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Genes, Memes, and Nightmares

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According to Wikipedia, Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) was made with a budget of $1,800,000, and earned box office receipts in excess of $25 million. The Nightmare franchise itself has earned over $500 million, making it one of the most lucrative series in American Horror film history. On April 30th 2010, the new "re-imagined" A Nightmare on Elm Street will be released raising the series total to nine films.

Freddy Krueger, the film's star, is a serial killer specializing in dispatching wayward teens with a leather glove tipped with razor blades. Krueger was burned alive in a boiler room by revenge seeking parents, and now terrorizes their progeny in dream states: "Fall asleep and your dead meat!" Of course, Freddy can't just kill anyone, his victims must first break the sacred rule: no sex under any circumstances!

Horror films are entertaining in so far as the teens that get killed are first morally diminished in the eyes of the audience, so that their death can be enjoyed under the guise of punishment: i.e., "She was a slut and got what she deserved!" Because women's value in patriarchy is largely determined by reproductive capacity, it is imperative that male dominated narratives control female sexuality to ensure the legitimacy of their heirs. Abstinence codes are genetically determined and the "no sex" proposition operates on a twofold patriarchal premise: 1) the future wife must be pure to sire the ideal son, or 2) the daughter must be pure to sire someone else's ideal son. Where do these inner voices come from, how are they transmitted, and why are they so hostile? A provisional answer may lie in he coordination of genes and memes.

All things considered, men will not raise another's seed, suggesting that virginity is a cultural mechanism whose origin might lie in the preservation of genetic purity. This biological imperative suggests that Horror films function as a cultural meme transmitting the codes of sexual activity along generational lines; hence, the generational "re-imaging" of Horror franchises like A Nightmare on Elm Street. Thus, genes and memes collude and compound one another to produce a larger cultural narrative embodied in the Slasher genre, and symbolized anthropomorphically in psycho killers like Freddy Krueger. Their murderous narratives demarcate the boundaries of patriarchal logic fueled by the singular imperative of controlled propagation, all buttressed against the backdrop of genetic annihilation.

Genes may also suggest a subconscious motive for the target demographic of Slasher films, adolescent men. In the open market of sexual attractiveness, women prefer tall athletic men; a formula that works well for a minority, but not the majority. Freddy Krueger may represent an extreme winnowing mechanism that cleaves out the superior competition, producing an implicit agreement with the audience at large that the last girl standing, the virgin, is now theirs to possess. The prize is symbolic, of course, but as psychoanalysis suggests, the unconscious mind accepts substitutes rather than nothing at all.

Box office receipts are a bare bones way of analyzing the popular appeal of films, and they do not reveal the subconscious appeal of Slasher films. Indeed, it is entirely unclear if studio executives have any interest in the psychological appeal of Horror films, outside of a return on their investment. Past box office success dictates the possibility of future success, and can motivate studio executives to green light a film like the re-imagining of A Nightmare on Elm Street. If culture is a mirror to human evolution, than does it not spring ultimately from our genes? Natural selection determines which genes are propagated and which fall to the wayside in the backdrop of environmental flux. Memes also strive for replication and succeed or fail on similar terms in the backdrop of social instability. By this criterion, then, the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise must be considered a successful meme. Suggesting that the social landscape in 1984 may be suitable for the return of the Freddy meme in 2010.