Wes Craven on Dreaming Up Nightmares
Despite directing non-genre films like 50 VIOLINS, an Oscar-nominated effort starring Meryl Streep, Wes Craven is most renowned among his fans as a writer and director of scary movies, a reputation that extends all the way back to his feature debut, LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972). Produced by Sean Cunningham, that film, along with TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, was one of the transgressive independent horror efforts that set new levels of screen violence; Craven’s script was also notable for its structural similarity to Ingmar Bergman’s THE VIRGIN SPRING. Since then, Craven has often written or co-written the scripts for his films, bringing to the horror genre an intelligent grounding in mythology (as would be expected of a former teacher).
Craven’s most enduring creation is dream demon Freddy Krueger, who first emerged in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. The success of this 1984 film from New Line Cinema helped its writer-director make the jump to the major studios, which released subsequent efforts like THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW (1988), SHOCKER (1989), PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS (1991), and VAMPIRE IN BROOKLYN (1995), and the SCREAM trilogy starting in 1997. However, none of those films quite matched the cultural impact and longevity of Freddy Krueger. Not only is there an ELM STREET remake in the works; over twenty years after his debut, Krueger has achieved horror icon status on par with classic movie monsters like Dracula and Frankenstein. Evidence of this (if any were needed beside the success of the sequels) can be found on the Universal Studios tour in Hollywood every October. The company – which created classic horror in the ’30s – sub-contracted New Line Cinema’s ELM STREET franchise (along with FRIDAY THE 13TH and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE), so that Freddy is now rubbing shoulders with the Count, the Baron, Norman Bates – the horror movie equivalent of being invited to join the gods atop Mount Olympus.
When asked about the origins of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, Craven at first replies, “It came to me in a dream.”
Then with a laugh, he adds, “No, it was a series of articles in the LA TIMES, three small articles about men from South East Asia, who were from immigrant families and who had died in the middle of nightmares—and the paper never correlated them, never said, ‘Hey, we’ve had another story like this.’ The third one was the son of a physician. He was about twenty-one; I’ve subsequently found out this is a phenomenon in Laos, Cambodia. Everybody in his family said almost exactly these lines: ‘You must sleep.’ He said, ‘No, you don’t understand; I’ve had nightmares before—this is different.’ He was given sleeping pills and told to take them and supposedly did, but he stayed up. I forget what the total days he stayed up was, but it was a phenomenal amount—something like six, seven days. Finally, he was watching television with the family, fell asleep on the couch, and everybody said, ‘Thank god.’ They literally carried him upstairs to bed; he was completely exhausted. Everybody went to bed, thinking it was all over. In the middle of the night, they heard screams and crashing. They ran into the room, and by the time they got to him he was dead. They had an autopsy performed, and there was no heart attack; he just had died for unexplained reasons. They found in his closet a Mr. Coffee maker, full of hot coffee that he had used to keep awake, and they also found all his sleeping pills that they thought he had taken; he had spit them back out and hidden them. It struck me as such an incredibly dramatic story that I was intrigued by it for a year, at least, before I finally thought I should write something about this kind of situation.”
Having decided on dreams as the landscape of horror in his script, Craven then had to conceptualize the demonic presence haunting them, in the form of Freddy Krueger. What was his creative thinking process?
“It was kind of like a very fortunate series of thoughts I had,” he explains. “I wanted to do something that was tied into the deepest recesses of our subconscious. I had a history in academics, so I knew there were certain things that were universal. One is the fear of predatory animals; obviously, it goes back to when we were little primates running around with nothing to protect us. Nature is full of stabbing instruments: claws, teeth, horns. I thought the claws of the cave bear must be buried somewhere in our subconscious, so that claw which is from nature or animals was combined with what is one of the most specifically human parts of our anatomy, which is our hands. The human hand is so much more dexterous than any other animal’s. Many scientists postulate that that has gone hat-in-hand, if you will, with the development of our brains: the more developed our brains have gotten, the more clever our hands have gotten, and vice versa. So that became the instrument; rather than anything he would leave someplace and then pick up, it was something that he actually had on him.”
The choice of red and green stripes on Freddy’s sweater was the result of reading an article in SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN in 1982 “that said the two most clashing colors to the human retina were this particular green and red.”
Craven adds, “I wanted this costume that [would be recognized] if he changed into any other thing in the room. I was an old PLASTIC MAN comic book fan—I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that in your history books! Anyway, he used to change shape, but you could always tell it was him because the couch would be red with a green stripe down it—or yellow? So I wanted Freddie to be a shape-shifter that could be recognized from his colors.”
Freddy’s other trademark, his hat was the result of a childhood incident.
“The hat was the kind worn by men when I was a kid, and there was a particular man who scared me when I was little. He was a drunk that came down the sidewalk and woke me up when I was sleeping. I went to the window wondering what the hell was there. He just did a mind-fuck on me. He just basically somehow knew I was up there, and he looked right into my eyes. I went back and hid for what for what I thought was hours. I finally crept back to the window, and he was still there. Then he started walking almost half-backwards, so that he could keep looking at me, down to the corner and turned, and I suddenly realized, ‘My god, that’s the direction of the entrance to our apartment building.’ I literally ran toward the front door and heard, two stories down, the front door open. I woke up my big brother; he went down with a baseball bat—and nobody was there. Probably the guy heard him coming and ran; he was drunk, having a good time. But the idea of an adult who was frightening and enjoyed terrifying a child was the origin of Freddy.”
The final element in Freddy’s appearance was his burned visage, a sort of variation on the masks worn by typical slasher movie villains of the time. Not just a visual element, this detail impacted on the script’s explanation for Freddy’s origin (having been burned by a vigilante mob after escaping legal justice on a technicality).
Craven calls the concept of the mask “quite ancient” and explains, “Almost all cultures have it in their most important ceremonies. It kind of is a combination of removing humanity and yet leaving it there, behind the eyes. But I didn’t want an immobile mask—I think Jason was around in those days—I wanted something that could express. So I suddenly hit upon scar tissue. So the back story came out of that.”
While working on his script for the original NIGHTMARE, Craven had to keep in mind what was popular in other horror films of the time.
“I was keenly aware of FRIDAY THE 13TH, because at that time I think they had already done a couple of sequels, and the tone in Hollywood was that ‘horror is dead and it’s used up, and it’s a nasty thing and FRIDAY THE 13th is a good example.’ So I was trying to think of elements that were beyond just slice-and-dice, but at the same time there was a sort of thing where you had to have a special weapon — which led to a very careful consideration of what Freddie’s would be — and the use of a mask, I think, goes back to HALLOWEEN. But beyond that, back in ’84, I had been making movies for nearly fifteen years already; LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT was the early part of the ‘70s. So, I was kind of just coming up with my own ideas of what I could do.”
Craven had no idea that his script would lead to a successful series of sequels for New Line Cinema; in fact, he had trouble even finding a producer who would finance the film.
“I knew it was a good yarn,” he says, “but it took three years of taking this script around to everybody in Hollywood. I have a wonderful old file of rejection letters on this, like Bob Raimi, who was the head of Universal at the time, saying, ‘I just don’t find anything scary in this.’ There was only one guy, some guy in a little tiny hole in the wall on 8th Avenue in New York, Bob Shaye, who saw something in it. He stuck with it for three years, trying to raise money on it. Meanwhile, I was taking it to everybody else, and nobody ‘saw’ it. They either thought it was too gory or nobody would take it seriously. Sean Cunningham, who did FRIDAY THE 13TH, a close friend of mine, said, ‘Nobody will take it seriously because they’ll know it’s a dream.’ So, it took a long time.”
During its initial release, NIGHTMARE was perceived to be part of the slasher trend, but its similarities are superficial. For instance, the character of Tina (played by Amanda Wyss) has sex shortly before becoming Freddy’s first victim. Craven, however, does not see this as an example of the puritan morality underlying the HALLOWEEN and FRIDAY THE 13TH films.
“There’s two thoughts I have. One is that I think horror films are about the transition from childhood to adulthood. In fact, Heather [Langenkamp]’s character [Nancy] has an interesting journey, where her character is put to bed by her mother in the first act, and at the end of the picture, just before she goes to face Freddy, she puts her mother to bed. So there’s that transition from childhood to adulthood, and obviously sex is a part of that. And there’s always certain dangers in sex, from early pregnancy to diseases and the fury of your parents. So there is that but nothing much beyond that.”
Craven continues, “The second part of it is that I had been reading during those years a lot of Eastern sort of esoteric knowledge. There’s a Russian philosopher who wrote about levels of consciousness and equated consciousness with being awake — which I did throughout this picture. His theory was that consciousness is painful. To know really what’s true, to know the truth in any given situation, is painful, often uncomfortable, and it’s not pleasant. So most of us, most of the time, will go out what he called ‘doors.’ He listed sex, eating, sleeping, being out in a crowd; today you could add television and drugs. Those things ease the pain of consciousness. The hero is the person that remains conscious, remains awake, up to the point where it’s so painful you want to kill yourself. Most people, if they get near that level, turn around and go the other way; some people actually kill themselves, and some people break through to a sort of clarity where they’re truly conscious. That became the framework for the film. Everybody says, ‘You must sleep,’ but they’re all liars. Really, the only person who survives is Nancy, who refuses to sleep and insists on being conscious. That was more what sex was, among other things: everybody had some door they were going out to avoid confronting this horrible reality, except for Nancy.”
Craven’s script originally had a softer, more evocative ending, but the producer requested a last minute jump-scare (a la CARRIE) that would also provide a hook for sequels.
“Bob Shaye said to me, ‘Wes, I gave you this film when nobody else would. Just give me this one thing.’ Watching it now, I don’t feel it [the compromise] quite so much. The ending as written was she just comes out the front door, and her mother’s alive and there’s a tremendous fog. We did not have much of a budget, and we could not get that damn street to fog over. There was a breeze at that point. We had twenty guys with fog machines out there, and when we’d get ready to shoot, it was ‘Whoosh, all gone!’ Anyway, she was supposed to walk off into the mist, and that would be it — which to me was a lot cleaner.
Craven adds: “What Bob wanted – and which I would not do – was he wanted to have Freddy driving the car. If you’ve seen NIGHTMARE 2, it starts with Freddie driving the bus — Bob had control of that one. (Bob, if you’re here, I love you!) God knows, film is full of compromises, and there are actually precious few in this film — everything else beside that one moment is exactly as it was written and pretty much what I wanted. Bob, I think, only showed up for one day of shooting; he actually got to call ‘action’ on the scene where Heather runs up the stairs that turn to goo — which is oatmeal and glue.”