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Welcome to His ‘Nightmare’: How Freddy Krueger Became a Pop Icon

He was a serial killer with a razor-sharp wit and razor-tipped gloves — now Freddy Krueger is the most famous scarred face in horror-movie history

Freddie Krueger

Freddie Krueger

Everett

Robert Englund remembers a night several years back when he woke up in terror. It was during a late-night shoot for A Nightmare on Elm Street, the first film in New Line Cinema’s hit horror series, and the actor had crawled into a bunk in his trailer to catch a little sleep. A couple of hours later he sat up in dim light, groggy, a little uncertain where he was, and the first thing he saw was the face of Freddy Krueger, the child-killing dream stalker who is the villain of the series.

It was a vile thing to look at — a pain-filled mask of raw, fire-scarred musculature — and for a moment Englund didn’t realize it was simply his own face staring back at him from a nearby makeup mirror. Involuntarily, he did the same thing Freddy Krueger’s victims always do. He screamed for his life.

Today, as he sits in his trailer on the set of A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, waiting to begin filming what will be Freddy Krueger’s fourth death scene in as many years, Englund ruminates on the appeal of the cruel and slaughterous Freddy. As opposed to most heroes of modern cinema series — such as Dirty Harry, Indiana Jones, Rambo, even Crocodile Dundee — Freddy is clearly a nasty guy who conforms to nothing less than the ethos of hell itself. But he is also wildly celebrated: a leering poster hero who is the subject of popular rap songs by the Fat Boys and D.J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince and who is a much-requested guest VJ on MTV.

In short, he is perhaps as familiar a pop icon as any rock star of the day. And it is this curious popularity that has helped establish the Nightmare on Elm Street cycle as one of the most critically and commercially successful horror series of the last decade: to date, the first three entries of the saga have collectively earned more than $100 million, and the newest installment, The Dream Master, earned $12.8 million the first weekend of its release in August — a record for an independently distributed film. Come this Halloween season, Freddymania will target a new audience with Freddy’s Nightmares, a Lorimar-syndicated TV series about the continuing misfortunes of the Elm Street crowd.

In a way, Freddy Krueger’s new-found hipness isn’t surprising: by embracing a monster as cool, funny or even heroic, horror audiences also manage to render the fiend less frightening. For Englund, though, Freddy remains neither humorous nor heroic.

”After all,” Englund says, ”Freddy is a child killer — a kind of modern monster that we have seen and heard a lot about in recent years. But in a way he’s a symbol of even something worse. Although I don’t play abstracts as an actor, I think that what Freddy really stands for is the idea of killing the future: he has no place there, and so he is killing it. He has an envy of youth, and when teenagers see these movies, I’m sure that’s what really freaks them out and scares them. Even though they may not intellectualize it, they understand that’s what Freddy is truly stalking: their future hopes.”

Like many other horror films of recent years, the Nightmare on Elm Street movies are frequently brutal, rapturously mean-spirited fare. They are, in fact, rife with the sort of malevolence that, no matter how funny or tough or hip it may seem, can still leave an audience carrying a deep-sunken sense of dread — a sense that despite the upbeat endings of the films, one is inescapably unsafe in a world that begets, or necessitates, such visions. Some critics have viewed the cycle as merely a well-crafted example of the ”slasher” or ”splatter” genre: the extremist and apocalyptic brand of contemporary cinematic horror that serves up characters and plots as mere devices for depicting gory, meticulous murder and other forms of physical and moral degradation.

”In a way,” Englund says, ”I understand why we get lumped in with all these bad stalk-and-slash movies. After all, Freddy does wear a claw, and it is featured prominently in the advertising and film trailers. If you were ever going to think of a single word to go with that hand, it would be slash. At the same time there is something more going on with these films.”

”Like film noir, which was one generation’s way of addressing the devastation and nihilism that they brought back from World War II,” says Englund, ”the Nightmare movies are an attempt to purge modern demons. Aside from the threat of the bomb, we all live today with a constant sense of vulnerability, with an awareness that at any moment, something horrible and unexpected can occur in your life and change everything, immediately and dramatically. Films like Nightmare can give you a way of vicariously facing that fear down. In doing so, they make you feel more alive.”

What the nightmare films are saying is, here is a generation of kids recognizing evil for the first time.

Indeed, most slasher films simply rework an old, familiar theme: the notion of horror as something that is brought to a community by an outsider, an external monster; once this threat is repelled or killed, safety and certainty return to the survivors’ lives. By contrast, like the recent fiction of Alan Moore, Clive Barker, Dennis Etchison and Jamie Delano, the Nightmare on Elm Street films are helping define a new, timely vision of horror: the horror that is buried inside, that dense, dark web of troubled history and garbled fears and desires that helps make up our internal lives.

In A Nightmare on Elm Street, this horror is so internalized that it can only visit the characters in those moments when they are most susceptible to their own private complexities — in their dreams. When the tormented teenagers who live on Elm Street fall asleep, Freddy Krueger — who is in part their creation and in part a terrible legacy left to them by their parents — comes to taunt and stalk them. In fact, their dreams seem more fearfully real than their wide-awake lives, and they struggle to stay conscious, to avoid facing what their private darkness holds, for fear that it can kill them — which, of course, it can.

According to Wes Craven — who wrote and directed the first Nightmare on Elm Street and who has incorporated his research in dream activity into several of his films, such as The Hills Have Eyes and this year’s The Serpent and the Rainbow — there may be substantial reasons for people to fear what their dreams hold. ”The trigger for Nightmare,” he says, ”came from a series of three articles in the Los Angeles Times over the period of a year, about young men apparently dying in dreams.”

”None of these men were related by family or even by locale,” says Craven, ”though they all had similar events happen to them: they would have a disturbing nightmare that was beyond anything they’d ever experienced before; they would tell their families about it; and they would attempt not to sleep, because they were too frightened to go back to sleep. And in each case, when they did go back to sleep, they died. The last one I read about — the most frightening one — happened in Oregon. The guy awakened his parents with his screaming, and by the time they got to him, they found him thrashing — and then he died. The medical authorities performed an autopsy, and they said it wasn’t heart failure; in fact, there was never any adequate explanation given for it.”

”Anyway,” Craven says, ”I just turned these occurrences around and asked, ‘What if the death was a result of the dream? What if the dreams were actually killing these men? And what if they were all sharing a common frightening dream?’ So I started constructing a villain that existed only in dreams. Actually, the villain is the most vital element in a horror film: you must create a personality that’s very powerful and very bright. In addition, I brought to the script all my experience, maybe a decade or more, of being familiar with the terminology and the creativity of dreams and the way they can move so fluidly.”

The film that Craven came up with, A Nightmare on Elm Street, was a dark, smart shocker about teenagers who discovered they were sharing common nightmares of pursuit and violence — nightmares stalked by a gruesomely defaced bogyman who wore a tattered black fedora and brandished a glove equipped with razor claws. In time, the film’s lead character, Nancy Thompson (played by Heather Langenkamp), learned his identity: he was Freddy Krueger, a killer of children who had escaped the courts years earlier, only to be trapped and burned to death by Elm Street’s angry and frightened parents.

Freddy Krueger was in part a ghost, in part a reminder of the sins of the children’s parents, but in the realm of dreams, he could be fatal, and the only way Nancy could avoid his malice was to force herself to remain awake for days on end. In the end, she confronted him and cast him out of her dreams. But before that happened, Freddy extracted a bloody and extensive vengeance from Nancy and the other heirs of the adults who killed him.

It is what goes on in the dreams, and the texture and atmosphere with which Craven rendered them, that gave the first Nightmare on Elm Street a large part of its impact. Like the best visionary moments in the films of Jean Cocteau, Luis Buñuel and Roman Polanski, the dream sequences that Craven devised not only did a clever job of blurring the distinction between what was real and what was dreamed but also seemed disturbingly authentic — as if they had some how been lifted from genuine nocturnal illusions.

The only problem was, the dream imagery was so prominent and effective no major Hollywood studio wanted to distribute the film. ”Filmmakers are always grasping for rules to follow,” says Robert Shaye, the producer of A Nightmare on Elm Street and the president of New Line Cinema, the independent corporation that financed and eventually distributed the film.

”For a while,” Shaye says, ”the studios had rules that you should never make films about the Vietnam War, or about drug abuse or gay people, because the audience isn’t interested in those things. One of the majors that we screened Nightmare for was Paramount. They thought it was too much like Dreamscape, which had just opened and failed, and from that experience they drew the rule that audiences don’t buy films that deal with dreams. But we were convinced that if we could get an audience’s attention, then we might have a hit. We knew it was scary, and we also thought the film would affect the young audience we wanted to reach, that it would speak to them.”

As it developed, A Nightmare on Elm Street did far better than even its advocates anticipated: in the first week of its release, it grossed more than $2 million (which is about what the film cost to make), and it would go on to earn nearly $10 million in domestic rentals.

The follow-up film, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, was more problematic. At the end of the previous film, Freddy Krueger hadn’t been so much eliminated as simply banished in the moment that Nancy took responsibility for her own life. So it was no surprise when, in Freddy’s Revenge, Freddy returned to Elm Street to haunt — and eventually possess — the son of the family that took over the old Thompson house. 

Mark Patton as Jesse Walsh in 'Freddie's Revenge.'

On one level, Freddy’s Revenge was a film about the fear of losing control over one’s will and sanity, the fear of surrendering to madness and impulses of murder. But it was also a bit of a moral jumble, and for that reason, Craven declined involvement in the project. ”The filmmakers had Freddy manifesting himself through the central character,” he says. ”You had nobody to identify with.”

Robert Shaye reluctantly agrees. ”The idea of having Freddy wander around in reality was wrong minded,” he says. ”It made him too much an interloper into our world, where it should be the other way around. After all, we are much more vulnerable in his world than he should be in ours.”

Craven returned as a scriptwriter on A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, with the provision that he be allowed to develop the characters that he created in the original film and follow through on a few unfinished themes. Dream Warriors began several years after the events of the earlier film. Nancy Thompson, who had survived Freddy Krueger’s rampage, was a therapist, working at a psychiatric hospital with a group of troubled and apparently unloved teenagers who all shared the same sleep disorder: they believed that a frightening, bloody-minded figure was pursuing them in their dreams, seizing control of their will and courage and hope and driving some to deaths that, to the outside world, looked like suicide.

Except for Nancy, the doctors and adults in the film refused to take the teenagers’ appeals seriously. Before it was all over, she would join the surviving youths by entering with them into a mutual dream to challenge Freddy Krueger — knowing that probably only a handful would emerge alive. It’s a remarkable scene, but Dream Warriors is a remarkably imaginative movie: in some ways the most accessible, mainstream-oriented film in the series and yet as intelligent and provocative as modern horror gets. In addition, it is probably the Nightmare on Elm Street effort that does the best job of putting forth the filmmakers’ themes and concerns.

”There’s a cautionary tale going on here,” Englund says. ”What the Nightmare films are saying is, here is a generation of kids recognizing evil for the first time. Not that the parents are necessarily idiots; we don’t portray adults as stupid, as opposed to, say, a John Hughes movie. But still, the adults are weary of evil at the same time that they are also the cause of the evil. Don’t forget: they are the ones who made Freddy. They mishandled his evil by murdering him, burning him alive. Like so many of the people who grew up in the Sixties, these parents have grown weary of trying to fix the world, and so they’ve joined in corrupting it.”

And while the children recognize clearly the deadliness of the evil that they are up against, the only ones who stand a chance of withstanding it are those who struggle relentlessly to stay awake. ”That’s what Nightmare is all about,” Craven says, ”staying awake in the face of evil. Staying awake and being with the dangerous and destructive, as opposed to sleeping – whether it’s sleeping by getting drunk or getting laid, or by watching television, or by pretending that the evil isn’t there.

”You know,” says Craven, ”there’s a million ways that we in our culture sleep and try to check out of what’s really going on. The heroic thing about Nancy in Nightmare 1 was that she refused to sleep: she refused to accept her parents’ lies, her boyfriend’s urging to ignore it all and just get in bed, her girlfriend’s urging to have some drugs. She stayed awake, she took responsibility for being a conscious human being, and it’s the one thing that saved her life while everybody else slept and died. The people who opt for that course of self-willed consciousness — of facing painful truths and dealing with them — are the only people that ultimately will survive. All the others are chaff.”

It is late in the day, and Freddy Krueger, dressed in his menacing black hat and ratty red and green sweater, stands by the ravaged pulpit in the spooky ruins of a church. He is facing Alice – the heroine of The Dream Master, played by the young actress Lisa Wilcox – and he is brandishing his claw, circling for a kill. As Robert Englund has noted, Freddy is a man with a certain grace – there’s a vanity to the way he carries his scarred ugliness and to the way he postures before he executes his intimate, almost sensual style of murder — and it can be both fascinating and horribly unsettling to witness at close quarters. 

Indeed, since Craven quit the series last year (following a dispute over the ending of Dream Warriors), Englund has become something of a voice of conscience for the series. Reportedly, he is concerned that the audience has come to see Freddy Krueger too much as a sympathetic character, and he has prodded New Line Cinema to make the new film as scary, dark toned and disturbing as the original Nightmare on Elm Street. Consequently, over the course of The Dream Master, Freddy is even more sanguinary than before, eliminating Alice’s friends one after the other – including the handful of stalwart survivors from Dream Warriors. Of course, Alice will rise above her timidity and defeat Freddy’s evil – and that act of will is, in part, the message the filmmakers hope to leave with the audience.

”In the end,” says Renny Harlin, the young Finnish director of The Dream Master, ”Alice is able to control her dreams. Not only her dreams, but she’s able to control her life, and that’s what the film is about: how she grows from being a shy girl to a grown woman. It’s about taking responsibility and facing your fears, which is a theme I think is close to every teenager.”

Yet if history is any indicator, Freddy Krueger will find a way to return, no matter how soundly Alice overmasters him. That is only practical: he is a popular character, and for the series to continue, and to continue to enjoy commercial success, Freddy must return – though there is talk that Englund, who hopes to direct some of the Freddy’s Nightmares TV episodes and has also directed his own film, 976-EVIL, wants to sit the films out for a couple of years. In any event, when Freddy does reappear, chances are that the newly mature Alice won’t enjoy a second victory over his evil; so far, nobody has, including the original victor, Nancy Thompson, who got gutted at the end of Dream Warriors (by a Freddy impersonating her father, just to drive home the point of the film).

If Freddy Krueger’s ability to return time and again is necessary, it is also a bit depressing. One of the nicest touches in these films, after all, is that they take the side of the unloved – the children who are overlooked by their parents and spurned by their friends. The films hold forth the promise that if these kids remain strong and vigilant, they stand a chance of beating the demons. 

The Dream Master

Yet when these same brave youths invariably get wiped out in the sequels, the message seems to be that even their courage and intelligence and determination will not save them forever. Eventually, Freddy Krueger always wins, and perhaps the greatest obscenity of all – he is the one character in the series who continually survives. In other words, the only person who has a future on Elm Street is the one who personifies the world’s hatred.

In the real end, that is the nightmare that haunts Elm Street: nothing can guarantee victory or safety in a world where lovelessness reigns. One has to wonder if this truth doesn’t undermine the filmmakers’ claim that this is a series about the triumph of courageous, self-willed consciousness. Don’t Freddy Krueger’s recurring returns and inevitable acts of vengeance add up, finally, to a message of hopelessness?

Robert Shaye, the president of New Line Cinema (and, now that Wes Craven has left the series, the man who will shepherd Freddy Krueger’s brilliant future), doesn’t think so. ”Our message to the young people who come to see our films is if you let yourself go, you can end up getting creamed,” he says, ”because at least metaphorically, Freddy is around every corner in this world. That’s one of the continuing themes of Nightmare on Elm Street, the lesson that evil is always with you. You can’t expect that you’re going to be able to kick the bad guy in the head and have him never show up again. The lesson is, don’t count on your parents, because … who can? All in all, I think those are pretty good lessons.”

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