It’s Halloween season, and while this year has admittedly been spooky enough for most, I still love to dive into some of my favourite horror movies over the month of October. Spook-tober generally always involves an annual visit to my old pal Freddy Krueger, one of the 1980s’ strangest pop culture heroes.
I do dig the Nightmare on Elm Street series, with its dream-stalking serial killer Freddy murdering people in deeply inventive ways, usually while making terrible puns. I prefer Freddy, portrayed with a corny charisma by Robert Englund, over Halloween’s Michael Myers or Friday The 13th’s lumbering brute Jason Vorhees, who both always seemed rather dull compared to Freddy. Adding a dollop of black humour to the silent, ultra-serious slasher villains like Jason and Michael took Freddy to the next level. The potentials of the dream landscape gives the Nightmare movies far more creative killing fields than its rivals.
The Nightmare movies – there’s been eight of them, plus a widely panned reboot – are generally good gory fun. You’ve got the still-creepy original, the ultimate ‘80s horror/superhero indulgence of Part 3, The Dream Warriors, and a pretty clever meta reinvention with A New Nightmare. Even the lesser sequels – and by part 6, Freddy’s Dead, they got pretty sloppy – usually have a few fun one-liners and inventive slayings to enjoy. Heck, I even kind of like the monster mash Freddy Vs. Jason.
But what’s still truly strange about Freddy to me is how popular he was for a span of a couple of years in the mid-1980s. Not just in a cult way. A child-killing nightmarish serial killer became a pop icon, appearing in everything from terrible rap videos to fan clubs to board games and bubble gum. The movies became big events, even as the quality of the series went downhill. I still remember going to a packed theatre for A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child, which is objectively not a great movie. Freddy became a wisecracking goofball who also murdered people, like an R-rated version of Bart Simpson or Yosemite Sam.
Horror icons have often crossed over into pop culture – Karloff’s Frankenstein, Christopher Lee’s sexy Dracula, the Vampire Lestat – but they’ve rarely been quite so celebrated in the mainstream as Freddy was for that brief period of time. Make no mistake – Freddy Krueger, no matter how witty Englund’s portrayal made him, was no hero, not even an anti-hero. He was a thuggish, inventive psychopath, who hacked up children and teenagers and was never really given any sort of redemptive arc to make him more likable.
The original series very carefully walked the line between “Freddy kills kids” and “Well, actually, Freddy’s a pedophile child molester.” (The 2010 reboot made Freddy more serious and really leaned into the pedo-thing, one of several reasons it failed to catch fire.) The sexual undertones of the Nightmare movies are a bit icky today, but they’re somewhat redeemed by the fact that in nearly every movie, a strong woman kicks Freddy’s arse in the end.
As much as I like the Nightmare series, I’m not alone in wondering what that brief period of Freddy-mania said about where America’s head was at in the 1980s. Creeps were big – look at movies like Lethal Weapon, Die Hard and Wall Street, where the heroes are all basically kind of jerks.
Was it just that Freddy was a funny guy who shook up the system? An ‘80s maverick party animal like Chevy Chase or Rodney Dangerfield who also killed folks? That Freddy didn’t seem to give a f**k about who he offended? (Cue up analogy comparing him to the current President.) Or was this pizza-faced, ratty-sweater wearing villain just cool, like the rock stars on MTV that he ended up hobnobbing with?
I’ll always love the original Nightmare movies, even at their campiest. It’s hard to imagine a child-killing undead burn victim making it quite so big in 2020. I don’t think it’s that our culture has become “snowflakes” as some would have it, but somehow, things have changed a bit and while horror movies will always endure, it doesn’t seem likely their villains will become quite the pop culture juggernaut Freddy Krueger was for a year or two in my teenage nightmares.