A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 – The Horror of ‘Coming Out’ in 80’s America

14 mins read

Following hot on the heels of the success on 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 2 found itself derided by the critics of the time. Only recently finding fresh analysis in its unique take on sexuality and gender in 80’s America. With new generations providing a fresh perspective on the film’s value and importance in both gender identity, sexuality and the socio-political sphere, it found its release reflecting.

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 turned 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. While its director claimed to be oblivious to the themes he brought to the screen. This denial of any subtext itself offering a clear discussion on Hollywoods 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 right terminology when exploring A Nightmare on Elm Street 2. This is a horror film firmly and overtly attached to themes of coming out, gay panic and internalised homophobia. The films true subtext residing in the return of Freddy Kruger and the continuing horror of the first outing.

Mark Patton and Robert Englund in A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 (New Line Cinema)

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. With 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 clear but guarded commentary on the possible sexuality of Patton and the gay themes inherent in the film. While Freddy Krugers past as child molester and his wish to inhabit the body of a closeted gay teenager. Ultimately pointed to 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 Reagan administrations outward homophobia only further enhancing the complexities of the films messaging.

Jesse and the complexity of self discovery

Mark Patton and Robert Rusler in A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 (New Line Cinema)

Jesse (Mark Patton) is clearly an outsider at school, neither fitting the ‘Jock’ or the ‘Geek’ stereotypes. His first dream in the film 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.

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. Confusion surrounding her understanding of the relationship they have, while Jesse seems comfortable in merely having her support. In fact when things do progress to a fleeting sexual scene between Jesse and Lisa. The heat of sexual desire is cut short by Jesse’s realisation that he would only hurt the girl who is attracted to him.

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 to him. This is a character who oozes the hormonal sex appeal of the school stud, but also enjoys the company of Jesse 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 to almost 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 bar that is obviously gay in nature and known to Jesse. His school coach spotting him at the bar ordering a beer. Culminating in a late-night trip back to the deserted school gym with his teacher dressed in S&M gear. The mainstream horror that ensues disguising Jesse’s first sexual encounter with an older man.

Throughout A Nightmare on Elm Street 2, Jesse is a confused yet confident young man. His desires conflicting with a society where being gay means being ostracised. Jesse’s ability to navigate his nocturnal thoughts hampered by the need to be seen as heterosexual in his daily life. The journey toward self-discovery and comfort in his own sexuality a conflict between public and private identity. His experimentation and attraction to men held firmly in the darkness and shadows of the night. Themes that many gay men can relate to as they find their own way to self-acceptance of their sexual orientation. In a society where ‘coming out’ is still a rebirth of personal identity.

The darkness of 1980s homophobia

Mark Patton in A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 (New Line Cinema)

While A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 is to be commended for its integration of 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 of the young and confused. While women remain the potential rescuers of men who could be turned to the dark side of homosexuality.

The older men surrounding Jesse are clearly defined as predatory. Both the sports coach and Freddy Kruger only interested in using Jesse for their own gratification. A theme that plays to the dangerous social commentary of men being able to convert teenage boys to homosexuality.

Then we have the role of Lisa, a role clearly defined as a female who can bring Jesse back from the brink of his homosexuality. Lisa acting as Jesse’s saviour at the end, showing how heterosexual love can break the evils of homosexual desire.

Whether or not these themes were purposefully written as a commentary on the perception of gay men and homosexuality in 80s America is debatable. However, they do interface with the issue of the 1980’s gay panic. The effects of the HIV/AIDS epidemic threading through public views on the danger of homosexuality, particularly in men. The ideas of heterosexuality being the ‘norm’ dovetailing with an attitude that gay lifestyle and culture was dangerous to young people.

And that brings us the darkest undertones of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2. The notion that a child molester would pick a teenage boy who is gay to continue his work. Again this is open to debate but does play too dangerous social perceptions of gay men as potential abusers in 80s society. Paedophilia interfacing with homosexuality is public consciousness, creating a dangerous and destructive alignment for the public justification of homophobia. One that the film unconsciously or even more dangerously, consciously condones.

Ultimately A Nightmare on Elm Street 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 itself fearing the themes it covered. The darkness of oppression, and confusion of self-discovery circling a film that knowingly or unknowingly provided more social commentary than it did horror.

Many will watch A Nightmare on Elm Street 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 goes much deeper than what’s on show, providing one of the most interesting non-LGBTQ genre 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, now a firm part of gay film history.

Director: Jack Sholder

Cast: Robert EnglundMark PattonKim Myers, Robert Rusler, Marshall Bell

Read more here: Scream Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street (Documentary)

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