Specifically, Craven reported that -- as an eleven year-old -- he awoke one night from slumber to the sound of strange, scuffling sounds outside his bedroom window.
Young Craven got up out of his bed, went to the window, and gazed down to the avenue below. There, a mysterious stranger stood. The man looked up at the window and met young Craven's stare. A terrified Craven hid for several minutes.
When Craven returned to the window, the stranger was still standing there; still looking up at the window...in the exact same position. He hadn't moved.
Then, the man entered Wes Craven's building, slowly climbed the stairs to the family apartment -- his footsteps audible -- and neared the front door...
"As an adult, I can look back and say that that was one of the most profoundly frightening experiences I have ever had," Craven told the authors of The Nightmare Never Ends. "That guy has never left my mind, nor has the feeling of how frightening an adult stranger can be. He was not only frightening, but he was amused by the fact that he was frightening and able to anticipate my inner thoughts..." (page 179).
Meet Freddy Krueger, the villain of Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and unarguably the most popular movie boogeyman of a generation.
This Friday the legend of Freddy K. is re-born with a big budget remake of the seminal Nightmare on Elm Street but -- disappointingly -- without Craven's input, advice or participation.
Considering the imminent silver-screen re-birth of Krueger, this seemed like the ideal time to go back and remember those qualities that made Robert Englund's Freddy such a powerful cultural influence in the mid-to-late 1980s.
1. When the Parents Are Away, Freddy Plays:
In Craven's original film, Freddy's teenage victims have literally no place to turn.
Tina's Mom is more interested in shacking up with her boyfriend than in helping Tina (Amanda Wyss) deal with her night terrors. Nancy's Mom (Ronee Blakeley) is a (mostly) useless drunk. Nancy's Dad (John Saxon) is a police detective, and always "on the job." Instead of listening to Nancy and helping her fight Freddy Krueger, he uses Nancy as bait to catch the wrong person (Rod). Glenn's Dad, Mr. Lantz (Ed Call) hangs-up on Nancy when she calls to check up on Glenn (Johnny Depp). "You've got to be firm with these kids!" he barks. The price of that self-righteous telephone hang-up: Glenn gets torn up by Freddy in the blood-flood to end all blood floods.
The adult world depicted in A Nightmare on Elm Street is not one friendly to children. In fact, local children sing the famous jump rope song ("one, two, Freddy's coming for you...") from one generation to the next, to warn one another about Krueger and his monstrous actions. The parents themselves are too busy burying the past; too busy burying the "truth" in the hope that what they repress and deny will simply stay buried. Of course, it doesn't.
Freddy visits the sins of the parents (murder) on the children, and because their parents aren't honest with them, the children of Elm Street don't even know why this is happening to them.
Writing for People in May of 1985, critic Ralph Novak wrote that "Craven is something of a generational turncoat. While he is 35, all of his adult characters have the intelligence and courage of cantaloupes."
That's exactly right...by design. Nightmare on Elm Street is about the younger generation learning to make it on its own; about recognizing the terrors of adulthood. And yes, there are some things worse than lying or obfuscating parents.
And that's what Freddy is: the amused stranger from Craven's childhood who enjoys terrorizing children because he can.
There's something especially upsetting about this aspect of Freddy, the fact that he preys on children, on the young. The world can be a pretty frightening place even for adults (even without Krueger) in it, but just imagine being eighteen and finding out that this guy is after you. One of my favorite lines from the original film is Nancy's (Heather Langenkamp) shocked realization that -- without sleep -- she "looks twenty." That comment is so innocent, and yet so dead-pan. She means it. Not being forty years old like me for instance, she doesn't see that it's funny...that twenty years old is just a blip on the radar. Freddy is such a monster because he destroys such innocence. And he relishes the job.
2.) Freddy is the Man of Your Dreams:
Freddy is also incredibly frightening because, much like Michael Myers, he's utterly inescapable.
The great white shark from Jaws can't kill you if you don't go into the ocean, for instance. However, everyone must sleep sooner or later. Everybody has to dream. And that's the field where Freddy stalks his prey, on the dream plateau. Freddy can afford to be patient because he knows that he always has the home-field advantage. He lives in dreams, and we just visit that often-surreal place.
The dream sequences of a Nightmare on Elm Street -- at least before some of the more outrageous rubber reality set-pieces of the sequels set-in -- all play cannily on very basic human fears. That we're being chased for instance, and that our feet get, essentially, stuck in mud. Or that there's something hiding in the bubble bath unseen...where we're vulnerable. Or that the monster chasing us can stretch beyond human proportions to grab us.
Freddy scares us because we're all vulnerable to the irrationality of dreams. But again, Freddy thrives there. He uses that irrationality, that vulnerability against us. Our nightmare landscape is his playground.
3.) To Be Or Not To Be: That is the Question Freddy Poses:
I always say that Nancy Thompson is Hamlet for the horror set.
Consider that A Nightmare on Elm Street serves as a direct thematic counterpoint to John Carpenter's Halloween (1978).
In Halloween, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) sits in high school English class while an unseen adult teacher drones on about "fate" and "destiny." In the midst of the class, Laurie sees Michael Myers' car on the street: she thus glimpses her fate. As the teacher explains on the soundtrack that "you can't escape fate," we are led (through the visuals) to understand the connection: that Laurie cannot escape her impending connection to an escaped serial killer.
By contrast, A Nightmare on Elm Street finds Nancy Thomas in another high school English class as a teacher discusses the resourcefulness of the melancholy prince in Shakespeare's Hamlet. The teacher notes that Hamlet "stamps out the lies" of his mother, something which Nancy will do in Elm Street as well, and that the prince "probes and digs" to find the truth. Again, that's the very task Nancy undertakes: seeking information about the life and death of Freddy Krueger, and her parents' role in his murder.
The Elm Street philosophy suggest that only by digging beneath the surface, by learning the truth of a thing, can one overcome the sins of one's parents and survive. The key to beating Freddy is to know and understand him: to see that he thrives on the energy of your hate, and then rob him of that energy.
4.) Freddy is the 1980s Personified: Apocalypse, Armageddon, and Deficit Spending
I realize that my conservative friends and readers get exasperated with me for pointing out some, er, unpleasant facets of the Ronald Reagan years in America.
Like the fact that Reagan repeatedly expressed a belief that we were living in the Bilbical End Times.
Like the fact that he joked about bombing Russia on an open mic, or claimed, erroneously that nuclear missiles could be recalled after launch.
Or that his tax cuts for the utra-rich turned an 80 billion dollar deficit into a 200 billion deficit in just two years.
Or that 35 million more Americans lived below the poverty line in 1983 than did before he was inaugurated.
It was in this decade, as well, that middle-class American families, by trying to keep up with the yuppie Joneses, had to become two-income households. And that meant the advent of the "latch-key kid" syndrome: the child who came home from school to find...nobody at home.
All of this context plays into the terror that is Freddy Krueger. The sins of the father -- the national debt -- is visited onto the children; just as the sins of the father (murder) was visited upon the children of Elm Street. More than that, the ascent of Freddy - a hellish demon -- in supposedly secure middle America suggested nothing less than an apocalypse in the making.
In Freddy's Dead we saw what ultimately became of Freddy's Springwood. As you may recall, the affluent community had turned into a ghost-town. And today, to continue the economic metaphor, there are hundreds of small towns in America where Main Street looks just like Springwood: places where the economic policies of the last thirty years have destroyed prosperity.
This is who Freddy was. Who Freddy has been for a quarter-century.
After Friday, I'm not sure who he will be. If the talents behind the remake are smart, they have paid adequate note to our unsettled times; to America's continuing dreads and fears.
If the new Freddy can tap into these 2010 bugaboos, then the long-lived dream demon will survive the translation to the next generation.
If Freddy becomes, instead, just a ring-master shepherding a circus of impressive special effects, this new iteration of the legend may not carry the power of his predecessor. I wish Craven had been involved in the making of the film; at least then we would know for certain that the film would carry some sub textual meaning, or genuflect to the ideas that have currency in today's America.
If you're interested in reading more about Freddy and his creator's history, don't forget to check out my 1998 book: Wes Craven: The Art of Horror.