Stranger Things’ Debt to A Nightmare on Elm Street Runs Even Deeper Than You Think

It’s bigger than Vecna.

Jamie Campbell Bower in Stranger Things.

Jamie Campbell Bower in Stranger Things.Courtesy of Netflix

Stranger Things‘ fourth season hasn’t been shy about paying homage to Wes Craven’s seminal 1984 horror movie A Nightmare on Elm Street and its many sequels. Vecna, the season’s primary antagonist, heavily resembles—in appearance and method—Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), the badly burned villain of the Elm Street films, who preyed on vulnerable teens by invading their dreams and exploiting, like Vecna, their insecurities and deepest fears.. The show even cast Englund in a key role as Victor Creel, Vecna’s original victim. (Considering the stunt casting, that should’ve tipped us off to the big twist that Creel’s son Henry actually grew up to become Vecna.) Even the Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein score makes nods to the music of the Nightmare series via some eerie, minor key chords, particularly in Vecna’s first appearances, when he barges into some Hawkins kids’ deepest fears like Freddy slipping into his victims’ dreams.

The connection between Hawkins, Indiana and Springwood, the setting for the Elm Street films, has never been more overt than in Stranger Things 4. But Elm Street has been a part of Stranger Things’ DNA from the start. Sure, the kids on bikes and wondrous and horrible things descending on a small American town owe a lot to the Steven Spielberg corner of ’80s pop culture, but the idea that there’s something fundamentally evil beneath the surface of Hawkins’ suburbia? That owes as much to Craven as Poltergeist.

Admittedly, the basic set-up of Stranger Things does owe quite a bit to Poltergeist, a film set in a subdivision greedily built atop a cemetery whose residents had secretly remained in place. 1982’s Poltergeist (directed by Tobe Hooper, and co-written and produced by Spielberg) was set in a subdivision greedily built atop a cemetery, suggesting that the Reagan ’80s’ idealization of prosperous, rolling suburbs would exact a cost. But A Nightmare on Elm Street and its best sequels went further, creating a boogeyman that only a picture-perfect small town could produce.

Hawkins could be the sister city to Springwood. It was only in later sequels that Elm Street films specified that they were set in Ohio: In the early movies, Springwood could be Anytown, USA, a la The Simpsons’ Springfield. And it would be just another pleasant suburb, if not for its dark history, and the dream-crashing, spectral child murderer produced by that history.

As Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) learns midway through the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, the Freddy Krueger who terrorizes her dreams is the spirit of a serial killer who preyed on Springwood’s children before she was born. Released on a technicality, Krueger was then burned to death by the town’s parents (including her own) in an act of vigilante justice. In Springwood, the repressed past returns to exact vengeance on the present, a cycle of violence and revenge playing across several generations. Things never go that deep or dark in Stranger Things’ Hawkins: The show found a just-scary-enough zone perfectly suited for a bunch of likable characters to hang out and (repeatedly) save the world. But it does keep suggesting that there might be something wrong with Hawkins itself. Its mayor is corrupt. Its press is lazy. And its chief of police is a negligent drunk. (That last problem, at least, gets better as the seasons progress.)

The Duffer Brothers have also used the series to debunk the ‘1980s myth of the idyllic middle American town in which prosperity flows evenly to all, an image happily promoted by the politicians and pop culture of the time. In Hawkins, the Byers live in a much more humble home than the Wheelers. The trailer park where Max and her mother end up in season four is humbler still. And as much as the show’s third season celebrates the heyday of the American mall, it doesn’t ignore the effect malls had on the downtowns of places like Hawkins, hollowing them out as mom and pop businesses folded.

These gentle, if insistent, correctives to the idealization of small towns are informed by Springwood just as surely as Vecna’s informed by Freddy. Tina (Amanda Wyss), the first to fall victim to Freddy in A Nightmare on Elm Street, has a dad who’s disappeared and a mother who may as well have. Her boyfriend, Rod (Nick Corri), has a history dealing drugs (and for some reason styles himself like a 1950s greaser). Nancy’s mother Marge is rarely seen without a bottle in her hand. When Freddy starts making the rounds, they all respond by ignoring and denying the problem, because that strategy has worked so far. When Marge finally accepts some danger is looming, her ultimate solution is to tear down the rose trellis outside her home and replace it with bars, a doomed attempt to shut out the outside world when the real problem is within her own walls.

Stranger Things owes its deepest Elm Street debt to the series’ third entry, 1987’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. Directed by Chuck Russell and written by Russell, Craven, Frank Darabont, and Bruce Wagner, it pits a misfit band of psychiatric hospital residents, all descendants of Krueger’s murderers, along with a returning Nancy, against a resurgent Freddy. While the original Elm Street survivor and the patients seem fatally outmatched by Freddy, he will learn he’s underestimated their resilience—much as Vecna is felled by a group of bike-riding kids. The Stranger Things’ underdog high schoolers have more in common with the Dream Warriors than the young heroes in E.T. and The Goonies: With all respect to the FBI and the Fratellis, neither was as dangerous or purely evil a threat as the creatures of the Upside Down. (And as a more on-the-nose note of comparison, there’s the fact that both projects have a plucky teenaged girl named Nancy who goes from naive damsel to confronting the bad guy head on.)

Stranger Things has been (at least up until this penultimate season) more reluctant to kill off its core characters than the Nightmare films. But if the Hawkins kids suffer less dire casualties than the Dream Warriors, they’re still repeatedly put in dangerous situations for which, like Elm Street heroes throughout the series, they find little in the way of adult help.

And that, more than Vecna’s Krueger-like approach to terrorizing Hawkins, is the Elm Street films’ deepest influence on Stranger Things. These are kids living in a world their parents built for them then largely left them to navigate alone, dangers and all. The Hopkins kids find allies in Joyce and Hopper, but even they tend to get lost in the Upside Down or get abducted by Russians or possessed by the Mind Flayer or otherwise taken out of the picture. In the end, if the world is going to be saved from the Upside Down, it’s going to be up to them. In Hopkins as in Springwood, the kids are not all right. But they’re not going to give up without a fight, either.

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