Months ago, I began a series of posts in which I endeavored to celebrate the female leads of the Nightmare on Elm Street series. It’s my favorite horror franchise and has many excellent qualities, not the least of which is its celebration of female heroines, so the choice seemed an obvious one. I got through most of these leading ladies in a timely manner, but when it came time to write about the original and greatest protagonist of this series, I found myself incapable of accomplishing the task.
How could I put into words all that is so incredible about Nancy Thompson? How could I do justice to the character who is most responsible for my love of this series and, on a larger scale, the whole horror genre? I was locked in indecision and simply avoided the topic, but now that it’s October and I’m fully immersed in horror and the supernatural, it is finally time to finish this series.
Here we go. Spoilers after the jump.
Nancy Thompson is introduced in A Nightmare on Elm Street. She is a fairly average girl with nothing too noteworthy on the surface: divorced parents, a few close friends, a typical suburban life. One thing we see right from the beginning, however, is that she is a very caring person. When her friend Tina tells her that she had a truly horrifying nightmare, Nancy is happy to spend the night with her to offer comfort and reassurance. When her friends start dying around her, she is deeply affected, and this care and concern for her loved ones quickly manifests itself as a protective nature.
When Nancy begins to suspect that the nightmare she and her friends are sharing is the cause of their deaths, she does all she can to learn more about the dreams. What are the common threads? Does the dream affect real life? Is there any way of fighting back? Nancy learns about the man, Fred Krueger, who appears in every nightmare. She learns that he was a child murderer who her parents, along with her friends’ parents, burned to death, and that he is now seeking his revenge. She also discovers that she can pull items from her nightmare into the waking world by holding on to them as she awakes from the dream.
This discovery is the key for Nancy. She is now ready for her final confrontation with Krueger, but it will be on her terms, not his.
While Nancy is learning about Krueger, she is also researching how to make traps and weapons from household items. When asked by her boyfriend why she’s reading about this stuff, she simply tells him, “I’m into survival”. Once she makes the discovery that she can pull things out of the dream and into her world, she makes her plan. Setting traps all around her house, she turns her home into a battlefield and prepares to enter the dream one final time with the intention of bringing Krueger into her war zone.
This was the moment I really fell in love with Nancy, and the moment that I feel makes her the ultimate horror heroine. I had seen so many movies up to this point in which the characters were mere fodder for the killer (see: Friday the 13th) until eventually one is left who manages to escape. This was the first time I saw a character actually take an active hand in their own survival. Nancy doesn’t run scared until a final, panicked showdown with her antagonist: Nancy makes a plan of attack and makes damn sure her bases are covered so that she has the best chance of winning.
I remember a documentary about the John Carpenter classic Halloween in which it was mentioned that he had his final girl turn away from the killer and drop her weapon to indicate that she is not a killer, that she is still innocent despite what she’s gone through. I can appreciate that, but I think it’s so much more realistic and satisfying to see someone who has been affected by what she’s gone through. Nancy isn’t concerned with being a “good” girl, she’s concerned with being a live girl and she is no less admirable for that. In fact, I think she’s even more admirable.
Since the events of the first movie, Nancy has gone to college and is currently in grad school, making a name for herself in the study of dreams. It is because of this reputation that she is brought on to the team at Westin Hills, which is studying the shared nightmare of a group of teens. Of course, this shared nightmare is Fred Krueger, and Nancy recognizes right away that she is back in the nightmare she fought so hard to rid herself of.
Nancy, being the veteran, does all she can to help the teenagers in her care. In the waking world she guides them, teaches them, and does her best to work with her adult teammates who don’t understand the true danger the teens are in. In the dream, she fights alongside them and once again takes a direct role in the battle. Despite the fact that she’s been taking an experimental drug to suppress her dreams, her protective nature shows itself again and she decides to take up the fight where she left off last time.
Ultimately, Krueger kills Nancy this time around. It would seem that part three is the end of Nancy’s story… or is it?
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, the final installment in the seven-film series (excluding those which exist outside the main timeline) gives us the return of Nancy… in a way.
New Nightmare brings the horror of Fred Krueger off the screen and into the real world. In this film we get to see Nancy’s actress, Heather Langenkamp, take on the starring role as herself rather than her character, and it’s beautiful. In the film, Heather has mostly put the Nightmare series behind her, but she is getting disturbing calls from who she believes is a stalker. Unfortunately, the calls are coming from the essence of Fred Krueger, which is actually an ancient evil. It turns out that this evil can be contained within a story, but when the story ends it is released back into the world and since the Nightmare series ended with the previous installment this spirit is now free again.
As cheesy as the description may sound, the movie works. It really, really works. It’s thoughtful, perfectly meta, and is led by a truly excellent heroine. Heather Langenkamp is pulled into the world she thought was fictional and, like her character Nancy, does her best to learn about it, fight it, and defeat it. Heather is not the same person as Nancy, but they share the same strength, the same protective nature, and the same drive, which is why it is up to her to finally put an end to the story of Fred Krueger.
There you have it. The Women of Elm Street ends with the woman who started it all. As much as the franchise is about Freddy Krueger, the actual narrative of the films is just as much about Nancy. Without her, none of the other leads would have known what to do. Lisa Webber, in Freddy’s Revenge, uses Nancy’s diary as her primary source for research; Kristen Parker, in The Dream Warriors, is trained directly by her; and Alice Johnson, in The Dream Master, is taught in turn by Kristen. When Heather returns for the final chapter to close the series, it is the perfect capstone. It celebrates Nancy’s importance and gives a satisfactory end to both her story and Krueger’s.