Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street movies rank among the most iconic horror films. They say more than you’d think about the decades when they were made, starting with the cultural anxieties of the Reagan era.

1985 release poster for A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge. (Universal History Archive / UIG via Getty images)

In 2003, I was driving home from the movie theater with my younger brother, and I was pulled over for speeding. The cop asked where we were coming from and then what we’d seen. When I told him we were getting back from Freddy vs. Jason, his demeanor changed. The ticket he’d about to give me was forgotten. He asked me “who won,” and we spent several minutes talking about it before he let us go.

Fans had been awaiting the crossover battle between the dream-haunting killer at the heart of the Nightmare on Elm Street films and the hockey mask–wearing star of the Friday the 13th films for a very long time by 2003. It was an event.

It was also, unmistakably, a Freddy movie that featured Jason rather than the other way around. To some extent, that’s just a natural product of combining the silent implacable force behind the hockey mask and the wisecracking Freddy Krueger. Jason is creepy because of the absence of personality; Freddy is personality.

But the filmmakers’ decision to cater more to the Freddy fandom also says something about the force of the Nightmare movies’ cult following. These are often goofy films, even absurd ones, but they have a way of seeping into viewers’ souls and leaving an imprint that differentiates them from ordinary slasher flicks.

In many ways, they’re completely apolitical movies — speaking to anxieties too universal to tie to current events. But they span three decades of American history and manage to convey a lot about the society that spawned these nightmares.

“Every Town Has an Elm Street”

The first installment, 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, is one of the best horror movies ever made. Like much of what filmmaker Wes Craven produced, it’s tightly constructed, atmospheric, and genuinely dreamlike.

It also manages to be both an iconic representative of the slasher genre and something completely different. A typical slasher movie features a killer in a mask chasing teenagers around the woods (like 1980’s Friday the 13th) or a suburb (like 1978’s Halloween) until someone kills him and the “final girl” can stop running.

But Freddy died long before the first movie starts and only persists inside his victims’ dreams. The waking action is allegedly set in Springwood, Ohio — a town apparently located in a region of the state that looks just like Southern California. (Perhaps it doesn’t matter where it’s set. As Freddy says in one of the many sequels, “Every town has an Elm Street!”) A group of teenagers are all having nightmares. They then realize that the same character features in all of them — which is, of course, impossible. Final girl Nancy slowly realizes that when Freddy kills her friends in their dreams, they really die. (That much you’d get from a preview — but this is a good time to say that, if you’re worried about “spoilers” for a series of movies that was released between 1984 and 2010, they abound in this article!)

Like much of what filmmaker Wes Craven produced, 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street is tightly constructed, atmospheric, and genuinely dreamlike.

One of the basic fears at work in this first Nightmare on Elm Street is about adults who don’t understand their children well enough to protect them. Nancy’s parents and the other grown-ups in her life are always trying to get her to sleep, convinced that will make her feel better. Take a bath; take some sleeping pills; try to get some rest. Nancy knows better. She keeps a secret pot of coffee in her closet.

In this first movie, Freddy doesn’t talk much. Mostly he lurks and smiles a very creepy smile, and you hear his claws scraping against the furnace in the dreamworld boiler room where he spends most of his time. When he does speak, there are some hints of the character he’ll become. (“I’m your boyfriend now, Nancy!”)

By 1991’s Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, he has become something like a demonic Bugs Bunny, laying traps and cracking wise with little left in his schtick that’s genuinely creepy. But a consistent thread throughout the six Nightmare movies from 1984 to 1991, and one that lends some genuine fear to even the most absurd Nightmare movies, is the simple fact that no one can stay awake forever. Nancy and her successors all have to confront Krueger sooner or later.

Dream Demons and Diminishing Returns

Wikipedia didn’t exist in 1985. But that year’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge is about what you might come up with if you skimmed the Wikipedia entry for the first movie, got bored halfway through, and tried to construct something based on what you remember.

As a movie, it’s awful on just about every level. It’s memorable only because of what it says about the collective anxieties of a very homophobic era.

Final boy Jesse — significantly, the only male in this role in the entire franchise — is possessed by Freddy, and this lets Freddy kill in the real world. The film is littered with not-very-subtle nods to an analogy between what Jesse’s going through and being gay, and for that reason it’s developed a considerable gay cult following, even though the way the metaphor is handled at the end of the movie seems pretty homophobic. Jesse is essentially saved from Freddy-possession by the love of his girlfriend.

Two years later, the franchise was back with by far the best of the original five sequels: 1987’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. Craven, who was otherwise uninvolved in those sequels, wrote a draft of the script, and you can feel his influence. If nothing else, it’s the only one of the six movies besides the original that really has much of anything to do with dreams.

The action follows a group of teens at a mental facility, all confined there because of the same delusion about a man with knives on his hands and burns all over his body haunting them in their dreams. Nancy comes back to help the group discover powers they didn’t know they had and band together to defeat Freddy.

Importantly for what follows, there’s a heavy dose of Catholic imagery here. In the first movie, Nancy defeats Freddy more or less by force of personality. This time, the teens have to bury his body on ground consecrated with holy water.

The movie features a classic song by glam metal band Dokken — it’s running through my head as I type this paragraph — and a lot of people ended up liking Dream Warriors better than the original. It’s hard to make a case for that on any kind of cinematic level, but I suspect the preference might say something more basic about the optimism of this era of American culture — like people who preferred Terminator 2 to the original Terminator, those who love Dream Warriors the best might just be responding to a lighter tone and the catharsis of a clearer victory for the good guys.

The movies span three decades of American history and manage to convey a lot about the society that spawned these nightmares.

Of course, this is a horror franchise, so that clearer victory still doesn’t last long. Most of the characters from Dream Warriors are killed off during the early sections of 1988’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master. The plot is muddled at best, but it contains some of the most memorable sequences in the franchise, including a scene where Freddy serves final girl Alice a pizza topped with sausages that are the souls of his victims.

The next year, A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child was notable mostly for ramping up the Catholic imagery. A ghostly nun who made a brief appearance in Dream Warriors is back in a big way, and one of the main characters is literally a fetus. The long slide from Dream Warriors to Dream Master to Dream Child can leave you feeling like the series is running on weaker and weaker fumes from the original movie.

The last of the original six films, Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, is notable mostly for going the furthest with over-the-top imagery. There’s new backstory about Freddy getting his powers from a previously unmentioned group of three dream demons, and some genuinely cool touches, like having Springwood be empty of children from Freddy’s long reign of terror and inhabited only by a group of adults driven insane by the experience. But overall the fumes are just about gone.

The Many Resurrections of Freddy Krueger

The character himself is allegedly defeated at the end of every single one of these six movies — but almost all of them end with a final scare to hint he’s still out there, and of course he’s always back delivering quips and tearing open young flesh with his finger knives at the beginning of the next film. The franchise itself, for the next two decades, would be similarly hard to kill.

To promote Freddy’s Dead, there was a real-life “funeral” for Freddy at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Assurances were given that he wouldn’t be revived. Naturally, three years later, there was another movie.

This time, Wes Craven was finally back in the director’s chair — and he even made it into the title of the movie. In 1994’s Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, he and actress Heather Langenkamp (Nancy) play themselves. So does Robert Englund (Freddy), although he also plays Freddy, who emerges into the real world to threaten Heather and her family. It manages to recapture a lot of the atmosphere of the original movie and anticipate later metahorror like Scream and The Cabin in the Woods, and in many ways it’s the best of the sequels.

One of several inspirations that gave Craven the idea for the first movie was a series of articles he read about nightmare-ridden refugees from Southeast Asia.

Freddy vs. Jason (2003) is a much simpler movie — fun and trashy and relatively straightforward. This time, the teenagers are being chased around their dreams and a suburb and the woods. Jason allegedly “wins,” and the end of the movie features Jason emerging from the water holding Freddy’s severed head — and the head winking at the audience in the usual hint that he isn’t done for yet.

Last and most definitely least is the 2010 remake, A Nightmare on Elm Street. All the teenagers in this version look like they’re in their mid-thirties, Freddy is played by a new actor who spectacularly fails to pull it off, and the most charitable description of the plot is “convoluted.”

For the last thirteen years, the franchise has been in limbo. But no one really thinks Freddy will lie dormant forever.

Wes Craven Reads About Real Nightmares

The materials these movies are constructed out of are elemental. There’s always at least a hint of sex along with all the death — these are slasher movies, after all — and with the exception of New Nightmare, the films always star young adults starting to navigate a world where their parents can’t protect them.

Themes don’t get much more universal than that. And, of course, everyone dreams.

But from the Reagan-era values of the second and third installments to the 1990s metacommentary of New Nightmare, the franchise displays flashes of the specific cultural moments when each of the installments was born. And it’s impossible to talk about the genesis of the franchise as a whole without talking about horrors that are all too real — and all too familiar now as we enter the final months of 2023 with wars raging from Ukraine to Palestine.

One of several inspirations that came together to give Craven the idea for the first movie was a series of articles he read about nightmare-ridden refugees from Southeast Asia — a region where the terror of the United States’ war in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia and Pol Pot’s subsequent genocide had created a lot of refugees. One victim’s father was a doctor who gave him sleeping pills. The son pretended to take them while doggedly keeping himself awake.

According to Craven: “They had come out of Southeast Asia, war camps, so the family just assumed he’d been traumatized. . . . [But he said] ‘No, no, it’s different, there’s something stalking me in my dream.’”

When the young man finally fell asleep, Craven recalled, his parents carried him upstairs and lay him down in his bed. Relieved, they went to bed themselves — and then their son started screaming. He died of unclear causes in his sleep. Later, in his closet, they found a pot of coffee.

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