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The holiday horror anthology “Nightmare on 34th Street” looked promising, but an egregiously misplaced focus on mental illness left me cold.

Nightmare on 34th Street

Because it’s the most overtly fear-inducing genre, should horror filmmakers have heightened accountability to use mental health needs judiciously to develop characters and progress plot lines? Nightmare on 34th Street made me realize that when mental health is treated flippantly, or the intent for its inclusion is unclear, it’s nothing but a big, fat lump of coal for those of us trying to reduce the stigma for many mental health needs and conditions.    

“And that’s the Christmas I found out Santa’s not real. He’s a mental psychopath.” 

Now, I love me some Christmas content. Give me all of it, including horror. I also know both the original Miracle on 34th Street and the remake well. I did not read up about Nightmare on 34th Street before watching, and strictly based on the title, I went in with Cindy Lou Who-level excitement. I quickly realized it was an anthology. Cool, I dig those, too. Like a little horror advent calendar – big joy in small reveals! 

But ugh, bah humbug.

While I did appreciate Pierse Stevens’ (Santa) predominantly deadpan delivery and a good Tamagotchi line, this film brought out my inner Scrooge, not Buddy.  

I disliked Nightmare on 34th Street — greatly and for a handful of reasons.

However, without appreciating James Crow’s (the too many Santa hat-wearing writer/producer/director/cinematographer/editor) intent for applying mental health conditions explicitly to three of the seven segments in this anthology, I can’t appropriately direct my criticism.  

So, I’d like to offer the floor to Crow for a response to invite discourse and help viewers appreciate the intent to craft their own opinion on both Nightmare on 34th Street and mental health representation in horror generally. And because I’m no keyboard warrior, I’ll address my concerns directly.  

“….[it’s a] whole festival dedicated to his [Jesus’] birthday, and all anyone ever wants to do is write to me [Santa]. The poor fucker was on a cross, died, and all they want is fucking presents.”  

OPEN LETTER TO THE FILMMAKER

James,

I’m opting to write you over Santa this year. Thank you for making time and space to read this reflection on your film from a North American viewer. On that, I fully appreciate there might be cultural nuances that influenced your choices and hope you would be willing to comment on those to help me bring appropriate context to my perspective. What I struggle with is the level of emphasis you placed on mental health for many of your characters. Henry White (Mark Beauchamp) receives mental health home care. So does Louise (Lucy Pinder). Santa (Pierse Stevens) is bipolar.

Can I ask simply: Why?

What was the purpose of explicitly drawing attention to and flagging clinically diagnosed mental health needs to validate violence or imply weakness and vulnerability (unnecessarily; the situation was already precarious in ‘Merry Krampus’)? There are instances where it is clearly helpful to craft a character or offer integral background information either overtly (e.g., The Shining, Psycho, Misery) and in more subtle and trauma-informed ways, that make me feel the creators either have lived experience or an uncanny ability for empathetic portrayal (e.g., Black Swan, The Invisible Man (2020), The Babadook, Hereditary).

Personally, I couldn’t see a benefit or strength to doing this in any of those segments in Nightmare.

In fact, as someone with mental health needs and lived experience engaging professionally with folks with a range of mental health needs, I got upset with you. Hence, this note.  I need to understand your intent. If I can trust that you appreciate your responsibility as a filmmaker to represent disabilities responsibly, even in the name of horror, I’ll let this slide be a poor entry into your filmography and will stay open to other offerings. However, if you did not fully consider the value and necessity of these choices, well… this is a direct request to serve your disabled viewers and neighbors like me better.  

I’ll send this your way directly via social when it’s published, and I hope you will take this in the (Christmas) spirit intended and not see it as Rude-olph. I am looking to check assumptions and welcome insights in reply. If you’d like to respond publicly, you can offer thoughts here and have the final sleigh. The snowball’s in your court. Don’t groan, I had to offer a bit of light-heartedness to close and sincerely hope you’ll make space to address my concern.

Getting the elf outta here (I’m done now, I promise).

Overall Rating (Out of 5 Butterflies): 1

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