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.”