Get ready for Freddy. Recurring Nightmares is a 10-week look at the entirety of the Nightmare on Elm Street series that started on 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.”
And oh, my dreams“Dreams” by the Cranberries (1992)
It’s never quite as it seems
‘Cause you’re a dream to me
Dream to me
Where folklore and horror meet, a wholesome haunting manifests. Folklore contains those tales we all know but can’t remember where we first heard them. But alongside Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed and Pecos Bill, there lurks the Bogeyman, Bloody Mary and the Girl in the Graveyard. These spooky tales range from the cautionary advice to the macabre endings of the friend of a friend of a friend.
We grew up on these stories. Everyone grows up on these stories. This is the beauty of oral storytelling. Later, our coming of age saw these traditional oral tales set down in easily digestible, kid-friendly media, like Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories series or television’s Are You Afraid of the Dark?
The something of these stories is the touch of the mythic that pervades them and the sprinkle of realness that makes us second-guess whether we really want to say a name three times in the mirror. They remain a little voice in our heads as we get into our cars at night after a party and take a peek in the backseat just to be sure.
After all, it is just a story … right?
Much of the horror I have grown to love and appreciate as an adult lands someplace else on the horror spectrum. I crave the Kafkaesque weirdness of movies like 2005’s La Moustache, the deliberate grotesqueness of 2009’s The Human Centipede or the psychological thrills of Se7en. But nothing strums the nostalgia twinge more than these movies that incorporate rituals, rumors and rules. Nothing else echoes as so real.
A Nightmare on Elm Street lives here within that twilight time — straddling the waking and dreaming world that overlaps our late-night friend reveries and all-nighters. It is where our dreams traverse M.C. Escher staircases and non-Euclidean geography. It is where our spaces are unexpected, nonsensical and yet familiar. It is where we are awake but not.
And it is where a mysterious man shows up in the minds of children, accompanied by an eerie nursery rhyme. Those dreams shift from the individual, private and safe experiences to the communal and real, replete with risks. And the impetus is to find out more information, to perform research and to defeat the foe with that knowledge. The goal is to wake up and return to safety, in real and metaphorical senses.
In the franchise’s third installment, Dream Warriors, the cast of kids are able to be more proactive, and this makes it perhaps the strongest of the sequels. The next generation of victims are assisted by the return of Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), now a graduate student studying psychology, especially as it relates to dreams. While institutionalized characters fighting more than bogeymen comprise the cast, we get a sense that they are perhaps better prepared and better allied. Nancy advocates for practices and resources to enable their survival and finds an eventual sympathetic ear in Dr. Neil Gordon (Craig Wasson). She provides both the cultural background of dreams, from the use of dreamcatchers to dream dolls, as well as a familiarity with Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund).
As the teens start to meet the ends that teens are apt to do in horror films, these allyships become strained; they evaporate and provide real-world obstacles. But at the heart of it, the teenaged cast are indeed the most “warrior-like” of the series — a SEAL Dream Team Six collaborating to both directly and indirectly attack the supernatural.
Those attacks and back-and-forth scares are still mostly rote for the franchise (and horror movies in general), if sometimes clever. Find the mysterious grave to defeat the supernatural entity. Talk with spooky children on tricycles. Be spooked by jump scares and general grotesque designs. But we’re treated to the delicious puppet scene that brings about the demise of Phillip (Bradley Gregg), bringing some freshness to old paths. One-liners have always been a bright point in the franchise as well, making the Wizard Master and Jennifer’s welcome to prime time memorable.
The central thesis, however, is that the characters are indeed together and can launch various offensives rather than being split up and confused. The more equal footing between haunter and haunted gives viewers a sense something important is at stake. In franchises where the antagonist is merely delayed but never defeated, providing this tension seems so impossible. Dream Warriors pulls it off more successfully than not.
It’s aided as well by some very adept acting by Patricia Arquette (in her theatrical debut), a baby-faced Laurence Fishburne, Englund’s return in a role he was born to play, and Ken Sagoes’s contribution as Roland Kincaid, a quick-witted and determined young man whose serious commitment to survival on the individual basis is a perfect foil to highlight the entire cast’s differences from the previous two movies.
The most sinister elements of folklore contain this idea that the weird, uncanny or gruesome can happen to the most normal of us mortal passengers, especially those who decide to tempt the fates. Our lore is our historical caution, and the horror genre still drips with its lifeblood. But contained within our legends as well are the tales of those who stared down what appeared destined and found victories.
Dream Warriors should then be noted for having the highest number of major cast members from the franchise live through the credits. Freddy may not be dead, but neither is the quintessential collaborative human drive to survive.