Dreading the White Picket Fences:
Domesticity and the Suburban Horror Film

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Fall 2014, Volume 13, Issue 2
http://www.americanpopularculture.com/journal/articles/fall_2014/lukic_pandzic.htm

 

Marko Lukic and Maja Pandzic
University of Zadar, Croatia


Enter the House

Viewing pleasure, as well as the possibility of later analysis of various horror narratives, is often directly or indirectly, but always closely, related to the issue of setting and space as a defining category needed for a more complete understanding of the genre. In many ways, gothic/horror spaces are the linchpin connecting and unifying the various elements (and sometimes stereotypes), but only rarely are these spaces theoretically exposed as the source and cause of some type of cultural and social anxiety (being the premise for a later genre related articulation). This article proposes the reading and tracing of a particular type of space – the American suburb – and its role in and contribution to the articulation of social anxieties through the horror slasher subgenre. The analysis will delineate the required historical and theoretical context preceding the birth of the suburban space as depicted in horror films such as A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). Elements including the idealized space of the home, the post-WWII inherited position of women within domestic spaces, the questions of repressed sexuality leading to the creation of the suburban monstrous, together with the final act of violent (feminine and nonfeminine) rebellion will be addressed in the attempt to form a connecting theoretical arc between spatial issues and a specific segment of horror genre production.

The moment generally perceived as a simultaneously theoretical turning point and, when contextualized within a particular horror narrative, a point from which a new notion of the monstrous will stem, is the moment of transformation of space into place. This gradual or sometimes instantaneous change of space into place always retains a sense of wonderment although its (apparently) simplistic and straightforward transformative process could suggest otherwise. As one possible way of changing “space” and creating “place,” Yi-Fu Tuan states the act of observing a panoramic scene until the moment “our eyes pause at points of interest” (Space and Place 161-162). The pause, however brief, marks the transition and the inscription of significance, changing in turn space into place. Tuan’s theory, although not functioning as an absolute rule, clearly shows the potential fluidity and rapidity of the transition from an emotionally barren, easily describable topos into a multilayered existential map constructed out of memory, personal perception, positive and negative moments in time, etc., – what Gaston Bachelard calls “sites of our intimate lives” (8).

Clearly, the ability to observe this spatial mutability offers innumerable possibilities as far as the analysis of various real social but also fictional phenomena. One of these phenomena, and the subject of this research, is the American suburbia project. The suburbia project, or the suburbia paradigm, as shown within the American historical context, slowly but surely indicates a transcendence from a potentially rigid historical (or for the purpose of this discourse “spatial”) context and begins its descent into a somewhat more dynamic structure of a (pseudo) myth. The reasons for such a change lies mostly in its defining point, the moment of ideological genesis when a political notion, partly generated by actual social needs, led to the creation of the project itself. By responding to the social requirements of post war America caused by the affluence of a large number of WWII veterans, together with the subsequent “baby boom,” a need for additional living spaces became an imperative. The response to that need was the planning of an organized community directly influenced by “lobbyist and opportunistic politicians, including Senator Joseph McCarthy” under the agenda of public housing and planned towns (Nicolaides and Wiese 257).

Through a successful marriage between political pressure articulated through the introduction of favorable loans for single-family houses, the passing of a G.I. Bill with a mortgage program for veterans, and the adequately stimulated building industry, the initial number of 142,000 built housing units in the suburbs, as stated by Nicolaides and Wiese, in the following two years jumped to a million built units, additionally rising to an impressive 1.9 million units by the end of the 1940s (257). By targeting the existing middle class, and facilitating its expansion, the suburban space slowly but surely transformed from a living arrangement into a badge of honor, a symbolic mark of a specific way of living and belonging to a particular social stratum well defined not only by the simple opposition to the remaining social classes but also (if not exclusively) by the consumerist culture closely evolving around this phenomena. A well-planned marketing campaign directed towards WWII veterans relied on the success of discursively connecting the idea of the security of home, the warmth of the family, and a promising post-war future with the general idea of what post-war suburbia should be. In other words, a political and economic decision space was defined, precisely mapped out, and equipped with all the prerequisites necessary for the subsequent transformation into place. A possible analysis of the numerous marketing campaigns from the period directly connected to the construction of the project are so explicit and forceful that the previously mentioned theoretical act of the subjective creation of place through a unique interaction with space defined by Tuan becomes obsolete. A further interaction with place would be achieved, and the additional inscription of memories, emotions, and meaning would occur, but the initial interpretative path had already been set. The process entails constructing the idea of place – artificially superimposing it on the defined space.

A different process, but nevertheless closely connected to the plasticity of the suburban representation, can be observed through the analysis of the position of women. The much sought after domestic utopia necessarily has to place women within a certain category. Specifically within the suburban context, her position becomes a unifying one, with the only purpose of assuring the faultless functioning of the household and the family. One of the reasons for such placement of women within the suburban narrative comes forth out of the representation offered by various television programs dedicated almost entirely to the life of the American family. Although, as analyzed by William Douglas in Television Families: Is Something Wrong in Suburbia, a strong dichotomy presents itself immediately after the war, where the position of the man is balanced between being strong or being a family man, and women oscillating between being educated or becoming housewives (83), the uncertainty and pressure imposed on the family by the war experience, together with the pressuring presence of the television discourse encouraging a rather clear role and power division, defined a family-centric system. The placement of a woman within the larger suburban narrative was therefore, once again, an explicitly submissive one. The particular nature of her role becomes additionally emphasized when observed within the prism of spatial theory, as well as within the marketing campaign preceding the suburban project. Through a process of identification, her identity is permanently aligned with the space of the home, or more precisely the artificially created notion of place is being imprinted on the women, who now ceases to be an active participant in the re-creation of place, becoming instead an object and a commodity to be enjoyed by her male counterpart.

It is, in fact, the place itself, after the originally imposed narrative that acquires these binary qualities of positive and negative, offering the reader or viewer a myriad of opposing characteristics. Having this fact in mind, suburbia can be projected as both a “dream” and a “nightmare," since it presents various features belonging to both realms. The suburbs can, therefore, be "homey" and "haunted"; have "nice neighbors" and "neighbors with something terrible to hide"; be a "safe place for children and a place in which to make a fresh start" but also be a “hunting ground for pedophiles and child murderers and a place haunted by the familial and communal past” (Murphy 3).

 

Monsters in the Kitchen

The aforementioned notions such as the position of women or the forcefully imposed spatial narrative, among other things, serve only as the outline of a system of values and a structure deeply interwoven within a much larger national and social fabric. Nevertheless, they clearly indicate a fault in that fabric, a kind of breach. What is interesting to notice is the positioning and the later reaction of the suburbia located horror genre, which develops in a strong and meaningful way during the last few decades of the twentieth century. In the attempt to define the point of origin of the horror element and the parallel dichotomy of the spatial dimension, we need to take a step back to the initial transformation from space to place.

One step in that transformation is the concept of the monstrous as a potential embodiment for chaotic anxiety felt by repressed women, latently struggling with the imposed roles of mothers and wives. Home, as defined by Tuan or David Seamon is the place of attachment, belonging and rootedness, the intimate place of rest where one can retreat from the hustle of the outside world (Tuan, "Langage" 684-696; Seamon 78-85). However, such a concept of home completely disregards female experience within the domestic sphere, claims Gillian Rose (53). For many women, home is a place concealing patriarchal power relations and can, in extreme cases, be related to domestic violence and sexual abuse (Rose 53). It is also where the nuclear family – the central patriarchal institution – produces convenient gender products through the process of socialization (Millet 33-36).

Furthermore, Bachelard claims that the house is also our first universe and “a group of organic habits” (4, 14). But one must not disregard the fact that those habits differ according to gender and in this regard differently shape our subsequent knowledge of other spaces. What is inscribed in women in their first universe are possible feelings of alienation in the public sphere, as they are taught never to leave the domestic, only to transfer from one house to another, to exchange the role of an obedient daughter for those of a good wife and mother who will mold her children in accordance with the same norms that still oppress her, further partaking in her own subjection. Home then is not a place of free action, but of controlled passivity through imposition of roles and limitation of identities leading to her submission.

As the feminist geographer Doreen Massey states in her book Space, Place and Gender, “The limitation of women's mobility, in terms both of identity and space, has been in some cultural contexts a crucial means of subordination. The attempt to confine women to the domestic sphere was both a specifically spatial control and, through that, a social control on identity.” (179) In other words, when we speak of home as a woman’s place, we do not speak about her forming a (pseudo) authentic sense of place. Instead, we talk about a place of an immobile but breathing object, fixed in its part, literally attached to the house. In its attempt to prevent the emergence of alternative personal structures by repressing its subjects into being conformist products, the nuclear family visibly places enormous psychic strains of confinement on women. Therefore, it is unsurprising that the pressure within this closed system found its outlet in the horror film set in suburbia where family values are rigorously emphasized.

Being made up of homes, suburbia can easily be defined as the epicenter of anxiety, as shown in films such A Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween. Halloween, in particular and rather explicitly, expresses the idealized uniformity and presumed innocence of the suburban setting through the character of Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) who embodies a modern age “Van Helsing” type of character whose ability to recognize the plasticity of suburbia, combined with the knowledge about the threat embodied in the figure of a serial killer, manages to foresee the imminent destruction. When asked, “Doctor, do you know what Haddonfield is? Families, children, all lined up in rows up and down these streets. You're telling me they're lined up for a slaughterhouse?", he answers, "They could be” (Carpenter and Hill). The home then ceases to be a place of safety, but instead under oppression it transforms into a h(a)unting ground as the house becomes a slaughterhouse, reenacting on a metaphorical level the symbolic murder of women who were killed into passivity.

In this respect, we could claim that the frustrations of the female living (or walking) dead are articulated through and with the aid of monstrous characters best representing their anxieties of confinement. For example, the character of Michael Myers (Tony Moran) was imprisoned in the asylum under medical surveillance for fifteen years, during which he never uttered a word. Moreover, his catatonic condition and comatose behavior is described as a state of neurogenic motor immobility and behavioral abnormality manifested by stupor – for he remains in one position for a long period of time – with his motor activity nearly nonexistent, closely resembling that of a woman who is repressed and oppressed within the patriarchal home. Additionally, in the same way that his catatonia is merely a conscious act while he dreams of his freedom and waits for the right moment to escape, so too are women’s roles in accordance with social norms as they wait for the right moment to finally act: “I watched him for fifteen years, sitting in a room, staring at the wall, not seeing the wall, looking past the wall, looking at…this night inhumanly patient, waiting for some secret silent alarm to trigger him off” (Carpenter and Hill). Here, the screenwriters parallel the behavior of the monster with that of the bored housewife.

Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) – the main character/villain of the A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise – is yet another example of an imprisoned character in more ways than one. Firstly, he is a monstrous product/prisoner of an extremely dysfunctional and unthinkable “family.” According to the lore presented throughout the series of films, he bears the genes of a hundred maniacs who had raped his nun mother while she was working in the asylum. Freddy is also a prisoner of dreams, the only place where he can take action as an undead unable to exist in the real world. Additionally, it appears that he can only function when dreamed up by characters who are prone to severe anxiety, such as the anxiety experienced by women as the result of repressing the enormous psychic strains of confinement within their domestic roles.

Thus, both monsters are in the state of quiescence, hunting and representing imprisoned women. For example, in virtually all of the A Nightmare on Elm Street films, regardless of their current location, the victims are pulled into Freddy’s house as if forced to experience the anxiety of entrapment within, something that is also felt by housewives as well as the main protagonist. This feeling is intensified by an aesthetic inversion of the initially safe space of the home. Instead of, as stated by Bachelard, “protecting the dreamer” and allowing one “to dream in peace” (6), the house now becomes a morbid sight of boarded up windows, slashed curtains, damp walls stained with dirt and blood, floors that on various occasions turn into sticky surfaces preventing the victim’s movements, and labyrinthine hallways that lead to the basement maze. It is this symbolic revelation of the real nature of suburban domesticity/place that marks the birth and the advancement of the monstrous. Paradoxically, although the house entraps the victim, it liberates the monstrous, which immensely expands its interior and thus provides itself with a place of its own, unlimited in proportion. In other words, the limitations of a suburban home are being breached from within.

The basement, into which the victims regularly descend, becomes what Bachelard would call an “ultra-cellar” (20-22). Inside this underground maze laced with heating ducts, the pipes drip and the steam bursts out of valves under heavy pressure, suggesting the outburst of the monstrous conceived in anxiety and finding its outlet by reaping those who cannot break out of the foundations of the suburban home, out of norms that have shaped suburban families and suburbia itself into a site of oppression and control. In addition, Bachelard claims that the basement serves as the unconscious of the dreamer (19), but to whom does this unconscious of buried madness belong? Interestingly, the emergence of Freddy in many instances coincides with the moment when the main protagonist – almost always female – experiences severe pressure of entrapment either within the place of home and/or close domestic surroundings or within her own body. In fact, one could even claim that the monstrous is a part of her own subconsciousness, the utterances left to fester within for so long that have now arisen in the most deviant form.

For example, the character of Alice (Lisa Wilcox) in A Nightmare on Elm Street: Dream Master (1988) lives in a dysfunctional family consisting of her brother, Rick (Andras Jones), and an alcoholic father, Dennis (Nicholas Mele). Being the only woman in the house, all of the domestic responsibilities rest upon her, including the job of a waitress at a local diner. In other words, her servility is obvious. Additional pressure is exerted by her father who does not hesitate to verbally abuse her when unsatisfied with the dinner she had prepared for him. In one such situation at the beginning of the film, Alice starts to daydream about having enough courage to confront her father and fight back, seeing herself slamming the bowl of food against the table and saying: “Yeah, I can think. I can think of how sick I am of watching you drink your life away and taking it out on me!” (Craven et al., Dream Master). However, the utterances are stuck inside of her.

In a later scene, Rick tells her: “Alice, you got to learn to stand up for yourself. You know, fight back. Fight! Like that! You see it’s all in your mind. You see yourself doing something, your body reacts and does it” (Craven et al., Dream Master). Having in mind that she already did see herself confronting her father, her daydreams indirectly serve as the invitation to a fiercer dream, a nightmare in the form of Freddy Krueger, personifying and articulating anxiety and anger that have been building up inside of her. This reading is additionally suggested by the answer she gives to her friend Kristen (Tuesday Knight) who asks her: “How do you know so much about dreams?" Alice responds: "When it’s all you have, you kind of become an expert" (Craven et al., Dream Master). The gap between dreamland and reality or, in Rick’s words, between seeing oneself and reacting, is soon to be bridged. It is no wonder then that Kristen in the nightmare, prior to her death, encounters a small girl named Alice building a sandcastle which, intriguingly, consists of high walls and a house-lookalike structure on top as if symbolizing a home with strong foundations. The sandcastle-house soon explodes revealing Freddy at its center; meanwhile, the little girl Alice had disappeared.

Another example of the heroine’s entrapment and the subsequent emergence of the monstrous emerges in John Carpenter’s Halloween. After the initial story of Michael’s crime and his escape from the asylum, the spectator is introduced to Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) who is carrying armfuls of books and is met by Tommy (Brian Andrews), whom she regularly babysits. The conversation consists of his requests and her acquiescence:

TOMMY: Coming over tonight?

LAURIE: Same time, same place.

TOMMY: Can we make Jake-O-Lanterns?

LAURIE: Sure.

TOMMY: And watch the monster movies?

LAURIE: Sure.

TOMMY: Will you read to me? Can we make popcorn?

LAURIE: Sure, sure, sure. (Carpenter and Hill)

In other words, at the very beginning of the film, Laurie already has numerous obligations to fulfill, both motherly and those related to school as the books she carries suggest. Her docility and inclination to dutifulness, combined with her low self-esteem – since she is well aware that her smartness marks her as unfeminine and therefore undesirable, as she later states in the conversation with her friend Annie (Nancy Kyes) – lead to repression of her desires, one of which is certainly the need for physical intimacy. This repression is indicated by numerous elements in the film such as the song she repeatedly sings when she is introduced not only to the viewer but also to Michael’s threatening gaze hiding behind the suburban door: “I wish I had you all alone. Just the two of us. I would hold you close to me. So close to me” (Carpenter and Hill). Interestingly enough, it is in this exact moment – Michael's gaze – when Laurie turns her back to the camera and is walking away down the street while singing the song that Michael, having left his house, emerges in front of the screen and the monstrous begins to permeate suburbia. On a metaphorical level then, the departure of an overly responsible Laurie gives way to the monstrous presence.

Laurie’s subservient and timid personality best comes into visibility when compared to those of her friends, Annie and Lynda (P.J. Soles). Annie is feisty and prone to mischief while Lynda is careless and forgetful. Moreover, they both act on their desires, unlike conscientious and self-depreciative Laurie, who never goes out and even on Halloween remains inside the house babysitting and peering desperately through the window blinds at the house across the street where her friends are engaging in sexual activities, unthinkably far from her own reality. Nevertheless, their enjoyment soon comes to an end as Michael enters the house and kills them off one by one, metaphorically serving as Laurie’s released anger that had been building up due to the repression of her own desires under the weight of both external norms (boys considering her too smart) and internalized patriarchal consciousness (docility, dutifulness, self-deprecation).

A similar sexual avoidance or inactivity of the female protagonist can be observed in A Nightmare on Elm Street when the character of Nancy (Heather Langenkamp), in addition to living with her alcoholic mother, Marge (Ronee Blakley), and consequently having to take on greater responsibilities herself, continuously remains sexually reluctant regardless of having a boyfriend. This particular issue of sexual repression also is the result of internalized patriarchal tradition – especially emphasized within the suburban home – which reserves the female body only for the roles of wife and mother within marriage. A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Child (1989) provides another example of entrapment within the body. The opening scene focuses on sexual intercourse between two characters: Alice, who had managed to kill Freddy in the previous sequel, and her boyfriend, Dan (Danny Hassel). The bond between controlling the body through abstinence is apparently destroyed, as the female character is free to express her sexuality regardless of the domestic rules imposed by the suburban place. Nevertheless, the apparent freedom is only an illusion as it soon becomes obvious that the result of the depicted intercourse is the pregnancy of Alice. The moment of conception and, in turn, Alice’s new role of a mother above all means the assumption of new responsibilities, the taking over of a new role that would entrap her further within the domestic context. Simultaneously, the concept of the child and the forceful submission to domesticity of the mother mark the rebirth of the suppressed monstrous “Other” as shown after Alice says: “You can’t come back. I’ve locked the door on you!” Freddy, laying his hand on her womb, answers: “Well I found the key” (Craven, Skipp, Spector, and Bohem). Once again freed, Freddy uses the child as a passage to gain access to his victims. Later scenes in the film further emphasize the notion of oppressive domesticity with Alice dreaming that she is Freddy’s mother, Sister Mary Helena (Beatrice Boepple). The image of herself as a rape victim speaks of an unwilling pregnancy, while her child – the utterly deformed baby Freddy – symbolizes the materialization of the domestic obligation as well as the threat of evil.

 

The Final Monster

The process of comparison and possible identification between the heroine and the monster is both intricate and multilayered. Once the breaking down of the suburban norms begins, and the advance of the monstrous becomes apparently unstoppable, the interpretive lines between repressed female characters and the brute force of the monstrous become increasingly blurred. A similar notion can be found in the work of Linda Williams who, relying on Laura Mulvey’s influential article on visual pleasure and the issue of the dominant male gaze, claims that the monster and the woman have a similar status within patriarchal structures of seeing. Both are the exhibitionist-objects of cinematic spectacle and both represent the threat of castration in the eyes of a traumatized male spectator: the woman by her lack of penis, the monster by his sexual difference: either he is symbolically castrated and pathetically lacking or he is overly endowed and potent (Williams 20).

In the horror film of the 1980s, the superfluous characteristics of the monster are not necessarily biological deformations as they had been in the classic horror film, but can be recognized in the phallic-like weapon always personal and always functioning as the extension of his body. For example, Michael in Halloween uses a large knife while in the opening scene of A Nightmare on Elm Street we see Freddy Krueger constructing his four-razor glove, easily construed as an overly phallic symbol and used in nearly every murder scene to pierce, cut or dismember human bodies, constantly clawing against surfaces and producing the penetrative sound of a looming castrating or rape threat. The monster then is “a freak with impossible and threatening appetites that suggest a frightening potency precisely where the normal male would perceive a lack” (Williams 20). Although she shares the male fear of the monster’s freakishness, the woman also recognizes this freakishness as similar to her own difference, claims Williams. Moreover, she too had been constituted as the object of the male gaze. Consequently, she sees in the monster a distorted reflection of her own image, a form in the mirror patriarchal structures held up to her. Indeed, many are the scenes in which Freddy appears in the mirror as the heroine’s own reflection, pulling her into his world or bursting out at her in fragments, symbolizing her shattered identity. For example, in a scene from A Nightmare on Elm Street when Nancy is lying in a bath with her knees apart, Freddy’s four-razor glove emerges from her crotch as if she is growing or giving birth to a murderous overly phallic organ. At the same time, her naked body together with the monstrous razor glove is displayed before the objectifying gaze of the spectator, merging them and transforming them into a single spectacle.

Yet another example can be found in A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Child when Alice encounters her son, Jacob (Whit Hertford), in the dreamland and asks him the following:

ALICE: Where is he?

JACOB: Inside you… where he hides.

ALICE: What do you mean?

JACOB: Where he hides out. Inside. That’s how he found me.

ALICE: But how?

JACOB: He says it’s easy because he knows you so well. (Craven et al., The Dream Child).

At that point, Alice’s body begins to transform as Freddy’s emerges from within her. The scene is certainly spectacular as Alice attempts to regain control and separate the shared body. Her face becomes utterly deformed as she struggles to pull Freddy’s head out of her own and ultimately face it. The act of returning the look and gazing back into the monster’s eyes would for a woman, claims Stephen Heath, only serve to entrap her further within the patriarchal structures of seeing (92). Even though this might be true for the classic horror films, the heroine of the late twentieth century not only gazes back into the eyes of the monster and refuses the mirror-trap, she manages to overpower it.

Carol J. Clover recognizes this female protagonist as the "Final Girl," a girl who after being chased, tortured, and wounded by the killer, fights back and survives as opposed to most other characters in the narrative. The Final Girl and the monster supplement each other in yet another way, claims Clover. Just as the killer is not fully masculine, so the Final Girl is not fully feminine (Clover 86). In other words, the monsters possess some female characteristics. Michael’s middle name "Audrey" is typically a feminine name. Furthermore, whenever he kills, he wears a mask of blank expression with a motionless mouth, behind which a woman’s face could easily be hiding, especially because he remains silent throughout the film, preventing the viewer from recognizing his voice as belonging to either sex. Krueger on the other hand, frequently literally changes sex when in his victims’ dreams. He also collects souls within his body, some of which are female. Both, at the end of the films, are symbolically castrated, deprived of their phallic-like weapons. The Final Girl, on the other hand, is boyish, claims Clover. Her intelligence, resourcefulness, gravity, competence in mechanical and other practical matters set her apart from the other girls. She grapples with the killer energetically and convincingly. Her un-femininity is also signaled by her exercise of the “active gaze” reserved for males, she is courageous enough to confront the killer face to face (Clover 82-86).

Most of these heroines are representations of angelic young women attempting to live virgin-like lives in accordance with patriarchal norms. It is only when the monstrous appears – which as we mentioned earlier is a manifestation of rebellion from patriarchal society externalized an embodied – that their “masculine” skills are activated or gained. In this regard, the monster has a crucial role in reconstruction/development of the heroines' identities, for it serves as an instrument for the depolarization of gender stereotypes. At this junction in the narrative, the heroine is forced to choose whether she will remain a passive object and die or become an active agent and save herself by fighting back.

Laurie in Halloween, for instance, when first discovering the bodies of her friends, begins crying and screaming in fear, as well as backing up against the wall. Then Michael appears, and although initially she tries to get away from him, her will to survive ultimately drives her to take a knitting needle and stab Michael in the neck. While he lies on the ground, she takes his knife and spends a significant amount of time staring at it before throwing it away as if she had suddenly become aware of what it could do in her own hands. At that point, she is not yet ready to fully accept her agency, nor the initiated changes within her. This is metaphorically the reason why Michael rises again to h(a)unt her further. Laurie then finds momentary refuge in a closet, an extremely confining place, suggesting women’s further and more severe entrapment within the home. Moreover, as the killer starts stabbing at the door, she falls back in the corner of the closet. Regardless of her limited options, however, Laurie puts her “unfeminine” intellect to work and manages to think of a solution: she bends a hanger into a weapon and when Michael breaks down the door, stabs him in the eye. An interesting fact is that the hanger, like the knitting needle used in the first counter-attack, if viewed through a patriarchal lens, represents a specifically feminine object since it belongs to the sphere of domesticity and female housework (knitting, tending to clothes). The bending of the hanger thus symbolically points to the breaking of patricarchal codes or rules. The protagonist transforms from an angelic, virgin-like, and docile personality into a personality more defiant and resistant to societal norms. It is then that she, with no hesitation, picks up Michael’s knife and stabs him in the chest. The shot soon reveals Laurie with the knife still in hand peering through the large hole in the closet, from this viewpoint resembling a miniature house with a window.

There is still, however, one final confrontation, for Michael is alive. As they struggle, this time with bare hands, she manages to pull his mask off and for the first time look into his eyes, proving in the end that she is able to literally face her fears. Although Dr. Loomis steps in and shoots Michael several times until he finally falls off the balcony, his body disappears as soon as they avert their eyes. Instead of the closure, the viewer is presented with a series of shots: the hallway, the living room, the bedroom, the stairway, the house where Laurie had been babysitting, then the house in which Annie and Lynda had been killed, finally ending with Michael’s own home. Even though the places are empty, in the background the viewer can hear Michael’s breathing, which suggests that all of these domestic locations conceal his presence, or in other words, that suburbia remains under constant threat as the monstrous waits to arise again when the pressure is too much to handle.

In A Nightmare on Elm Street: Dream Master, the heroine’s transformation becomes explicitly obvious as she literally gains new identities through receiving the gifts/traits of Freddy’s victims as they are killed. Although the victims are both male and female, the transferred traits are always traditionally masculine. She gains martial arts knowledge from Rick; strength from the character of Debbie (Brooke Theiss), a defiant weightlifter, unafraid to confront the members of the opposite sex with smart (and insightful) remarks; and a scientific mind from Sheila (Toy Newkirk), who is an excellent mathematician and an inventive scientist. Each time Alice gains a fragment of her new identity, she removes a photograph of her latest lost friend from her mirror, which was previously completely covered, allowing no reflection whatsoever. An intriguing fact is that prior to her changes, Alice had neither desire nor intention to look at herself, as she had clearly stated in one of the conversations with her brother. Now, as she begins to take the photographs down and gradually reveal her reflection holding new identities, she is more confident. This fact is underscored in the scene when she is preparing for the final battle with Freddy, by simultaneously equipping herself with the items she got from her friends and by removing photos. By the time the mirror is cleared, she is faced with her new self, powerful enough to take Freddy down with a smile on her face. At this point, the Final Girl lunges through the mirror and into the nightmare land to face her fears of mobility, since she is crossing the normative boundaries of her own sex trapped in servitude within the suburban home. She not only manages to liberate herself of the suburban bonds – the imposed gender roles – by activating traditionally masculine traits and interrupting the patriarchal socialization of a girl into passivity, but the destruction of suburban place itself also becomes possible through the acceptance of chaos and the monstrous, which destroys the previous domesticized woman along with the place to which she was bound.

 

Conclusion

The American suburban space, therefore, at least when the potentially restrictive historical context is being replaced by the explicit horror narrative, is being denied its fulfillment and transition into an emotionally and rationally idealized place. The much sought after American dream and the concurring place – defined by the meticulous compilation of material wealth, status symbols, racially selective neighboring, together with a set of implied gender roles – unavoidably crumbles under the ruthless and exposing narratives of the horror genre. Each attempt to complete the preconceived notion of place is now being confronted with its inevitable deconstruction, while the already existing values are now being replaced by a once repressed and now emerging entity, inevitably articulated through and by the monstrous. The still persisting idyllic and utopian setting of the suburban space/place remains a coveted system of values, but the transformational struggle and the accompanying breach indicates a highly unstable system of cultural and political meaning, prone to perpetual artificial reconstruction in the attempt to conform to the needs of the American social imaginarium.



Works Cited

A Nightmare on the Elm Street. Dir. Wes Craven. Written by Wes Craven. New Line Cinema, Media Home Entertainment and Smart Egg Pictures, 1984. DVD.

A Nightmare on Elm Street: Dream Master. Dir. Renny Harlin. Written by Wes Craven, William Kotzwinkle, Brian Helgeland, Jim Wheat, and Ken Wheat. New Line Cinema, Heron Communications, Smart Egg Pictures, 1988. DVD.

A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Child. Dir. Stephen Hopkins. Written by Wes Craven, John Skipp, Craig Spector, and Leslie Bohem. New Line Cinema, Heron Communications, Smart Egg Pictures, 1989. DVD.

Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1994.

Clover, Carol J. “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film.” The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1996. 66-113.

Douglas, William. Television Families: Is Something Wrong in Suburbia? Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2003.

English, T.J. The Savage City: Race, Murder, and a Generation on the Edge. New York: HarperCollins, 2011.

Halloween. Dir. John Carpenter. Written by John Carpenter and Debra Hill. Compass International Pictures, 1978. DVD.

Heath, Stephen. “Difference.” Screen 19.3 (1978): 51-112.

Massey, Doreen. Space, Place and Gender. Cambridge and Oxford, UK: 1994.

Millet, Kate. Sexual Politics. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1970.

Murphy, Bernice M. The Suburban Gothic in American Popular Culture. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

Nicolaides, Becky M. and Wiese A. Eds. The Suburb Reader. New York, NY: Routledge, 2006.

Seamon, David. A Geography of the Lifeworld: Movement, Rest and Encounter. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1979.

Tuan, Yi-Fu. “Language and the Making of Place: A Narrative-Descriptive Approach.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 81:4 (1991): 684-696.

---. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.

Rose, Gillian. Feminism and Geography: The Limits of Geographical Knowledge. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 1993.

Tally Jr., Robert T. Spatiality. New York, NY: Routledge, 2012. Kindle AZW file.

Williams, Linda. “When the Woman Looks.“ The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1996. 15-34.

 


 
Back to Top
Journal Home

© 2014 Americana: The Institute for the Study of American Popular Culture
AmericanPopularCulture.com