“Nightmare” Explained: Freddy Krueger as the ‘coolest’ bogeyman

A deep dive on Wes Craven's 1984 classic.

"Nightmare" Explained: Freddy Krueger as the wacko bogeyman
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Despite his unrelenting penchant for torturing children, very few recognize Freddy Krueger as a bogeyman. Over the years, this came to feel like rightful validation: Freddy, from the outset, fills his own pair of shoes. He kills from a different realm (that of dreams, or in technical terms, of the “subconscious”) and there, gleefully, slashes and dices his young victims.

If Michael Myers is rightly revered as an impervious force of pure evil, Freddy – who brings terror in viscous (read: iconic) geysers – is a monster fueled by sheer mania.

The sequels to the original “Nightmare” film — may their rote movie souls rest in peace! — point us to an incredibly bonkers backstory that reveals Freddy as “the son of a hundred maniacs”, which in hindsight, only makes perfect sense.

"Nightmare" Explained: Freddy Krueger as the wacko bogeyman
The official poster of “A Nightmare On Elm Street” (1984)

In Wes Craven’s 1984 original, “A Nightmare on Elm Street”, children grow up cautioned about his coming, through an eerie rewriting of a familiar nursery rhyme that bookends the film. “One. Two. Freddy’s coming for you.” In the same film, we learn Freddy’s bloody rampage is inspired by what many will attribute to sheer, almost terminal, suburban perfection.

In another life, he worked as an aloof gardener, who we can easily pass as a harmless old guy —what with his begrudging fashion sense; really, red and green stripes? — except that, in reality, he had murdered (and sexually molested?) around twenty young kindergarteners. He was tried in court, acquitted by a slight legal loophole, but ultimately judged, juried, and executed by a band of parents who are, for a lack of a more apt term, went diabolically crazy.

He was burned alive, like a witch by a circle of pagans. He gets stuck in the dream world and from there does his handiwork (get it?), murdering the children of the parents who had killed him.

"Nightmare" Explained: Freddy Krueger as the wacko bogeyman
Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger in “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984)

The conceit of all this is straightforward: a maniac kills teenagers in their dreams. Others forward a different reading, rightly praising Craven for blurring reality, dreams and — later in the more recent entries of the franchise — fiction.

While this, to some degree, is also true, with Craven taking cues from surrealists like Bunuel, and more evidently, Polanski, I read “A Nightmare on Elm Street” as really more of an exposition on the physiology of sleeping and the actual dreaming. A key scene is where Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) is about to put to REM sleeping for examination. “I don’t see why you just couldn’t give me a pill to keep me from dreaming,” she exclaims, which her doctor calmly dismisses, saying that only cuckoos don’t dream. Craven’s observations on the world’s anxieties on modern science, specifically that concerning dreams, are accurate and relevant up till now.

Doubtless a skilled technician of cinema, Craven crafts his film with impressive enough earnestness and flair. He gives the titular “nightmare” a face, one that represents a kind of slumber America likes to fall under – suburbia. Freddy, like all other bogeymen in Holywood, is the most violent towards people who numb themselves with the fallacy of idyll around them, be it sex or alcohol or media. But it’s his sadistic methods that make him more terrifying, charismatic even. Freddy can most certainly make a career as an entertainer — strip him off the finger-knives — like a Patrice O’Neal copycat, with brutally funny quips and oneliners.

"Nightmare" Explained: Freddy Krueger as the wacko bogeyman
The original “Nightmare” opens with a sequence framed within a frame, referring to the monster’s otherworldly abilities and circumstance.

Our introduction to him happens at the beginning of the film, where he creates his knife glove—a portentous moment because it all happens in a frame…inside a frame. This styling is no incident: Craven makes smart use of this odd framing and tells us that Freddy isn’t a monster from our own realm. If Ghostface from the “Scream” movies likes to trample it, Freddy likes to make his own.

Freddy’s true weapon isn’t the sharp blades he appends on a farmer’s glove. It’s the four corners that separate his world from his victims’ (read: his frame from theirs) – a world that unfortunately, people lull into during sleep. As the victims fall into their subconscious, they are helpless, and this helplessness makes Freddy frighteningly stronger. In what seems like a reply to horror films in general, Freddy throughout the series cuts his own fingers, rips his own face, and transforms himself into a car, all for spectacle – for show – spiking the terror of his victims.

Freddy’s small indulgences point to a close parallel to rape and molestation — he is, after all, invading the victim’s subconscious — echoing Craven’s first feature-length film, “The Last House on the Left”. The bathtub scene is a prime example, with Nancy’s legs open wide and between them is Freddy’s hand emerging from the water. The scene carries on with Freddy pulling Nancy to what looks like an abyssal body of water, almost drowning her, which is what nightmares feel, or what watching them feels like. Samuel Bayer’s 2010 remake more than hints on this—”Now, how’s this for a wet dream,” the new Freddy quips.

"Nightmare" Explained: Freddy Krueger as the wacko bogeyman
Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) is the object of Freddy’s fatal practical gags.

Though seemingly impervious, Freddy isn’t as strong in the physical realm, giving the characters generous opportunities to escape. The most obvious: they can skip sleep by making sure that caffeine is in good supply. One can also ask someone to watch them as they get a few hours of shuteye and shake them awake when they start to twitch in all sorts of strange ways — that is unless their friend isn’t a young Johnny Depp, which, for Langenkamp’s character, is a bummer. Tasked to guard Nancy while she goes to sleep, Depp’s Glen Lantz drifts off, and as a result, falls prey to Freddy, making a literal geyser of blood and guts, which, to those who play trivia (wink!), is a direct reply to the elevator scene in Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining”.

Freddy’s origin, abilities, and goals make him a complicated villain. Is he a mere face representative of the corruption in the spotless idyll of American suburbia? Is he simply a maniac who relishes on his victims’ pathetic pleas? Or is he indeed a monster, the very own creation of his victims’ parents? Like any bogeyman, he fits any purpose that needs serving.

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