A Nightmare on Elm Street
I was first introduced to Freddy Kruger at the age of five, like a creepy uncle. I spent my summer days being babysat by classic slashers, but Uncle Freddy and the Nightmare on Elm Street series always fascinated me the most. These scary stories appealed to me much in the same way as the classic fairytales did. This was most evident in the Disney movies I loved so much. There was always a villain, a heroin, and a lesson to be learned. These stories have been polished and presented to children in quite a pretty package, but many of our favorite fairytales are rooted in darkness.
Cinderella's step sisters cut off parts of their own feet to fit into the glass slipper. A king comes across Sleeping Beauty and rapes her while she's unconscious. He later burns his own wife alive so he can be with Beauty after she wakes. After making a deal with the Sea Witch, her beloved prince marries another and The Little Mermaid dissolves into sea foam.
Their content may be harsh, but old fairytales serve as a basic warning about the dangers of the world, and the consequences of our own bad choices.
The Stranger in Stripes
The Pied Piper is a lesser know tale, but most are somewhat familiar with it. If you can't quite remember, let me refresh your memory. A stranger comes to the village Hamelin offering to get rid of the town rats for a large fee. This stranger makes good on his word, luring hundreds of rats away from the town with his music. The town then refuses to pay him, and he wants revenge. He comes back later and leads their children away with the same magical music. The children are never seen again.*
In medieval times, rat catchers were often mis-trusted. Some were silver-tongued salesmen that used underhanded techniques and shady business practices to extort villages who feared the plague. Maybe the good people of Hamelin thought the Piper wouldn't make good on his promise. Maybe they expected him to take advantage of their fear. And maybe he did. But either way, they broke their promise, and so I guess you could say that the townspeople got what they deserved.
One of the earliest depictions of this tale was seen in a stained glass window in a Hamelin church in 1300. This window shows the stranger dressed in an elaborate suit decorated with red and green stripes. Sound familiar?
I'm not going to make the argument that Freddy Kruger was just a normal guy trying to make a living. He was child murderer (and possibly molester). Most of us feel that his fate was justified and don't give it another thought. But Freddy stood trial, was dismissed, and essentially did his part according to the law. The parents of the Elm Street children could not accept this reality, and decided to take matters into their own hands. Much like the Pied Piper, you might say Freddy wasn't quite paid what he was owed.
Revenge and Punishment
I wonder what fallout the villagers of Hamelin suffered after their children were taken? I wonder how they dealt with their guilt, and did they blame themselves for what happened? For that answer, maybe we need to look to the Elm Street parents.
Nancy's mother is hesitant to tell her the whole truth about Freddy Kruger and her own ugly part in it. She must feel some shame and possibly regret for what she did. When she finally decides to come clean, Nancy is visibly upset and somewhat confused. Her mother's justification sounds perfectly reasonable, but Nancy is having trouble understanding and accepting the horrific thing her mother did.
Marge Thompson: Come down to the cellar. You wanna know who Fred Krueger was? He was a filthy child murderer, who killed at least 20 kids in the neighborhood... kids we all knew. It drove us crazy when we didn't know who it was, but it was even worse after they caught him.
Nancy Thompson: Did they put him away?
Marge Thompson: Well, all the lawyers got fat and the Judge got famous, but someone forgot to sign the search warrant in the right place and Krueger was free just like that.
Nancy Thompson: What did you do?
The Elm Street parents got their revenge, but at what cost? They've eliminated the monster lurking among them, but something darker has taken it's place.
The guilt and trauma of what they did to another human being has caused personal damage in a variety of ways. Tina's mom is shacked up with some sleezy guy who apparently can't be bothered with Tina's night terrors. We don't know Rob's parents, but we can assume the situation isn't good due to Rob's attitude and actions. Nancy's dad is an overworked cop who doesn't have time for his daughter, and her mother is an possessive alcoholic.
The kid's first encounter with Freddy happens when Tina's mom has left her 15 year old daughter (who is obviously experiencing some kind of trauma) at home ALONE. It's her friends who offer comfort after her parents have neglected her. And at this time, when the children are the most vulnerable, Uncle Freddy comes to collect the debt.
One simple act of dark revenge has birthed something far worse than the original threat, and as they say...
It's time to pay the piper.
Banner Image | The Nightmare, Henry Fuseli
*The comparison between Freddy Kruger and The Pied Piper is briefly mentioned in the 2010 NOES remake. It struck a deep chord with me, and I've always wanted to explore it further. If the filmmakers would have, it might have saved the film. For a more detailed history of The Pied Piper, listen to Episode 24 of the Lore podcast. And then listen to all of the Lore podcast...because it's really good.