll around on the ground with his bare backside hanging out. And in one of the movie’s most heavily criticized moments, Jesse is sent to his room and breaks out into spontaneous dance that includes an early form of twerking and suggestive hip thrusts with a phallic-shaped object that Jesse tries hastily to cover when he’s abruptly walked in on by his friend (and would-be girlfriend) Lisa (Kim Myers).
For years, screenwriter David Chaskin feigned ignorance at the story’s queer undertones. But in Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street, Patton’s 2019 documentary about the film, Chaskin was quoted as having claimed that while there was some intentional subtext, it was intended as homophobic rather than homoerotic. The problem with that is the idea of making an intentionally homophobic movie where the main character kills because he’s queer, during a time in history when being seen as gay was both career- and life-threatening, and the popular opinion was to blame the gay community at large for AIDS. For all of the little moments in the film that seem suggestive but mostly harmless, there are others when the intention of a scene feels less harmless. Barely 20 minutes into the film, Grady (Robert Rusler) makes a comment about a teacher frequenting S&M clubs and how he likes pretty boys like Jesse, a direct reflection of society’s general opinion toward gay men at the time by immediately painting the older man as a predator. Freddy’s Revenge wouldn’t be the first movie to go this route, but considering the circumstances, it’s especially cringeworthy when Chaskin is also quoted in the documentary joking that it’s “the type of movie you could show at a conversion camp, where the love of a good woman can make any gay man straight.” (Besides, But I’m a Cheerleader did the whole conversion-camp angle in the 1990s, except way better.)
By the time Freddy’s Revenge opened, the AIDS epidemic had already consumed the nation’s headlines. The general public reaction to it at the time, coupled with the realities of Patton’s personal life, made for a volatile combination. As Patton describes in his documentary, “I woke up in the middle of the first movie that I’m a lead actor in and realize that there’s a gay subtext in it. I was a gay person, and I was living in terror.” Everyone was paranoid at this time, including Hollywood, with pockets of it already so oppressively homophobic in the ’80s that even Molly Ringwald movies were dropping slurs. In a time when AIDS was routinely referred to as “the gay cancer,” actors were worried they’d be asked to take blood tests as a preproduction requirement, and the gay community was often depicted as a dangerous, violent group that corrupts children and infects the population. Through that lens, it’s almost inevitable that a character like Freddy Krueger might be used as a manifestation of this taboo thing rattling around inside Jesse’s head.
“He’s inside me and he wants to take me again,” Jesse confesses to Lisa (and yes, we all know how that sounds) after a series of physical encounters with Freddy that leave little room for interpretation. The first time Jesse meets Freddy in his dreams, the disfigured nightmare king plays the Beast to Jesse’s Beauty with a proposition to join forces while tracing a finger blade suggestively along his mouth. Not long after, Jesse sleepwalks into a bar where he encounters his P.E. teacher and finds himself in the school gymnasium for an unexpected twist on the famous horror-genre shower scene trope. Instead of becoming the victim himself, Jesse watches with a peculiar interest rather than fear as his teacher is tied up and slapped with towels. Jesse snaps out of it just in time to see his teacher dead and Freddy’s razor-fingered glove on his own hand, suggesting maybe it was Jesse himself who killed him under Freddy’s influence.
The film is so visibly queer to many and yet frustratingly not owned as a queer film by the people who made it. This breakout role was originally poised to launch Patton’s career and instead ended up inadvertently destroying it, as he quickly became a target for public and professional blame in how “gay” the movie seemed, whereas movies like Friday the 13th: Part 2 and Friday the 13th: The New Blood would remain mostly under the radar as “straight films” that featured queer actors. Meanwhile, Patton has also spoken of how his agents were already taking steps to conceal his sexual identity in order to transform him from queer icon to the much more marketable “All-American Boy,” asking him to continue living in the closet while people and friends in his community were dying horribly. This included Patton’s longtime partner, Timothy Patrick Murphy, who died of AIDS complications in 1988. Not long after his passing, Patton would walk away from Hollywood and his career, all but vanishing for the next 30 years.
Decades later, a new generation would take another look at the second installment of A Nightmare on Elm Street with fresh eyes and more open minds. Initial complaints from fans that there’s “a lot of gay in that movie” took a backseat; that characteristic became what people began embracing it for as a rediscovered queer cult classic. Horror films often reflect the current culture, preying on and exploiting the anxieties of a society that’s perpetually afraid of the unknown, and queer horror is almost always represented as something negative, with some very notable exceptions (I’m looking at you, NBC’s Hannibal). Queer representation throughout the genre is often depicted as the reason such communities are a threat to others and to the very foundations of society. Psycho (1960), High Tension and Rope are just a few that play around with the idea of closeted people who can only express themselves through violence. The queer person as the monster within that we have to constantly repress until it breaks free of our control is a common angle, with movies like The Silence of the Lambs, Terror Train and Sleepaway Camp further using trans allegory to introduce their monster.
Queerness and horror are intimately linked simply because having that kind of secret or internal conflict about sexuality or gender can be so violent for the person who physically and mentally struggles with it. And while horror films often utilize queerness as the thing to be afraid of, in A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, it’s not necessarily that the villain might be queer as the reason why they commit unspeakable acts of violence. Instead, maybe it’s just someone slowly coming to terms with themselves while the rest of the world fights to keep them in a box.
One of my favorite parallels of this when considering Jesse’s story is the homage paid to Freddy’s Revenge in It: Chapter Two. The shirt adult Richie Tozier (Bill Hader) wears in a scene where Pennywise threatens to reveal his big gay secret is very similar to the one Jesse wears in his infamous dance scene. Both characters find themselves on the verge of their secrets being found out, faced with the choice of running from or owning them while enduring unimaginable trials that take their toll because to be queer anywhere is always a matter of life and death. Much like your average horror story. The physical realities of AIDS can never be understated and, to me, will always be more terrifying than anything a film could dream up. It was the boogeyman for an entire generation that’s mostly gone now, something born out of nightmares made real. With that in mind, you can’t overlook the parallels between the gruesome physical horrors of AIDS and a film about a virtually unkillable, parasitic entity prompting the devastating physical transformation of one queer-coded teen boy — including Freddy literally tearing Jesse apart in order to take control of him in the real world.
And as we came to learn, the film’s controversies and the loss of friends weren’t the only nightmares Patton had to face. He also tested positive for HIV and battled severe complications that almost took his life during the years he was out of the public eye. A private investigator was actually hired to track him down for the 2010 documentary Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy and in 2015 when his film celebrated its 30th anniversary, Patton began to resurface at conventions and started telling his story. When he left Hollywood, Patton was still in the closet, it was too dangerous for him to be otherwise. Now, he’s an out gay activist using his platform to address bullying and homophobia, advocating for a more inclusive, safe space for LGBTQIA+ horror fans. And through this new appreciation for the film that many had already begun to reclaim as a queer cult classic, Patton was able to reclaim it, too. He helped change the conversation on Freddy’s Revenge, ultimately saving both Jesse and himself.
From a modern perspective, it’s easy to say that it’s not subtext, and it never was. That’s definitely a gay bar that Jesse sleepwalks into, and it’s not an accident. We can clearly see Jesse reading Nancy’s diary entry as an erotic fantasy about a man who comes to her at night. The film’s big dance scene is as much a symbol of teenage rebellion as it is an involuntary self-expression of what Jesse still can’t bring himself to say out loud in one of my favorite film-discussion topics, dance as a form of expression and freedom. And when Jesse’s makeout session with his girlfriend goes sideways after Freddy tries to join the party, freaked out that his secret was nearly exposed, he hops straight into bed with his hunky friend Grady and comes out to him about his body-snatching crisis. It doesn’t get much clearer than that. Jesse’s obvious anxiety over this thing inside him being discovered is just one, big metaphor in flashing rainbow lights. But as with Patton in his career, Jesse has had to suppress his own desires to survive.
It was undeniably breaking new ground for a horror film to introduce a male protagonist in this way, into a society that seems to only value strength from their men and wholly rejects vulnerability or any perceived weakness in them. To see Jesse’s character go through the same kind of transition as a Final Girl from being a victim to becoming an agent, many at the time couldn’t understand or appreciate the soft, sensitive young man struggling with himself and the truths he could no longer ignore. So instead, they just made fun of his feminine scream and provocative dance moves. There’s a reason generations of queer people can easily identify with scream queens. They’re the ones who stand up to the bully when, in their own lives, many of these kids have their own bullies to face, people who threaten and ridicule them simply for being who they are. When Nancy turns her back on Freddy in A Nightmare on Elm Street, she shows that you beat a bully by showing them you’re not afraid. Fear is the source of their power, and when you take that away, all that’s left is you. Jesse’s biggest battle was always with himself, and that’s why I’ve always seen the ending of Freddy’s Revenge not as his redemption by Lisa’s love confession but as Jesse’s choice to stop letting his secret eat away at him until there’s nothing left. He survives Freddy’s hostile takeover because he finally chooses himself.
I used to say that this is one of my favorite Elm Street movies simply because it’s the only one with a male lead, and he’s heavily queer-coded. That is still true, although knowing what I know now, the truth of that is infinitely more complex. Loving this movie will always be complicated. On the one hand, it’s the only one starring a Final Boy that also happens to be dripping with queer symbolism in a way that feels like a triumph for the time. On the other, what happened to Patton as a direct result of this film’s release solely because he was, at the time, a closeted gay man should always be a part of the conversation. For me, and for many like me, one of the first places I ever found escapism in was horror movies. There’s an otherness in horror that is easy to identify with no matter who you are, and it’s a privilege to be able to reclaim a movie like this. I’m glad Patton is able to live openly now and enjoy what this movie meant to kids like me struggling with themselves, but the importance of this film and the time in which it took place shouldn’t be forgotten. It’s important to know, and learn, from our history.