We simultaneously criticize and celebrate slasher films for their recognizable formulas and indestructible boogeymen. Most horror fans can recite the genre’s lineage: how it was presaged by Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Italian giallo, then took on a more recognizable shape in the 1970s with the likes of Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Black Christmas (1974), and Halloween (1978). With Halloween, John Carpenter inspired countless other tales of knife-wielding masked men and tormented teenagers. With Friday the 13th (1980), director Sean S. Cunningham and makeup artist Tom Savini upped the ante on gore. That film also spawned what may be the most prototypical slasher franchise of all. Friday the 13th’s summer camp setting allows for the arrival of fresh busloads of young people with each new film, and their character development is usually wafer-thin. There’s a kill every few minutes, with the tacit understanding that that is precisely what the audience paid to see.
By the time A Nightmare on Elm Street was released in November 1984, three Friday the 13th sequels had already hit theaters, including the franchise’s supposed “final chapter” (which has since been followed by six more sequels and a remake). The two franchises frequently get lumped together, and that’s understandable. After all, Freddy and Jason were both ubiquitous horror icons of the 1980s, and they even squared off in the crossover Freddy vs. Jason in 2003. Still, the franchises’ differences are just as interesting as their much-discussed similarities.
A relative latecomer to the genre, the original A Nightmare on Elm Street captured imaginations by introducing an explicitly supernatural villain to the realm of slashers. Freddy Krueger’s power to manipulate dreams gave director Wes Craven countless opportunities to craft surreal nightmare sequences: a bleeding teenager is impossibly dragged across a ceiling, a corpse stands upright in her body bag and beckons our hero Nancy, a boy is swallowed up by his own bed. Craven had a knack for this type of sequence, and infused later films like Deadly Friend (1986) and The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) with similarly enduring and disgusting nightmare imagery, sometimes at the behest of studio executives looking to replicate A Nightmare on Elm Street’s success.
But beyond the film’s moments of shocking surrealism, A Nightmare on Elm Street differs from Friday the 13th because Craven’s film is empathetic toward its teenage characters. The teens in Friday the 13th and its sequels suffer because, years ago, negligent young camp counselors allowed a child to drown. The killer in a Friday the 13th film is a brutally violent stand-in for disapproving parents everywhere – the teens are usually dispatched after having sex or smoking pot or both. By contrast, the kids in A Nightmare on Elm Street suffer because the child murderer Freddy Krueger escaped traditional justice when a court of law failed to convict him. They suffer because years ago, their parents took horrific revenge on Krueger only to create an even worse, infinitely more powerful monster. At one point in the film, Nancy’s mother unsuccessfully attempts to comfort her daughter by recounting the tale of Krueger’s death, concluding with the chilling declaration, “He’s dead, honey, because mommy killed him.” Nancy and her friends are victimized by both the ineffectuality and the cruelty of the adults that surround them.
A Nightmare on Elm Street begins, fittingly, with a nightmare. After a dream about being slashed by a man with blades on his fingers, a high schooler named Tina wakes up with her nightgown in tatters. Tina’s unsympathetic mother, annoyed that her own evening with a boyfriend has been interrupted, flippantly tells her daughter, “Tina, honey, you got to cut your fingernails or you got to stop that kind of dreaming. One or the other.” This moment is representative of the scenes between parents and kids throughout the movie. Tina’s mother is emotionally absent in this scene and physically absent for the rest of the film, leaving town with her boyfriend for two days just when her daughter needs her most.
Meanwhile, Nancy’s divorced, warring parents are also of little help. In the face of mounting tragedy, Nancy’s mother Marge sinks into alcoholism and despondency. When she does try to help, her ideas are counterproductive – she continually tries to convince her daughter to go to sleep, and installs security measures in the house that serve to trap Nancy rather than protect her. For his part, Nancy’s father Donald frequently questions Marge’s parenting without actually stepping in. A police lieutenant, he also represents the ways that larger systems of authority fail the kids – he first uses Nancy as bait to arrest her friend Rod on suspicion of murder, and later ignores Nancy’s pleas to help her defeat the supernatural threat posed by Krueger.
Craven knows how to find horror in systems and relationships breaking down, and this is particularly potent because his protagonist is young and struggling to take charge of her own life. At school, after Nancy falls asleep in class and barely escapes a nightmare encounter with Freddy, her teacher can only feebly suggest that she needs a hall pass to leave the building for the day. At the funeral of one of Nancy’s friends, the officiant fails to offer any comforting words. Near the film’s climax, a police officer insists, “Everything’s under control” when clearly it is not. Nancy ultimately realizes that no one will save her but herself.
While it’s true that the Final Girl who faces off with the killer is a fixture of slasher films, few are as well-developed or as doggedly determined as Nancy. (Indeed, while he’s ghoulishly memorable, Freddy Krueger has less screen time than you might remember.) From small things like finding ways to secretly brew coffee in her bedroom to big undertakings like rigging her house with booby traps for Freddy, Nancy plans, plots, and fights her way out of a terrifying situation. Though the film occasionally sacrifices its own internal logic for the sake of a great creepy scare, Nancy’s journey as a character always makes emotional sense. “You face things,” Marge tells her daughter. “That’s your nature. That’s your gift.”
It’s perhaps no surprise that when Craven returned to the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise with 1994’s clever, postmodern sequel Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, he still placed much of his focus on the original film’s hero. This time Heather Lagenkamp, who appears as Nancy in the first film, is playing a version herself. Craven’s other famous slasher franchise, Scream, also features a determined survivor at its heart – Sidney Prescott shares some of Nancy’s fierce spirit. Craven recognized how horror and hope can make for an especially potent storytelling mix. A Nightmare on Elm Street brings some of our worst fears to gruesome, vivid life, but it might also give us the courage to face them.