Following hot on the heels of the success of A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), the first sequel in a long line of sequels and prequels trod very different ground to the original film. A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2 found itself derided by the critics. Only recently finding fresh analysis in its unique take on sexuality and gender in 80’s America. New generations providing a fresh perspective on the film’s value and importance in gender identity, sexuality, and the socio-political sphere its release reflected.
Part two starts from an interesting premise by subverting the accepted gender roles of the conventional slasher horror, with a teenage boy at the heart of the action (Jesse). A boy who does not fit the 1980s hormonal ‘meathead’ stereotypes of adolescent males in horror. While in turn being stalked by a male killer, ultimately turning the 80s horror template on its head. With masculinity, vulnerability and sexual dominance sitting front and centre. In a film that encompasses the horror of coming out in mid-1980s America.
Many have commented on the LGBTQ subtext of part two, its existence denied for many years by the film’s writer. At the same time, its director has claimed to be oblivious to the themes brought to the screen. This denial of any subtext itself offering an explicit discussion on Hollywood’s fear of homosexuality in mainstream film. While also reflecting a horror film market that had for many years demonised male vulnerability while playing to heterosexual conventions. However, for me, subtext is not the correct terminology when exploring A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2. This is a horror film firmly and overtly attached to themes of coming out, gay panic and internalised homophobia. The films’ true subtext resides in Freddy Kruger’s return and the continuing horror of the first outing.
Following its release, A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2 faced a large scale backlash from critics and the public. Despite its financial success and difference from anything else in the mid-80s horror market. Meanwhile, its lead actor Mark Patton (Jesse), found himself ostracised in Hollywood, as his promising career hit a roadblock of institutionalised homophobia. His feelings for the film and the subsequent commentary on its homosexuality haunting his decision to walk away from the industry. The film’s writer, happy to throw the young actor under a bus of homophobia and ridicule for many years rather than accept the film’s subtext.
Critical commentary of the film pointed out the distinct ‘outsider presence’ of the lead actor—a brief but guarded comment on the possible sexuality of Patton. Meanwhile, Freddy Kruger’s history as a child molester found itself tied to the subversion of a closeted gay teenager. The result a dark and foreboding commentary of the public perception of gay men as sexual deviants and predators in 80s America. The developing AIDS crisis and the Reagan administrations outward homophobia only further enhancing the complexities of the films messaging.
Jesse and the complexity of self discovery
Jesse (Mark Patton) is clearly an outsider at school, neither fitting the ‘Jock’ or the ‘Geek’ stereotypes. His first dream placing him on a bus journey where he sits apart from two young women. Isolated and alone at the back, a subject of the girl’s teenage gossip. Immediately portraying a young man who feels separated and alone. His characters want and desires not fitting with the school ‘norms’ surrounding him. While also hinting that he may be the subject of school rumour and discussion, particularly among girls. Meanwhile, his family are also disconnected from his emotional needs. His vivid nightmares waking him every night with a scream of terror as his family ignore his turmoil. Only showing interest when he meets a girl who is a potential sexual partner, ensuring his normality in their eyes.
However, even the girl at the centre of Jesse’s life is more of a friend than a sexual partner. Here, confusion surrounds her understanding of their relationship, while Jesse seems comfortable merely having her support. In fact, when things progress to a brief sex scene between Jesse and Lisa, the heat of sexual desire is cut short by Jesse’s realisation that it will not work.
Meanwhile, Jesse surrounds himself at school with the alpha male character of Ron. A boy who starts the film bullying Jesse for his lack of athleticism but slowly grows closer. This character oozes the hormonal sex appeal of the school stud and enjoys Jesse’s company as a weaker and sexually non-threatening boy. While Jesse clearly has more than a fleeting interest in Ron. Then we have Jesse’s first encounter with Freddy Kruger, a scene that buzzes with sexual tension. Mixing nightmare with wet dream as Jesse is subdued by a more powerful man. Kruger running his steel bladed glove across Jesse’s lips and face while stating,
“Daddy can’t help you now! Shhhhh… I need you, Jesse. We got special work to do here, you and me. You’ve got the body… I’ve got the brain“
This simple piece of dialogue plays to Jesse’s inability to control his bodily desires. A scene that is further emphasised later in the film by Jesse’s night terrors merging with phallic imagery of erect objects melting and dripping in his room. Symbolising that Jesse’s dreams are both sexual and scary in equal measure. His sexual needs clashing with the social constraints surrounding him.
Finally, we have the sports coach and the gay bar. At school, Jesse seems almost to enjoy the torment of his sadistic sports coach. The regular sports field punishments bringing him closer to Ron. While Ron warns Jesse that the coach “Likes the pretty boys like him.” After a vivid nightmare, we find Jesse walking through the rain in his jeans and pyjama top, finally seeking solace and refuge in a local late-night bar. An underground gay venue that is clearly known to Jesse. Here, the coach spots him at the bar ordering a beer, culminating in a late-night trip back to the deserted school gym; his teacher dressed in S&M gear. The mainstream horror that ensues disguises the fact that Jesse is sexually active with men.
Throughout A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2, Jesse is a confused yet confident young man. His desires conflicting with a society where being gay is linked to ostracisation. Jesse’s ability to navigate his nocturnal thoughts hampered by the need to be seen as heterosexual in his daily life. His journey toward self-discovery and comfort wrapped in a conflict between public and private identity. The experimentation and attraction he hides held firmly in the darkness and shadows of the night. Many gay men can relate to these themes as they find their way to self-acceptance. In a society where coming out is still a rebirth of personal identity.
The darkness of 1980s homophobia
While A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2 may or may not have been fully conscious of its LGBTQ coming of age themes. There is a much darker side to the overarching narrative—one based on the 80s perception of gay men as predators. Here, the older men surrounding Jesse are defined as predatory, from the sports coach to Kruger, their interest aligned to Jesses’ young body. A theme that plays to the dangerous social commentary of gay men converting teenage boys to homosexuality. Meanwhile, Lisa’s role as a female saviour plays into a narrative that homosexuality can be conquered and changed. Her final scenes with Jesse representing how heterosexual love can break the evils of homosexual desire.
Whether or not these themes were purposefully included as a commentary on the perception of gay men and homosexuality in 80s America is debatable. However, they do interface with 1980s gay panic. Reflecting the damaging effects of the HIV/AIDS epidemic on public views of the dangers of homosexuality, particularly in men. And that brings us to what is undoubtedly the darkest undertone of A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2; the notion that a child molester would pick a gay teenage boy to continue his work. Again this is open to debate but ties to social perceptions of gay men as potential abusers. The subject of Paedophilia interfacing with homosexuality in creating a dangerous and destructive theme. One that the film unconsciously or possibly, consciously condones.
Ultimately A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2 provides us with a fascinating snapshot of mid 80’s homophobia, LGBTQ acceptance and isolation. In a film that bravely incorporated gay themes into mainstream horror while fearing the very themes it covered. The darkness of oppression, confusion and public judgement circling a film that knowingly or unknowingly provided more social commentary than it did horror.
Many will watch A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2 and pick up on the subverted horror themes inherent in the film, from its fascination with the male body over the female one to the homoerotic male relationships and the sweat-drenched pecks and abs. But this is a film that delves much deeper into social oppression than the camp horror on show. Making it one of the most interesting unplanned LGBTQ films ever made. One that grows and changes with every viewing, baffling, exciting and engaging new viewers in each year that goes by. A film that never intended to become an LGBTQ classic but now firmly sits in queer film history.
Director: Jack Sholder