Harnessing Fear: Nancy vs. Freddy

I’m assuming that you don’t live under a rock, and that you know who Freddy Krueger is. He’s had eight movies and a remake for you to get to know him. For the kiddies just coming in to this game, A Nightmare on Elm Street is about a group of teens that realize that they are having the same dream, about a man with knives on his fingers and a burned face coming after them. When they start dying exceedingly bloody deaths, one of the girls, Nancy, decides to take matters into her own hands and stop him before it’s too late. It’s a terrifying movie, relying on the fact that you KNOW that eventually, everyone needs to sleep. It’s inevitable, and he can just bide his time.

I have never been so glad to be an insomniac.

Wes Craven subscribed to the less is more theory when showing off his creation, Freddy Krueger, and it paid off. Despite racking up a total of only seven minutes of screen time, Freddy wormed his way into a generation’s nightmares, securing legendary horror status for Robert Englund.

Horror is a funny genre, in that we often root for the villain. We wouldn’t put our butts in that theater seat if we didn’t want to see a larger than life villain do a little slicing and dicing. But, at the end of the day, we’re rooting for someone to succeed. We want the satisfaction of someone taking the villain out after they commit their heinous misdeeds. So it really does beg the question: with only six minutes on-screen, how the hell did Freddy Krueger overshadow the female lead in my memory of this movie?

By the time Wes Craven’s masterpiece, Scream, came along, horror fans knew that he was no stranger to subverting genre expectation. Long before he launched his love letter / send up that revitalized the dying slasher subgenre, he had already subverted it with his A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. What made Freddy such a scary villain was that he challenged the genre; slashers no longer had to be one thing. The masked man with a butcher knife was no longer a necessary component of a creative slasher movie. Nightmare was so different because it combined supernatural elements with the slasher. The concept of the film was so terrifying because it impacted everyone equally. Everyone is equally helpless in their sleep.

However, while the Ghostface outfit is just as iconic as Freddy, most people when asked would remember Neve Campbell as Sydney Prescott just as much as they recall the masked killer. So why didn’t this happen with A Nightmare on Elm Street? Simple. Scream was subverting the genre and its view of the slasher formula, and its conception of the final girl and what her purpose is. A Nightmare on Elm Street was testing the boundaries of the type of story that could be told, but still follows the formula. The creativity in telling a story that could easily be rote (undead killer seeks revenge) overshadowed the fact that Craven had provided the audience with a leading character that was just as special.

Nancy Thompson is one of my favourite survivors, and she just doesn’t get enough credit for it. What I love about her is that she is relatable. Every bone in her body just screams that she needs to make it out of that dream if she wants to live. And the next one. And the next one. You can see it wearing on her, and you can see it getting more and more difficult for her to wake from the dream. But still, she perseveres. She has no special training, no tragic backstory. She is just a girl who has friends that are being picked off one by one, and who doesn’t want to join them.

The turning point in what makes Nancy unique is the point where she has had enough of her mother’s bullshit. Throughout the movie, her mother tells her that she just needs some sleep, that she has invented Freddy in her mind. Her mother follows the narrative that the police have provided because it is convenient for her. The moment that Nancy fights back against the gaslighting is the moment that the audience falls in love with her. It is that scene, where she yells at her mom and confronts her about her drinking, that she becomes someone to eternally root for. She takes ownership, and stops feeling bad about how other people feel; if she doesn’t believe in herself, she is going to die. Period.

Another aspect of the film that makes Nancy stand out from other horror movie survivors is her story arc. As the child of one of the parents that participated in Freddy’s murder all those years ago, she has an understanding of her killer’s motive. What makes him terrifying is the fact that locking your doors isn’t going to help. He lives within her, and always will. In order to defeat him, she needs to face her fear. Her fear of Freddy is what gives him power over her, and watching this girl launch herself at Freddy freaking Krueger, screaming not in fear, but rage, is so totally unexpected and yet completely in character. And after all the struggling, when Freddy has taken everything from her, she looks him in the face and tells him that he’s nothing. She can’t be scared anymore, because she has nothing left to lose.

Now that you are armed with the knowledge that Freddy appears for seven minutes (seriously….it’s insane), watch this one with fresh eyes and take a minute to take in how special Heather Langenkamp’s performance truly is. You won’t be disappointed.

Image by Michael Gaida from Pixabay

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