Fandom is Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)

“Meet Your Maker!”

Director Wes Craven found his subjects by reading the newspaper. Scream (1996) was inspired by the Gainesville Ripper, and Craven based A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) on a series of description given by the Los Angeles Times. The paper dedicated several articles to a group of Hmong refugees who had fled war and genocide only to be followed by intense trauma. The group, largely men, were driven mad after refusing to sleep, citing the most horrific and disturbing nightmares which began to appear while they were awake. They eventually died in their sleep after intense sleep deprivation. Craven was so startled by these descriptions and events that he combined elements of it with his own childhood fears, thus creating Freddy Krueger, arguably the most famous horror icon. Given this background, I think it’s fair to say that Craven understood reception, and knew that true or believable horror already exists. Horror reflects its audience, meaning there is a degree of real horror to every Craven project. His films might be fictional, but they draw from our world. Simply put, stories, both fictional and real, spread and influence people. Craven saw that this could be dangerous, even in his own work.

A Nightmare on Elm Street remains a pinnacle of horror cinema. It launched multiple sequels and continues to inspire modern directors. It also cultivated a huge fandom that, for lack of a better word, worships Freddy. He is a household name with paraphernalia and there is always a constant demand for more Freddy films. It doesn’t matter that there are currently eight films and a remake, there will always be a demand for more. Craven was never in control of this fandom, in fact, the fandom would go on to critique some of the Freddy films because they were not ‘true’ to the character he invented with Robert Englund. What perhaps bothered Craven more (unofficially) was the way this fandom viewed women, particularly women in horror. There are certain horror staples around women, inescapable ones which films can either apply or critique. You have your victim, usually someone who is sexually active, and the final girl, the one who eventually survives after everyone else is brutally murdered. We often call these women Scream Queens, it’s a term which describes any actress or character who is well known in horror cinema and spends a lot of time screaming. These are intense roles filled with trauma and violence, but there is also a sort of inherent violence in their reception. The viewer is just sitting and watching them get murdered. Yes, it’s just a film, the actress is fine, but the effect is still there. Since Craven draws from real events, there is a certain overlap between the violence in the film, in its inspiration, and its consumption. The camera certainty doesn’t know what is real or not, it just records whatever is put in front. So, what does this say about avid fans, those who rewatch films which include grotesque and often sexualized violence against women?

“Just because it’s a love story doesn’t mean it can’t have a decapitation or two.”

Being a woman and a horror fan is strange. Not because of the films, because of the gatekeeping fanboys who often take vocabulary and characteristics from these films. There are certain horror films I can’t sit through, but I still appreciate what they do at a distance. I approach fandoms in a similar way, as I know there is always some disturbing fanboy just waiting. I have seen the effects of this in person, I think any women who enjoys watching or even talking about horror films has. I can only imagine how intense this would be if you were the actress in one of these films. Craven was one of the first people to talk about this effect, long before toxic fandom was even properly defined. Craven found horror around him, whether it be in a newspaper or in his own fandom. He saw how it effected actresses and female fans, and so he decided to make a film about it, exactly 10 years after the release of the first Nightmare. I don’t know if he would agree with this position, Craven never outright declared it, but since the film’s title includes his name, let’s say I am dealing with a version of Craven, one informed by this project. The film ultimately argues that fandom is as demonic and horrendous as Freddy, and it approaches this from a female perspective.

Filmmaking and monster making collide in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994), what is my mind the most meta film ever created. It is a self-aware commentary on fandom and the horror genre, specifically the demands these industries create. The film reunites the original cast of Nightmare, but not as their characters, as themselves. In this bizarre reversal, the character becomes the actor, as actress Heather Langenkamp plays herself. When the ‘real’ Freddy enters ‘our’ world, he begins to stalk Heather as if she were her character. He casts Heather as Nancy in her own life. The film implies that this is the same way fan culture treats actors, making Craven’s so-called New Nightmare (aka a thing he cannot control but is tied to) toxic fandom.

“This is still a script, right, Wes?”

The film pits Heather against two antagonists: fan culture and Freddy. These are equally dangerous in the film, although one is only imagined violence, while the other is literal. Both, however, repeatedly interrupt her life and career. Heather cannot escape from the reputation of the original film, and New Nightmare addresses this directly and symbolically. Freddy becomes a symbol of fan culture, as he is fixated on repeating the past, even though the actors and genre has changed. The demonic force which raises Freddy in the film is also a direct extension of fan culture, so the film’s criticism appears as both Freddy and the force which raises him.

There are several hyper aware moments in the film, two of which particularly stand out. The first is when Heather leaves for an interview and gets harassed by her limo driver. The man recognizes her, and spends the car ride talking about how great the first film was, and how fun it was to watch Heather’s co-workers die. The scene makes it abundantly clear that fans are only interested in Nancy, not Heather. Anytime someone collapses Nancy with Heather, like the driver does, they are making this impossible request. They want her to be Nancy, but that also means that they want Heather to have suffered like Nancy did and for her co-workers to have died. What’s worse is that they are only interested in Nancy because of Freddy, the figure who terrorized her and butchered her friends. Heather is clearly uncomfortable with this comparison, and rightfully so. She is even receiving calls from Freddy copycats, although one of these is later revealed to be Freddy himself. It’s important to note that the actual Heather has dealt with multiple stalkers and angry fans, including one who began following her and her family after the cancelation of her show, Just the Ten of Us (1988-1990).

The other standout moment in New Nightmare is the television interview scene, which happens before the ‘real’ Freddy appears. Heather arrives late at the studio and is rushed onto stage, apparently having no time to review questions with the host. It’s unclear what the interview was originally for because it very quickly becomes about Heather’s relation to the first Nightmare film. This is something right out of our world, something the ‘real’ Heather would do as an actress. Craven, however, ingeniously transforms this real event into something horrific, but only from Heather’s perspective. We see as Heather does, not as the audience would. Craven uses this scene to directly criticize what the original Nightmare has become in fan culture. It’s like Victor Frankenstein making a film about how terrible his Monster became. The studio audience is clearly obsessed with Freddy, a killer, and not with Heather or her character Nancy, the victim/final girl. They are dressed in full Freddy outfits, with masks and claws, just sitting and watching Heather. That alone proves that they are not there for Heather, and they certainly don’t care about whatever new project she is working on. Heather tries to be polite, but the scene becomes increasingly dismissive and disturbing. She is trying to move on with her life and establish a new career and legacy, but Freddy keeps stalking her through this fandom. Again, this scene happens before Freddy really appears in the film, which tells us that this horror belongs in our world. It exists right now, it’s something actresses like Heather are currently dealing with.

“Are you ready to become Nancy once again?”

The interviewer treats the original film as the only defining characteristic about Heather’s life. Even when he asks her about her family, he quickly reframes this question to ask if her son watches the movies. When Heather tries to change the question, the interviewer suddenly asks if she would trust actor Robert Englund around her son. This is such a creepy question, as the implication is that Robert is the same as his character and would sexually or physically abuse her son. It also illustrates that while Heather is trying to move on, the industry has collapsed character with actor, and is unwilling to separate the two, regardless of the violence implied there. Unlike Heather, Robert has accepted this, largely because he is positioned in a different light, literally here. He crashes the interview in full Freddy makeup, performing what the audience wants to see. He is a sort of parody here, shouting one-liners at Heather and the crowd, posing for the cameras. This is clearly tied to Craven’s ongoing distain for the commercialization of Freddy, as he often described an almost juggling act between what he wanted for the character and what the studio would allow. He allegedly felt that the later films were turning Freddy away from the grotesque horror of the original film, or even the horror that inspired him. That criticism is apparent here, as there is nothing scary about this popular version of Freddy. He crashes through a wall, but rather than attacking someone, he rushes to his fans, all smiles. Then, the camera changes.

Suddenly, we see Freddy from Heather’s perspective. We don’t see his face, just his back as he stands in the spotlight, waving his claws. The shot is frightening and ominous, but not in a traditional horror sense. Freddy isn’t even looking at Heather, yet the effect remains. Freddy, or rather, this Freddy enthused crowd, is horrifying. It looms in the spotlight, leaving Heather in the background. There is a very real horror to this shot, and it’s clear that the only enemy or threat is the audience, not Freddy. We see a shadow across Heather’s face as she leans back into her chair, scared of what is in front of her and just how much control it has in her life. That follows into the next scene, where we see Heather awkwardly waiting for Robert to finish autographing photos with fans so the two can say goodbye. No fans are asking for her autograph, but then again, she isn’t playing along as Robert is, and they inhabit distinct roles in the fandom.

The studio scene changes our perspective as a film audience, as the film asks us to consider what it must be like for Heather. It also asks us to look at ourselves from Heather’s perspective, as we see both Freddy and the audience in this frightening shot. We are demons, just like Freddy. We are the monstrous and single-minded threat working against Heather. This is what the film is interested in. It wants to talk about what it means to be a horror actor, and how frightening, overwhelming, and dangerous fandom can be, especially to a woman. Even when Heather later takes her son to the hospital, the female doctor dismisses her, claiming that Heather has somehow traumatized her son by making him watch the movies. Heather is consistently dismissed because of her role as Nancy, first by the fans who want her to be Nancy, and then by horror skeptics who believe she participated in some awful thing and is therefore a terrible mother and unstable person.

“Ma’am this is a restricted area. Do you have a pass?”
“Screw Your Pass.”

The real horror in the film is Freddy’s legacy, or the very people watching New Nightmare, those who liked the original Nightmare. This interview scene is just one of several sequences where Craven, Heather, and Robert all discuss feeling compelled by Freddy, as though they are controlled by the films, and not vice versa. The final act proves this as Heather is suddenly transported to Nancy’s house, and the actor who plays Nancy’s father suddenly believes he is Heather’s father. The transformation is complete, Heather is now Nancy. Except for one detail, Heather knows this role as well as she knows herself. When she eventually finds her son through this confusing film reality, Heather realizes that the only way to defeat Freddy is using another story: “Hansel and Gretel”. She follows her son’s ‘breadcrumbs’ (sleeping pills), rescues him from being eaten alive, and the two push Freddy into an oven. I think “Hansel and Gretel” also plays into the film’s discussion on fandom. It has something to do with luring, like the witch does to the children. Luring with candy or praise. The Freddy fandom rewards horror and violence, creating this makeshift Gingerbread house where the films are a tasty success but there is an evil waiting within that success.

The darker Freddy we see in the film isn’t technically Freddy, it’s a demon who is imbued into powerful stories, and will be set free if it isn’t contained in a new story. The demon hasn’t always been Freddy, it has just been feeding off the fans’ devotion to Freddy. Craven’s desperation to make a new story, and contain Freddy, mirrors the fan’s ongoing demand for more films. Heather becomes the “gatekeeper”, the only person who can stop this ‘real’ Freddy. That word choice speaks volumes, I used it earlier to describe what it’s like to be a woman in the horror realm. Fanboys traditionally act as gatekeepers, as though they are the only ones who truly understand horror films, or as though they are in control of who gets to be a fan. New Nightmare gives this title and role to Heather, and she gets to redefine it. Craven says as much in the film, noting, “You’re the first to humiliate him, defeat him…you were the one who gave Nancy the strength”. Craven makes it clear that Nancy is not just a victim or final girl, she goes beyond those roles. She is strong and admirable, qualities which came from Heather. The film ends with Heather having finally overcome the legacy of the first film, or rather, having some control. We last see her as she reads Craven’s script to her young son, narrating the events we just watched. She is the storyteller here, and the story is no longer dictated by its villain.

New Nightmare poses the question: what does it means to obsess over a franchise and genre, specifically one which frequently abuses women? Craven’s film doesn’t hate its fans, it just asks them to be more conscious of how they treat films, filmmakers, and actors. That extents beyond the Freddy universe, even into modern horror. By positioning Heather as both actress and character, the film redefines what it means to be a heroine, and how important it is to be aware of these conventions, in film and in fandom.

*Updated Feb. 26, 2022

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