'Nightmare' Film Casts Freddy as Child Molester

In Rob Zombie's 2007 reimagining of the horror classic Halloween, the director portrayed psychopathic butcher Michael Myers as a child, to unpack the reasons why he ended up a monster. The writers of the 2006 prequel The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning followed a similar path, tracing Leatherface's origins as a deformed orphan raised in a slaughterhouse. The idea when putting a fresh coat of paint on iconic slashers is to make them more relatable and sympathetic. That's why the rebooted A Nightmare on Elm Street, in theaters Friday, is shocking: it arguably makes shear-gloved Freddy Krueger less sympathetic. How? By making him a child molester.

Wes Craven's 1984 original gave Freddy, who kills his teenage victims while they dream, an unsettling backstory. Krueger was a child murderer in Craven's film, having killed 20 children in the neighborhood, only to be released because the search warrant that yielded the evidence was improperly signed. A mob of angry parents cornered Krueger in an abandoned boiler room and set him on fire, and the disfigured Krueger haunts their children's dreams, visiting upon them the sins of their fathers. In the new version, Krueger is a child molester who keeps Polaroids of his crimes in a shoebox. The arsonist mob attacks Krueger, in lieu of forcing their children to endure a lengthy trial. As horrific as is the thought of a child being killed, it apparently wasn't quite shocking enough for the Nightmare relaunch. Today, with concern about rampant child sexual abuse stitched into the zeitgeist—To Catch a Predator and Law & Order: SVU come to mind—a molester is the ultimate bogeyman.

Film theorists have long posited that horror movies reflect the collective fear of their audience, as in the 1950s when alien siege films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers channeled Cold War paranoia. The hysteria surrounding the abuse of children has never completely abated after the rash of alleged abuse at day-care centers in the 1980s. (Nightmare even makes reference to Krueger having abused his victims in a "secret cave," which parallels the "secret tunnels" of the McMartin preschool trial.) The sexual-abuse panic has only grown since then, due in large part to the access and anonymity the Internet provides, as well as to the seemingly endless accusations against Catholic priests. One of the top iPhone applications is a service that allows users to track registered sex offenders living in their neighborhoods.

While it's no surprise that the preoccupation with child sex abuse has bled into our pop culture—the lead characters of television's Saving Grace and United States of Tara are abuse survivors, for example—it is surprising that more and more films are dealing with the perpetrators of the crimes, rather than the victims. In Krueger's case, his awful deeds make him the ideal villain, as conventional wisdom declares abusers beyond rehabilitation, and certainly beyond redemption. But in others, filmmakers tackle the same challenge Rob Zombie tried with Michael Myers. Can you take the ultimate predator and make him sympathetic? Relatable? Human? Kevin Bacon starred as a convicted child molester in The Woodsman, and enfant terrible Todd Solondz wrote and directed Happiness, in which molester Bill Maplewood (Dylan Baker) was a main character. This summer, Solondz will check back in with Maplewood in a Happiness sequel called Life During Wartime.

If the sequel is anything like the original film, Wartime will have an extremely narrow release, and critics who praise it for sympathetically portraying a child molester will be flooded with hate mail from readers. The question at this point seems not to be whether or not a film or television show can humanize a child abuser. The question is, do we want it to?