Freddy Krueger is one of the most iconic figures in film history. Although, he missed the initial slasher craze (1978-1981) by three years, his visage has become symbolic of not just the slasher subgenre, but horror itself. Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees were forerunners who disguised their disfigurement behind masks, but Freddy’s was (and remains) hauntingly exposed. His visage remains etched in the minds of not just horror fans, but moviegoers around the world. Directly or indirectly, Freddy as a character has inspired countless scary movies, stories and novels. But what was the inspiration behind the creation of Freddy Krueger? Wes Craven didn’t just open up his brain one day and dig out a horror icon. The idea for Freddy Krueger evolved over the course of a decade. Here’s a look at the origins of one of the most memorable characters in film history:
Wes Craven’s Mind
The seminal movie that had the greatest influence on Wes Craven was Night of the Living Dead. That movie and its impact on audiences helped Craven gravitate towards horror, creatively, during his early years as a filmmaker.
The first horror film he directed was The Last House on the Left (1972). It was a brutal film by any standard, but especially when measured against production norms of the early 1970s. In that movie one of the villain’s, Weasel, has a dream where the family of one of the victim’s chisels his teeth out. In the years following the film’s release, many people Craven met would specifically mention that scene as one of the most memorable. Such feedback led Craven to conclude that a movie centered around scary dream sequences may have great potential.
In 1979 the Los Angeles Times reported that three unrelated people were too terrified to go to sleep, because of their nightmares. Each later died while sleeping. Autopsies could not determine the cause of death. Craven cited this occurrence as the impetus for A Nightmare on Elm Street. “What if the dreams they were having actually killed these men? And what if they were all sharing a common frightening dream?” Craven asked himself. “So, I started constructing a villain that existed only in dreams.”
Many writers don’t like talking about their ideas before they are fully formed, but Craven was just the opposite. “I usually try to think of how to describe the movie I’d like to make in about one minute, and I try that out on friends because I’ve found that a good script, especially a good genre script, has to be told almost like a good joke. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end,” Craven confessed in a late 1980s interview.
The more times Craven told friends about his idea, the more refined it became. “Eventually I was able to describe it as story of a group of kids that all killed a man who is now coming back in the nightmares of their children. Then one girl succeeds in staying awake during the time he was assaulting all her friends until she was able to devise a way to go into her dreams, capture him, and bring him out. Everybody else thought she was either going crazy, or told her she was going crazy because they were in denial and hiding their crime.”
But what person, living or dead, would be terrifying enough to form the basis of nightmares? Not just nightmares, but nightmares that killed the ones having them.
Freddy Krueger: Piece by piece
Freddy Krueger was a concoction borne of many influences. Here’s a look at the ingredients that Craven mixed together to conjure an original horror monster:
- A bully: A kid named Krueger used to beat Craven up when he was younger. (Childhood trauma is always a helpful muse.)
- A previous character: The name ‘Krueger’ is an extension of the mortal, human monster, ‘Krug’ from The Last House on the Left (1972). The influence on Krug’s name also probably derives from the bully named Krueger, but after Krug was given cinematic life, the name became more sinister – more emblematic of evil. In the movie, Krug keeps his own son hooked on heroine as he tortures, rapes and murders two teenage girls.
- An allusion to genocide? In a post-Nightmare interview, Wes Craven stated that the name ‘Krueger’ “sounds German”. He did not elaborate, but why would it matter at all? It seems possible that Nazis and in particular the ones who ran the extermination camps for Hitler, were on his mind. The character Freddy, after all, was burned alive. (I admit that this is a stretch, but why else would Craven care if the name sounded German? Unless it was meant to inspire fear. What reference to Germans inspires the most fear?)
- A derelict: Craven’s inspiration for the appearance of Freddy began when he saw a homeless derelict staring at him across the street from his home in Los Angeles. The episode unnerved Craven and was lurking in his imagination when attempting to picture how Freddy would look. The appearance of Robert Englund reminded Craven enough of the derelict to cast him. The hat Englund would wear while portraying Freddy was a replica of the hat Craven saw on the derelict.
- A sweater: There was no similar inspiration for Freddy’s stripped sweater. The dark shade of blue matched to a comparatively bright red became the colors of Freddy’s sweater only because Craven had read in Scientific American that they were the most difficult shades for the human eye to put together side by side.
- A mask: Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Freddy’s visage is his scarred face. Craven thought Freddy should have some sort of a mask like slasher sensations Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers. Yet, because Freddy existed in a dream world, the mask didn’t seem appropriate. Moreover, Craven couldn’t come up with an idea for one that wasn’t just a cheap copy of Freddy’s forerunners. One night he was struck with an epiphany: He didn’t need to put Freddy’s face behind a mask if it was disfigured enough. The scars themselves would create a mask sufficient to hide the face and terrify the audience. It’s worth noting that by 1984 (when Nightmare was made) make-up effects had advanced to the point to make such an idea workable. When John Carpenter conjured Michael Myers, they had not.
- A desire to really scare audiences: The essence of any slasher is the blade with which they use to stalk their prey. Machetes and knives were the bread and butter of slashers from the early 1980s. Craven knew he couldn’t venture too far from the formula, but also wanted to make a statement that his slasher was the preeminent slasher. So instead of one knife, why not five? (One for each finger.) Craven’s tendency to feature primal thematic elements, inspired by natural phenomena helped him see Freddy’s fingers as potential knives. Stabbing and slashing digits occur everywhere in nature. Think of the talons of an eagle, or the claws of a mountain lion.
GERMAN NAME + UNIQUELY TERRIFYING APPEARANCE + KNIFE FINGERS = HORROR ICON
Craven finished the script for A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1981. He showed it to Bob Shaye of the then small and struggling Newline Cinema. Shaye wanted the project immediately, but Craven spent the next three years shopping the idea around Hollywood hoping to get interest from a major studio. He did not. Craven signed with Newline in 1984 and shooting was complete later that year with a final budget of $1.8 million. Nightmare’s initial box office take was just over $25 million. But more than spawning one of horror’s most profitable franchises, Nightmare introduced the character of Freddy Krueger into our cultural consciousness. He became an icon that would inspire untold numbers of horror stories and movies directly or indirectly. This contributor, for one, owes a great deal to just the idea of Freddy Krueger. Thanks, Wes!
Source for quotes: Reel Terror (2012) by David Konow