'I’m Into Survival': A Nightmare on Elm Street’s Nancy, 30 Years Later
The heroine of Wes Craven's classic horror flick embodied—and transcended—the Final Girl trope.
Freddy Krueger turns 30 this Halloween season. Wes Craven’s 1984 supernatural slasher, A Nightmare on Elm Street, earned back its paltry production costs after just one week of theater runs, having ensnared its targeted teen demographic with the lure of body horror. Its infamous villain, Freddy—disfigured by burns, bursting with bile, armed with knife-fingers and the power to show up uninvited in teenage dreamscapes—was born to the '80s low-budget boom; he has since resurfaced in sequels, spinoffs, crossovers, and one (awful) 2010 remake.
Freddy still manages to resonate. And so, too, should his original vanquisher, Nancy Thompson: an obstinate, foul-mouthed, hyper-feminine high schooler, who remains one of the most progressive female representations in the teen horror genre.
Nightmare shares plenty of rhetorical patterns with its turn-of-the-decade predecessors—John Carpenter’s Halloween, Ken Wiederhorn Eyes of a Stranger, Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th—particularly that of the Final Girl. Coined by feminist film scholar Carol J. Clover in her book Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, the Final Girl is a filmic trope referring to the last female character left alive after a string of serialized murders. She survives, in part, by virtue of being both virginal and vice-free. She’s Not Like Other Girls. As Randy, the meta-voice of Craven’s '90s comedy/slasher Scream, informs a party of potential teenage murder victims: “There are certain rules you must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie. Number one, you can never have sex. Sex equals death, okay?"
Nancy is an oft-cited example of Final Girldom—though the label, in certain respects, is an imperfect fit.
If the Final Girl is narratively rewarded with survival for exhibiting constrictive and conservative modes of femininity, Nancy more or less meets the mark. She dresses in barely varying shades of baby pink, from her sweater-vests to an enviable football jersey, which she uses as a nightshirt. Nancy also sleeps apart from her boyfriend, Glen (played by a baby-faced Johnny Depp), when he and her friend Tina’s guy, Rod, crash the girls’ sleepover. After Tina and Rod giggle their way upstairs, Glen tries to make moves, but Nancy sighs him off—“Not now, Glen”—preoccupied by a nightmare Tina had the night before; Nancy’s over at her house to begin with because Tina didn’t want to sleep alone.
Nancy’s exasperation at Glen doesn’t suggest discomfort, but distraction—Freddy’s wrath hasn’t yet had real-world implications, but Nancy seems to sense something her friends don’t. Terror’s afoot; why think about sex right now? Her survival-earning superiority is not necessarily of a moral brand, but an emotional and intellectual one. Sure, she’s plenty virginal when compared to her hormone-heavy peers; Tina’s gruesome death is post-coital, and later, Glen meets his demise while preparing to objectify Miss Nude America as he watches her muted (“Who cares what she says?”). Blatant misogyny aside, sex in Nightmare is construed less as punishable teenage deviance, and more as punishable teenage sloppiness. Glen falls asleep—against all of Nancy’s constant warnings—with a naked woman on TV and music blasting in his ears. Neither he, nor Rod, nor Tina, employs constant vigilance against the threat that awaits them after getting off and closing their eyes.
Nancy is different; she actively prioritizes her own safety. The first time she encounters Freddy in a dream, she cleverly burns herself on a pipe to wake herself up, after screaming “Goddamn you!” in his face. This is relevant, too: Though Nancy curls her hair and calls her father “Daddy”, she’s far from prim and proper. She swears like a sailor. When her mother tries to get her to rest, Nancy—knowing full well, by this point, that what happens in nightmares doesn’t stay in nightmares—she yells “Screw sleep!” and smashes her mother’s vodka bottle on the kitchen floor. She is a girl who speaks, loudly and often.
While her peers are thinking about typical teenage things, Nancy’s thinking about methods of maiming and killing. Glen, when he’s still alive, catches her with a book about building booby traps. “What are you reading that for?” he asks, dubious, as if two of their friends hadn’t recently been brutally murdered. “I’m into survival,” Nancy says with a shrug and a smile, in a tone she may use to declare being into high-waisted jeans.
Nancy survives by thinking, strategizing, building. When her body demands sleep, she positions Glen as a sentinel so that he can rouse her when things get rough. Glen, being a useless teen boy, falls asleep, and Nancy has to get herself out of a Freddy-plagued dream all on her lonesome. Upon waking: “You bastard, I asked you for ONE THING, and what did you do, you shit? You fell asleep.” (Nancy tells it like it is.)
Her goal, even after all her friends have perished at Freddy’s knife-hands, is to “whack the fucker.” Prepped with a plan, Nancy booby traps the hell out of her house, falls asleep, grabs onto Freddy in her dream, and again forces her own wakefulness, this time dragging Freddy into the woken world along with her. After some Home Alone-style horror hijinks, Freddy and Nancy meet in a bedroom face-off.
One of the most central tenets of the Final Girl trope is her eventual masculinization. In order to kill off the villain, she undergoes phallic appropriation while hoisting a weapon—be it chainsaw, knife or gun—with which to slay her attacker. Nancy raises no such weapon; instead, she turns her back. “You’re nothing,” she tells Freddy. “You’re shit.” By declaring herself no longer afraid of him, he loses his powers. While potentially questionable purely from a plot perspective, the move is an otherwise bold one: Nightmare’s heroine doesn’t win with violence, but with smarts, emotional authority, and nerve. (Technically, Freddy does pop back up in a confusing dream sequence before credits roll, but so do all villains vying for their sequels.)
Nancy’s win is all the sweeter after she’s spent the length of the film being called crazy. The words “fruitcake” and “lunatic” are continually bandied about by clueless characters shaming Nancy’s shrill determination to convey an omnipresent danger. As a horror film that transgresses the boundaries between what is real and what is imagined, Nightmare is perfectly positioned to paint a portrait of the vindicated hysterical woman. Teenage girls—in fiction and in life—are called crazy on the daily, as a means of delegitimizing their concerns and desires. Nancy is dismissed as a girlish nutcase dozens of times, yet it is she alone who defeats the danger—she alone who even recognizes the danger for what it is in the first place.
Thirty years later, through slasher revitalizations and the ever-growing popularity of the psychological thriller, Nancy remains one of my favorite women in horror. While she doesn’t escape certain pitfalls of being a woman in film, particularly sexualization—think of the famous scene wherein Freddy’s knife-hand emerges through the suds of Nancy’s bath between her spread legs—as a standalone character, she does just that: stands alone. She’s smart and she’s bossy and she doesn’t take crap from anyone—be they parent, peer, or murderous dream demon.