By 1983, only a forgettable quickie (House on Sorority Row) and classic franchise revival (Psycho 2) represented the slasher genre in the year’s top 100 domestic grossing films. Slasher film fatigue had officially set in. The world had seen what the silent-but-deadly slasher villain had to offer, and officially grown tired of it. After all, there were only so many ways you could film someone being stabbed as well as only so many holidays or notable calender events to be exploited ala Halloween and Friday the 13th. So, a genre which traced its origins as far back as Norman Bates had gone a little too crazy after the 1978 success of Halloween. Enter Freddy Krueger to save the slasher film from itself.
Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street arrived in November 1984, delivering not just an insta-franchise but a complete game changer for the slasher. These films could actually be supernatural and remarkably visually inventive, using tricks like rotating rooms to brilliant but horrifying effect. Your villain need not be a mad man chasing kids in the woods but instead a grim jokester taking many forms and literally haunting dreams. Personally, Friday the 13th was the series I liked as a kid because I could rationalize my way out of being scared by it. Nightmare on Elm Street? That shit scared the hell out of me. Beyond the bizarre but brilliant imagery I never could shake the following worry: If I got to sleep, will Freddy get me?
1. The idea of dying in your dreams was actually based in reality
In the late 1970s into the early 1980s, the LA Times ran a series of articles exploring how male Khmer refugees from Cambodia were mysteriously dying in their sleep in the Los Angeles area. Over a three year period, three members of this group of refugees died in the same exact manner: they’d have a nightmare, refuse to sleep for as long as they could stay awake, and then fall asleep only to awake screaming before sudden death. Wes Craven read the articles, and assumed these young men must have been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder considering their ordeal living under a dictator in Cambodia. He was particularly struck by the details of one of the deaths in which the man was found thrashing in his bed, yet by the time his loved ones could even cross the room to get to him he was dead.
At the time, there was no clear cause of death in any of the cases, with the autopsies revealing no signs of heart failure. So, when Craven wrote the screenplay this phenomenon remained a mystery, which is what he found so intriguing. Since that time, it’s been deduced the refugees were suffering from a genetic mutation unique to Asian men of a certain age whereby something goes wrong with the genes controlling the ion levels in the heart. It’s called Asian Death Syndrome, under the umbrellas of Sudden Unexpected Death Syndrome (SUDS) and Brugada Syndrome.
2. The song “Dream Weaver” helped inspire the concept of an actual killer in your dreams
The case of the Cambodian refugees inspired Craven do a film about people dying while they were asleep, but that didn’t alone get him to Freddy. The final push he needed came from, of all places, Gary Wright’s 1975 pop hit “Dream Weaver,” whose lyrics were inspired by a Paramahansa Yogananda poem calling upon the mind to control its own dreams:
From this, Craven created the concept of a villain weaving people’s nightmares. Plus, he loved the dark opening of the song so much it was used as a direct inspiration for the Nightmare on Elm Street score composed by Charles Bernstein:
3. Freddy Krueger’s name and clothes are based on Wes Craven’s childhood bully as well as a scary hobo – that’s right, you heard me, a scary hobo
When he was a kid, Wes Craven was bullied by a classmate and paper route partner named Fred Krueger. As the current mantra for bullying goes, it did get better. However, Craven was left so scarred that he named not one but two of his cinematic monsters after Krueger. One of them is pretty darn obvious:
So, that’s where the name came from. The appearance, specifically the dirty clothes and fedora, is based upon a hobo who had the gall to stand outside a 10-year-old Wes Craven’s house one night and look up at the same time Craven looked out. This left the wee young Craven mortified, especially when he looked down a second time and saw the hobo returning his gaze, as if purposefully attempting to scare him.
As for the actual color of Freddy’s sweater, Craven originally intended for it to be red and yellow ala the colors worn by DC’s Plastic Man, whose elasticity was similar to Freddy’s ability to change. It was a 1982 Scientific American article saying the two most contrasting colors to the human retina are red and green which inspired Craven to drop the yellow and replace it with green.
4. Wes Craven originally wanted Freddy to look incredibly gruesome
Wes Craven wanted Freddy’s skull to be visible through the head as well as pus to be seeping out of the sores. It was his make-up artist, David B. Miller, who dissuaded him of this notion since in 1984 such a thing was entirely too impractical, even if they somehow used a combination of a live actor and puppets
Miller examined photographs of burn victims from the UCLA Medical Centre for inspiration, but the ultimate template for Freddy’s face would be pepperoni pizza, as Miller explains in the Never Sleep Again documentary, “The final design for Freddy was based on pepperoni pizza. I was at a restaurant one night, and I was having pizza, deep in thought. I started playing around with the cheese, putting it around the pepperoni, and made Freddy’s face in the pizza.”
5. Freddy’s glove is partially inspired by Wes Craven watching his cat unsheathe its claws
Jason Voorhees had his machete, Michael Myers had his kitchen knives, the My Bloody Valentine guy had his pickaxe – your slasher killer needed to have some distinct weapon. By 1984, mere knifes were played out, and Wes Craven wanted something unique but practical for Freddy. So, two things happened: because he’s super smart and very professorial Craven happened to be looking into primal fears in the human subconscious only to discover that across all cultures we’re all apparently super scared of animal claws. Then Craven’s cat showed off its own claws to him-Eureka! A villain with a glove which has claws at the tips of the fingers!
6. Heather Langenkamp beat out over 200 actresses for the role of Nancy
At the time, Langenkamp was an unknown as were many of those she beat out for the role. However, here are four Nancy hopefuls who eventually become very well known:
7. Robert Englund wasn’t the first actor cast to play Freddy
Remember Billy Zane’s enforcer from Titanic?
That’s who Craven originally cast to play Freddy. They did make-up tests and everything.
Suddenly, Warner became unavailable mostly because there was something better to do. Enter Robert Englund, who is still profiting off the character to this day.
8. If not for Wes Craven’s daughter, Johnny Depp may not have been cast in the movie
Nightmare on Elm Street was Johnny Depp’s screen debut, and he was so adorable he inspired countless girl boners. However, the first girl to feel the vapors from looking at the young Adonis Depp was actually Craven’s daughter. As Craven explains in the Never Sleep Again documentary it came down to Johnny Depp and one other guy, “My daughter said, ‘Dad, it’s Johnny Depp,’ I said, ‘Really, but he looks kind of sickly and pale,’ and she said, ‘Oh, he’s beautiful.’ And that was it.”
9. Tina’s death was realized using a rotating room ala Fred Astaire
Since Wes Craven wanted something really big and fantastic for the film’s first death, his production designer suggested using a rotating room, a trick which famously made it seem like Fred Astaire was dancing up the walls in Royal Wedding (1951). So, everything in the bedroom set was nailed down. The cameraman was latched into in an airplane seat attached to the wall. The room was then rotated by several burly men off-camera (as opposed to the rotation being mechanized). Amanda Wyss (Tina) was either crawling or being dragged, but she never really left what was for her the floor. At one point, it became so disorienting that she demanded to be let out of the room. When Craven entered to calm her down, he, too, became instantly disoriented.
They later used the rotating room for Johnny Depp’s death, but the weight from the fake blood caused the room to spin uncontrollably. By the end, much of the blood had exited out and fallen onto the crewmembers who had been rotating the room, but this was a one-shot deal. Luckily for them, the footage they got looked even cooler than they imagined.
10. Freddy was originally supposed to be a child molester
In the 2010 remake, they made it far more explicit that Freddy was a child molester in life. Though not necessarily a popular story decision, it’s actually more in keeping with Craven’s original concept. The only reason he backed away from it was a series of child molestation erupted in California during development and production of Nightmare on Elm Street, and he didn’t want to be seen as insensitive or exploitative.
11. That was Bob Shaye’s sister playing the English teacher
We probably all know Lin Shaye now for her roles the Farrelly Brothers movies Dumb and Dumber, Kingpin, and There’s Something About Mary, or for her more recent turn in Insidious. However, there she was back in 1984 playing an unnamed teacher in Nightmare on Elm Street, part of New Line’s family affair whereby Bob Shaye often gave his sister bit roles in New Line’s films.
12. They ran out of money 2 weeks into production
New Line got its start when Bob Shaye used his copyright law knowledge to swoop up Reefer Madness, and distribute it to college campuses throughout the ’70s. By the time Nightmare on Elm Street arrived, New Line’s business model was still built around distributing cult and foreign films other people had made. They had only produced 3 of their own movies to that point, none of which turned into hits. So, as you’d expect from an independent film company they were constantly struggling for money. Their financier for Nightmare dropped out mere days before the start of filming. As a result, the production was unable to pay its crew two weeks into production. Line producer John H. Burrows picked up the slack by paying out through his credit card, and eventually Shaye managed to convince the original financier and a new European company to put up the money for the budget.
13. They filmed 4 different endings, and then just basically used all of them
Here’s an alternate ending:
Nightmare on Elm Street famously has its super, happy fun ending, and then the weird last-second scare ending. Craven hates that last part. His film was supposed to end with Nancy awakening only to discover that the whole movie was one big nightmare. New Line’s Robert Shaye said “Aww, hell no” to that noise, and insisted upon a Carrie/Friday the 13th-like ending. So, they actually filmed 4 endings – Craven’s, Shaye’s, and then 2 versions of a compromise in which Freddy pulls Nancy’s mom through the window on the door of the house as the kids drive away unaware. Shaye ultimately got his way, but Craven wasn’t happy about it.
- Nightmare on Elm Street made back its budget in its $1.27 million opening weekend from just 165 theaters. It would go on to gross $25.5 million domestically, which would be like $60 million at current ticket prices. The unique thing from this point forward for the Nightmare series was the next 3 films would make more than the one which preceded it, unlike Friday the 13th, which never managed to match the grosses of the 1980 original.
Next time, we’ll tell you how everyone involved with Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge swears up and down that while they were actually making the movie none of the insanely obvious homoerotic subtext was intentional.
You can use the following links to check out all of our other “13 Things…” lists: Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child, Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, Freddy Vs. Jason, and the 2010 Nightmare on Elm Street re-make.