I HAVE THIS thing for DVD commentaries.
I know that the standard procedure is that first, you watch the movie, then you watch with the commentary. I tend to do it the other way around. Sometimes, a commentary is like a guided tour through a movie. Sometimes, when you listen, you find a way to think about the movie differently.
Last weekend, since I was bored and had nothing else to do, I decided to watch A Nightmare On Elm Street. I had listened to the commentary before, but hadn’t really paid much attention to what Wes Craven and the others were saying. I know that writer/director Wes Craven has a degree in philosophy and that he spent some time teaching humanities.
Funny, so many “philosophers” get all gooed up over the philosophical tone of Woody Allen movies (who hasn’t a philosophy degree), but ignore directors like Wes Craven, who does.
Arguably, horror movies are fluff, and not to be taken seriously.
However, this is not always the case.
Wes Craven said that A Nightmare On Elm Street has — gasp — a philosophical underpinning. That is, the movie is more than a slasher flick about a melted faced dude with a crappy sweater who kills you in your sleep.
The philosophical underpinning of A Nightmare On Elm Street is this: Sleep, says Craven, symbolizes the lack of knowledge of truth.
I suppose that’s a capital “T” truth, which is a pretty big deal in philosophy.
Craven says that to survive, one must be awake, know what the truth is, face it, and deal with it. He says that the Elm Street parents’ unwillingness to deal with Truth causes problems for their children — namely, a rather ominous problem called Freddy Krueger.
Nancy, the film’s heroine, ultimately lives because she stays awake. Nancy faces the Truth, and that’s what saves her life.
At least until part 3 or something.
The idea of dealing and seeking truth (oops, Truth) is a grand tradition, not just in philosophy, but culturally. in the New Testament, John 8:32 reads, ” You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free”. Theologians and philosophers believe Truth is essential for knowledge.
Philosophers say, to say that we truly “know” something, it must also (actually) be True.
For instance, if I claim that I know there’s a photograph of a sexy guy eating chocolate, there must actually be a sexy man eating chocolate for my claim to be true.
The corresponding image to my claim must be something like this:
Instead of this:
As we see in the real world and on fictional Elm Street, a world with no Truth is a dangerous place to live.
That was difficult to say, given my postmodernist inclinations.
We must know the Truth, even if knowing the Truth isn’t pleasant. In On Truth, Harry G. Frankfurt says, “some people would advise us that there may be realities so frightening, that we would be better off not knowing anything about them.” Frankfurt insists that, no matter what may frighten us about the Truth, it is always better to know (and face) the Truth than to be ignorant of it.
Hiding won’t lessen the danger that we face. If we know the Truth, Frankfurt tells us, we can better deal with the danger. If the parents of Elm Street had told their children what they did, their children would have been equipped to deal with Freddy.
Wait a minute. Did I already tell everybody what the parents did?
Because the Elm Street parents failed to tell their children the Truth, their children died. That is, except for Nancy, who was determined to find out who was haunting her in her dreams. Frankfurt says that without Truth, we are either wrong or unable to develop opinions about the world ( in the absence of Truth, how are we to think about anything?). Frankfurt says, without Truth we cannot know what is going on in the world. Frankfurt writes that we may be blissfully ignorant for a time, but that blissful ignorance only works for a short while. In the end, it only serves to make matters worse. Ignorance, Frankfurt says, leaves us in the dark.
Likewise, without Truth, the kids of Elm Street are left unprotected in the realm of dreams — in the darkness of their sleep. Like the Bible and Craven, Frankfurt says that the Truth is liberating.
When Nancy realizes that Freddy isn’t real (read: True) he loses his power.
Thinking about all of this, I suddenly had one of thoee moments when you kind of hear your head exploding because you’ve realized what something really means, and I had a single thought — Plato’s Cave. The Allegory of Plato’s Cave, found in Book VII, sec. 1 of Plato’s Republic ( for anyone who might want to look it up) is all about the idea of coming out of the shadows and into the light of Truth.
Inside of the cave prisoners are chained up in a way that they can see nothing other than the wall in front of them. They cannot move. A fire burns behind them that casts shadows on the wall in front of them. The prisoners think that the shadows that the see and the echoes of the voices that they hear is how the world really is. If we unchain one of the prisoners, Plato says, and take him out of the cave and into the light, he will be blinded by the sun and overwhelmed by what he sees.
He will initially refuse to believe that the world that he sees around him in the light is the real world. He will attempt to cling to the reality that he has always known (the world of darkness). Eventually, his eyes will adjust to the light and he will see things as they really are. If we take him back into the cave, he will not be able to function in that un-reality. For Plato, the sun equals knowledge. People must be released from the dark (where we are kept ignorant) and brought into the light if we are to see the world as it truly is. This is so, even if what we see is unpleasant.
For Plato, for Wes Craven, and Frankfurt, the Truth can’t really hurt hurt us. The Truth can only help us to deal with the world in a competent, empowered way — well equipped to face whatever comes to harm us.
Even if it takes until the third film in the series for the harm to catch up with us.
Even though the Truth can be unpleasant, it is better to know. It is better to feel the brilliance of the sun — to know the Truth rather than to live governed by irrational fear and error.
AND if you don’t face the Truth, this will happen to you.