A Man and His Monster: The Stardom of Robert Englund and Freddy Krueger

The sound of scrapping metal knives along a drainage pipe. The hiss of steam pierces the audience’s ears. By the time the audience see the iconic red and green sweater, they know what will come next. Only one man can be responsible for this kind of fear. So begins the seminal slasher, A Nightmare on Elm Street. Even over 25 years after its initial release, the impact of Freddy Krueger is still felt by a number of people. Children still dress up as Krueger on Halloween and adults still have nightmares about him. There is no denying that the impact Freddy has had on slasher cinema and nature of nightmares is a long-lasting one. But who is to say that this type of fear belongs to Freddy alone? Certainly director Wes Craven deserves some credit for creating the character, but it was Robert Englund who tore the terrifying child murderer from the pages of the script and brought him to life with equal parts humor and menace. Still, the stardom exists as a shared one, belonging to both the character of Freddy Krueger as well as the actor behind the monster, Robert Englund. Since his first turn as Freddy back in 1984, Englund has appeared in countless horror films, effectively only existing within the confines of the horror genre. However, in order to understand how horror has helped cultivate Englund’s prolific stardom, it is crucial to understand those who have come before him that have failed to achieve the same reputation that Englund seems to relish so much.
Horror has always been a crucial part of establishing a pop cultural context. From as early as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which tackled the Victorians’ fearful attitude towards sexuality, to films such as Saw VI which provides an insightful look into the ongoing debate on insurance and healthcare reform. However, just because these texts speak to the issues of the time in which they were produced, does not mean that they were always understood as doing so. For the longest time, horror had a sort of elicit excitement around it. There has always been some sort of perverse thrill surrounding the origins of horror. These texts, especially as horror broke into the world of moving pictures, presented audiences with something tangible to fear. Still, there were historical factors, such as the Hayes Code, that kept the Universal Studios from becoming permanent figures in our pop culture consciousness (Dixon 2010). While these monsters, such as Dracula, Frankenstein, or the Wolfman, have their place in history, it is their positioning in history that kept the actors from achieving stardom as we know it today. These famous actors, such as Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi, gained notoriety for these roles and a certain degree of fame, but more often than not, they struggled to exist outside of the world of horror. More importantly, the world of horror was not established enough to be able to sustain these stars. The roles were often in low-budget films, much like the slashers of the 1980s. However, unlike the slashers of the 1980s, these cheaply made horror films had difficulty getting the word out. There were not nearly as many means of communication in that time period as there were at the height of the slasher craze, or even today. This is not to say that these older horror films did not get seen, but rather, they did not receive the same type of public attention or fan loyalty as horror does today. Through a number of factors, primarily historical, horror stardom has never really had the chance to flourish or nurture the celebrity stardom that we see in the likes of Kane Hodder, one of the few actors to portray Jason multiple times, or more noticeably Robert Englund, better known as Freddy Krueger.
While acknowledging some of the factors that prevented stardom in horror from being truly achieved in earlier years, it is important to understand the time period that produced such horror greats as Robert Englund. In order to better understand their place in cinematic history, one must look at the turbulent times that produced such slasher fare. However, in order to do that, we must first define “slasher” in no uncertain terms.
The slasher sub-genre, as a whole, has been problematic to historians since its inception. For starters, since the sub-genre is without a true definition, many scholars have had difficulty in pinpointing which film truly started the craze. While some claim that the film’s origins go back as far as Hitchock’s seminal 1960 masterpiece Psycho while others credit the British film of the same year, Peeping Tom. However, in regards to the slasher craze that set off the film cycle that characterized America’s bloodlust in the 70s, 80s, up until today, it seems necessary to stick to the films that adhere to the masked/disfigured killer and high body count conventions that audiences have come to know so well (Rockoff 2002). When considering this, there are two frontrunners for the “first” slasher film: Bob Clark’s 1974 Canadian film Black Christmas and John Carpenter’s 1978 film Halloween. Once again, for the sake of definition and to reflect my own personal area of interest/expertise, we will refer to Halloween as the first slasher film, considering its place in American history and its influence on the classic slashers that came soon after it. To reiterate, for the focus of this particular paper, the slasher has been defined as “an American-made low-budget film centering around a masked and/or disfigured killer who kills off a number of teens over the course of the movie.”
Even when using this definition, it is difficult to say what exactly gave birth to the sub-genre. Still, perhaps more important than its actual creation is its reception. By the time Halloween burst onto the scene in 1978, America welcomed its faceless killer. By the time 1984 rolled around and Freddy Krueger burst onto the scene, film scholars and movie critics had begun to problematize the increasingly popular sub-genre. Critics, such as the famed Roger Ebert, had openly come out against these types of films, which he claimed showed alarming hostility towards its female characters. Slasher classics that came before Nightmare, such as the 1980 film Friday the 13th, did little to increase the sub-genre’s legitimacy in the eyes of studio heads and film theorists. In fact, the film’s director, horror legend Wes Craven, had first had the idea for the film back in 1981, but it had taken him until 1984 to get a studio to take the film seriously. Even more disconcerting was the studio that took it upon themselves to make the film, New Line Cinema, had never produced original content before. At this point in time, they were largely a distributor of predominantly independent pictures. Even though the film went on to become a great success, it is difficult to escape the general attitude towards the sub-genre. While film critics were writing it off as low-class entertainment or formulaic, contemporary film theorists of the time, such as Barbara Creed, were declaring the sub-genre anti-feminist and calling for its death.
However, the question of what this means for the cast remains. Most notably Robert Englund who has made a name for himself off of these movies. How does one reconcile the critical outcry against these films with the audience’s cry for more? It is at times like these where stardom seems at odds with itself, when the critical and the commercial are pitted against one another. Considering that film is a capitalistic venture, the success of the original, as well as its success as a franchise., suggests Englund’s staying power as a star. Nevertheless, it took a great deal of time to convince the studios of the economic legitimacy of these ventures. Therefore, Robert Englund became a star in his own right, with the introduction of Freddy Krueger in 1984, but even then, the controversy of the sub-genre kept him from achieving stardom outside of these low budget productions or even the realm of horror.
Still, there is yet another factor that tied Robert Englund to the success of the franchise and the immortalization of Freddy Krueger. Once again, in order to better understand the character and the man behind the character, it is important to know the other characters and actors he was up against. For the sake of simplification, this piece will refer to the competitors of A Nightmare on Elm Street as Halloween’s Michael Myers and Friday the 13th’s Jason Voorhees, considering these were the major franchises that surfaced around the same time as Nightmare’s Freddy Krueger. Although these villains are certainly successful in their own right, there are a few crucial distinctions between them and Robert Englund’s performance that allowed for Englund to stand out as a prominent force.
Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, is the establishment of the villain himself in each of these series. When Michael Myers kills his sister in the beginning of the first Halloween film, he is dressed up in his Halloween costume. From there on out, Michael Myers is filmed only in costume. Jason Voorhees is disfigured and wears a number of items, such as the burlap sack or the iconic hockey mask, in order to hide his face. Of all these villains, Freddy Krueger is the only one whose face is seen. This allows the audience to physically identify with the actor as well as the character. For the other two franchises, there are iconic masks that force the audience to identify with the villain rather than the actor portraying the villain. It is Robert Englund’s differentiation from the other two that has allowed him to succeed to the degree that he has within the world of horror films and TV shows.
The second element that has secured Englund as a staple of horror cinema is one of the other things that makes him remarkably different from Michael or Jason. While those other two using their ominous and overbearing figures to strike fear into audiences, Freddy uses a very different tactic. Most people who have seen any of the Nightmare on Elm Street films may comment on his kill scenes. While Michael and Jason have their own musical motifs to warn audiences that they are coming, Freddy uses his actual voice to do so. He toys with his victims, frequently making jokes at the expense of his prey. While this certainly adds another element to the films and even the character, it once again establishes a connection between the actor/character and the audience that the other villains are sorely lacking. These types of small changes to allow the actor to become a tangible presence for the audience to connect with, creates a very different experience than most slashers, but also created an opportunity for Robert Englund to establish himself in the film world, more specifically the horror fan community.
Then again, these two factors have just as much to do with the character as they do with the actor. Traditionally, the role of the killer is played by a stuntman, but Englund bridged that gap. He is one of the few professionally trained actors to portray a horror legend. Perhaps it is his training as an actor that allowed Craven and subsequent directors to cast him in roles that required humor, menace, and wit. It is difficult to say, but it seems that his experience as an actor would be a contributing factor to his longevity in the world of horror. However, there is another element at work here that guaranteed Englund at least a modicum of fame. By establishing that physical and verbal bond with the audience, he virtually guaranteed his continuation in the series. Regardless of how many A Nightmare on Elm Street movies, audiences have come to expect Englund in the role of Krueger. In fact, besides the recent reboot, in which Jackie Earle Haley took over the role, Robert Englund has played the role in every one of the films, including the 2003 crossover Freddy Vs. Jason. So, by establishing himself as a physical presence that is essential to the villainy of Freddy Krueger, Englund assured himself a career that has spanned three decades and endeared him to a number of horror fans.
Furthermore, once again returning to the time period that saw the emergence of the Elm Street films, it is important to not forget that these types of films, while commercially successful, were by and large critically reviled (Nowell 2010). Englund, by putting his face out there, created quite a stir. While stuntmen like Kane Hodder, who played Jason, and Don Shanks, who played Michael, had the safety of their masks to hide behind, Englund had allowed himself to become a recognizable presence to viewers and opponents of the sub-genre. Also, the stuntmen that populated these other franchises work, by and large, behind the scenes. Englund’s profession as a professionally trained actor, someone whose work was typically in front of the camera, is crucial to this reception. He had much more at stake by taking the iconic role of child murderer Freddy Krueger than most of the other stuntmen/actors that the Halloween and Friday the 13th franchises utilized.
However, surprisingly enough, the level of Englund’s exposure had quite the opposite effect. While it certainly could have been career suicide, since his original performance as Freddy Krueger back in 1984, Englund has appeared in over 40 horror projects. While this has certainly led to a lucrative career, the timing of his choice to play Freddy Krueger saw Englund typecast into those sorts of roles since then. While typecast typically has a negative connotation, in interviews Englund has repeatedly expressed great pleasure at being given the opportunity to play Freddy and/or other villainous roles. While, on a personal level, he claims that he relishes the opportunity to depart from the “good guy” role that he plays in his day to day life, it is equally important to understand what this has done for his career and his reputation as a horror icon. (Englund 2009).
By allowing himself to become such a prominent figure in the 1980s slasher scene and continuing with the franchise, while other actors came and went, Englund cultivated a sort of celebrity around the character of Freddy, which bled into his career outside of the franchise as well. In regards to his success as Krueger, Englund’s decision to reprise the role for each of the films in the series (aside from the recent reboot) alone constitutes a good portion of his career. In the franchise, including 2003 crossover Freddy Vs. Jason, Robert Englund has been in eight Nightmare movies.
Once again, the recognizability of Krueger’s physicality, despite all the make-up, has played a crucial part in his reception outside of the popular horror franchise. Returning to the idea of typecasting as well as Englund’s appearance and Freddy’s appearance being one and the same seemed to make it difficult for audiences to divorce the two. While this was certainly a positive in the world of horror films, it could also be seen as a limiting factor. Englund’s recognizability as Freddy has prevented him from doing too much work outside of the horror genre. There are some obvious exceptions to this, but the majority of his work has been in either horror or voice acting, where his recognizable physical appearance is no longer a factor. The combination of the film’s timing, its iconic status, and Englund’s noticeable physicality are all contributing factors that led to his being typecast in horror films as a villain. While most of these films have not received the same sort of cult status as A Nightmare on Elm Street, the very fact that he has been able to build a name for himself so that some modicum of attention is paid to a straight-to-video release movie proves that Englund’s reputation and success in the role of Freddy has helped to cultivate a career for himself. This is not to downplay Englund’s talent as an actor or his ventures outside the world of horror, but it is undeniable that those other roles outside of horror films are not what most horror fans typically associate with Englund.
However, as previously mentioned, Robert Englund has had difficulty leaving the role of Freddy behind. Then again, why shouldn’t he? Freddy’s financial worth alone is legendary. After all, New Line Cinema is frequently referred to as “The House that Freddy Built” because of the film’s success. Robert Englund’s obvious association with the character Freddy Krueger has remained and still remains, arguably, one of the most crucial aspects of Englund’s stardom. However, the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise did not survive this long on its merits alone.
The producers and the executives soon began to realize Freddy Krueger’s popularity had the very distinct potential to move beyond the film world. Certainly it was still in their best interest to keep producing these cheaply made movies which produced big box office returns, but that was not nearly enough. They soon began to seek out other outlets in which they could get their product exposed. This led to the merchandising of Freddy Krueger in such a profound way that continues until this day.
One of the most obvious attempts was undertaken in 1988, when Freddy, and subsequently Robert Englund, leapt off the big screen and invaded homes everywhere with his TV show, Freddy’s Nightmares (Schoell and Spencer, 1992). The show only ran for two seasons, but in that time, Krueger and Englund were introduced to a mainstream public that they might not otherwise had the opportunity. A Nightmare on Elm Street’s R rating limited its audience to those who were 17 or older, unless accompanied by an adult. However, by introducing the character on a television show, although the content was watered down, it got more viewers to notice the notorious villain considering there was no real rating system in place for television at the time. Once again, by increasing the exposure of the character Freddy Krueger, the films not only got more attention, but actor Robert Englund did as well.
However, not all efforts to maximize the visibility involved Englund’s participation. There have been a number of capitalistic ventures in branding the Freddy Krueger image that have not involved Robert Englund himself, although obviously a likeness was utilized in many instances. In fact, some of the multimedia efforts to pre-package the man of many nightmares pre-date his TV show. Since 1987, Freddy Krueger has appeared in novelizations of several films, but it wasn’t until 1989 that he made his way into comic books. Since then, he has taken form in several different lines of toys as well. While all of these different practices could easily be written off as the actions of a money-hungry studio, they do have their place in the stardom of both Freddy and Robert Englund. Through the constant exposure and the palpable pop culture presence, in addition to Englund’s acting in other horror films, the visibility of both the character and the actor helped to maintain a certain visibility, which seems crucial to even a basic understanding of stardom.
Nevertheless, one of the longest running pieces of Englund’s stardom, which may have originated from his performance in A Nightmare on Elm Street, but certainly did not end there is the convention circuit. Much like Comic-Con or any science fiction conventions, there are conventions for horror fans as well. Although they may not be publicized very well or as well known as Comic-Con, there is certainly a devoted following that attends these events. In addition to the fans though, these types of gatherings are particularly well known for the celebrity appearances and signings that they attract. Given Englund’s alarmingly prolific filmography, his appearance at these types of events is surprisingly common for someone who is still so active in the industry. In 2011 alone, Englund is slated to make appearances at four separate conventions. While the monetary incentive, such as appearance fees and/or charging for autographs, is undeniable, there is also a utilitarian function to these conventions for the star. It may sound over-simplified, but fan gatherings simply re-assert the actor or actress’s relevance to the genre. It is a very basic, if not glorified, reminder to the audience that the star bore some importance to the genre and/or reminds the audience that he/she, as in the case of Robert Englund, is still active within the genre (Wyatt 2005). Even if he has hung up the finger knives for good, he has continued to make a number of other horror films, even if they may be less notable. Regardless, his dedication to the genre is worth noting and while these convention appearances may appear to be vanity projects, they simply remind fans of the significance of a certain actor, in this case Robert Englund. Truth be told, there are plenty of actors who make their livings off of these convention appearances so Englund’s continuing work in horror as well as his scheduled signings are a true testament to the horror icon as well as the actor.
The fact of the matter is, the stardom of both the character, Freddy Krueger, and the actor, Robert Englund, are inextricably intertwined. While Englund brought the character to life, there are elements about Krueger’s character that contributed to the memorable nature of Englund’s performance. In the end, the stardom of the fictional and the real are dependent on another. Englund’s influence on the character, essentially creating him for the audience, is obvious, but the differentiation between Freddy and the other slashers of the time period is important to note. The fact that Freddy spoke and didn’t wear a mask allowed Englund to establish himself as both the character of Freddy in addition to his ability to assert himself as a physically recognizable presence as an actor. This co-dependent relationship between these two opposing selves is one of the things that has allowed Robert Englund to be as successful as he has been and to remain a star in his own right.
In the end, Robert Englund’s rise to fame in 1984 and his continued success is a product of a number of contextual pieces. It is important to note that he is by no means the first star in horror, but he remains a remarkable example of the influence that the genre has gained over the years. After all, Freddy and Englund’s subsequent career are undeniably products of the time. For instance, the controversy surrounding the slasher at the time of Nightmare’s release back in 1984 ended up limiting him greatly since his participation in the sub-genre was considered somewhat taboo. However, rather than forcing a limitation on the man, it allowed Englund to cultivate his own brand of stardom within the world of horror. Furthermore, outside of the elements of the story world that helped to cement Englund as a formidable villain, there were other factors at work that fueled Freddy’s notoriety and Englund’s rise to stardom. While the merchandising of the villain, which effectively immortalized the man behind the character, is necessary to note, there were steps that Englund himself took to remain in the horror spotlight. Considering the man was effectively typecast since 1984, his continued appearance in horror movies was virtually guaranteed, but it also did wonders for his celebrity. On a level outside the film world, Robert Englund’s appearance at fan conventions also re-asserts his status, remaining in the eyesight of the adoring fan community even years after he last donned the finger-knives that made him famous.

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