30th Anniversary: My Terrifying First Encounter With A Nightmare On Elm Street

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[Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street celebrates its 30th anniversary this month and rather than spout out a bunch of stuff you die-hards already know about the series and can glean from various excellent documentaries and special editions, I thought I’d make my retrospective personal. I’d love to hear about your own personal “first” experiences with the film – use our comment boards below!]

“Time to go to sleep.” Those ominous words preceded my introduction to A Nightmare on Elm Street nearly 30 years ago. My father, having borrowed a VCR, rented Wes Craven’s seminal 1984 horror film on the day it was released on VHS. He was a savvy horror fan and had obviously read about the film – why he missed it in theaters is unknown to me. I’ll just chalk it up to being the father of two youngsters and he was unable to escape the house for an evening when the movie opened wide in theaters on November 16, 1984. Alright, I’ll take the blame. Regardless, he was finally catching up to it. My mother was turning in for the night, my little sister was passed out in her bed and it was my turn to head to my bedroom while my father looked forward to indulging in some horror movies.

Being a 7-year-old – one who was already teetering on movie obsession – I wasn’t ready to go to bed. I wanted to know what this movie was. The rental box told me the title. That was enough to send my imagination into some pretty dark places. But I had to know more. Off to bed I went, however. And with the lights off, I crept to the bedroom door and cracked it open an inch, listening to the sounds coming from the living room. I could hear the familiar whirring sound of the VCR taking hold of the tape then…the movie began. Immediately, Charles Bernstein’s score and the sound effects utilized for Tina’s encounter with Freddy Krueger unnerved me.

You see…my introduction to A Nightmare on Elm Street wasn’t a visual sensation, it was purely based on sound. I couldn’t see the movie, but I was determined to listen to the whole thing play out and create my own visuals in my head. You might say the experience was tantamount to tuning in to an old radio drama and it was likely the most terrifying one I would ever hear. Bernstein’s score, the desperation I could hear in Nancy’s voice, the screeching of Freddy’s finger knives…I considered closing the door and going to sleep, but it was too late for me. I listened to the whole thing.

Thus, my connection with the Nightmare legacy began. There was no way in hell I was being allowed to see the movies, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t peek at pictures in issues of Fangoria while at the local comic book shop or obsess over the poster art I’d see in the Sunday edition of The New York Times. I knew Krueger was a maniac, I had heard from school chums – with lenient parents that didn’t care if their kids were seeing these slasher films – that Krueger did truly awful things to kids, but in my head he was this fascinating mythical figure to be feared. It wasn’t until A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors that I got my first glimpse at actual footage from one of the films.

Again, my father rented the film but thought the “puppet sequence” was amusing and tame enough to show me. And he was right, it cracked me up, but I wanted to see more of the movie. I was denied, so I immediately set out to draw the Nightmare 3 poster on the grocery bag cover of my geography book. That’ll teach my folks from keeping me away from Freddy!

It wasn’t until I had a sleepover at a friend’s house in the late-’80s that I finally saw A Nightmare on Elm Street and was floored by how the visuals complimented that one horrifying night I listened to it play out. Needless to say, it was true “nightmare” material.

From that day forward, I’ve always been a fan of the series and its long-running legacy. Over time, it’s been harder for me to tolerate the sequels after The Dream Warriors, although I think New Nightmare is a really good film. Still, 30 years later, the original remains one of my most-watched horror films and I’ve been lucky to experience it a number of times in 35mm on the big screen. Today, I can’t deny that Freddy Krueger and A Nightmare on Elm Street played a significant part in my formative years as a horror fan. And even though it has moments that feel a bit dated today, it still stands the test of time as being one of the best horror films…ever.