February 16, 2013

“I Guess this is My Own War:" The Rise and Fall of Alice Johnson as Champion in A Nightmare on Elm St. 4 and 5 by Scott Fynboe

Author’s note: This essay contains a number of hyperlinks. I recommend opening them in a new tab/browser window, whenever possible.

By 1988, the basic tropes of the slasher film were firmly in place. Two movies in particular, John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and Sean Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980), had, early on, established the premise of a silent, masked maniac systematically killing off teenagers and young adults.

At the same time, these two movies also set up the primary roles of the female within the sub-genre: the woman as monster fighter and as actual monster. Carpenter’s film ends with a young Laurie Strode battling against her insane brother, Michael, and surviving his assaults. In last act of Cunningham’s story, the killer is revealed to be Pamela Voorhees, who has been avenging her son’s death.

Both of these films were hugely successful and launched decade-spanning franchises. As such, any 80s slasher movie that had a similar goal (do big box-office business and establish a legacy) would have to follow suit. The female had to be either victor or vanquished. [1]

Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm St. (1984) followed Carpenter’s model but then upped the ante by making the female a conqueror.  In it, a teenage girl, Nancy Thompson, doesn’t just fight evil like Laurie Strode, she triumphs by literally pulling a dream demon into the “real world” and turning her back on the horror.

The movie, then, is a horror film but an empowering “chick flick” in disguise.

This alone would make Nightmare a stand-out among its peers, but the film also had something else: the perfect monster. Freddy Krueger had not only a distinct look and weapon, but also, with an experienced, classically trained actor in the role, a charismatic style that set him apart from Michael Meyers and Jason Voorhees.

In short, Freddy Krueger was easy to market. He was bankable, and Hollywood took advantage of his star power. By the close of the decade, products ranging from baseball cards to a board game to an alarm clock bore his scarred likeness.

The “Springwood Slasher” was a small-screen star as well. He showed in up music videos and as a special guest host on MTV. In October 1988, he had his own show, Freddy’s Nightmares. A few months later, he would be honored with an NES video game, a handheld squirt toy and what every movie icon – real or fictional – dreamt of at the time, his very own “1-900” number.

It’s safe to say that the U.S. had not experienced such an “F-man Mania” since Fernando Valenzuela stepped out of the Dodgers’ dugout in 1981.

My point is this: at the close of the Reagan years, the Nightmare series was the biggest franchise in American horror. As such, its screenwriters and directors had the power and potential to either move the sub-genre’s treatment of women into new territory or simply uphold the status quo. They could either show their female leads as conquerors and champions, or as easily frightened, easily trounced teenagers.

Ultimately, they did both. Alice Johnson, the heroine of 1988’s A Nightmare on Elm St. 4: The Dream Master, starts out as a nebbish, awkward daydreamer who rises to become a demi-god – a powerful, moral counterbalance to Freddy’s evil.

But in the follow-up film, The Dream Child, Alice is changed. Her powers and abilities are whittled down by the filmmakers; she goes from plot focus to plot point. By the end of the movie, she is doubled over on a stone floor, unable to deliver the final blow.

She is both victor and vanquished. At best, she is a missed opportunity to create a powerful hero. At worst, she is a heavyweight champion who has her title unceremoniously stripped from her waist.

The Dream Master brings Alice into the picture (no pun intended) pretty early, and her first scene with Kristen, the previous film’s heroine, tells us a lot.
The most obvious thing is her look. She’s unassuming, wearing little makeup, and her hair is strawberry blonde, almost to the point of being deep red. Her mustard cardigan and flannel jumper dress combination suggests a homely, matron-like quality. [2]

In a word, her features are plain; the antithesis of the sultry, peroxide bombshell found in the era’s horror films.

Beyond these superficial details, Alice’s personality is also introduced. She is shy and quiet – shown not only in how she stands (clutching her notebooks to her chest) and speaks (soft, delicate, and almost fae-like), but also by the picture-filled collage covering her bedroom mirror, which we see in a subsequent scene.

This collage, aside from being a plot point I’ll get to in a moment,  also represents something dark about Alice’s personality and psyche. The first time it’s seen in the film, her brother, Rick, mentions that the pictures defeat the purpose of a mirror, which is “to see yourself in it.” Alice replies by shrugging and saying, “I don’t want to.”

The response gives a clear window into Alice’s mindset, revealing her to be introverted and low on self-esteem. Rather than look at herself, she prefers the images of her friends and family, favors replaying their lives and times with her as memories and daydreams. [3] She doesn’t live life on her own—she lives life through them.

And they live through her, literally. Once her friends begin dropping off from a re-born Freddy, Alice “absorbs” their skills and personality traits, incorporating them into her own.

But that’s jumping ahead a little bit. Alice’s supernatural talents do not begin to manifest until after Freddy is on-screen. One night, after being drugged to sleep, Kristen confronts Freddy and, in a moment of panic, pulls Alice into the dream. [4]

And that’s when things get weird. Freddy attacks Kristen but, before she dies, she tells Alice to “use [her] power” and throws a ball of blue light. Intended for Alice, the ball passes through Freddy first before striking her in the chest and knocking “the new girl” back into the real world.

This transference of power is an interesting moment. As the film moves forward, the audience comes to realize that the ball of light mutated while passing through Freddy. The power it held is no longer simply the ability to pull living people into dreams, but also kind-of-sort-of the reverse. Alice is able to pull from the talents of the [dead] souls trapped in Krueger’s “body” and use those skills in both the dream and waking worlds alike.

With each successive death in the film, Alice grows stronger. First to die is Sheila, who grants Alice increased perception, intelligence, and a sense of resourcefulness. Next is Rick, who bestows her with karate skills and the willpower to stand up for herself. Last is Debbie, whose gift is her faux-punk style and physical strength obtained from bodybuilding.

Coinciding with each kill are scenes of Alice going to her mirror and removing photos of the deceased.

The symbolism of this act is obvious, almost heavy-handed. If the obscured mirror is the act of a sentimental and/or shy teenager, then the steady removal of photos and reveal of Alice’s face is a representation of maturation. She is growing from within, becoming confident and comfortable with herself.

And she can wield nunchucks.

Simultaneously, she also begins to see her role—if not her destiny—in the greater scheme of things. When asked at one point why she is not afraid that Freddy will kill her, Alice explains, “Kristen was the last child of the people who killed Freddy. Maybe Freddy can’t get to the new kids unless there’s someone to bring them to him.”

In other words, Alice is a gate. Freddy derives his power from the souls of the people he kills, but before they can reach him, they have to pass through Alice.

Thus, Alice must become the master, the guardian of that gate. If she does not want souls going to Freddy, then she must retain them, protect them and block the flow. [5] Three friends have slipped by her before she realizes this about herself, and although it is never said in the film, Alice makes a vow that no more shall pass and decides to confront the monster once and for all.

To prepare for this final showdown, Alice first takes sleeping pills and begins assembling her armaments by wrapping her body in various clothing pieces and accessories that all belonged to her friends. The scene is eerily reminiscent of the “suiting up” scenes in hyper-macho action films such as Commando and Rambo: First Blood Part II:

“Fuckin’ A” is right. Clad in leather, spikes, and denim, hair swept back into a ponytail, and carrying the talents of five people in her (including herself), Alice is no longer the mousy, easily embarrassed girl we met at the start of the film. She is a parallel to Sarah Connor of T2 (minus a high-powered sniper rifle), Buffy Summers of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer (minus the Whedon quick wit), and Ellen Ripley of Aliens (minus a Caterpillar P-5000 Powered Work Loader). [6]

With a flying kick through the mirror, the climactic fight commences in a decrepit church with a “Kung Foley” fight scene straight out of a 70s martial-arts flick:

The crucial moment in the fight, though, is the transition away from the kung fu and to the second half of the battle, signaled by Freddy appearing behind Alice and whispering, “You think you’ve got what it takes? I’ve been guarding my gate for a long time, bitch.”

This line is important, perhaps the most important in the entire film. It’s Freddy acknowledging Alice’s powers. He recognizes that his opponent is not another Nancy Thompson, a young girl who shows some cleverness by setting booby traps in her house and luring Krueger into the real world to be attacked. [7] No, what he’s facing is a potential equal: a gate master/dream guardian whose abilities rival his own.

Yet “the man of our dreams” is not easily rattled by this recognition. After surviving an assault by an amped-up, electrical bug zapper, he demonstrates to Alice their fundamental difference: Freddy is immortal, Alice is not. It doesn’t matter to him that she has the ability to put up a good fight because, in his view, he can still win the war—even if he loses the battle.

Alice is not done, though. In a gender-reversed callback to the Perseus-Gorgon myth, Alice holds a mirror to Freddy’s face (thereby showing him his own evil ways) and recites the final lines of the “dream master” poem, which cripples and destroys Krueger.

Earlier, the film shows that Alice does not remember the final couplet. Recalling it at this moment signifies that Alice has reached a new level. She is not simply a girl facing evil, or even a challenge for evil. She is the diametrically opposing force to evil —equal in all things except mortality. At the close of The Dream Master, Alice is the Springwood equivalent to the “Men in Black”: A person who acts as the first, last, and only hope for humans when all other methods and tactics have failed.

If one definition of a “chick flick” is “a film that shows a woman displaying a high level of ass-kicking ability,” then Nightmare 4 fits the bill. On the surface, it is a generic 80s slasher film where a supernatural monster kills off a group of people. But it is also the tale of a young female’s journey into not only adulthood, but also into the realm of the superhuman, the divine.

As the end credits roll, the audience is left with a character who not only upholds the traditional image of woman as protector, but also a defender: in other words, a Dream Master who is also a Dream Warrior, a heroine who easily belongs in the horror (if not action) movie hall of fame.

And then there’s The Dream Child.

The Dream Child opens with a scene of passionate lovemaking that quickly morphs into a psycho-sexual nightmare full of rape imagery. [8]

After this sequence ends, we get our first clear shots of Alice in Nightmare 5, and it’s obvious that a year has brought some changes. [9]

In the follow-up, Alice’s hair is longer, fuller, and blonde. She is more made-up, and although it’s not evident in this particular shot, she shows her bare flesh to the audience more than once. In short, her physical presence on screen is now more in line with the stereotype slasher-film female. 

It’s not just her physical appearance that has been altered. Her abilities, also, seem to have changed as well. At her high school graduation, she confronts her boyfriend Dan about suspicions that Freddy is aiming to return. Referring back to the previous film, she says, “I just felt like I wasn’t in control for the first time since all that.”

Naturally, he tries to reassure Alice that Krueger’s return isn’t possible. What’s interesting, though, is how he phrases it: “Look, if you don’t dream him up, he can’t hurt you or us.”

Dan actually reminds Alice of her own powers. Yes, she may remember that she can control her dreams, but Dan needs to refresh her on just how much control she has. Alice is the Dream Master and, it’s up to her, not Freddy, to decide if the monster returns.

In other words, if she doesn’t want to face evil, she doesn’t have to. This scene, then, marks the first time that Alice stumbles in her “career” as guardian.

Maybe we can forgive her. She is graduating, after all.

That night, Alice finds herself back in the dream world, watching Amanda Krueger give birth to a squirming, deformed creature that leaps off the table, slithers down a hall, and leads Alice to the church sanctuary of Dream Master’s climax. There, the malformed baby crawls up to the trademark red-and-green sweater and, despite Alice’s protests, rises up as an adult Freddy.

Now, when Freddy first sees an adult Nancy Thompson in Dream Warriors, he instantly recognizes and acknowledges her with a jaded “you.” Here, though, looking at the face of his equal-in-all-things-except-mortality archrival, he opens his arms and quips, “It’s a boy!”

For the second time in only a few minutes, Alice’s role and status as demigod and Dream Master has been diminished. Freddy’s line establishes the champion as unworthy of recognition. He could have said something like “Round two, bitch” or “Welcome home” or even just sighed her name – all of which would imply that he had been stewing in some infernal jail, waiting for the opportunity to re-challenge Alice.

But, no, he cracks a joke that Alice (and the audience, I assume) doesn’t find funny. Thankfully, she dismisses the comedy and, like the badass she is supposed to be, gets to the point in stating, “You can’t come back! I shut the door on you!” Freddy’s response is promptly humorless. Alice has set the tone of their meeting, and he follows suit by seductively caressing Alice’s abdomen, cryptically saying that he “found the key.”

What Freddy means is that Alice is pregnant. And that Freddy is using the fetus’ dreams to gain the strength to enter Alice’s friends’ dreams and kill them. And then Freddy feeds their souls to the fetus. Which then helps transform the fetus into Freddy. And that’s so Freddy can be born and attack people in the waking world? Wait. As an infant? So, he wants to go around slashing people’s kneecaps? Or, wait – maybe, he’ll be born as a fully adult Fred—

You know what, forget it.  I’ve watched this movie a dozen times in my life, and I’m still not sure what Freddy’s plan is.

What I am sure of is that Alice gains no new powers from her friend’s deaths. No physical strength, no enhanced constitution, nothing. Not even the skill to toss a perfect spiral on a slant play from former quarterback/boyfriend, Dan.

To recap: At the end of her first movie, Alice Johnson is a powerful woman. In the waking world, she has confidence. In the dream world, she is capable of fist-fighting a dream demon to a draw. Yet halfway through her second outing, she’s powerless. She has kind of forgotten what she is – the “guardian of the gate of good dreams” – along with the fact that that status gives her the ability to control her dreams and prevent evil from rising.

Also, her title of “Dream Master” is taken away through Freddy’s dismissal and the fact that her past battle, victory, and/or abilities are mentioned only once, briefly, at the start of the film.

This is not to say that Alice is completely diminished, though. She still has moments that exemplify her hero status. For example, she’s loyal to and defensive of her unborn son. When her friend Mark asks if abortion is a possible option, Alice dismisses the thought. She has seen an ultrasound, felt the child’s heartbeat. Plus, she says, the child is “part of me and Dan.”

Then, moments later, Dan’s parents confront Alice and attempt to coerce her into letting them adopt the child, noting that they “have a legitimate claim to it” (emphasis mine). Alice fires right back, displaying her bad-ass confidence: “He’s not a thing! He’s part of me!”

Both of these are strong, waking world moments from the character, showing that her determination and will have not faded, even if her powers have. [10]

Alice’s self-assurance carries over into the dream world as well. At the start of the terminal dream sequence, she:

A.) saves her friend Yvonne from an attack by ramming a pool skimmer through Freddy’s mouth.

B.) calls Freddy out with the line “Come on, you fucking coward!”

C.) impales Freddy with a demonic, spiked baby carriage when he does show up.

Yet all of these badass moments turn out to be short-lived victories. Just before the “fucking coward” line, Alice calls to Freddy, “Come on out, Krueger! I was stronger than you! So you picked on [my unborn son] Jacob! You bastard!” (Again, emphasis mine.)

The past tense here is revealing. While it reaffirms Alice’s legacy, it also suggests that she is aware that time and pregnancy have weakened her. She has gone from kung-fu-fighting to spider-freak-out.

The line also indicates that Alice is aware Freddy no longer sees her as any real threat to him. It calls back to Alice’s self-esteem issues at the start of Dream Master, standing in front of the obscured mirror. Alice is insulted that her nemesis has decided to attack another defenseless target. He has negated her first victory and dismissed both her champion title and her personhood. Alice is defined by her ability to make a child—her womb—not by her intensity, resourcefulness, or fists.

Traditionally, such an affront would serve as a way for the hero to “dig deep” and find a last bit of fortitude to fight back. But this isn’t possible in Nightmare 5, for that reserve tank of resolve is filled with Freddy himself. As Jacob explains during the showdown, because Freddy has been overtaking the fetus, he [Krueger] has been hiding inside Alice, in her womb. The two heavyweights are symbiotically linked. The woman has become one with the monster.

Therefore, Alice must force the monster out of her body to confront him. However, feeding the souls directly to Jacob has prevented her from harnessing their abilities to enhance her own. Though she puts up a good struggle and even gets Freddy in a chokehold, once the two are separated, a weakened Alice staggers back like a prizefighter on the ropes.

But, in a very strange moment (for the Nightmare films), Freddy does not immediately lunge for the kill. Instead, he puts his arms around Alice and gently kisses her cheek. [11]

This moment is unique, as no other Nightmare film (including the 2010 remake of the original) shows any sort of gentleness from Freddy. In all the other movies, his kisses are fatal, his romance, deviant. Yet here he displays genuine tenderness.

I honestly think the move was born from Robert Englund’s classical theater background, but on-screen it comes off as Freddy showing respect. Here, the horror-movie female is not the stereotyped “dumb blonde,” “girl easily freaked out by spiders or snakes,” or even “slut.” Nor is she the female of Cunningham, Craven, or Carpenter’s design – she is not the monster (anymore), the monster slayer, or simply a resilient, resourceful heroine.

Alice is something more. Yes, she is vanquished, but she is worthy of something better than a quick, brutal disembowelment. Freddy feels he has beaten his greatest foe, and he gives her a “you did good, kid – I commend you” kiss.

Then he lets her slump to the floor, defeated.

Of course, it is Freddy himself who is defeated seconds later by Jacob, and we are left at the end with an epilogue of Alice, her father, Yvonne, and a newborn Jacob having a picnic on a sunny afternoon.

The end.


Well, not really.

Post Dream Child, Alice Johnson became a fan-favorite character. She appears in early drafts of Freddy vs. Jason and plays pivotal roles in multiple comic book series, official novels, and anthologized stories. Each time, she is portrayed as a capable hero – strong, smart, clever, and always fighting to protect others from the monster’s wrath.

These expanded works build on Alice’s role as the guardian of the gate, showing her forever locked in a constant war to contain Freddy. As she ages and Jacob grows up, she passes her powers on to her son, making him the new gatekeeper and Krueger’s equal opposite.

In other words, the expanded universe does what Dream Child does not – keep Alice as a Dream Master. While the film shows her pregnancy as a source of strength (in that she has a reason to keep on fighting and “doing her duty”), it never expands on this idea or plays it out to any satisfactory conclusion. Instead of keeping or adding to her power, she is left powerless.

This is because the movie caters to Freddy’s popularity and the audience’s desire to see him on screen – rather than take after the earlier films in the series, which were story and character-driven. Freddy returns too soon in Dream Child, before Alice learns she is pregnant. Therefore, she is “forced” to give Jacob her powers (she has no other option).

It would have been a different tale if Alice learned of Freddy’s return after she discovers her pregnancy. Then, she might have retained her agency by making the choice to be a mother and to pass on her power. Alice could have followed up on her previous battle by acknowledging that the only real difference between her and Freddy is mortality. Knowing that she cannot live forever but that Krueger can, she could have made Jacob her successor, so as to protect the next generation.

Hell, if they had thought of it, the screenwriters could have added plot elements that mirror the comic book films of today – showing how power and heroism take a severe toll on a person. They could have deepened the character and given not just horror fans, but movie fans in general, a new heroine to exalt.

But the filmmakers did not go this route, and the audience is left to pay the price. What began as a tale of a shy, young woman who transforms into someone that can look evil in the eye without flinching ends with her hunched over on a stone floor. And in the movies, the audience’s idea of Alice as a Dream Master is little more than one of the character’s own daydreams.



1. Or “the victim.” Picture the cliché image of the sexy cheerleader who gets tripped up by a tree root, allowing the monster ample time to strike. For purposes of this essay, I’m considering the victim as a variation of “the vanquished.” The victim may not be a monster, but she is defeated by something.

2. Alice’s father criticizes her outfit in this scene, by the way, invoking the old “you’re not going to school dressed like that, are you?” argument. Since she is dressed like a country wife, I can only wonder what her father wants her to wear. Perhaps a neon pink shirt, a pair of zebra-striped pants, and a lot of jelly bracelets. Hey, it’s the 80s after all.

3. At multiple points in the film, Alice is shown to be an “expert” daydreamer and fantasy maker.

4. In the previous film, it’s established that Kristen has the ability to pull other sleeping people into her dream to be her “allies” against Freddy.

5. This idea is never really directly stated in the film and only becomes clear near the very end (if not after multiple viewings). The closest the film gets to explaining Alice’s role is via a history class lecture: “There is a myth that there’s two gates your soul can enter. One is a positive gate, the other, a negative gate. The key element is that there’s a dream master, someone who guards the positive gate and, in fact, protects the sleeping host.”

6. I feel like such a nerd right now.

7. The Dream Master is the first film in the series where Freddy is completely beaten in his own element, the dream world. Interestingly, the only other film where this happens is The Dream Child. (All his other cinematic defeats are, at least partially, in the waking world.)

8. There is a lot of parent-daughter conflict, rape, and abortion imagery in this film – so much that the topic could be explored in an essay by itself. However, since my focus is on the downfall of Alice as a champion, I’ve avoided the sexual politics of the film (not to mention its male director and all-male screenwriting crew), except where these issues directly affect the heroine.

9. The Dream Child was released almost one year to the day after Dream Master. The film, however, gives no indication how much time has passed in the fictional world.

10. An argument can be made that the powers she obtained in Nightmare 4 were temporary, leaving her when the friend’s souls are freed and ascend to Heaven at the end. But since the film is not clear on this, a counterargument can be made that the powers were permanent additions to Alice’s life. Obviously, I subscribe to the latter theory.

11. The filmmakers chose to punctuate the shot with the sound effect of a “slurp.” If you watch the shot without sound though, it’s really romantic.

Scott Fynboe is a former disc jockey and pop-culture journalist from Binghamton, NY. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in specs, The Los Angeles Review, The Naugatuck River Review, and Milk Money. He lobbied to have Dokken’s “Dream Warriors” be his wedding song, but the idea was shot down.

1 comment:

TarzanG1987 said...

First of this is an amazing article, like truly an amazing article, one that I can agree with a lot!

I always felt that Alice was a more powerful character than Nancy in the Nightmare series. Nancy had to bring Freddy into the real world to defeat him and then in their 2nd battle, needed the outside power of Neil doing a burial ceremony of Freddy's remains. Alice is the first to challenge Freddy on his turf, a playing field where he has no equal....until Alice.

When he tells her: "You think you got what it takes? I've been guarding my gate for a long time"
I never thought of it as Freddy acknowledging her power and her worthiness as an opponent. However it makes sense because I don't think he saw Nancy as a worthy challenger, just the woman who challenged his immortality by so easily defeating him with the simple gesture of turning her back on him.
Freddy further shows his respect to Alice by using her child to be the gateway to him being reborn back I to the world. I personally think that he was using the innocence of the baby Jacob yo strengthen himself again and in the process weaken Alice, as the Dream Master. I believe the reason for Alice not being as strong in Dram Child, does more with Jacob growing inside of her and taking her strength and mayber her powers as well. Nevertheless Alice displays her Dream Master powers a few times in Dream Child, like when Mark firat was being caught by Freddy, Alice drew herself into Marks dream! Also she used that spiked baby carriage to attack Freddy and summoned the 1000 maniacs to attack Freddy. Alice was still powerful but once Freddy separated himself from her body, that weakened her just enough to make her vulnerable.
With all that said, I truly love this article and I applaud your keen eye to certain details