November, 1984. My grandfather and I were in the restroom of the Crest Theatre in San Bernardino, California after seeing Madman. When I noticed in the newspaper that the movie (it had become a sleeper/cult classic of sorts in the early ’80s, playing with other horror films around the country long after its initial release) was playing at the Crest, I asked my grandfather to take me – and away we went. As we washed our hands, my grandpa asked if I wanted to stay and see the movie that Madman was playing with as a double-feature; something or other about Elm Street. Neither one of us really knew much about it, but figured we’d give it a shot; if it sucked, we’d leave.
That second-thought film was indeed, Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, and for the next hour and a half, we sat silently in that theater, completely transfixed by what we saw on the screen. We left the Crest that evening buzzing about this new monster – with a charred red and green sweater, crumpled fedora, and a blade-tipped glove that slashed his victims in their dreams as they slept. We didn’t realize it at the time, but we’d just witnessed the birth of one of horror’s most iconic characters – Freddy Krueger.
Wes Craven’s career was a good one – and he unleashed an impressive list of terror on moviegoers that includes The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, Swamp Thing, The Serpent and the Rainbow, Shocker, Scream, and Red Eye, to name a few. His films were mostly all received very well by horror fans, and the character of Ghostface from the Scream series arguably has become the most famous mask in cinema since John Carpenter’s Halloween. In my mind however, what towers above all else is the Gloved One – Freddy. And this is where we can easily bridge Craven’s world to that of themed entertainment.
Ever since A Nightmare on Elm Street debuted in the mid-’80s, haunters have used the famous Charles Bernstein musical soundtrack as well as the horrific likeness of Freddy to torment guests in their own mazes and attractions. For years, Freddy was a staple at Knott’s Scary Farm – in both mazes as well as shows, most notable being The Hanging in Calico Square, where he’d appear year after year during the finale to kick ass and wipe out everyone on stage. Across the country and around the world, fans couldn’t get enough of Freddy Krueger, and I was one of the countless folks that wanted more, more, more!
In high school, I had a Freddy glove that I actually attached over the hood ornament on my first car, and drove around town with it – people honked, gave thumbs up, and totally got it – in the ’80s, Freddy mania was alive and well, regardless of how fun – or even terrible many of the sequels to Nightmare came down the pike. Of course, I was Freddy one year for Halloween (and like many fans, I was horrified by how hard it was to find that damned green and red sweater – most people opted for black and red stripes) during high school. I wrote my own Freddy short stories, bought tons of goofy merchandise featuring the grinning icon, and followed his evolution with great interest up through his latest iterations. I’m even somewhat interested in the reboot project of Nightmare, considering Robert Englund has apparently signed on to become the mayor of dreamland once again.
As the awkward high school teen that never fit in quite right, Wes Craven’s work wasn’t just an interest – it was a gift. I fell in love with A Nightmare on Elm Street and Craven’s tales of terror (not just the Freddy flicks – but everything) inspired me to grow my own imagination and writing style, breaking down conventional barriers of what monsters can or cannot be – and so, as a writer, Craven meant a lot to me personally.
Throughout my adult years, decades later, Freddy – and all that Craven created – has always just been there, you know? Like Mr. Spock, Darth Vader, and Indiana Jones – larger-than-life characters that have become the fabric of pop culture; part of who we are as fans.
August 30, 2015. As the credits rolled of a movie I’d just watched and patrons shuffled out of the darkened theater, I flicked my phone on to see what notifications I’d missed. The first text to come through was from news station KNX. I glanced at the first part of the text: “Horror filmmaker Wes Craven…” and then, as my gut tightened, I read the last part of the message: “…has died. He was 76.”
I recoiled back into my seat, as if I’d just seen something repulsive, and held the phone over for Johanna to read. And then, unexpectedly, I started to cry. I’ve never met Wes Craven; never even seen him in person. However, the impact that this guy had on my life – the unknown life ring he tossed me as a teen while I struggled to stay afloat in a pool of painful confusion – was profound. And up until this moment, I hadn’t really taken inventory of that, other than the semi-frequent musings of how much of a Freddy fan I have always been when discussing the genre or old Halloween attractions.
76 is not terribly old by today’s standards. When I dug deeper into the story, I saw that it was brain cancer that killed Craven. And that made me so instantly angry, that more tears came. I’ve had close friends taken by cancer – including brain cancer – and have had loved ones die from the affliction. My father died of cancer when he was 39 years old. The sadness and sorrow rolled into anger, and I pondered aloud how crazy it is that we can send spaceships to the furthest reaches of the solar system to shoot back hi-resolution evaluations of distant planets, but can’t even fix our own bodies here on Earth of cancer cells. It’s maddening, and too many people have been struck down by cancer. I hate it. We all hate it. And it scares the hell out of me. It’s the real boogeyman.
When people – in this case, entertainment icons – pass away that have made a profound impact on our lives, it hits terribly close to home, and shakes us to the core. As an adult, I hadn’t given much thought lately to Wes Craven, except when the subject of Freddy or one of his other films/characters comes up. Hell, I didn’t even know he was battling cancer. However, deeply ingrained in my love of horror, Halloween and everything spooky, is the indelible mark Craven made on me starting on that November afternoon in 1984 in the darkness of the Crest Theatre in San Bernardino.
We begin to lose these folks the older we get – these larger-than-life icons, whether musicians, writers, entertainers or filmmakers – and it serves as a sobering reminder of our own ticking clock, making it all the more upsetting.
The outpouring of love from around the world during these past 24 hours has been fantastic to see online. Fans are expressing their shock and sadness over the loss of Wes Craven. I’m a drop in the bucket, and want to express my own sorrow and gratitude, too. And I’m grateful that I have this platform to share it from.
Thank you, Wes Craven. Thank you for making beautiful monsters that thrilled me as a kid and filled my imagination with delight, allowing this socially-awkward teen to latch onto a genre and grow with it into an equally socially-awkward adulthood. Thank you for “rubber reality” and inspiring me to write my own warped and strange tales of terror throughout my life. Thank you most of all, for giving us Freddy Krueger, and the countless nightmares he’s caused on every street.
Godspeed. You’re in our hearts – and dreams – forever.
– Rick West