Get ready for Freddy. Recurring Nightmares is a 10-week look at the entirety of the Nightmare on Elm Street series that starts today (Friday, Sept. 2, 2022) and runs through Halloween 2022. (Yeah, only nine movies, but also one TV series; the rhyme does go, “Nine, ten, never sleep again,” after all.) It will run parallel to other series we’re running in late summer / early autumn, including another round of No Sleep October essays. Every week will feature an essay about a piece of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise in chronological order, written by Midwest Film Journal contributors and staff writers. Some have seen the whole franchise. Some are novices and neophytes, jumping into the movies without watching the rest of them to offer unvarnished thoughts … or, as Freddy would say, “How sweet. Fresh meat.”
What if squeezing our eyes shut in fear didn’t shield us from monsters but only invited them to hurt us? What if sleep weren’t a chance for revitalization but a little slice of death?
Writer-director Wes Craven’s 1984 horror classic, A Nightmare on Elm Street, explores the long-pondered possibility that still keeps us awake in the dark — the idea of our nightmares bleeding over into our waking lives.
Shrinks tell us the demons in our dreams can’t kill us for real. Craven suggests otherwise with Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), a burn victim who rises from the flames of hell to test teens’ boiling points in frightening fever dreams that send them to their actual deaths.
Craven drew inspiration from a true story stranger than fiction. He read an L.A. Times article about a young man who suffered severe nightmares in America shortly after escaping the Cambodian killing fields. He stayed awake for many nights out of fear that he would be killed in his sleep. Then, one fateful night, his worst fear became reality. The screams from his night terrors sent his parents rushing to his bedroom, where they found him dead. This ghastly tale is one of many in a phenomenon known as Sudden Unexplained Nocturnal Death Syndrome (SUNDS), which occurred among Southeast Asian refugees from the late 1970s through the ’80s. As this article notes, most of them were, like Freddy’s prey, teens and young men.
In the original film, Freddy meets his match in Springwood high schooler Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp). Nancy stands out among scream queens of the era in that she doesn’t put up with Freddy’s shit for long. Before we know it, she enlists her boyfriend, Glen (Johnny Depp), to keep night watch while she tries to take Freddy down in his dream world. In an early confrontation, she snatches his signature fedora hat and pulls it back into reality, discovering she can potentially drag his body onto her turf and take home-field advantage in the final duel. She sets up booby traps all around her house for this battle.
As Langenkamp said in my interview with her a few years ago: “Nancy was really courageous and direct in how she wanted to handle Freddy.”
Langenkamp now has legions of fans dedicated to living like Nancy — facing their fears with eyes wide open. She made a documentary on the subject matter called I Am Nancy, which follows Langenkamp across the horror convention circuit as she meets fans, especially females, who find inspiration and catharsis in her character.
“Horror films don’t create fear; they release it,” Craven once said. Nancy does exactly that in the end, defeating Freddy by refusing to hold on to her fear. She dismisses him as a bad dream, which is precisely what any loving parent would tell their child to do on a restless night. This is what Craven lacked as a child, coming from a cold, fractured family. His earliest memories were of fights between his parents, both of whom were formidable figures.
“I was very afraid of my father, and I only have two or three memories and they’re all fear-based,” Craven said. “That idea of the father figure that is threatening as opposed to protective is a very powerful figure to me, and that’s in a lot of my films. I just felt that Freddy was the paradigm of the threatening adult. Freddy stood for the savage side of male adulthood. He was the ultimate bad father.” Craven’s father, Paul, died before he could see him grow up, as he was buried on Craven’s fourth birthday. Like Nancy’s mother, Marge (Ronee Blakley), Craven’s devout mom, Caroline, became consumed with thoughts of sin and death after his passing. Is Marge’s guilt about helping burn Freddy meant to be reflective of Caroline’s own regrets?
Whatever the case may be, Nightmare feels like an explosion from Craven’s soul. It’s filled with his most inventively horrifying imagery yet it ultimately radiates with his parental warmth.
Although Freddy is such a seemingly original creation, he’s drawn out of several memories from Craven’s life, pulled from the back of his mind like elements of dreams. The iconic promotional image of a wide-eyed Freddy shushing us with one of his glove’s razor fingers comes from Craven’s childhood memory of a drifter in a fedora and overcoat silencing him outside his bedroom window at night. Freddy is also named after one of Craven’s school bullies.
Perhaps this is why Nightmare resonates so much during adolescence as it did for me. It captures the dread that looms over us and our sunny suburban surroundings as well as the fears and vulnerabilities we secretly explore through the horror movies we rent from the local video store. (As it did for many youths, my obsession with Freddy started back in the days of Blockbuster and Family Video.)
On the surface, the original A Nightmare on Elm Street is about a horribly scarred, razor-fingered dream stalker. But it’s also about kids, parents, problems at home, the worries that haunt our dreams, the pressures that keep us up at night. As I burned the midnight oil and guzzled down coffee while fretting about my future in high school and college, I imagined I was preparing to fight Freddy. I still feel this way during coffee-fueled nights as a grown man.
This film has a timeless, universal appeal, making now as good a time as any to celebrate it.