Drive-in movie theaters were not completely extinct by 1984, but they were scarce. Like any cliché 80s family unit, mine would occasionally pile in our station wagon and drive an hour from our home in Chicago to watch newly released movies on the big screen from our backseat. The original A Nightmare on Elm Street was released on my second birthday, and according to my mom it was the second movie in a double feature that we went to see in November of that year. The first, of course, was a family film, so after it had ended, most of the cars, ours included, began lining up at the exit while the second movie started. The way my mom tells it, the line of cars waiting to exit creeped forward until the scene where Freddy Krueger drags Nancy’s friend Tina up to the ceiling of her bedroom, then cars began to peel away and drive back to spaces to watch the rest of the movie. Again, ours included.
I was only two and remember very little from that night, but I did end up falling in love with the series, and my family rented each new entry as it came out on VHS. I had an odd relationship with Freddy Kruger, though. Half of me loved watching him on screen. He was frightening in a way that other horror villains were not, and of course as a kid I appreciated his quickness with a joke. But I was also genuinely terrified of him. I’d watched other horror movies as a kid, but killers like Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers had specific domains that they stuck to, or particular people they went after. Why would they come all the way to Chicago to kill a little kid? But Freddy could infiltrate dreams, and he was originally a child killer, meaning I would have been a prime target. So of course I had many, many nightmares about him, some of which I can still remember clearly today.
I was seven when A Nightmare on Elm Street was released for the NES in October of 1990, but I might have been eight by the time I rented it from Blockbuster. The game was developed by, of all companies, Rare. Yes, Donkey Kong Country, GoldenEye 007, Banjo-Kazooie – that Rare. It’s not a direct adaptation of any of the movies, but I didn’t know that when I rented it. I was just excited to play a game that might give me the experience of running from or fighting or maybe even playing as Freddy Krueger. Excited and, well, nervous.
The first time I sat down to play, it was a pretty standard action-platforming experience. I died several times trying to get the hang of the controls, started learning how the different enemies tried to kill me, that kind of thing. Your character is awake when you start the game, and it’s not until you fall asleep, when your sleep meter runs out, that you have the chance to run into Freddy. So it was a while before I fell asleep in the game, but when I heard the 8-bit version of “One, Two, Freddy’s Coming for You,” I can’t deny that I was scared. I frantically rushed through the level, trying to find one of the boomboxes that would wake me up. It was too late. A screen flashed “FREDDY’S COMING!” In a moment of panic, I jammed the NES’s power button.
That night, as I lay in bed, I wondered how possible it was for Freddy to sense me through the game and use it to haunt my dreams. It seemed like just the thing he might do. Would I dream about him that night? Is this how I was going to die? But that was dumb. Freddy wasn’t real – probably. And if he was, why would he come after me? It was just a video game. A video game that many other people had probably played and I hadn’t heard of anyone being killed by it. They wouldn’t rent it out at Blockbuster if that had happened, right? Right? At some point, I fell asleep.
The next afternoon, the house was quiet and mostly empty. I thought about the previous night and felt a little silly for being afraid of a game. The light of day filled me with a certain kind of hesitant courage. I should try the game again. I only had it for one more day and I knew I’d regret it if we returned it and I hadn’t even seen Freddy Krueger in it. The NES was hooked up to a small TV upstairs, in a tiny room with a sloped ceiling and a single window that looked out over our back roof. I walked upstairs and looked at the NES. A series of brief and irrational thoughts came to mind: I saw Freddy laughing and sitting on our roof, waiting for me to start the game. I saw the “FREDDY’S COMING!” screen flashing. I saw Freddy bursting through the window like he jumped through Nancy’s door mirror in the first movie and chasing me down the stairs. But that was so stupid! I was stupid! It was a game! I was good at games. I could beat him in this game. I turned the NES on and the creepy opening music started. The title screen faded in and Freddy grinned menacingly at me.
I stared at him.
He stared at me.
I stared at him.
I turned the power off and ran downstairs.