It's the very definition of an irrational emotion, so what does it mean when a cultural consensus can be reached on fear? Why is it that, in movies at least, what scares us most scares most of us?
A recent Reuters Zogby poll asked respondents to name the scariest horror character of all time, and the results were surprising. Dubbed the Mickey Mouse of horror by no less an authority than Rob Zombie, it's no surprise that Frankenstein's monster came in first. Most famously embodied by Boris Karloff in a series of '30s Universal films, he has remained a near-constant presence since his creation by Mary Shelley in 1817. But finishing an almost indiscernibly close second, thanks largely to young voters, was a more recent creation: Freddy Krueger, star of the Nightmare On Elm Street series. Why, after Scream ostensibly laid the genre to rest, would the villain of a slasher film still challenge Shelley's monster? And why, given a wealth of recent villains from which to choose, would so many choose Freddy?
Slasher films represent the most disreputable sub-genre of what Roger Ebert dubbed "the most disreputable of genres." But dismissing them as moralistic reactions to the '60s—the world inhabited by the generation following the rise of the counterculture and the sexual revolution is portrayed as fraught with peril—does nothing to explain their popularity. Audiences flocked to Halloween and Friday The 13th for reasons other than a good sermon, perhaps because the world they inhabited was fraught with peril, a place where newfound freedom had newfound consequences.
That said, with a few brilliant exceptions (John Carpenter's genre-defining Halloween springs to mind), slasher movies were almost universally terrible. By 1984, the genre's first wave had nearly exhausted itself, its nadir symbolized by the poster to the 1981 Canadian film Happy Birthday To Me, which depicted a teen about to have a loaded shish-kebab skewer shoved down his throat. There may be infinite combinations of special-event-themed titles (My Bloody Valentine, New Year's Evil, Prom Night) and methods of murdering transgressive teenagers, but who needs to see all of them?
The genre took a different turn in 1984, the year versatile horror director Wes Craven released A Nightmare On Elm Street, the first in a series of films starring Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger. The premise was simple and ripe: A killer of children, Krueger was himself killed by a mob of unhappy parents, an action then covered up. Some time later, Krueger returns to haunt the surviving children in their dreams, murdering them as they sleep. The idea of a relentless killer may not break dramatically from other slasher films, but presenting one with the ability to invade his victims' most vulnerable moments certainly does. The innovation was made especially effective by the innately frightening Krueger, his supernatural abilities, ghoulish deformity, and claw-like glove enhanced by his jaunty old man's hat and tacky sweater.
Still, many successful horror films work without entering the collective pop-culture consciousness, and it's more than likely that without spin-offs, parodies, imitators, and successful sequels, Craven's original would simply be a highly regarded bit of '80s horror along the lines of Fright Night. Instead, it became an institution, which still begs the question: Why Freddy? Krueger has more personality than his rivals in the Friday The 13th and Halloween series, but more to the point, Krueger was the right monster for the right time.
As Krueger himself would note in a later entry, every town has an Elm Street. The series' Springwood setting is the sort of suburban anywhereland familiar to the Nightmare audience—if not through experience (like many horror movies, the series was extremely popular in inner cities), then through television and movies. The '80s, more than any decade since the birth of the American suburb in the '50s, idealized suburbia. And in the first Nightmare, Craven does a remarkable job of playing the placid Springwood against the secrets it holds: that the darker human impulses embodied by Krueger still exist, and that attempts to suppress them only result in disaster. The point is not that the suburbs are evil—which has become something of a cliché—but that evil is all-pervasive, even in an environment that works hard at every level to deny it.
Craven does such an efficient job staking out his territory and establishing its own personal bogeyman that the series almost could have coasted on his work. No subsequent entries topped the original, but several, especially early on, presented interesting variations on Craven's themes.
Made as a quickie cash-in before New Line fully understood what it had, A Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge (1985) features a story of personal rather than social repression. Revenge, written by David Chaskin and directed by Jack Sholder (The Hidden), has developed a reputation as the gay Nightmare, and it's difficult to view it as anything else. Though the director pleads ignorance in an interview conducted for the series' DVD box set, Sholder's film plays like a dark coming-out fable. In one scene, the hero (Mark Patton), whose body Freddy attempts to take over, sleepwalks to a leather bar; in another, Krueger emerges from Patton's abdomen after a failed make-out session with a female classmate causes Patton to run to his hunky best friend. It's not much of a movie compared to the original, but the subtext, which alternates between playing Patton's identity crisis compassionately and loathingly, makes it a fascinating artifact of '80s attitudes toward queerness.
A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987) provided one of the series' high points while bringing it to a logical conclusion. Co-scripted by a returning Craven, it pits Krueger against a group of misfit teens (led by Patricia Arquette) confined to an asylum for their nightmarish visions. With the help of Nightmare 1's Heather Langenkamp, they learn to band together in each other's dreams to battle Krueger.
Seemingly freed from past restrictions (perhaps by a larger budget), Freddy at times becomes a giant snake or an evil puppet. But the real change lies in his ability to become a personal bogeyman. In an increasingly gleeful characterization, Englund portrays Krueger as much as an inner demon as the more traditional kind, terrorizing a former addict with syringes and taunting a paralyzed teen with an evil wheelchair. With a none-too-subtle message about the value of cooperation and believing in oneself, Dream Warriors plays like an after-school special for Fangoria readers, albeit a highly entertaining one.
It also stretched the series about as far as it could go. In one memorable scene, Freddy takes the place of Dick Cavett and menaces Zsa Zsa Gabor. The moment is unexpected enough to be shocking, but by trying to top this and other surreal bits, subsequent films veered into self-parody. That trend is evidenced throughout The Dream Master (1988) and The Dream Child (1989), films distinguishable from one another only in that the former (directed by Renny Harlin) is far more skillfully made than the latter (directed by Stephen Hopkins).
Maybe this couldn't be helped. Of the series, director John Landis has said, "When there's a series, it becomes comedy… [Y]ou start becoming self-satire. You can't avoid it." But surely such late-cycle moments as a skateboard-mounted Krueger could have been avoided. Harlin even admits that 4 was an attempt to change Krueger from villain to hero, a wisecracking master or ceremonies presiding over slayings custom-fitted to each character's one-dimensional personality. (The films also proved that even the most banal statements could become menacing quips with the addition of the word "bitch." Go ahead and try it: "Don't forget to floss, bitch!") Could a series that started so well really have become such a cynical enterprise?
Yes. By the time of 4's release, Krueger was big business, helping build the long-struggling New Line into a major studio in part through a marketing bonanza of comic books, trading cards, T-shirts, dolls, and an extremely poor TV series. So why not take the embrace of Freddy as far as it could go by making him the star? A better question might be why audiences accepted a cuddlier variation on the character. He certainly fits in well with the spirit of late-'80s nihilism that gave rise to Guns 'N Roses, Andrew "Dice" Clay, and, a little later, Gulf War trading cards.
But in the end, Landis might be right: Familiarity can't help but make things comic. It also makes them likely to endure. Frankenstein's monster has survived its share of indignities, and if Krueger can survive the 1991 quirk- and quip-fest Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare, he can survive anything. Freddy's permanent place in video stores and on cable may represent the ultimate triumph of the suburbs' personal demon, one as well-suited for an America of strip malls and platte housing as Shelley's was for a Europe still dealing with the triumph of rationalism over religion.
Shelley's creation's longevity, however, owes much to his ability to take on new meaning for new generations. In the economically troubled 1930s, his workingman's clothes suggested a new sort of anxiety, as did his reincarnation in a series of post-war, blood-soaked Gothics for England's Hammer studios. Whether Krueger will stand the test of time remains to be seen, but his strong poll finish suggests he might. The ingenious postmodern series coda Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994), a fine solution to Landis' problem, linked Krueger to the same mythological impulse that gave birth to fairy-tale witches and other monsters. Ultimately, it might be there that he belongs.