Who is Freddy Krueger? Within the world of Wes Craven’s first Nightmare on Elm Street movie (1984), he’s a supernatural being. Unlike his slasher “brothers” Jason Voorhees (Friday the 13th, 1980, dir. Sean S. Cunningham) and Michael Myers (Halloween, 1978, dir. John Carpenter), Freddy (Robert Englund) can transcend the limitations of time and space. But can he transcend the conservative thematics of the 1980s slasher?
The logic of the film dictates that Freddy can attack only through the dreams of his sleeping teenage victims. Once he’s lured into the physical world by Nancy (Heather Langenkamp), though, he appears to change. Now he’s able to move back and forth between the “real” world and the supernatural realm. When he’s in the material world, he can manipulate physical conditions. He traps Nancy and her friends in a convertible with a soft top with colored stripes that match his sweater. Then he grabs Nancy’s mother Marge (Ronee Blakley) and yanks her through a small window in the front door of her house.
While this final sequence succeeds in setting up a sequel, it doesn’t otherwise make sense unless it’s interpreted as a dream. It begins after Nancy defeats Freddy in her bedroom and reverses all the killing he has done. This action seems to happen in the real world. Still, Nancy leaves the bedroom and suddenly finds herself outside, dressed for school. This surrealistic transition suggests that she is asleep and dreaming.
But the movie has led us to believe that Nancy is awake at the film’s end. After all, dragging Freddy to the ‘real world’ by waking up while holding onto him was her plan to defeat him. This plan succeeds — so the only way to have a sequel is for him to return in the final sequence. As in most 80s slasher franchises, the monster rises again after the ‘Final Girl’ escapes from or defeats him. Still, it’s a problematic ending. It blurs the distinction between Freddy’s present role as an undead dream-monster and his past as a living child molester/murderer.
This distinction is key to the revenge trope that motivates Freddy. Freddy’s bladed glove is the item that links his past and present. The well-done opening credit sequence shows him creating this weapon, but does not reveal Freddy himself on-screen. When he does appear in the teenagers’ dreams, he’s wearing the glove, which he uses to terrorize and kill them. But later Marge reveals that she has the original glove, which she took after helping to kill Freddy. To get even for this parental act of vigilante justice, Freddy seeks to wreak vengeance on the teenage children of Marge and her peers. When he appears in their dreams, it makes sense that he uses a supernatural replica of his killing tool.
Yet, there’s more to it than this. Freddy’s targets are not only the children of his murderers. They are also the products of ‘broken’ homes or dysfunctional families. Both Tina (Amanda Wyss), Freddy’s first victim, and Nancy live in single-parent homes. Tina dies after her mother goes out-of-town, leaving her ‘home alone.’ A child of divorce, Tina is also marked as promiscuous. She dies after she has sex with her boyfriend Rod (Nick Corri) — an apt example of the now-stereotypical “fuck and die” theme of 80s slashers and neo-noir films.
Nancy’s mother is an alcoholic divorcee who has a hostile relationship with her ex-husband Don (John Saxon). Although he is a police lieutenant, Don is an ineffectual protector for Nancy. The film suggests that his weakness as a patriarch is due to his absence from the family home. While Nancy’s would-be boyfriend Glen (Johnny Depp) lives in a ‘normal’ family, his father is a gruff autocrat who dominates his wife. His prejudice against Nancy and her mother seals his son’s fate — he refuses to allow Nancy to talk to Glen on the phone. Glen’s mom, a stereotypical passive wife, acquiesces to his death by going along with his father’s decision.
At first, Freddy’s revenge seems related to the primal urges of the id. He embodies the return of transgressive sexuality, which Marge and the other parents have repressed by murdering him, as murderous violence. After dispatching some of the teens, Freddy also attacks and kills Marge. But Freddy’s vengeance is also superego-based. He metes out punishment for the parents’ transgressions and flaws. These include divorce and alcoholism but also the failure of the parents in the traditional family. Moreover, the teens who have sex (Tina and Rod) die first. Rod’s punishment is also for being a ‘rebel’ against traditional authority figures. Even Glen dies — presumably for helping Nancy to fight Freddy, but also likely because he wants to have sex with Nancy.
Although Wes Craven began his career with films classed as ‘progressive,’ by the mid-80s he seems to be hedging his thematic bets. His first two low-budget exploitation films, The Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977), exposed the monstrous potential of the traditional American family. This theme is still present in Nightmare on Elm Street. But it’s diluted by conservative small-town “family values” messages common to the “Moral Majority” backlash years of the American 1980s. Single/divorced working mothers, substance use, divorce, and extramarital sex — some of the results of the ‘decadence’ of the 60s and 70s — are all targets of Freddy’s wrath in Nightmare on Elm Street.
So, who is Freddy Krueger? Like Clive Barker’s Pinhead in the Hellraiser series, he’s both angel and demon. A sadomasochistic Avenger, he punishes the same kinds of ‘sinful’ acts in which he indulges. In a word, he’s a hypocrite — an apt metaphor for the muddled morality of 1980s America. Perhaps Craven wasn’t betraying his leftist filmmaking roots after all.