A Nightmare of Progressive Violence: Desensitization’s Role in the Horror Film Genre

“If movies are the dreams of the mass culture…horror movies are the nightmares”                                                                                           – Stephen King, Danse Macabre

© Copyright 2018 Courtney MacKerricher, Ryerson University

A History of Violent Entertainment

For centuries, violence has been used as a form of public entertainment, from the days of Roman gladiator battles to the contemporary thrill of action-packed adventures displaying across a screen. It is through these vicarious terrors that spectators can challenge their abilities and fight their internal predispositions to fear when faced with moral danger, only without the possibility of risk. Through films such as the series A Nightmare on Elm Street, originally directed by Wes Craven, “such works challenge our instinctive denial of our most primitive layers of fear and aggression” to the point where a viewer can learn to “steel” themselves, thus managing control of their instincts and ability to witness violence (Bok, 28). These works position the viewer to violence through “compassion fatigue,” a state of mind that provides the possibility of viewing violence as an “uninvolved bystander” (68). This purely aesthetic way of controlling fear promotes the encouragement of desensitization.

Bok describes desensitization as “the instinctive, utterly natural self-shielding against anxiety provoked by experiences that could otherwise be overwhelming” (67). This affect is a critical breakdown of the aftermath an audience can become susceptible to due to constantly progressing violence in mass media, whether it be through films or advertising boards on subway cars. Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and Samuel Bayer’s rendition of the film in 2010 demonstrate the drastic progression of the visual lexicon and how violence representation is vastly encouraged by the progression of technology.

How Technology Has Shaped the Genre: Plastic to Computer Perfect

“San Diego Comic-Con 2011 – Nightmare on Elm Street Freddy Krueger action figure diorama.” The Conmunity, July 24, 2011. Image. April 2, 2018

Since the beginning of the horror movie genre in the 1890’s, creating realistic monsters on-screen was a tiring and complicated task. The introduction of new technology has provided movie sets with enormous opportunity, whether it is the ability to create life-like monster masks through the introduction of foam and liquid latex or the recent advancement of computer generated imagery (CGI) to capture the realism of open wounds. Throughout the decades between 1980-2010, A Nightmare on Elm Street demonstrates these vast improvements to the special effects prosthetic and make-up world through its original and remake films. In the 1980’s, the original film did not have the luxury of CGI. Scenes such as Freddy Krueger’s expanding limps had to be done with practical effects such as using fishing string attached to the clothing of the character and having crew members pull the clothing from either side to capture his daunting appearance. These tactics are few and far between now as most production sets use CGI for all their visual effects. Bayer utilized this equipment to emphasize the wounds the characters acquired, for example, displaying Freddy lodging a pair of scissors out of his eye. With this advancement in visual technology, films have the capability to create virtually any scenario, realistic or not.

One of the most drastic differences in the two films is how the original highlights a fantasy version of Freddy whereas the remake transforms his character into a realistic monster, a child molester. The first display of violence in the original film begins when Tina encounters Freddy for the first time and he instructs her to watch him as he proceeds in slicing off his own fingers. The special effects at this time enabled Freddy’s character to exhibit bursting green goo to appear out of his fingers. Due to the colour of the blood and the way it unrealistically squirted like a water gun out of his body, the scene provides an audience with a more fantasy-like perspective, ultimately still demonstrating the necessary gore that the genre thrives off of. In contrast, the remake’s version of Freddy’s first gory encounter is catered towards a perspective of realism as Dean’s slashed arm in the diner oozes dark red blood through a liquid latex-shaped scratch mark. The contrast between these two establishing scenes greatly changes the outlook on Freddy’s character which represents the lengths new technology can achieve on-screen.

From Boogeyman to Child Molester: The Progression of Freddy’s Aggression

In the original, Freddy was illustrated as a sort-of boogeyman, someone who manifested in dreams and haunted the thoughts of children. His intentions were to kill a selection of children in retribution to their parents’ crimes against him: having him trapped and burned alive. There is little mention of what deeds he performed in order to receive such treatment, other than that Nancy was his favourite child. In the remake however, Freddy’s character is dramatically represented as a child molester, a realistic nightmare. These shifting perspectives through the narrative on the character’s role in the series provides an audience with a massive distinction between fantasy and realism horror and how the genre has violently progressed. Child molestation was not a well-addressed societal topic back in the 80’s, but in the present, stories of abduction and child molestation have become common on the news and on social media. Violence has instated itself as a popular topic of interest and because of this acknowledgment, horror movies tend to focus their attention towards societal issues, in a way that both initiates public interest and creates a growing acceptance of killing creatures, whether human or not (Picart and Browning, 2015).

An Open Door to Violence Grants Desensitization Access to Your Home

The acceptance of killing, a sign of desensitization, becomes clear through the amount of on-screen aggression and violence associated in the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street. In Craven’s version, the film focuses more on the story and less on jump scares. In other words, cheap fear. Though a definition of violence may seem easy to describe, W. James Potter argues that although we know what violence is when we witness it, it is difficult to universally “provide adequate guidance to judge whether something is violent or not across all the nuances and portrayals across all media” (89). For the purpose of examining violent-induced scenes in the original and the remake, the definition of violence used is as follows: violence is “physically aggressive behaviours that do, or potentially could, cause injury or death” (87). From a score of eighteen violence-induced scenes ranging from assembling booby-traps to the murders of Nancy’s childhood friends, the original portrayed a variety of violent scenes. In comparison to its 2010 rendition, Bayer’s remake produced thirty-three. That number is over double of what the original established, demonstrating a clear representation of how the genre has shaped over time to emphasize that violence is the key denominator in horror films and their sub cultural genres.

With this dramatic change in on-screen violence, it would be assumed that a change in audience appropriateness would accompany it; however, there was no change all. In Canada, the original and the remake were rated as 18A films, meaning anyone under the age of eighteen could be accompanied by an adult to watch to movie unless they are eighteen years of age or older, in which case, had freedom to watch if so desired. This fact is critical to understanding how desensitized society has become to media violence. It would be interesting to consider what the original film would be rated as in today’s contemporary world.

“A Nightmare on Elm Street Movie Poster.” Global Panorama, October 31, 2014. Image. April 2, 2018.

Baseball Bats and the Boogeymen: Cultural Tradition

From the beginning of the series, the original film illustrates how we are constantly surrounded by aspects of horror in our every day lives through the eyes of Nancy Thompson and her tactical ways of staying awake. One of the ways in which Nancy tries her best to fight off her obvious sleep deprivation is by watching The Evil Dead. This portrayal of horror culture is significant to desensitization’s role in the horror genre as it highlights how dissuaded from stimulation one can become. Nancy proves this to be true as she falls asleep while watching the film, demonstrating that even films such as The Evil Dead, filled with possessively murderous zombies, is not terrifying enough to keep her awake. This scene shows that even Nancy has become desensitized to cultural horror.

Although there are several other factors that can introduce desensitization into everyday life other than media such as home life, poverty, and daily acts of discrimination, is it important to articulate that films can represent and contribute to all of these factors as they can recreate them on-screen. Films are a gateway to presenting the horrors of the world to society, whether they categorize themselves in a fantasy, thriller genre or a horror genre ‘based on true events’. Due to the fact that these fears are prominent in the contemporary world, it is one of the reasons why the horror movie genre can be considered a genre for all to enjoy. Aside from the debate that the horror genre is particularly aimed towards the male gaze with a majority of audiences being male-based, Carol J. Clover (1997) argues that, although the repetition of a “Final Girl” in most slasher films may be considered a sexual tease “they are not in addition simpleminded, scheming, physically incompetent, and morally deficient” characters. They provide admirable qualities that both genders can appreciate.

Repetition of Fear Imagery, Fear Imagery, Fear Imagery

Repetition is one of the major concepts that encourages desensitization and also characterizes genre elements in film. If a viewer is continuously watching scenes of victims’ being slashed and displaying blood oozing out of their bodies, it can lead to the repression of fear stimuli as the event becomes less abrasive and more predicable. In an experiment done on fear stimulus in children through the repetition of frightening graphic exposure to a film on worms, the experimenters noticed that the more exposure children had to the film, the more it “increased [the] children’s enjoyment of the movie segment and reduced fear reactions to the scene” (Weiss et. all, 1993). This study should be considered when examining the opening credits of A Nightmare on Elm Street’s remake.

The remake begins with a montage of progressively violent images from scratched out school photos to the burning of wooden ABC blocks. The repetition of these images promotes an uneasy feeling to the general audience; however, this is exactly where desensitization makes its appearance as it prepares the audience for Freddy’s first encounter with Dean in the diner. Without the awareness of the audience, effects of desensitization can occur behaviourally, cognitively, or psychologically. For example, horror films tend to trigger cold sweats in hands and rapid or unnatural breathing patterns, but this can be altered. Potter states that media has the power to “create, alter, and reinforce attitudes” through effects such as behavioural training and emotional habituation (35). The media is able to strategically utilize the attraction of societal issues as the basis for change; it can easily promote desensitization or condemn it through censorship.

“A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)”, March 21, 2010. Image. April 2, 2018.

Government-Passed Violence Distribution

Another view on how violence has progressed in the series is through its marketing tactics. The movie posters for the original and the remake are recognizably different, to the point where it looks as though the remake is an entirely separate entity from its counterpart. The 1984 edition reveals Nancy under her bed sheets with a terrified look on her face while giant, sparkling knives from Freddy’s hand loom over her head. The poster demonstrates an aspect of innocence that does not appear in the remake’s principle of design as Nancy is engulfed in a pool of blood while Freddy lingers in the background of the photo. This innocence is crucial to the theme of fantasy horror that the original insinuates whereas the daunting red and black of the remake’s poster counteracts that the film is tailored to bloodshed.

Even in a scene comparison, as the remake’s poster is based off the ending of the film, Nancy’s escape from Freddy in the original involves marshmallow-like steps which she tugs free from while the remake plunges Nancy into a pool of blood in which she struggles to swim, almost drowning. Innocence is destroyed in the remake, further emphasizing the detachment between visual awareness to violence and voyeurism. Audiences tend to have a feeling of desire towards understanding how they position themselves to monsters. By engaging in this strategic positioning through marketing tactics and the films themselves, it terminates the barriers between real-life and fantasy (Picart and Browning). “Just as the attacker and attacked are expressions of the same self in nightmares…they are expressions of the same viewer in horror film[s];” (Clover, 12) we are both Nancy and Freddy Kruger.

Delectable Horror: How Much is “Too Much”? 

The need for violence has become essential in our contemporary world as it has fashioned itself as a form of pleasure. Bok states that violence “influences viewers at least as much as the advertising directed at them for the express purpose of arousing their desire for candy and toys” (59). By encouraging the progression of violence through the visual lexicon and further technological advances, desensitization becomes a significant issue to address. If candy and horror movies are considered pleasurable commodities, one associated with sugar and the other with violence, the question must be asked, where do we draw the line? The question of how much violence is too much unfortunately remains a mystery. One thing is for certain, it would not be harmful to eliminate some of the violence associated in media. By “reducing the amount of violence from its persistently high level,” it can be argued that film producers can produce horror movies that are pleasurable and still fit into the genre; instead of having thirty-three acts of violence, condense it to eighteen (Potter, 154).


Works Cited

Bok, Sissela. Mayhem: Violence as Public Entertainment. Perseus Books, 1998.

Clover, Carol J. Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton University, 1997.

Picart, Caroline Joan S., and John Edgar Browning, editors. Speaking of Monsters: A Teratological Anthology. Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Potter, W. James. The 11 Myths of Media Violence. Sage Publications, 2003.

Weiss, Audrey J., Dorothy J. Imrich, and Barbara J. Wilson. “Prior Exposure to Creatures from a Horror Film.” Human Communication Research 20.1 (1993): 41-66. Web. 10 Mar. 2018


Images in this online publication are either in the public domain or are being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education