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Every Town Has an Elm Street by Wayne Byrne

Writing.ie | Magazine | Interviews | Non-Fiction
Welcome to Elm Street

By Wayne Byrne

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Whenever I contemplate what A Nightmare on Elm Street means to me it feels like that shot in the sixth film, Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, when the subjective camera guides the audience into Freddy Krueger’s brain to begin a flashback trip down Elm Street, depicting the key moments of his life to explain how he came to be the malevolent monster that he is today. Now, my particular memories are not as dark or disturbing as Freddy’s, though they do provide a similarly vivid expedition through the sunny suburban world of Elm Street, Springwood – via Main Street, Naas – to reveal my discovery of Cinema and how my new book, Welcome to Elm Street: Inside the Film and Television Nightmares, came about because of a childhood interest in the exploits of the Elm Street ensemble.

My earliest evocations of my relationship with motion pictures are neither those of Disney nor Star Wars, no my primary movie memories are of perusing the shelves of Screen Test and of Hollywood Nights, two video emporiums which felt like the centre of my universe in the late-eighties and early-nineties. This was a time when Freddy Krueger and the Elm Street franchise was at its pop-cultural peak; it was everywhere: on video shelves, on television, in cinemas, and in my local pound shop, Donal’s Walkaround. There you would find branded children’s toys of the Freddy Krueger variety: posters, plastic replicas of his iconic razor-fingered glove; a two-pack of Fred-Head Spit Balls (hours of watery fun were had with those!), and rubber masks moulded out of his frightening visage. All of these and more could be found and I hounded my mother for such. Yes, this maniacal movie monster, a killer of children and demonic spawn of Hell, was being marketed and sold to the youth, and we lapped it up.

As a seven-year old, my mind was blown by the humour, imagination, and surreal quality of the television show, Freddy’s Nightmares, which was screened on Friday nights at 11pm on the then-new Sky One channel. I usually caught a glimpse of the first few minutes before being hauled off to bed; I only hung around that long because Friday nights meant The Late Late Show, so one could flaunt a free pass to stay up a little later than usual, just enough to glimpse those tantalising opening moments of an episode of Freddy’s Nightmares. My dad would tape it for me to devour the following morning. Indeed, who needs Saturday morning cartoons when you have The Springwood Slasher to entertain you? Once again with the assistance of my dad, I moved swiftly from that TV variant of Elm Street to the real deal: the movies! Thankfully, the aforementioned video shops employed some lenient young folk to man the counters with little regard for age ratings on videotapes, and so I began a renting spree with A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, the film which is truly responsible for me falling in love with the whole world on Elm Street and with the characters, heroes and villain alike. I would rent it repeatedly and was always thrilled with the ritual: the musty, dusty smell of the video shop; the brief verbal dance between my dad (“it’s grand, he can have it. Sure it’s only a silly aul thing.”) and the shop assistant (“okay so!”); the excitement of the four-mile trip home whilst clutching the tape, ready to run inside to insert it into the machine. Then going through the trailer reel which informed me of upcoming releases such as Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, Burt Reynolds’ Heat, Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys, and Joe Dante’s Innerspace, before finally arriving at the Warner Bros. logo and BBFC 18 certificate. From there the opening frames would unspool to the strains of Angelo Badalamenti’s creepy score, introducing us to heroine Kristen Parker (Patricia Arquette) as she switches on her stereo to blast some 80s heavy metal. And so, it begins. I’m happy.

Of course, it was never long before a new Elm Street film would be released in the late-80s, so I would soon have another one to enjoy, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4, soon followed by the fifth, and then I would go back and discover the first two films, which were darker and more genuinely unsettling. But it was only over time that I realised just how dark and unsettling those films are; as kids we unquestionably enjoy the surface attraction of fantasy, gore, and action, as well as appreciate the central bogeyman who was, for our generation, the contemporary equivalent of Universal’s Dracula, or Frankenstein, or The Wolf Man. But as we unearth the subtext of the films we discover something far more troubling and relevant, far scarier than the idea of a dream demon with knives for fingers. Yes, these films are horror genre in every respect, but at their heart is an astute social commentary on the domestic ills of the idealised small-town middle-class enclave. They are critical of a certain kind of bourgeois suburban smugness, considering the death of idealism and the birth of complacency, questioning the morality of those behind the pristine picket fences; it posits the notion that the sins of a decadent generation are being paid for by the next, depicting the Elm Street elders as burnouts, drunk and divorced, from reality and their spouses, floundering in a haze of substance abuse and ignorance. The fallout of their physical and emotional absence is the ill mental health of their children. No movie monster can come close to the anxiety or indeed the terror that any of those domestic predicaments, all firmly rooted in reality, could bring upon a child. And so, as I came of age with these films, I began to realise that something important was being addressed within; I have touched upon it briefly when lecturing, or when writing about them in magazines, but I felt there was a book’s worth of discussion here.

That was the central idea behind Welcome to Elm Street: Inside the Film and Television Nightmares. But what had started out as a somewhat academic brief, to explore the sociological and psychological themes inherent, soon turned into something different as the amount of people I spoke to from the franchise increased. What started off as a couple of interviews with some directors led to me speaking with many more, including actors, screenwriters, producers, composers, cinematographers, and special effects artists. Now I had a completely different beast to wrestle; yes, I had collected some great insights into the themes that had piqued my interest, but I had also, perhaps inadvertently, compiled what proved to be a verbal history of the making of this franchise. While that was an exciting prospect, it was also a daunting one. Each of my previous three books were focused on one subject, a single personality whose career I charted with their words and works guiding me. But now I had twenty-five personalities to work with. Some memories were tinged with reverence for the films and the excitement of working on the biggest horror series in Hollywood, while others recalled long hours and low budgets, vivid accounts of the labour and the clashing of personalities on-set. It was, I learned, not easy making these movies. Productions were tight budgets, schedules were short, and, sometimes, so were tempers, but the struggle always endured in the name of making the best possible films for the insatiable public. Juggling those voices in documenting the history and cultural significance of this franchise, while remaining true to my initial goals of discussing what I felt were highly important themes, was not an easy thing to achieve within 100,000 words, but I did it. I’m satisfied that if my younger self were to read this book he would a most entertained and enlightened Elm Street enthusiast. I hope it reveals to be so for all those who feel that A Nightmare on Elm Street is so much more than mere monster movie madness.

Most crucial for me was speaking to Freddy Krueger himself, Robert Englund. With creator Wes Craven dead by the time I started work on the book, Robert Englund remains the beating heart of the franchise, and if anyone could confirm or deny my hypotheses, it is he. But Robert met me on the same level and together we explored all those deep themes I felt Craven had instilled in his masterwork, confirming what I felt was a critical social conscience informing the narratives of these great genre films. And one particular thing Robert said spoke directly to the heart of this project, and to my own experience: “When the young kid watches a Nightmare movie on a Friday night with the lights off while eating some pizza, he is enthralled by this exciting horror movie experience and this entertaining character, Freddy Krueger. He isn’t thinking about all those deep intellectual themes and ideas, but they are still working on him, and over time as he gets older and learns about the world, he will understand those themes and they will mean something.”

(c) Wayne Byrne

About Welcome to Elm Street:

Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street is one of the most inventive American films of the 1980s. Its sleeper success bred a series of film sequels and a syndicated television program while its villain, Freddy Krueger, became a Hollywood horror icon for the ages. In the four decades since its release, Craven’s creation and the subsequent franchise that it launched has become firmly established as a pop culture institution and a celebrated symbol of American cinema.

This book takes readers on an engrossing journey through the history, production, and themes of the Nightmare on Elm Street film series and its spin-off TV show, Freddy’s Nightmares. It reveals new stories about the franchise’s history and dives into some of the themes and ideas that tend to be overlooked. It contains a foreword by production designer Mick Strawn and includes exclusive interviews with cast and crew, including legendary Freddy Krueger actor Robert Englund; directors Jack Sholder, Chuck Russell, Mick Garris, Tom McLoughlin, Lisa Gottlieb, and William Malone; cinematographers Jacques Haitkin, Roy H. Wagner, and Steven Fierberg; and many more.

Pre-order your copy online here.

About the author

Wayne Byrne is an author and film educator, he has written four books including The Cinema of Tom DiCillo: Include Me Out (2018), Burt Reynolds on Screen (2019), Nick McLean Behind The Camera: The Life and Works of a Hollywood Cinematographer (2020), Welcome to Elm Street: Inside the Film and Television Nightmares (2021). He is currently working on his next book, which celebrates the career of director Walter Hill and will be published by McFarland & Co. in 2022. Wayne is a recurring guest lecturer at Dublin Business School, where he teaches various aspects of Cinema Studies and has hosted discussions with veteran Hollywood professionals.

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