A Psychology Professor and His Class Analyzed A Nightmare on Elm Street

Posted on: November/11/2018 7:41 PM

Horror has long shared a link with psychology and an analysis of human nature. Wes Craven, in particular, made films that addressed human nature. He called horror films a “bootcamp for the psyche.”

Human nature was something Craven understood well, having earned a degree in English and psychology, and a master’s in philosophy and writing. For the last three years, students in the Department of Psychiatry at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School at Rutgers University Biomedical and Health Sciences have been analyzing Craven’s works and the works of others in order to better understand psychiatric disorders.

The class known as “31 Knights of Halloween,” challenges the students to watch 31 classic horror films and share their synopses and insights on REDDIT. They have been also shared on a Psychology Today blog.

Dr. Anthony Tobia is the psychiatry professor behind the class. “The point is to discuss the exaggerated and fictionalized portrayals in movies while being cautious not to stigmatize individuals with mental illness,” said Dr. Tobia

Dr. Tobia has been recognized for his curriculum with unites psychology with popular culture.

“One of the critical outcomes of using engaging material from popular culture to educate the next generation of physicians is the level of enthusiasm generated in the learner,” explained Tobia. “This is especially true for the majority of students who will pursue a career outside of psychiatry and will need to identify co-occurring mental disorders in the patients they will care for.”

Dr. Anthony Tobia

Professor of Psychiatry Dr. Anthony Tobias.

Dr. Tobia shared some of his insights on A Nightmare on Elm Street on the Psychology Today blog.

As it relates to psychology, Dr. Tobia says, “as the title implies, A Nightmare on Elm Street (Nightmare) depicts Nightmare Disorder (ND); a syndrome defined through repeated awakenings with recollection of terrifying dreams usually involving threats to survival such as being hunted by a child murderer.”

He goes on to assert that the teenagers in the film suffer from dyssomnias, or “disturbances in the quality, amount, or timing of sleep.”

“In this way Nightmare is a metaphor for a dyssomnia defined by REM intrusion into the beta state (wakefulness), specifically, Narcolepsy,” he writes. “Narcolepsy usually has its onset in adolescence (e.g. Nancy), is characterized by hallucinations (seeing the boogeyman), and is genetically predisposed.” He concludes then that “Nancy and her friends carry the (genetic) burden of their parents”  for carrying out vigilante justice.

Dr. Tobia also makes the leap in asserting that, although Krueger was a child murderer, he also has pedophilia. Furthermore, that dying in bed is symbolic of his “sexual disorder.”

Although Nancy’s understanding of Freddy mostly comes from her mother, her “discovery is metaphorical for the recovery of her lost memories.” Dr. Tobia’s goes on to make note that as Freddy pursues Nancy in her dreams, her basement appears distorted, which is most likely the result of anxiety.  And although the movie blends the lines of imagination and reality, “Nancy’s experience in the basement may either be a nightmare (sleep) or a flashback (wakefulness) that is cued by the situation.” Perhaps, Dr. Tobia’s suggests, “she was likely imprisoned in [Freddy]’s boiler room (basement).”

Her ability to survive suggests that she’s special to Freddy in some way. Moreover, he notes that having Krueger’s glove is bizzare and that perhaps Marge had an affair with Krueger in the years prior. Dr. Tobia’s concludes this “would be consistent with her having separated from her husband, but turned a blind eye to her boyfriend’s conduct towards her daughter.”

Ultimately, Dr. Tobia’s conclusion about the film is that “Nightmare then is not merely about Sleep and Awake Disorders such as Nightmare Disorder or Narcolepsy. Nancy’s sleep pathology is likely due to Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, having been a victim of childhood sexual abuse.”

While Dr. Tobia’s knows psychology, we’ve seen the film many times and can spot some holes in his argument. We also can’t help but recognize the similarities between his analysis and the contents of 2010’s A Nightmare on Elm Street as well as several fan theories we’ve come across over the years.

For Dr. Tobia’s full insight, click here to read his entry. And let us know what you think about his diagnosis.