Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Pied Piper Comes for Elm Street

PREFACE: No, don’t worry. This isn’t a review of a bad movie that came out last year. I’m going somewhere with this one.


When Freddy Krueger swore to come back and exact his vengeance on the children, I’m sure the angry PTA meeting that torched him didn’t expect for his return to come in the form of a terrible movie years after the character had lost any shred of cultural relevancy. But that’s exactly how he struck back in the 2010 remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street. In some respects, this movie fares better than the later Elm Street sequels, but I would actually say it’s overall worse by virtue of the fact that the people creating it drained the story of the blood that made the original ones so interesting. Simply put, it lacks the perverse humor. And I realize that Freddy’s tendency for one-liners ultimately killed the original series, too, but in the beginning it at least made him more interesting than the Jason Voorheeses stalking their prey without any hint that they were enjoying their work. Freddy, at least, loves his job, and you have to hand it to someone who finds his true calling.

So that’s that: I didn’t like this movie, I shouldn’t have Netflixed it, I in fact can’t remember why I Netflixed it and I only watched it because it was there, in its tidy red envelope, daring me to push off sleep for two hours. And yeah, I slept just fine. This new Nightmare — not to be confused with 1994’s New Nightmare — wasn’t scary.

However, I have to hand it to the writers that they at least made a parallel between Freddy Krueger and a literary character who, upon close inspection, is damn creepy: the Pied Piper. The connection is made directly; e teacher is shown reading the story to the children whom Freddy would later kill in their teen years. But it is a valid comparison. Both Krueger and the Piper get wronged by the adults of a community who underestimate their target’s ability to exact revenge. And both men ultimately focus their anger on the children, the loss of whom seriously undermines their respective communities’ abilities to survive. And if you think that the Elm Street movies are unique in having the avenger kill off the children, know that you may have been read a sanitized version of the Pied Piper story. In the darker versions, the kids are never heard from again, in the darker yet they’re drowned in the same river where the piper exterminated the rats, and in the darkest they meet even more grisly ends. (Well, it’s certainly more direct than waiting to kill them in their dreams.)

But this should raise a question: Why the hell do we have this story? (I mean the Pied Piper of Hamelin — the Freddy Krueger story persists because New Line Cinema likes money, obvs.) But isn’t this an especially fucked-up story, even for a fairy tale? And why would this be something people have been repeating for hundreds of years? Well, it apparently has a real-life basis. Wikipedia states that the town record for Hamelin town features an entry from 1384 that ominously states, “It is 100 years since our children left.” The following have been suggested as possible explanations for why a specific town would have a story about the children leaving. Some to consider:
  • Was it an epidemic? Symbolically, it seems obvious, given how the story links the children with rats, and rats have historically spread disease, but apparently the rats haven’t always been part of the story. I have to say that this fact puzzles me, since without the rats it’s basically just a story about the kids being murdered by a weirdo in a clown suit. Oh wait, isn’t that It?
  • Was it the Children’s Crusade? You know, that time a bunch of kids allegedly went to the most Muslim-y part of the Middle East to convert people to Christianity? If that doesn’t already sound like history’s worst idea ever, none of the children who left on this mission converted a single Muslim, for most never left Europe and many just got sold into slavery. Gosh, times were different when people did all sorts of crazy stuff based on some silly misinterpretation about how Jesus wanted them to spend their lives.
  • Was it a psychopathic pedophile? That’s what this one guy guessed in his book about the Middle Ages. (I hope he wonders if all of mid-millennium European history was actually caused by psychopathic pedophiles!)
  • Did they wander into the hills outside Hamelin, where something horrible happened to them? Maybe. According to one fifthteenth-century poem detailing the events surrounding the Pied Piper incident, the children may have wandered into the Koppen, or hills. But the phrase could be translated variously as meaning that they literally went into the hills, that they were “lost to the hills” in a euphemistic way, that the kids “lost their heads” (again in a euphemistic way), or that someone cut all of their heads off. This is why poetry is maybe not the best way to communicate news. I feel like if more than a hundred children had their heads lopped off in some spooky woods, that should be the thrust of the story, not the fact that the man who plied the flute wore multicolored clothing. (That’s what pied means, by the way.) The story should be called “The Time They Found Those One Hundred Missing Kids, and Then They Found Their Heads, and That’s Why We Don’t Go Into the Fucking Hills Anymore.”
  • Or did the kids simply move away? This is by far my favorite theory — and a completely understandable one on the part of the emigrating children, because who wants to live in the fucking rat capital of Germany?
In closing, I’d like to say that I don’t know whether to thank the reboot Nightmare on Elm Street or to laugh in its face. Either way, it tried to scare me and ended up only teaching about European history. And by “teaching me about European history,” I of course mean “sending me to Wikipedia, where I read enough to satisfy my curiosity and did not pursue the matter further, as is the current custom.”

3 comments:

  1. OK, I know I say all of your blog posts are awesome, but this one is even more awesome than your average blog post. Why? There are three main reasons:

    1) I've never read an article or post (or anything else) that spent equal time talking about A Nightmare on Elm Street and the Pied Piper.

    2) As soon as I'm done writing and posting this comment, I'm going to read up on Pied Piper. Why? I want to know how the kids die in the darkest versions of the tale. (Yes, I know that makes me all sorts of wrong.)

    3) Your renaming of the Pied Piper story -- “The Time They Found Those One Hundred Missing Kids, and Then They Found Their Heads, and That’s Why We Don’t Go Into the Fucking Hills Anymore" -- literally made me LOL for a good few minutes.

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  2. Dunno much about the Pied Piper, but I wanted to heartily recommend The Sweet Hereafter if you have not yet seen it. It uses the story as well. The book is good, too, but doesn't use the Pied Piper metaphor.

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  3. You know, I'd never thought of that comparison before, but it's pretty apt. I keep meaning to write a Pied Piper post, but I'm not sure what I can add that you didn't already mention here.

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