Wes Craven's Dream Demon Part 1: The Original Nightmare

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Slasher horror became popular in the early 1970’s with Bay of Blood, Black Christmas, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre at the forefront of the genre. Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees were the ultimate slasher villains in the late 70’s and early 80’s. They were unrelenting forces of evil, eerily silent as they terrorized the teen populations of Haddonfield and Crystal Lake. 1984 introduced us to the town of Springwood, Ohio and its own version of the boogeyman. Wes Craven ran with the concept of the “final girl” popularized by the plot of Halloween and created Nancy, the average American teen. A Nightmare on Elm Street was a few years behind the trend of slasher horror flicks, but Wes Craven created a new dimension within the genre and breathed new life into it at the same time. He created an adversary that can kill you in your dreams. How do you beat someone who attacks you in your sleep, when you’re at you’re most vulnerable?

Who is Freddy Krueger?

Note: After exhaustive research, there is still a discrepancy in the timeline of the films. Some “definitive” timelines place Krueger’s birth in 1941, others in 1942. One such timeline claims that Amanda Krueger was born in 1907 but  listed her age as 18 when she gave birth to Freddy in 1941. They obviously got the math wrong. A second timeline listed her birth year as 1922 and her age as 21-22 when she gave birth to Freddy; this is clearly closer to the truth. This was written under the assumption that Krueger was born in 1941 and subsequent events are listed accordingly.

Frederick Charles Krueger, the Bastard Son of 100 Maniacs, also known as the Springwood Slasher, was a pedophile and murderer of at least 20 children who tormented the small town of Springwood, Ohio.

  Amanda Krueger

Amanda Krueger

Krueger’s mother, Amanda, was a nun (Sister Mary Helena in Christ) who was mistakenly locked in a ward at the Hathaway House asylum for the criminally insane a few days before Christmas 1940. Her co-workers were in a rush to get home to their families and forgot she was on the ward. She was attacked and raped by the 100 patients. Amanda was barely alive when she was found five days later; she was also pregnant. Amanda gave birth to Freddy in 1941  and he was immediately put up for adoption. Years later when Freddy was released from jail, Amanda hanged herself in the tower in which she was raped.

Krueger grew up with a sadistic and drunken adoptive father (Mr. Underwood) and was bullied by the other children at school. In elementary school, he killed the class pet without showing any emotion. It’s safe to assume that he had killed other animals before this, but his lack of remorse and concern for consequences were clear. As a teen, he’s shown to cut himself with a straight razor.  He killed his adoptive father (his first human victim) when he was 17 or 18 as revenge for how the man abused him, but somehow managed to keep that silent as he moved on to have a somewhat normal life. Krueger was the closest thing to a relative Underwood had, so he inherited the house.

Discrepancy: The Krueger address is listed as 1428 Elm Street; this is also the address of Nancy’s home in the first film. I find it difficult to believe that her parents, knowing what happened there, would choose to buy that house especially since their own daughter was a toddler at the time of Krueger’s death. One could argue that the parents were taking on a gatekeeper kind of role, but I don’t believe so; though it would help explain Marge’s alcoholism, which is loosely presented as her way of coping with killing Krueger.

On the surface, Freddy Krueger looked like an average guy, if a bit creepy. Freddy attempted to live a normal life for awhile. He met his future wife, Loretta, sometime in 1959 and they struck up a relationship, marrying sometime in early 1960, had a daughter, Katherine, in 1961, and worked at the local power plant. Throughout the marriage, Krueger hid his sick hobby. I was unable to find a definitive timeline about his first child victim, but it probably happened around 1963. Everything I read claimed that Freddy was a doting father and loving husband, until Loretta uncovered his secret.

He murdered his wife Loretta, strangling her in front of their daughter, after she discovered his hoard of pictures and paraphernalia in a secret section of their basement. Even then he was a prolific child murderer and continued his reign of terror. Katherine Krueger made a confession about her mother’s disappearance which prompted an investigation that lead to Freddy’s arrest. Krueger was arrested sometime in 1966 for the murders of 20 children and his daughter was adopted by the Burroughs family and renamed Maggie. The family moved from Springwood and the records of Katherine’s adoption were sealed. In Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, Freddy claims to have been driven mad when they took his daughter away; whether that’s true or not is up for discussion. Krueger was released on a technicality and the parents of Springwood turned vigilante. The technicality in question varies by source; the movie stated that an officer signed a warrant in the wrong spot, some websites say that an officer failed to obtain a search warrant before gathering evidence, and the short-lived anthology series Freddy’s Nightmares claims that the arresting officer failed to Mirandize Krueger (Miranda rights were established in 1966).

In 1968 the Springwood parents cornered Krueger in the boiler room of the power plant, where he liked to take his victims, and burned him alive. As the room was burning, he made a deal with malevolent entities known only as Dream Demons. Krueger was the perfectly evil and depraved individual the demons needed to spread chaos. They give him the power to enter dreams and manipulate them in any way he chose. The souls of his victims are then absorbed to increase his power and allow him to blur the lines between dreams and reality. The Springwood parents vowed to bury the incident, not telling the remaining children what happened, and chose to let them forget. A little more than a decade later the surviving children, who were just toddlers when Krueger was caught, start dying in their sleep.

Aside from the lore, Freddy Krueger quickly became a pop culture icon. Multiple sequels, a television series, music, toys, and franchise crossovers have all become part of Krueger’s repertoire. Freddy has a cult following that easily surpasses other slasher movie killers.

The Nursery Rhyme

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1, 2, Freddy’s coming for you
3, 4, Better lock your door
5, 6, Grab your crucifix
7, 8, Gonna stay up late
9, 10, Never sleep again

This rhyme made its first appearance between 1963-1965 in Springwood. The fact that children were singing it before Krueger was caught in 1966 and killed in 1968, suggests that the kids weren’t as sheltered as they appeared; they were very much aware that someone was killing off their friends. Nancy, who would have been about 3 years old when Krueger was killed, sings the song to herself as she’s dozing off in the bathtub. It’s a little odd that she would remember that or even been exposed to it since the parents went to great pains to forget Krueger ever existed.  It became a staple in the franchise to include children singing the song, either as a voice over or as the little girls skipping rope. Some theories suggest that these little girls are the spirits of some of Krueger’s victims, though it’s unconfirmed.

The Inspiration

Wes Craven drew inspiration from several sources to create this masterpiece. When he was a child, he was awoken by an elderly drunk stumbling down the street. Craven crept to his window to see what the noise was and he was met with the stare of the old man. Craven asserts that the man walked half-backwards up the sidewalk, keeping eye contact, and around the corner to the entrance of the apartment building. He was so scared that he woke his older brother, who went down to investigate wielding a baseball bat; he didn’t find anyone. The harrowing incident stuck with Craven his whole life. The creepy guy was just a drunk scaring a couple of kids, but it became the first piece of the Freddy Krueger puzzle.

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Other pieces of Craven’s childhood added to the visage that became Freddy Krueger. He was bullied by a boy who shared the name Fred Krueger. Plastic Man, a superhero in the DC lineup, could change shape but retain the pattern of his costume, inspired Krueger’s shape shifting abilities. The stripes of Krueger’s sweater are seen throughout the franchise, but are first seen on the convertible top at the end of the first film; look for the stripes and you’ll find Freddy. The sweater colors were inspired by a Scientific American article. Apparently, red and green are the most visually abrasive when they are placed next to each other and the effect is “subliminally unsettling.” The Pied Piper of Hamelin made his way into the story and character of Krueger. The main parallel is that the piper and Krueger were both turned on by the townspeople and subsequently killed all the children.  It’s unclear if Craven intended for this similarity, but the 2010 remake relies heavily on the fairy tale. Subtlety was clearly lacking in the remake.

The largest inspiration came in 1979 after Craven read a series of articles in the L.A. Times about a group of Southeast Asian refugees in America who were dying in their sleep of mysterious causes. The Hmong people (from Laos) were from an isolated area and were thrust into modern society. They settled mostly in California and Minnesota, but sought medical help for a series of imagined diseases and parasites shortly after settling. In an interview for Vulture.com in 2014, Craven stated, “I’d read an article in the L.A. Times about a family who had escaped the Killing Fields in Cambodia and managed to get to the U.S. Things were fine, and then suddenly the young son was having very disturbing nightmares. He told his parents he was afraid that if he slept, the thing chasing him would get him, so he tried to stay awake for days at a time. When he finally fell asleep, his parents thought the crisis was over. They heard screams in the middle of the night. By the time they got to him, he was dead. He died in the middle of a nightmare. He was a youngster having a vision of a horror that everyone older was denying. That became the central line of Nightmare on Elm Street."

Eighteen individuals were eventually found dead in their beds from “probable cardiac arrhythmia.”  Doctors did not want to discuss the more likely cause of death now known as Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome (SUNDS). Apparently, these individuals seem to literally die of fright as their mind makes their nightmares horribly real.

Script Writing and the House that Freddy Built

Wes Craven was in a rough patch of his life when he started the screenplay for A Nightmare on Elm Street. He had written The Last House on the Left (for producer Sean S. Cunningham) but could never bring himself to watch it and he wanted to move away from horror. He was divorced, a PhD candidate, and his current girlfriend was distancing herself from him because Last House on the Left was so disturbing. He went on to write about half a dozen comedic scripts, none of which could find financial backing. Craven was encouraged by a friend to write another script like The Last House on the Left and wrote The Hills Have Eyes. He came to the realization that he was best at writing and directing scary movies; he had a knack for the frightening and disturbing.  

Wes Craven began writing the Nightmare screenplay around 1981. After he finished the production of Swamp Thing in 1982, he began pitching A Nightmare on Elm Street to several studios but was turned down for various reasons. Walt Disney Productions was the first studio to show interest, but they wanted Craven to tone down the violence and make it suitable for children, but Craven declined and moved on. Paramount Pictures flirted with the idea of producing it, but ultimately declined due to the screenplay’s similarity to another film they were producing called Dreamscape. By this time, the script had been floating around Hollywood for 2 years. Wes Craven then pitched the script to New Line Cinema founder, Bob Shaye. Before Craven came along, New Line was only a small, independent film distributor that hadn’t produced any of their own films. Craven and Shaye sat down to talk about the film and basically what Craven told him is that it was about a guy who only exists in dreams that can kill you if he enters your dreams. Shaye instantly understood the concept where others had merely scratched their heads. Shaye took the gamble; he greenlit the project and immediately went out to find financial backers soon after receiving the script’s first draft.

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It took so long to find backing that Craven went broke and was to the point of selling his house when he got a call from Bob Shaye. They had the money to proceed, but things weren’t all rosy. At some point during filming, New Line’s distribution deal fell through and the cast and crew didn’t get paid for a few weeks.

A Nightmare on Elm Street was the first film produced by New Line Cinema and led to a string of hit sequels that fans couldn’t get enough of. New Line has had a lot of success since those early days, but it will forever be known as “the House That Freddy Built.”

Casting

Aside from Ronee Blakely (Marge Thompson, Nancy’s mother) and John Saxon (Lt. Donald Thompson, Nancy’s father), there were no other big names tied to the film.

Robert Englund (Freddy Krueger) had played a curly haired alien in the movie V, which was about to make the leap to TV as a series. When Englund went to audition he thought his face was a little too robust, so he sat in his car, slicked  his hair back, and smeared cigarette ashes under his eyes and other parts of his face to make it look leaner and haggard, an old theater trick.

Heather Langenkamp (Nancy Thompson) had done a few commercials and had been an extra in a couple of films, but wanted to do a movie before she went back to college at Stanford University. She beat out more than 200 other actresses for the role of Nancy, including Demi Moore, Jennifer Grey, Tracey Gold, and Courtney Cox.. She had the “non-Hollywood” look that Craven was looking for.

Amanda Wyss (Tina Gray) had mostly been in TV series before 1984 and became the first on-screen victim of Freddy Krueger. A Nightmare on Elm Street was the debut of both Nick Corri (Rod Lane) and Johnny Depp (Glen Lantz). By Corri’s own admission, he would snort heroin between takes to deal with depression and he was actually high during the jail cell scene with Nancy.  Wes Craven’s daughter and her friends had a hand in the casting of Johnny Depp. Craven had narrowed the choices down to 3 actors- a jock type, a surfer type, and Johnny Depp. Craven wasn’t especially impressed with Depp’s appearance because he showed up with greasy hair and nicotine stained fingers. Craven put the headshots of the actors in front of the girls and they immediately chose Depp because he was better looking than the other two.

Reception

Even though A Nightmare on Elm Street had a small premiere run, just 165 theaters nationwide, it was a big hit with the teen crowd. With films like Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter still fresh in their memories, they were eager for more. More resonated with teens than the desire for a good horror movie- feelings of being misunderstood and overwhelmed by things in their lives are two prominent themes in the film. Everyone can remember a time when they felt ignored by their parents or couldn’t cope with burgeoning adulthood and Wes Craven used that to create empathy for Nancy and the other teens in the film, to great effect.

There are overtones of the “abandoned teen” throughout A Nightmare on Elm Street. The first instance is at the beginning after Tina wakes from her first nightmare in the film. Her mother comes in and basically dismisses the situation. Nancy is constantly left to her own devices as her alcoholic mother drinks herself into a stupor. However, Marge does have moments of clarity when she sees Nancy needs help, but fails to come clean with the truth until it’s almost too late. Nancy’s father, Lt. Thompson, is pretty much absent the entire film, only cropping up when the police are needed. Glen’s parents only come into play on the night of his death and we never even see Rod’s parents. The teens have to rely on each other for support but are woefully under equipped to deal with the situation.

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There’s a really nice role reversal between Nancy and her mother, Marge, after the sleep clinic scene. Nancy has brought Krueger’s hat into the real world and confronts her mother with it in the kitchen later, as seen in this extended outtake. You see the daughter become the authority figure while the mother makes pitiful excuses and avoids the truth. Marge is stuck between protecting herself and protecting her daughter. In a later scene, Marge has bars installed on the windows for “security.” She then proceeds to get extremely drunk and tells her daughter the story of Freddy Krueger. Before the final confrontation with Krueger, Nancy again takes on the parental role and puts her mother to bed.  

I think the main reason this film was a success is that the nightmares felt real. Everyone has those dreams that are so real that you think you’re still awake and that’s what this movie feels like to me. Craven was able to blur the lines between dreams and reality in just the right way to unbalance the audience but keep them enthralled. He scared us but kept us firmly rooted in our seats.

Overkill

I caught Krueger Fever at an early age, 8 or so, and I’ve been in love with A Nightmare on Elm Street ever since. When falling down the research rabbit hole, I found some things that really didn’t fit into a particular category, so here are 21 extra facts you might not know about A Nightmare on Elm Street.

  1. Krueger has less than 7 minutes on screen in the first film

  2. The very first scene, showing Tina (Amanda Wyss) walking down a dank hall, and all the boiler room scenes were filmed in the Lincoln Heights Jail. The building has since been condemned due to asbestos. All the pipes had been insulated with asbestos and Craven recalls sitting by one watching it flake off, wondering if it was dangerous.

  3. The high school, real-life Marshall High School in the Silver Lake area of Los Angeles, was only about a block from where actress Heather Langenkamp lived at the time.

  4. The sound department spent a long time finding the right sound for Freddy’s knives. What you hear on screen is the sound of a knife scraping the bottom of a metal folding chair. That’s enough to set anybody on edge.

  5. Early on, there’s a scene with Glen (Depp), Nancy (Langenkamp), and Tina (Wyss) hanging out in Tina’s living room. Johnny Depp had a lot of trouble working the cassette player. He couldn’t get the sound cues right and the girls really were laughing that hard.

  6. Shortly after this scene, Tina and Rod head upstairs to have sex and Glen is relegated to the couch because Nancy wants to sleep alone. The line, “Morality sucks,” and the scenario come directly from an experience Craven had as a teen.

  7. The scene where Freddy presses through the wall over Nancy’s bed was accomplished using a piece of spandex in place of the wall. It looks like a really cool optic effect, but was a simple practical effect that had great lighting.

  8. Wes Craven wanted Tina’s death to be something people hadn’t really seen before. They utilized a rotating room to get the eerie ceiling shots. Click here to see how it was done!

  9. Langenkamp recalls that the costume department kept switching her jeans with those of Johnny Depp and that’s why her pants look particularly tight in certain scenes.

  10. Heather’s teacher in this scene, played by Lin Shaye (Bob Shaye’s sister), later went on to portray Elise Rainier in the Insidious film franchise.

  11. The infamous tub scene required Heather Langenkamp to wedge herself in place because the bottom was cut out of the tub. The underwater sequence was filmed after the wrap party in someone’s pool. A piece of black plastic with a “tub shaped hole” was placed over the pool and the stunt woman, not Langenkamp, performed the scene.

  12. Glen’s death was another that utilized the rotating room. To get the blood geyser to look right, they poured gallons and gallons of colored water through the bed while the room was upside down. Unfortunately, the weight of the water over-balanced the room and it tipped, splashing everyone within range and even causing a few electric shocks.

  13. There was a deleted scene which reveals Nancy had a sibling that was murdered by Krueger.

  14. Interesting location fact: Nancy and Glen’s houses really were right across the street from each other.

  15. Heather Langenkamp jokingly credits the booby trap scene for her love of doing repairs around her home.

  16. The ending of the film was the biggest point of contention between Wes Craven and Bob Shaye. Craven intended for the movie to have a happy ending. Throughout the movie, Nancy sees her friends and mother killed. She defeats Krueger by turning her back on him and refusing to believe in him, thus taking away his power. Nancy then wakes up to the realization that it was all a dream. The movie was to end with Nancy saying goodbye to her mother on the porch before getting into the convertible with her friends. Bob Shaye wanted a different ending to set up a sequel; Craven intended for Nightmare to be a stand-alone film. Shaye wanted it to end with Freddy driving off with the kids. Instead, Craven proposed a twist ending compromise that ended in the film.

  17. Robert Englund  almost didn’t reprise his role in Nightmare on Elm Street 2. After seeing how much fans loved Freddy Krueger, he rightfully asked for a raise. The studio felt that he was just a guy in a mask and hired a stuntman to fill in for the second film. They did some test scenes and it was horrible. So, New Line went back to Englund with their tails between their legs and raised his salary.

  18. There’s a Bollywood rip-off of Nightmare called Mahakaal, which came out in 1993. Yeah, it’s as strange as you might think- a script that goes way off the rails with musical numbers, college kids getting murdered, and a very annoying character called Canteen that thinks he’s India’s answer to Michael Jackson. No, I'm not kidding.  

  19. The first time Robert Englund put on the bladed glove, he cut himself. There were a series of gloves that had blunt blades and the hero glove that was used for close-ups and for actual cutting in scenes.

  20. In the scene where Glen dies, he’s listening to the radio. The DJ comes on and says, “It’s midnight and you’re listening to KRGR,” (Krueger without the vowels as call letters) which foreshadows his death and lets us know that he’s already asleep and dreaming.

  21. In the anthology TV series Freddy’s Nightmares, the pilot episode “No More Mr. Nice Guy” is a prequel to the first film showing Krueger’s trial and subsequent release.

  22. Budget: $1.1-1.8 million

    Opening weekend: $1,271,000

    Gross: $25,504,513


A Nightmare on Elm Street may not have been a top box office earner, peaking at #40 for the year, but Freddy Krueger instantly became part of the pop culture fabric. The scarred antagonist’s popularity prompted 7 more films in the franchise, earning enough money in the earlier years to push other projects into production, and spawning a reboot in 2010 that fell flat with most fans. But, that’ll have to wait until next time! Part 2 will be out soon and will focus on a breakdown of the franchise and the failed attempt at a reboot.

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I hope you’ve enjoyed this article because I loved revisiting one of my favorite films. Feel free to leave a comment below or message me on Twitter @InsomniacTx where I also post daily movie trivia.