The three great horror franchises each tap into potent fear systems. The most pedestrian of these is Halloween, that preys on the fears of any teen left alone in the house with the parents gone (Is that only the house settling or is Michael outside the window?).
Friday the 13th ratchets the principle with a wagging finger: “Don’t have sex or do drugs. That’s the misbehavior that got Jason killed and will make you unprepared for your murderer!”
The mechanism of terror in both of these is to add violence to the stakes of our parents’ warnings—beware the outside world and don’t break the rules, respectively.
A Nightmare on Elm Street is horrifying because it goes the other way: it contradicts our parents. It says, “They’re wrong. They don’t know any better than you. The evil out there cannot be stopped by caution or attention or good grades or even holding your crucifix to your heart with perfect faith.”
Freddy is like the old gods and needs but a tiny vent to come into our world to murder. He’s Lovecraftian.
He’s the chthonic demon.
To summarize the legend of this monster:
Freddy Krueger was a custodian at an elementary school on Elm Street who raped and murdered the children in the school’s basement boiler room. He was caught and brought to trial, but was released on a technicality. Our parents told us to trust our justice system, but this shows we cannot. This is the first chink in the armor.
The parents of Elm Street rally after Freddy’s release and burn him alive, taking justice into their own hands. This feels like catharsis. They balance the scales of justice. They take the eye for an eye. They bring equilibrium to the wheel of karma. But it doesn’t work. The universe is worse than that.
Rather than bringing about the final stroke of justice, the execution of Freddy Krueger unleashes a horrifying monster that can murder anyone on Elm Street in their sleep by entering their dreams and tormenting them with the newly created absolute powers he has there. He’s not only some man who rapes and murders defenseless children anymore; he’s a dream god who can prey on even the strongest of us.
To make matters worse, the Lovecraftian tear in the fabric of reality through which he creeps is not some discrete portal in a New England laboratory. It’s a banging-wide-open screen door: our sleep, where we go every single night! Freddy is a lot of fun to watch because he’s funny and he tailors the dreamscapes of his victims to their fears like the punishments of Tartarus. However, this is only spectacle, a veneer over the warning of the story that is terrifying:
The world may not be axiomatic. There may be no divine order to protect us. By trying to make things right, we might not just make them worse…
…but we could make them a nightmare.