Creating Freddy: A Talk with Wes Craven

Posted on: November/1/1992 12:01 AM

By William Schoell

Published in The Nightmare Never Ends.

Although Wes Craven has said that the idea for the original Nightmare on Elm Street came to him suddenly in a restaurant, the idea had been germinating inside his subconscious for quite a while. Like most artists, Craven’s idea came from a variety of sources from childhood onward. Freddy Kruegar, for instance, was inspired by a grown man Craven saw outside his apartment building late one night when he was in the sixth grade. He heard a “scraping, rustling noise” outside his second-floor bedroom window.

“When I looked down there was a man very much like Freddy walking along the sidewalk. He must have sensed that someone was looking at him and stopped and looked right into my face. He scared the living daylights out of me, so I jumped back into the shadows. I waited and waited to to hear him walk away. Finally I thought he must have gone, so I stepped back to the window. The guy was not only still looking at me but he thrust his head forward as if to say ‘ Yes, I’m still looking at you.”

The strange man walked down the street and turned the corner toward the apartment-building entrance as Craven watched in horror.” I ran through the apartment to our front door as he was walking into our building on the lower floor. I heard him starting up the stairs. My brother, who is ten years older than me, got a baseball bat and went out to the corridor but he was gone.

As an adult I can look back and say that was one of the most profoundly frightening experiences I have ever had. The guy has never left my mind, nor has the feeling of how frightening an adult stranger can be. He was not only frightening, but he was amused by the fact he was frightening and able to anticipate my inner thoughts.

The essential premise of A Nightmare on Elm Street was “based on a series of small articles that ran in the Los Angeles Times about people inexplicably dying in their sleep.”

The articles are proof that sometimes truth can be stranger than fiction. There is an unsettling sameness to the stories, which Craven clipped and saved. First a young Asian immigrant died after telling his parents about a disturbing nightmare. Six months later another young man had a disquieting nightmare and died in his bed after going back to sleep. “The eeriest case was a boy who had a nightmare that was worse than anything,” according to Craven. “His family tried to quiet his nerves, and he refused to sleep. He stayed up several nights, and they sent for a doctor who gave him sleeping pills. The kid threw them away. Finally there was a night when the kid could not stay up any longer, and he went to sleep. The house was quiet at last. The parents were relieved that their kid was getting some rest. Then they heard this horrendous scream from the bedroom.”

The parents ran in and found the boy thrashing in his bed, only to fall still a moment later and die. “An autopsy revealed there was nothing wrong with him, no heart failure or any reason for his death. He was just dead.”

I became fascinated with the idea of harm happening to a person in such a way that people would not be able to clearly discern if the harm came in a dram or if it came in reality. Those two notions became the backbone of the idea of a killer murdering someone in their sleep.

The first name of Craven’s archvillain also came from his past. “Fred was my worst enemy in junior high school. He and I both had paper routes and shared the same drop-off point for newspapers. We used to get into a fight every day. Fred became my least favorite name. Kruegar was a variation on Krug, the chief villain in Craven’s first film (Last house on the Left) and a little in-joke.

There was a definite reason for Craven to give his “hero” a razor-fingered glove. “Part of it was an objective goal to make the character memorable, since it seems that every character that has been successful has had some kind of unique weapon, whether it be a chain saw or a machete, etc. I was also looking for a primal fear which is embedded in the subconscious of people of all cultures. One of those is the fear of teeth being broken, which I used in my first film. Another is the claw of an animal, like a saber-toothed tiger reaching with it’s tremendous hooks. I transposed this into a human hand. The original script had the blades being fishing knives.”

Getting the script produced was no easy matter. New Line couldn’t raise the money at first, so Craven sent the script elsewhere. “My agent at the time sent it to all the major studios. I have a nice collection of rejection letters—Universal, Paramount, all those places. It wasn’t scary enough, or it was too bloody, or ‘ nobody will be afraid of anything that happens in a dream. The horror film is dead.’ This was during a period where horror films were sort of on the way out. It was a backlash against the Friday the 13th [series].”

Craven had censorship battles with the Motion Picture Producers Association. “They told me that their attitude was that the film was good enough it didn’t need the gore. It was like they were making an arbitrary decision that this was what they thought he film needed and didn’t need.” The M.P.P.A. censor had problems with the death of Tina and the fountain of blood that comes from the bed after Glen is murdered.

I said, “How about The Shining, where a whole elevator of blood comes streaming out and floats furniture and everything else?’ They said every film was judged on it’s own merit. In the end Craven had to make trims in the scene with Tina and cut about twenty feet out of the fountain of blood scene.

A Nightmare on Elm Street won the critics prize at the 1985 Avoriaz (France) Festival of Fantastic Films and established Wes Craven’s reputation in the horror-film industry for decades to come.