It’s Halloween, and what better way to commemorate the season than with the legendary dream stalker himself, Freddy Krueger? I can credit the Nightmare on Elm Street series for solidifying me as a horror fan, and I think what makes it special is just how personal and relatable it is. Far from the throwaway schlock outsiders to the genre usually associate with slasher movies, Elm Street has a surprising amount of depth in deriving its true scares from the experience and anxiety of growing up as a young person in the suburbs. Freddy Krueger himself resembles a modernized version of the malicious, child-stealing fairies of Celtic folklore* (you can read more about them here and this is an article specifically about the Irish changeling legend); at first, you think he’s getting revenge for the kids’ parents burning him to death, but really he just gets sick pleasure out of the job with his black humour and strongly implied paedophilia (and yes, the classic fairies were just as fond of disproportionate retribution). But it’s no longer medieval Scotland or Ireland, but suburban America in the 1980s, so his punishments have changed with the times.
Which brings us to the humans. One thing that makes the series still as relevant in the millennial age as it was in the 80s is the enduring theme of generational conflict. With a few exceptions, the adults in the series are not only oblivious to Freddy Krueger’s threat, but inadvertently help him out by overruling the teenagers’ concerns with their condescending, know-it-all attitudes. Elm Street is a world only young people understand, and outside the context of the films, something that speaks to us, something we can call ours. Sure, the D&D, comic, and video game references may be cheesy, but they’re an admirable attempt to connect with youth culture (and everyone references Now I’m Playing With Power decades later, so it obviously worked). Overall, the teenagers’ concerns are treated seriously, whether they be substance abuse, bulimia, or paternal rape. Even if they’re the target of Freddy’s quips, that highlights just how vile he is and makes him more memorable as a threat; because he has no boundaries to his vindictiveness.**
But a villain needs hero(in)es to oppose him, and Elm Street certainly delivers. The strong-willed, resourceful female leads are not only emblematic of how feminist the horror genre can be, but frankly, most mainstream movies could learn from the horror genre in that regard. One of my favourite aspects of the overarching story told by the movies is the succession of survival skills from one girl to another, with everyone bonding over their shared misery in being stalked by an evil child rapist. It’s a morbid take on the power of friendship, but that’s horror for you. There’s a lot more to say about Nancy and co, but I’ll have to get into the individual movies for that.
So far, I’ve talked about the series as a whole. Yes, that includes the sequels. I know outside the fandom, they’re seen as cheap, lazy cash-ins to a masterpiece, but if Never Sleep Again is anything to go by, they were anything but lazy; the sequels suffered primarily from being rushed to come out every year or two and the production crew had to work their butts off to get them out in time. Still, the original film’s premise was solid enough a framework to support the sequels, and they all bring up interesting ideas at the very least, even if they weren’t explored as much or as well as they could have been. Besides, Dream Warriors and The Dream Master seem to define Freddy in the public consciousness more than the original movie, and for all of Wes Craven’s brilliance, I attribute that to the characters being more likable and relatable.*** I guess they’re like the Godzilla or other classic monster movie sequels; you have to be an aficionado to appreciate them for what they are.
So, what about the new Elm Street movie coming out? Honestly, I’m tired of remakes in general. If they wanted to do a new Elm Street movie, they should come up with an original story. It doesn’t even have to be connected to the original canon at all. The basic premise is a teenage girl and her friends fending off Freddy Krueger in their dreams and dysfunctional life problems while awake. You can do a lot with that framework, so why just copy what already exists? If I wanted to see the old movies, I’d watch the old movies. If only the movie business wasn’t so risk-averse in general….
So in conclusion, Elm Street is awesome. It’s more than just a slasher series; I’d go as far as to call it a modern young adult fairy tale. And in a weird way, it’s cathartic seeing teenage girls triumph over a demon who preys on your insecurities. The series even helped me understand my family problems better and improve my relationship with my parents, so I also have a vested emotional connection to the series. So hats off to Wes Craven, Robert Englund and the rest of the Elm Street crew, and may the man of our dreams remain as immortal as Dracula.
*I’ve never heard Wes Craven or anyone else specifically mention fairies, but I see a strong resemblance motif-wise.
**Aside from actually killing a child on-screen as opposed to a teenager. Even the opening of Freddy vs Jason makes it a discretion shot. Impressive that after everything else, the very act in his job description is what’s going too far for people’s tastes, though I too would be pretty uncomfortable seeing that on-screen myself.
***I think of Dream Warriors as the Elm Street answer to X-Men and The Dream Master as a magical girl anime with Freddy Krueger as the villain. And now I am obligated to explain what I mean by that.