M. Keith Booker
By the time the slasher craze kicked into full gear at the beginning of the 1980s, Wes Craven had already made a name for himself in the horror film community, even if that community was still largely a cultural ghetto. In particular, he had written and directed the ultra-violent rape-revenge film The Last House on the Left (1972) and the grim hillbilly horror film The Hills Have Eyes (1977). Based on these credentials, one might have expected Craven to jump aboard the slasher film train and to produce something like Friday the 13th. He did board the train (barely), with Deadly Blessing (1981), a minor effort that added a strong dose of the supernatural to the usual slasher formula. Better made than most of its contemporary slashers, this film was not particularly well received, partly because of its heavily concocted plot. However, its supernatural elements did help to pave the way for Craven’s first major contribution to the slasher genre, in the form of A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), a film that appeared as late as it did largely because it differed so much from the typical slasher film that Craven had a great deal of difficulty securing the financing to get it made.
Nightmare momentarily re-energized the flagging slasher subgenre through the introduction of more supernatural elements and unusually interesting special effects. But A Nightmare on Elm Street mostly gains energy because of the personality of its child-murdering supernatural slasher, though the horribly disfigured, heinously sadistic Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) is relatively limited in this first entry in the franchise, in comparison with his later appearances. Freddy’s personality would not be fully developed until the sequences, which gave him room to expand his repertoire, but even in this first film he clearly stands apart from his main rivals in the fraternity of slashers (especially Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees) in that he at least has personality. Thus, Newman calls Freddy a “wonderfully lewd and horror-comic villain,” while noting that many different actors have played Michael and Jason without anyone noticing, while “only Englund could play Freddy” (214).
Newman is right about Englund, of course, and in two different ways. First of all, the script and direction of Nightmare gave Englund much more of an ability to bring his character to life as distinct individual than was possible with Jason Voorhees (who is, by definition, characterless) or Michael Myers (who is, by definition, an amorphous allegorical cypher). But this aspect of Freddy was successful largely because Englund’s performance was so successful. Freddy is partly more individualized than Michael or Jason simply because he doesn’t wear a mask. But his face is so extensively disfigured by fire (or at least by makeup man David Miller) that, at least in a visual sense, another actor could have probably replaced Englund. But Englund endowed the character with such a unique combination of malign glee and sadistic humor that any attempt to replace him in the direct sequels would no doubt have been catastrophic.
The basic scenario of A Nightmare on Elm Street is by now quite familiar to horror film fans. Freddy was a vicious child murderer who killed at least 20 kids in the Elm Street neighborhood of Springwood, Ohio, years earlier but escaped justice due to a legal technicality. He was subsequently tracked down by enraged neighborhood parents (including Nancy’s mother, though it is not clear in this film whether her father—a policeman who would presumably frown on such vigilante justice—was involved). Freddy was then killed, burned alive. Now, a nightmare version of him has returned, seeking revenge by attacking a new crop of children in the neighborhood, though he can only do so via their dreams, given that he no longer exists as a physical person. Just what he is, is another matter. There’s a bit of Satan in Freddy, and a bit of the Wicked Witch of the West. Rockoff calls him “the greatest, most popular and most profitable boogeyman of them all,” and the “bogeyman” label (also assigned to Michael Myers in Halloween) captures some of his character as an indefinite figure of menace (149). Worland calls Freddy a “malicious ghost,” and that is probably accurate, but it doesn’t quite seem to capture Freddy’s complex ontological status (106). That status, in fact, never entirely makes sense throughout the franchise, due to his complex portrayal through a combination of tropes derived from supernatural traditions and from the self-referential, reality-bending hijinks of postmodernism.
It also makes very little difference exactly what Freddy is supposed to be or exactly how he got to be that way. There are, after all, virtually no rules in Freddy’s dream world, virtually no conventions that he must obey. Indeed, one of the attractions of A Nightmare on Elm Street and its sequels is surely that it breaks free from the predictability of the slasher genre, both in terms of plot and in terms of visual representation on the screen. Among other things, the 1980s were an era of rapid advances in special effects technology, though the slasher film as a whole took advantage of only a very narrow range of these effects, mostly having to do with the slicing of throats, the lopping off of limbs, and general graphic depiction of the damage that can be done to human bodies by sharp instruments. In A Nightmare on Elm Street, however, a much wider array of special effects can be employed in order to depict the plasticity of reality in Freddy’s world, which makes the film and its sequels more visually complex than slasher films that nominally take place in the known physical universe, where actions are governed by specific physical laws that have to be vaguely adhered to in order for the films to make sense at all.
Freddy and his world, though, don’t have to make sense, which opens up a tremendous range of visual and storytelling possibilities. Hutchings grants that the popularity of Freddy with teen audiences “might be seen as reflecting a teenage nihilism and perhaps, a conservative identification with the forces of social repression” (210). On the other hand, he also notes that Freddy’s antics involve “inventive, self-reflexive” play with the conventions of the horror film of a kind that knowing teen audiences can appreciate. Thus, he suggests that Freddy serves as a “Master of Ceremonies presiding over a flaunting of the fictional nature of the drama” which he agrees makes him entertaining, though he is not convinced that this necessarily makes the film postmodern (211). I agree. However, I also think it is no accident that A Nightmare on Elm Street was written and directed by the filmmaker who would do more than any other to take the slasher film into postmodern territory, first with New Nightmare (1994) and then with Scream (1996).
Freddy’s ability to inhabit multiple ontological levels clearly sets him apart from the typical slasher. Springwood clearly harkens back to Haddonfield, Illinois, and Nightmare, like Halloween, is partly effective because it provides a contemporary reminder that anyone who thinks the American suburbs are protected from danger is asleep—and needs to wake up as soon as possible. Halloween is much more effective in this sense, but Nightmare also adds. An archetypal dimension that is not nearly as strong in Halloween. More than Michael Myers, Freddy is literally a Monster from the Id who reflects our unconscious fears and desires in a surprisingly effective way.
On closer inspection, perhaps the most remarkable thing about A Nightmare on Elm Street is how clearly it belongs in the slasher subgenre, despite not seeming to have to abide by the conventions of that subgenre at all. While Freddy is not, in the literal sense, human, he is at least humanoid in shape (though his body is fairly malleable), and he was at once human. Though he does not generally use a knife, or a machete, or an axe, he does habitually employ a sharp-edged metal weapon—in the form of the trademark glove he wears that has razor-sharp metal blades extending from the fingertips like obscene talons. (That such a weapon would likely be inefficient in the real world is beside the point: Freddy doesn’t live in the real world.) And Freddy’s targets are teenage boys and girls—until he is finally thwarted (temporarily, it turns out) by the Final Girl, Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp). Meanwhile, adult authority figures in the film—represented primarily by Heather’s divorced parents, police Lieutenant Don Thompson (John Saxon) and Marge Thompson (Ronee Blakely)—are predictably of little use in protecting the young people who are under attack. This is especially the case because Heather’s father no longer lives at home, while her mother spends most of her time immersed in an alcoholic haze.
In this sense, it is probably worth noting that A Nightmare on Elm Street was released close to the midpoint of the Reagan presidency, with its strong emphasis on “family values.” Thompson and Reardon read the film in just this way, concluding that
the kind of patriarchal family structure endorsed by Reagan is thoroughly ridiculed in Nightmare. The families in Craven’s film are dysfunctional jokes, headed by incompetent adults who, in their historical attempts to rid their community of Freddy, instead fostered Freddy’s growth from sadistic human to fully-fledged monster.
At the same time, they argue that the film does not ultimately commit fully to this subversive project. Thus, while Nancy must reject the authority of her parents in order to defeat Freddy, she does so by becoming a sort of joint maternal/paternal figure, thus symbolically restoring the nuclear family structure. And, of course, the implications of Nancy’s victory over Freddy are further complicated by the film’s ending, in which Nancy doesn’t triumph after all.
A Nightmare on Elm Street is a complex and enigmatic film; its reliance on dream logic means that it is difficult to make sense of or draw final conclusions about. Even individual scenes are ultimately more complex than they might first appear. For example, one of the ways in which Nightmare resembles Halloween is that it includes one scene of Nancy sitting in English class. In this case the English teacher is talking about Shakespeare—and in a much more natural manner than the almost surreal monotone of the teacher in Halloween. The class is still boring, though. Nancy, not having slept the night before, falls asleep as another student is reading from Julius Caesar. In her dream she hears and sees her recently murdered friend Tina Gray (Amanda Wyss) calling to her from inside a bloody body bag, while the reading from Shakespeare (still heard in the background) somehow morphs within the dream into relevant lines from Hamlet (which the teacher had also just been discussing): “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space were it not that I have bad dreams.” The dream then takes Nancy into the school basement, where Freddy taunts her by slicing open his own chest, out of which ooze maggots and yellow slime, while Freddy cackles maniacally. (Earlier, while chasing Tina, he had sliced off some of the fingers on his left hand, again demonstrating the sharpness of the claws on his right-hand glove.) Such self-destruction is part of his perverse appeal, but he isn’t physically real, so he can easily recover from such damage. Because the key imagery in this film occurs within dreams, virtually anything is possible. On the other hand, Freddy’s victims are real, so they cannot recover from the damage he does to them. As Freddy corners Nancy in her English-class dream, she burns her arm on a steam pipe, which jolts her awake, screaming, back in the classroom. She leaves school to go home early, and realizes that she has a burn on her arm. Through some mechanism that is never really explained, in the world of the film, physical damage suffered in dreams at the hands of Freddy transfers to the real world. (Otherwise, there wouldn’t be much point to the film, of course.)
The school scene perhaps takes on extra interest because we know that Craven was once a college English teacher, and it is possible that the reference to Hamlet’s bad dreams is meant to add a bit of literary gravitas to the film. After all, the reference does place the film within a long literary tradition of using dream imagery to make important points about reality. However, while Hamlet’s suggestion that he would be fine if it weren’t for his dreams is certainly an appropriate gloss on A Nightmare on Elm Street, it doesn’t really tell us much about what is going on in the film that we didn’t already know (or at least wouldn’t eventually figure out). So it is not clear whether this scene is an endorsement or a rejection of the value of literature in dealing with real-world problems. As it is, then, the most important thing this scene does is provide (as does the classroom scene in Halloween) a suggestion of the inefficacy of official institutions and adult figures of authorityin dealing with the problems encountered by the teen characters in the film. These problems, of course, are extreme and unusual, but this motif in the film can be extrapolated to suggest that such institutions and authority figures in general don’t understand teenagers and their problems and so are of little help with those problems.
Structurally, A Nightmare on Elm Street (despite the fact that so much of the specific occurrences within that structure could never happen in an ordinary slasher film) obeys the typical slasher formula quite closely. The film thus begins (appropriately enough) with a dream sequence in which Freddy is shown crafting his famous clawed glove. This sequence then leads into a sort of prologue (though an unusually extended one that is continuous with the main plot) in which Tina becomes this film’s “pre-victim” as Freddy attacks her in her dreams, eventually leading to a spectacularly bloody scene that leaves her body lying in a sea of blood back in the real world. The scene in which Tina is killed is particularly impressive, visually, going well beyond the typical slasher scene (though it is reminiscent of scenes we have seen in supernatural films such as The Exorcist). Meanwhile, this scene occurs immediately after she and her boyfriend Rod Lane (Nick Corri) have had boisterous sex, checking off another slasher film cliché. Tina’s killing then sets the stage for the main plot, which involves Freddy’s attempts to kill Nancy and the (somewhat less than heroic) attempts of Nancy’s boyfriend Glen Lantz (Johnny Depp, in his first film role) to save her. A bit of plot complication is added by the fact that Rod (who witnessed Tina’s death) is arrested for her murder, leading Freddy to kill him in his jail cell, while making it look like Rod has committed suicide by hanging. Then, after Freddy has slashed his way through peaceful suburban Elm Street for nearly an hour and a half (also killing Glen in the process), he is defeated by the Final Girl, who walks away triumphant, only to have Freddy re-emerge (and snag Mrs. Thompson) in the kind of shocking coda for which slasher films have been famous since that first emergence of Jason Voorhees from Crystal Lake at the end of Friday the 13th.
James Kendrick has reviewed the ways in which Friday the 13th both adheres to and violates the conventions of the slasher subgenre, thus critiquing and revising it in the process. He concludes that Nightmare “is a conventional slasher film that is invaded by the surreal and the fantastical, which turns many of the genre’s ideological tenets on its head” (20). Arguing that Nightmare is essentially a combination of the slasher film and the possession film, Kendrick pursues the implications of this combination in terms of gender and other features of the film. Ultimately, though, his most important point has to do with the defeat of Freddy by Nancy, because this defeat does not require Nancy to resort to violence and thus to essentially take on the characteristics of the slasher, thus becoming dehumanized. Among other things, this aspect of the film means that Nancy is not masculinized in the mode of the Final Girls described by Clover. In the end, Kendrick concludes, the film is able “to question the very nature of human violence and to suggest that it is ultimately a dead end that destroys the humanity of those who wield it” (32). Thus, while many have seen slasher films as glorifying violence, Nightmare would appear to do just the opposite.
In retrospect, the presence of Depp in Nightmare adds interest, given the megastar that he would eventually become. In point of fact, though, his performance here gives little indication of the bravura abilities he would eventually display in such roles as that of Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Then again, Depp has few opportunities to shine here: his character’s main contribution to the action of the film (other than to serve as one of Freddy’s victims) is a near uncanny ability to fall asleep just when it’s really important to stay awake. Indeed, among Freddy’s opponents, it is only Nancy Thompson who displays any effectiveness whatsoever. Nancy, as played by Langenkamp, is certainly a sympathetic character. A very ordinary-looking girl who seems to have transcended a difficult family life to turn out fine and well balanced, she seems neither masculine nor overtly sexy. She’s also smart, able to defeat Freddy both because she is the only one in the film sharp enough to figure out that Freddy might be vulnerable if she can lure him into the physical world. She is also tough enough to stand up to Freddy when no one else can (Clover calls her “the grittiest of the Final Girls”) (38). But it is through her wits that she really defeats Freddy, not only is she clever and determined enough to concoct a strategy to get him into the real world, but she also sets up an elaborate series of bobby traps in her house to help her deal with him once he gets here.
Nancy, in fact, seems a perfect character with whom teenage girls might identify, and even Clover admits that this film seems to be an exception to tendency for slasher films to attract mostly male audiences. Without documentation or statistics, Clover states that “my impression is that the Nightmare on Elm Street series in particular attracted girls in groups,” and she is probably right (23). Nancy is admirable, but not unrealistically so. She is ordinary enough that real teenage girls can easily identify with her, but capable enough that they can also fantasize about being like her.
A Nightmare on Elm Street constantly places Nancy in harm’s way, only to have her narrowly escape. In one key scene relatively early in the film, she falls asleep in the bathtub (her body demurely covered by bubbles). She is lying on her back with her knees spread apart. As she drifts into dream, Freddy’s gloved hand emerges from beneath the bubbles and moves menacingly toward her exposed and vulnerable genitals. It’s a terrifying moment, though variations of it have been seen in numerous horror films. Craven himself used essentially the same idea in Deadly Blessing, where a woman lies in the bed with her legs spread apart only to have a deadly snake emerge from beneath the water between her knees, moving toward her. Both of these moments were preceded by the one in David Cronenberg’s Shivers (1975) in which a disgusting parasite creature heads straight for the crotch of a bathing woman. Later, an alien slug pulls a similar trick in James Gunn’s Slither (2006). In some ways, though, these are all variations on the primal shower scene in Psycho. After all, bathing scenes of various kinds are among the moments when everyone is most vulnerable.
In this case, Nancy is seemingly saved when her mother awakes her, only to have her fall asleep again and be dragged beneath the water in the tub, though for once her mother is actually on the case, awakening her again. Nancy now resolves to stay awake, even resorting to anti-sleeping pills. Then she decides instead to fall asleep to go on the offensive and look for Freddy, but to have Glen stand guard over her so that he and wake her up in the event of trouble. Glen, of course, falls asleep himself, and Nancy is nearly killed by Freddy in her dream, saved only by her ringing alarm clock. Later, Mrs. Thompson makes another attempt to be helpful by taking Nancy to a sleep clinic, where they convince her to fall asleep so that they can monitor her brain activity. “Trust us,” says her mother. Bad idea. Never trust anyone over thirty, as the saying used to go. Predictably, Nancy is again nearly killed when she falls asleep in the clinic, producing unheard-of readings on the clinic’s instruments and barely waking up in time—and barely escaping having the clinic’s brilliant doctor sedate her to put her back to sleep.
Nancy does gain something from the sleep clinic experience when she returns from her dream holding Freddy’s hat, which makes her realize that items from the dream world can be brought back into the physical world. This discovery triggers the entire remainder of the plot, as Nancy conceives her plan to bring Freddy himself back into the physical world, where presumably he will be more vulnerable than in the dream world. The idea is that she will bring Freddy back, with Glen waiting to club him so he can be captured. Glen, of course, falls asleep again and is himself killed—in another spectacular display, as he is pulled through the bed into the underworld in his dream, leaving his mutilated body (from which a fountain of blood sprays onto the ceiling) back in the real world.
Nancy, surprisingly unfazed by Glen’s death, arranges to have her father be there when she brings Freddy back, which of course he fails to do, leaving Nancy to be chased about in the house, which her mother has brilliantly fortified so that it is inescapable. Luckily, Nancy has arranged her own defenses via the booby traps, which leads to an extended sequence that, once again, strongly sets A Nightmare on Elm Street apart from most slasher films. In the scene, Freddy takes a Looney Toons level of punishment in a series of misadventures that verges on slapstick comedy. First, Nancy cracks Freddy over the head with a glass coffee carafe, then sets up a large sledgehammer to swing down and bust Freddy in the gut when he opens the door to come out of her room. Nancy runs to the barred window and screams for help, which the cops (across the street investigating Glen’s killing) ludicrously ignore. The sledgehammer blow sends Freddy staggering over a railing and tumbling down the stairs. He gets blasted by a homemade bomb, then doused with gasoline and set on fire. Then he gets knocked down still more stairs, before recovering, apparently to kill Mrs. Thompson.
By this time, Nancy realizes that she is actually still dreaming, so that physically defeating Freddy is impossible. Fortunately, the resourceful Nancy still has one more trick up her sleeve. She remembers a story Glen had told her about the “Balinese way of dreaming,” in which the Balinese develop “dream skills” that allow them to cope with frightening experiences in their dreams. If they meet a monster in a dream, for example, they simply refuse to be frightened: “They turn their back on it. Take away its energy, and it disappears.” She tries that approach on Freddy, and he disappears.
The film then cuts to an idyllic coda. All of Nancy’s friends (and her mother) are once more alive. Her mother has stopped drinking, and all is right with the world as the teens head off to school in Glen’s convertible. Then the film delivers its final twist. The teens are all carried away in what turns out to be a haunted car controlled by Freddy, while Freddy himself drags Mrs. Thompson back into the house, presumably to her doom. The screen cuts to black as children chant the now so-familiar “Freddy’s coming for you” jump-rope rhyme that has run throughout the film.
Freddy’s comeback at the end of A Nightmare on Elm Street set him up to become the centerpiece of one of the most successful horror film franchises of all time, beginning with the first sequel only a year later. Neither Craven nor Langenkamp was involved in this first sequel, but Englund’s Freddy was still there and that made the sequel a genuine Nightmare on Elm Street film, even if it was, in fact, a bit less effective than the original. Freddy, after all, is the nightmare that haunts Elm Street, though Langenkamp’s return in Nightmare 3 and Craven’s return to direct New Nightmare (the seventh film in the series) definitely added some new energies.
Freddy’s success as a horror film villain clearly owes something to his universal quality. All of us are most vulnerable when we are asleep. And, when we sleep, we all dream. Dreams have, in fact, long been one of the most mysterious aspects of human existence, and cultures throughout human history have wondered about the significance of dreams. Dreams have always represented a dimension of human life that we neither understand nor can control. Since the time of Freud, we have tried to explain our dreams through science, but even the scientific Freudian explanation of dreams has always had a dark side. Dreams, after all, inherently defy logic. For Freud, dreams arise from the darkest, deepest, most primitive, and most hidden impulses that inhabit our unconscious minds. Freddy is the embodiment of these impulses, which means that he represents all that we fear most, but also that he represents the most unrestrained and uncontrolled energies and desires within us all. He is an archetypal figure, an ancient figure, the ultimate example of the return of the repressed.
There is, of course, also an element of Dionysian celebration in the unconscious, and part of the secret of the success of Freddy Krueger is the sheer pleasure he takes in being evil. Of all slashers, Freddy is both the funniest and the most cartoonish. Indeed, almost all of the humor in the first Nightmare on Elm Street film comes from Freddy himself—though Nancy’s exasperated comment that she’s been through so much that she looks “twenty years old” is pretty funny. As the Nightmare film sequence proceeded, Freddy would get more and more raucous and outrageous, often taking the franchise to the edge of self-parody (and beyond), spouting one-liners as he continually terrorized the children of suburban America. He also became more and more an icon of American popular culture, bringing the horror genre back to its roots in the Universal monster films of the 1930s by making its monster the central character in each film of the franchise—and one of the best-known monsters in movie history.
Clover, Carol J. Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Updated Edition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015.
Conrich, Ian. “Seducing the Subject: Freddy Krueger, Popular Culture, and the Nightmare on Elm Street Films.” Trash Aesthetics: Popular Culture and Its Audience. Eds. Deborah Cartmell, I. Q. Hunter, Heidi Kaye, and Imelda Whelehan. London: Pluto Press, 1997. 118–131.
Kendrick, James. “Razors in the Dreamscape: Revisiting A Nightmare on Elm Street and the Slasher Film.” Film Criticism 33.3 (Spring 2009): 17-33.
Newman, Kim. Nightmare Movies: Horror on Screen Since the 1960s. London: Bloomsbury, 2011.
Nowell, Richard. Blood Money: A History of the First Teen Slasher Film Cycle. New York: Continuum, 2010.
Peitz, Louis. “The Nightmare Behind the Gayest Horror Film Ever Made.” Buzzfeed (February 21, 2016). https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/louispeitzman/the-nightmare-behind-the-gayest-horror-film-ever-made. Accessed February 7, 2019.
Rockoff, Adam. Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011.
Worland, Rick. The Horror Film: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 2007.
 In Nightmare on Elm Street 3, however, it is stipulated that Lt. Thompson was, in fact, involved in Freddy’s killing.
 Meanwhile, the special effects of the franchise get more and more spectacular as the sequence proceeds (partly because budgets increased and partly because technology improved).
 Craven reportedly opposed this gimmicky ending, preferring to end the film with Nancy’s victory over Freddy intact. Producer Robert Shaye lobbied strongly for Freddy’s re-emergence, which of course nicely sets up a sequel. From this point of view, perhaps it is not surprising that Craven chose not to be involved in the sequel, while Shaye stayed on as a producer for the first five sequels. Craven, of course, returned for New Nightmare, the seventh Nightmare on Elm Street film, which he wrote and directed—and co–executive produced with Shaye.
 In particular, Kendrick notes that Nightmare in this sense becomes a reversal of Craven’s earlier film The Last House on the Left, in which a family avenges itself on some brutal and sadistic killers by becoming brutal and sadistic killers, winning a battle but losing their humanity.
 Actually, Glen is not alone in this sense. One key technique used by the film to involve audiences is to have characters fall asleep at inopportune moments, and one can easily imagine young audiences yelling at the screen, urging them to stay awake.
 Samuel Bayer also quotes this scene with his own Nancy character in his 2010 reboot of A Nightmare on Elm Street.
 Langenkamp, by the way, was twenty when the film was released, though she looks much younger in the film.