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Film

The bizarrely banal true story behind Freddie Krueger

Freddie Krueger: the original nightmare man, a demonic lovechild of wolverine and a decrepit session musician for The Band. Sporting a sweater he claimed from fellow peace-besieging boy Dennis the Menace, a Coachella trilby, and the flayed complexion of a ‘Satisfying Slime Video’ on Instagram, this beast became the literal face of horror since he first fingered his way onto movie screens in A Nightmare on Elm Street back in 1984. 

What kind of creature bore this beast? What kind of warped mind summoned thoughts of the spirit of a child killer who had been burnt to death by his victim’s parents only to return in the realm of nightmares and continue his murderous ways in the invulnerable sphere of bad dreams. It’s sick—and the dashing fedora and vexing grin of a goon who just pranked a vagrant with a superglued penny only exacerbates the infernal infuriation that he induces. 

The sick brain behind this bastard belongs to Wes Craven who dreamed up with dementing creation when he was a mere child, and a very sick child at that. Bizarrely, behind it all was a remarkably banal impetus. It’s a tale akin to coming up with Darth Vader with his dastardly lightsabre after watching a kindly welder at work. 

In the audio commentary of the DVD, Craven recalled the insidious moment that an old man walking along the pavement saw a young Craven staring at him from a window, stopped and looked back in the boy’s direction. Thus, a child killer who continues his bedevilment as a midnight creeper in a crispy undead guise was borne from the glance, a mildly eerie one, but a glance, nevertheless. Needless to say, I can’t remember A Nightmare on Elm Street dishing out the jump scares via a fiercely glancing geriatric. 

However, this was 1984, and America was in the grips of a satanic panic whereby disturbing yet isolated incidents had white men with wild hair behind a lectern drumming up conservative conversation by proclaiming: ‘This problem runs deeper than that! It is everywhere in our once-great society!’ Thus, like many mildly perturbing incidents, this unseemly incident was amplified by myth, rumour and a sense of the changing times. With that in mind, Craven’s perturbing childhood moment became entwined with many of the strange stories hitting the press at the time.

Recently, Craven recalled another incident that built up the premise of his classic horror. Craven had read about a family beset by a tragedy after moving to the US to seek refuge from the Killing Fields of Cambodia. “Things were fine, and then suddenly the young son was having very disturbing nightmares,” Craven recalled the article describing.

Adding: “He told his parents he was afraid that if he slept, the thing chasing him would get him, so he tried to stay awake for days at a time. When he finally fell asleep, his parents thought this crisis was over.”

“Then they heard screams in the middle of the night. By the time they got to him, he was dead. He died in the middle of a nightmare. Here was a youngster having a vision of a horror that everyone older was denying. That became the central line of A Nightmare on Elm Street,” the director concluded.

A few similar incidents were reported at the time and the deaths were dubbed the Asian Death Syndrome. There is very little research into the incidents in available medical journals, in part, because so few of these tragedies occurred. However, they were widely reported in the media at the time which perhaps amplified the issue further and affected our understandings, creating a hysteria that circulated. 

This tragic element swirled together with the peculiarly forgettable glance from creepy Craven’s youth and a character who defined a golden era of horror was spawned.  

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