Kniving Nightmare and Freud’s Civilisation

The psychological basis for knife slashing nightmare films and the reality of knife crime can be traced back to Freud’s theories. Knife crime has afflicted our streets, now more than ever before, says Alan Walsh, who runs a boxing club to help keep young people off the streets and drugs. Dreams are  a nightmarish reality for some. Smita RK reflects for TF. October 2020.

‘Dreams are the fulfilment of wishes and fears. A nightmare is a fulfilment of a fear.’ -Sigmund Freud, Interpretation of Dreams.

Freddie Krueger, Nightmare on Elm Street

Springwood is the fictitious town where the Nightmare on Elm Street takes place. In Nightmare on Elm Street, the teenagers who Freddie Krueger, a burnt nightmarish being, harasses, spiral into their ‘nightmare’ -they simply cannot close their eyes for fear of the knife wielding horrific nightmare which takes over, invades their minds and actually begins to ‘kill’ them in real life. Dream and reality merge, creating a living nightmare for the teens. There is an underlying moral theme about the promiscuous sexual behaviour of the teenagers which somehow links with the horror.  A kniving crossover from nightmare to reality is what makes this film pulsate and it has spawned the gory portion of a genre of knife slashing, horror films. All horror has this underlying theme- unguarded character- vulnerable, asleep, bathing, unclothed and a distorted monster creeps in and slashes mercilessly, masked and fully clothed. Trauma at its worst. To be unguarded against death. Weapons of mass destruction have been created against this base experience. In psychology, we call it trauma and we try to master this trauma by developing attitudes and skills. Bad unexpected things happen to us and we realise, ‘should have been on guard, this would not have happened’. Reflecting on experiences and changing behaviour after all, is the foundation for growth. We are also ‘guarded’ by our innate ‘fight or flight’ response. It is our mental and emotional ‘clothing’. In horror films, the film maker shows how this response was ‘on hold’ or ‘idling’ whilst the hero/heroine (mostly the latter) were unclothed, bathing, sleeping etc, and awful things happened. The nightmare invaded the bedroom/ bathroom/ home and the mind. As audience, we were caught unawares. All concerned – spectators and protagonists -screamed ! And so did distributors and film makers, with pleasure. In short, it is a never ending source of horror and nightmare and …money making.

Norman Bates, as ‘mother’ with knife

Step into the past to the ‘mother’ of all knife slashing nightmares, from the psychological palate of Alfred Hitchcock who arguably, began the genre with the knife slashing Norman Bates in the Psycho. A neat analysis by a psychiatrist at the end of the film helps us to untangle and link the bizarre reasons why a young man would keep the corpse of his mother in a bedroom and slash young women who turn him on, excite him, in real life. It endangers the ‘pure’ relationship with mother. Norman Bates, played by Anthony Perkins, peeps from a hole in the wall at the unsuspecting young woman who is undressing and this ‘unmans’ him. He is at the mercy of his sexual urges and consequently, this urge seems to turn him into a monster who enters the bathroom and slashes the woman who is bathing unsuspectingly. The psychiatrist explains later that this sexual urge of Norman’s threatens his oedipal loyalty to his mother and his mixed feelings about her ‘oedipal’ betrayal when she goes with another man after his father’s death. If we did not take a peek into his mind’s internal workings, thanks to the psychiatrist, we would not understand the bizarreness of any of the horror of this story. Freud, in fact, sought to understand and link the inner horrors of sexuality and fear in his practice.

Norman Bates, Anthony Perkins

To all appearances, Norman Bates is otherwise a calm and collected young man. In Civilisation and its Discontents (1930), Freud alludes to this quality in man-creating a mess against his wishes to remain ‘clean and pure’. He describes a walk in a Viennese park where he finds litter (littering is an old ‘urge’) strewn by people using the park and theorises about it. He links this desire with the psychological need to repress what feels wrong and bad in the human mind and maintain cleanliness and purity in life. 

Graph data sourced from House of Commons Library.

Towards the end of Nightmare on Elm Street, when teen Nancy realises that Krueger is powered by his victim’s fear, she turns her back calmly and Krueger does disappear. Is there any such luck for our drug addicts ? Drug traffickers are the real life Kruegers for the drug addicts in the real life nightmare on our streets today. The nightmare has invaded our minds and ordinary lives like never before. Not surprisingly, we are surrounded by people who cannot sleep, in the nightmare of being hunted down and knived -all too real, ominous and unrelenting. The graph above shows the steep growth in knife related crime.  According to Alan Walsh, Anfield Boxing Club, Liverpool, who helps young people stay off the streets by using the gym and club, ‘knife crime is worse than ever before since lockdown’. COVID is a nightmare. Maimed by unseen viruses. The unguarded peace of our lives is thrown out of kilter by the shadowy forces that rule the streets, during day and night.

Rubbish on beaches

The idea of keeping clean, pure and at peace has ‘powered’ many mindfulness businesses. It is the foundation for not just mindfulness but a host of religions and other peace minded institutions. Keeping one’s thoughts pure, keeping streets clean, managing ill will and maintaining an ‘odour free’ (no bad vibes) biodata which has little or no disciplinary actions seems vital. These are the preoccupations of mankind. As Freud said, these are the founding instincts that created civilisation. We have spent a long time splitting ourselves between clean and unclean, white and black, good and bad. We hope that drug traffickers disappear like Krueger from Elm Street when and if people manage their addictions and walk away calmly from their fears. In our bid to keep civilisation ‘clean’ and ‘pure’ we hope that the emotional world, so messy at times, gets a wider berth and acceptance. We hope that we do not mistake the darker shades of skin with all that is dark in the human mind. 

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