When people ask me what my favorite horror movie of all time is, the answer may seem cliché. However, this movie changed my life. It changed my perspective. It made me curious. It emboldened me as a female. That film put its claws (knives, actually) into me and never let go. And what a wonderful first film it was. My favorite horror movie, at 11 years old and now, is Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street.
Most horror fans know the backstory of this Craven classic. Craven, a soft-spoken, articulate, and highly intelligent man with a healthy curiosity about the world around him, read a news story about a young Cambodian boy who had died in his sleep, and prior to his strange demise, had told family members of the terrifying nightmares he was having. The boy reportedly died in the throes of one of these horrific dreams, planting a seed in Craven’s mind for an interesting story, a tale that would create a horror fan for life after one fateful sleepover.
This slumber party was like so many other parties I’d been to; I felt safe among my girlfriends, surrounded by chips and popcorn at a Friday night sleepover – giggling preteens, prank-calling boys, and gorging on junk food. However, this evening wasn’t like any other night for me.
My friend’s mom had rented a stack of films from Blockbuster (RIP), and I was super stoked. I was very interested in watching horror movies in general – because let’s face it – the covers at the video store looked so cool. But my parents wouldn’t allow it, so I was thrilled to see my first scary movie.
However, it didn’t take long for the safe, fuzzy feeling I had to dissipate. While a couple of girls squeezed their eyes shut while letting out wails of terror, I watched the entire film fully present and entirely engaged.
I was rapt, completely taken in by this story of young people being terrorized by Freddy Krueger and dropping off like flies. I still distinctly remember the scene when Tina sees Freddy coming from the alley with his arms growing, distortedly outstretched as he reaches toward her.
I still think Tina’s kill is one of the most well-done death scenes in horror history. At the time, it scared me so much I had dreams of that slippery body bag for weeks, waking up in a sweaty panic, certain I’d see Tina’s mangled form inching across my own ceiling, dripping hot crimson blood all over my teddy bear blanket.
Though the scary death sequences and innovative effects and kills absolutely lived in my brain rent-free for years, what really moved me about the film – and still does – is the heroism of Nancy, our Final Girl.
Does Nancy use her muscles, karate skills, or fancy weaponry to send Freddy spiraling to his end? Nope. What I saw Nancy (Heather Langenkamp: A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors 1987) do in this film was completely novel to me. This average girl: this normal, V-neck sweater-wearing, sensible, brunette high school student used her cunning and brains to defeat a terrifying killer. She set up a BOOBY TRAP, for God’s sake.
Even as young kids, we see women as victims. Turn on any police procedural, slasher film, Disney cartoon, even action movie, and when I was a kid, women were waiting to be rescued by a man. Nancy didn’t wait for anyone to rescue her. Nancy rolled up her sleeves (well, her floral pajamas, but those pajamas didn’t make our Final Girl any less bad ass!) and took care of business. She did what she had to do, and no men jumped in to save the day. No grown-ups, for that matter.
Nancy isn’t a shy waif or wallflower. She speaks her mind, she doesn’t acquiesce, and she gets in the grown-ups’ faces when she wants to be heard. She’s already a force to be reckoned with before the film’s classic conclusion. And, even when people call her crazy and basically tell her to sit down and shut up, she perseveres, and her stubbornness and determination pay off in a big way. Nancy ain’t here to take anyone’s shit – she’s not just a ‘hysterical female.’
So not only do we have a teenage girl saving everyone’s bacon, but she also literally puts a plan into place to effectively get rid of Freddy. Then, she implements it. By herself. And, more importantly, it works. It actually works. She was scared, but I saw Nancy as the bravest not because she triumphed in the end but because she was fearful, and she did it anyway. She leveraged her fear. And it became an asset.
While the future horror fan part of me was loving the gore, the blood, and Freddy himself, the impressionable young woman was seeing a girl that looked a lot like me – no super strength, X-Man abilities, or impressive weapons – defeat a monster. A child-killing monster. When I watch it now, I still think it’s amazing.
While there are many awesome Final Girls (a term not coined until 1992, by writer Carol J. Clover, in her book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film) now, I’m grateful that Nancy was the first Final Girl I ever saw on screen. As I have gotten older, I have grown to appreciate A Nightmare on Elm Street even more.
Watching Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy and discovering how the effects team built a revolving room for Tina and Glen’s kill scenes blew my mind. It’s still brilliant and the practical effects in this film are some of the best I have ever seen, even today. There’s just no comparison.
Hearing Heather talk about her experiences as a woman in horror in her documentary, I Am Nancy (please watch if you haven’t and you’re a fan, trust me) widened my perspective. Heather makes some great points about Nancy being the main character of the film but never the one who springs to mind upon discussion of the series. She discusses how far the genre has come but points out where it’s still lacking.
In any case, as a new horror fan and a child on the verge of adolescence, A Nightmare on Elm Street left a deep dent on my psyche. It made me long for even more horror, beginning a lifelong love affair with all things scary. But more importantly, it made me realize that even average people – even teenage girls – have the power inside them to move mountains, and the stamina, will, courage, and bravery to defeat even the most intimidating demons and live to tell the tale.