Which leads us to...
The Bogeyman of Your Nightmares: Freddy Krueger’s Folkloric Roots
Some ideas have become so universal, that we no longer stop to think about their origins. The dark man hiding in the shadows, the bogeyman under the bed, the nebulous threat in the night that punished bad children- these are all concepts we’re familiar with. Perhaps we associate it in a vague sense with the fairy tales we read as a child. Later, we may associate it with the horror films we watch as teenagers. Most of us probably do not stop to think about the origin of these ideas or the significance of these origins.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term bogy/bogey from which bogeyman is derived, has only recently been found in literature- 1840 Witches Frolic in Ingoldsby Legends. There is some anecdotal evidence that reference to bogy can be found “in the nursery” and is related to the terms bog, bogle, and bug, all words with connotations of terror. A Dictionary of English Folklore defines a bogey or bogeyman as “any figure deliberately used to frighten others, almost always children, to control their behavior” (28). They are also creatures whose nature is not defined, where shapechanging is a “standard feature”, and sometimes replace the Devil in agreement or deal stories (29).
In Germanic folktales and fairy tales, the bogeyman has been identified with many names and titles such as bögge, Der schwarze Mann (the black man), or Krampus (the sidekick of St. Nicholas who stuffs bad children into a sack and carries them off for punishment) and his presence is tied to the disappearance of children, or child abuse or punishment. He is the dark man that lurks under the bed, or in dark places, to steal or punish children. He is also used to frighten children, or serve as an example for acceptable, and unacceptable, behavior.
While much has been written about modern day horror films, and the Final Girl, or the significance of what horror films represent for an age or generation, the origin of modern day horror film bogeymen and their fairy tale/folkloric roots has not been explored. This paper will specifically examine Freddy Krueger from Nightmare on Elm Street and explore the significance of his fairy tale/folkloric roots and his role as a modern day bogeyman.
While bogeymen may appear across different cultures and genres, Warner in No Go the Bogeyman: Scaring, Lulling, and Making Mock, sheargues that there are common traits to be found in bogeymen across the globe. Bogeys can become anything, they are usually defined more for all the ways they change their shape than for any one shape (Warner 11). They are often cannibals, or exhibit cannibalistic tendencies (Warner 12-13). There is a connection between bogeymen and the ogres and giants of Greek mythology, specifically a connection to fire and earth and their “frightening past”s (Warner 95, 96). Warner also states that as survival rates in children role, the bogeyman transformed into a child molester (38). There is a connection between lullabies and the bogeyman- they served as a warning of the dangers of the bogeyman (Warner 228) Bogeys seen today are often portrayed as child-snatchers, child-killers, sexual violators of the young (Warner 285).
The line between bogeymen and devils is blurred in German folklore with them often appearing interchangeable. The folk tradition, “contrary to the literary conception...[had] a more visual and concrete idea of the devil” (Rohrich 23). Rohrich states that “whenever people saw or felt anything sinful, the devil was considered to be present” (24). If someone danced, or cursed, or committed any other sin, it was common practice for people to be warned that the devil will get you. The trickster devil, that often appears in folktales is both an embodiment of the Biblical devil seen in “medieval theology” and the figure seen “historically and culturally” (Rohrich 27). The bogeyman functioned in the same way for children, as these devils did for adults, so it’s important to look at other similarities between them.Devils were often betrayed by trickery by a human, sometimes characterized as a partner, or seen in league with the devil (Rohrich 30). These devil characters were associated with other pagan demons, and giants. One of the most common storylines is that of the devil’s pact: In Grimm’s tales, there is also the instance of Zeungungsweihe- when a child (deliberately, or undeliberately) is assigned to a devil (Grimm No. 31, 92, Rumplestiltskin).Why Freddy Krueger is a Bogeyman and Others Aren’t
Rohrich states that “devil legends and devil tales are now undoubtedly only historical material- they no longer belong to current folklore” (22). I would argue that these tales of bogeymen have moved from literary folklore, to modern day’s version of word of mouth- film and popular culture. This new folklore is generational, with tales being passed down and retold for a new generation, and word of mouth has become the intertextuality of popular culture. The major horror franchises- Halloween, Friday the 13th, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Nightmare on Elm Street are all stories that have been passed down, in the continuing of franchises, and retold by and for a new generation in the recent remakes and reboots of these movies. The characters of Mike Meyers, Jason Voorhies, Leatherface, and Freddy Krueger have many of the characteristics of folk characters, and are recognizable across cultures and classes.
While many horror movie villains appear to have some supernatural qualities such as speed, invincibility, there are nevertheless firmly grounded in reality. Freddy Krueger on the other hand exists only in the dream world. This “living nightmare” aspect, that comes to life to punish bad children/people is what reveals Krueger’s folkloric roots as a bogeyman.
In order to distinguish Krueger as a bogeyman it is first important to differentiate him from other horror movie villains. Mike Meyers kills his older sister who has just had sex at the beginning of the movie, and then returns fifteen years later to kill Annie, Lynda, Lynda’s boyfriend Bob. Mike Meyers is not motivated by anything, but functions as a sociopath, a mass murderer. While Mike Meyers is specifically called “the bogeyman” within the movie, he displays no characteristics of this folkloric character, and under the reality of the movie, it is stated that he only appears on Halloween, and no other description of him as Bogeyman is given. While later in the franchise his name is used to frighten children in Haddenfield, and appears to have entered that town’s folklore, at most he has become part of folk culture, and bears no resemblance to the bogeyman.
On the surface, Jason Voorhies seems to be supernatural in nature and a good candidate for bogeyman. However, like Mike Meyers, he only functions as part of Camp Crystal Lake’s folklore, and never displays the characteristics of a bogeyman. Jason Voorhies is motivated by revenge. It is revealed at the beginning of Friday the 13th Part 2 that Jason Voorhies is “still out there” and the movie picks up two months after Mrs. Voorhees killing spree at Camp Crystal Lake and begins with the murder of Alice Hardy. The movie then jumps ahead five years and finds a camp opening just down the road from Camp Crystal Lake. The young counselors are systematically murdered as punishment for their immoral behavior(drinking, getting high, having sex). While Jason’s murder of Alice is based on revenge, the rest of the killings of the counselors fall into the classic trope of horror movie as morality play. While later in both franchises, Mike Myers and Jason Voorhies both appear to have some supernatural abilities, it is hard to know whether these are a function of keeping the franchise alive, and what is character development. Steve Miner, the director of Friday the 13th, Part 2, has explained away Jason’s apparently supernatural appearance in Part 2 as “In my film, Jason looks much different,” Miner states, “but that could be because he’s five years older now. Yet he’s not the living dead, as some rumors have speculated. I think that Jason survived his drowning. That’s how I approached it, but that doesn’t mean that Alice saw the real Jason” (Burns). Whichever explanation you choose to accept, while both Michael and Jason demonstrate some supernatural abilities, they themselves remain firmly grounded in reality. They handle real weapons, murder their victims with their own hands, and these murders appear in full view of the audience.Freddy Krueger as Bogeyman
Freddy Krueger is specifically named as a bogeyman in Craven’s original Nightmare on Elm Street. After the opening scene, as Tina discusses her dreams with Glen and Nancy, Nancy says “sounds like a real bogeyman” and then goes on to quote the first line of the lullaby, “One, Two Freddy’s coming for you...”. Later, Nancy asks Glen “Do you believe in the bogeyman?”. And finally, Glen’s response to Nancy’s plan to catch Freddy, and his role in it is “great, I get to baseball bat the bogeyman”. While Nightmare 2010 does not specifically name Krueger as a bogeyman, as with the original, he fits the characterization. Both imagings of Kruegers are portrayed violators of the young, both punish the parents of the town through their children and both exist in the strictly supernatural world of the dreamscape.
Warner states that bogeys can become anything, they are usually defined more for all the ways they change their shape than for any one shape (11). This can be seen in the original Nightmare and Nightmare 2010, when the outline of Freddy Krueger’s head and face push out of the wall over Nancy as she dozes. It is seen again in the original when Krueger stretches out his puppet like arms after Tina, when Tina pulls his face off, when Krueger appears as the hall monitor, and finally, when Nancy’s phone morphs into Krueger’s tongue and mouth. The original emphasizes this shapeshifting more than the remake does.
Warner states that as survival rates in children role, the bogeyman transformed into a child molester (38) and that Bogeys seen today are often portrayed as child-snatchers, child-killers, and sexual violators of the young (285). In Craven’s Nightmare, Krueger is only described as a child killer- twenty children are killed, and the parents tracked him to the boiler room and set fire to it as justice . In an interview, Robert Englund states that:
“Wes wrote the most evil, corrupt thing he could think of. Originally, that meant Freddy was a child molester. Right while we were shooting the first Nightmare, there was a huge scandal based around an area of single parent yuppies in California known as South Bay. Child molesters had descended on this unsupervised flotsam of seventies leftover Me-generation American children. On the spot we changed the script from child molester to child murderer; mainly so Wes wouldn’t be accused of exploiting the South Bay case” (Robb).
Nightmare 2010 takes the idea of Freddy Krueger as child molester and makes it the entire center of the movie. This is clear from the opening credits, with the focus on children playing games such as hop-scotch and jumping rope on school grounds, the childlike handwriting used for the credits, and children’s drawings interspersed amongst the credits. This emphasis continues throughout the movie. Knowledge of Krueger is tied to the children, Badham Pre-School, and what really occurred there. Dean mentions this in the opening scene, when he says his problems began when he and his therapist began exploring his past, and that was when the nightmares began, when he started to remember. Freddy also emphasizes that the children remembering is crucial. He says to Kris “Remember me?” and to Nancy “You don’t remember? You must” and “Your memories are what fuels me.” Nancy’s mom states that she kept all of this from her because “I wanted you to forget”. Quentin later states that Krueger manipulated them into returning to the pre-school so that they would remember. This focus on memory not only ties to the oral nature of folklore, but the function of the bogeyman- to serve as a lesson to others, which can only occur if people remember the story. It also circles back to the fact that Krueger’s purpose is not just to punish his victims, as Meyers and Voorhies do, but to torture them. Both incarnations of Krueger are the violators of children that Warner describes, although how they violate children is different in each version.
While the original Nightmare avoids the concept of Krueger as child molester, and only states that he is a child killer, there is a sexual connection made between Krueger and Nancy reinforcing the image of bogeyman as violator of the young. Once Glen is killed, and Nancy’s unplugged phone rings, it’s Krueger on the other end who states “I’m your boyfriend now”. Haley’s Krueger repeats this exact line in Nightmare 2010 but his portrayal is much more sexual. In Nightmare 2010 when Nancy says “Fuck you” his reply is “Oh- that sounds like fun” and later when Nancy is trying to escape through a hallway that has become a swamp of blood, he taunts “How’s this for a wet dream?”. Perhaps nowhere though, is the sex more explicit than at the end, when Nancy has purposely fallen asleep in order to try and bring Krueger back into the real world. Nancy is dropped onto a bed, recalling both Tina and Glen’s deaths in the original, as well as Kris’ in this version. This scene is not just sexual, but is sexual towards the younger version of Nancy, the pre-school age Nancy. While it is the adult aged Nancy that is shown, she is dressed in the white dress and patent leather shoes seen in the flashbacks of her younger self. Krueger tells her that this dress was always his favorite, and he makes references to “playing” like they used to. He suggestively runs his claw glove up up her thigh- it is the child imagery that makes this a more disturbing scene than the claw glove appearing between Nancy’s legs in the bath tub scenes in both versions. Haley’s performance, particularly in this bed scene reinforces the image of bogeyman as child molester.
The twist in Nightmare 2010 is not that Freddy Krueger is portrayed as a child molester, but that the plot plays with whether Freddy was ever guilty at all. Flashback scenes show him as a kindly gardener who worked at Badham Pre-School, playing what appear to be harmless games with the kids, who are laughing as they play. As Nancy’s mother Gwen states “He got along so well with the children” and “And you all loved to play games with him.” When Quentin is pulled from the pool into the dreamscape, Freddy does not come after him, but instead shows him the time of his death. The parents are shown as an angry mob, and Krueger as played by Haley shows a terrified man who cries and proclaims his innocence over and over- “I didn’t do anything”. The parents don’t just kill him, they burn him alive, a scene described, but never shown in the original. When Quentin confronts his father, it appears as though he believes what he has seen, despite that the one rule with Krueger is that you can never believe what you see in the dreamscape. He questions his father about Krueger, asking him “How did you know he was guilty?” and the conversation quickly disintegrates as Quentin accuses him, stating “You killed an innocent man”. However, as the movie later shows, all of this was simply a manipulation to get Nancy back to the school, where she would eventually find not only her paintings in the “cave” Krueger used to bring her, but also, what the audience assumes, are incredibly graphic Polaroids that prove to all be of Nancy. It was all a manipulation to get them to remember. This emphasizes the concept of the bogeyman as a torturer of children. Krueger’s manipulation of the children is his form of mental torture that makes the truth of what Krueger and what he did even more traumatic.
There is also a connection between lullabies and the bogeyman as they served as a warning of the dangers of the bogeyman (Warner 228). The lullaby first appears in Craven’s Nightmare in the opening dream, three girls in white dresses jump rope to it “One, two, Freddy’s coming for you. Three, Four Better lock your door. Five, Six Grab your crucifix. Seven, Eight Better stay up late. Nine, Ten Never sleep again”. Later, Nancy sings snatches of it in the bath tub. The image of the three girls jumping rope to the lullaby also closes the movie. Nightmare 2010 also features the image of three girls in white jumping rope, but here, they are placed on the property of Badham Pre-School, so the implication is that these were actual children Freddy knew. Nancy also mentions the lullaby to Jesse later in the film. The lullaby here serves the same purpose as in folklore, it is meant as a warning about the bogeyman and reinforces the oral nature of folklore.
Connections can also be made between bogeymen and the devil’s pact seen in German fairy tales and folklore. As Rohrich states, in Grimm’s tales, there is the example of Zeungungsweihe- when a child (deliberately, or undeliberately) is assigned to a devil such as in Grimm No. 31 where a miller inadvertently gives his daughter to the devil in exchange for wealth, No. 92 where a merchant makes a deal for riches with a black dwarf, in exchange for what ends up being his son, and No.55 where the miller’s daughter promises her first born child to Rumplestiltskin (Grimm). In each case, the parent is guilty of making a deal they do not fully understand the implications of . In Nightmare on Elm Street, the actions of the parents have inadvertently assigned their children to Freddy Krueger. In both Nightmares, the children are paying for the sins of the parents- their murder of Freddy Krueger. In Nightmare 2010, this is implicitly stated when Quentin references the Pied Piper of Hamlin, who took revenge on the town by taking their children. By taking revenge into their own hands, the parents of Elm Street have inadvertently linked themselves, and their children with Freddy Krueger. They have made a deal with the devil that they do not understand the consequences of. Freddy Krueger is not only tied to the children, but takes his revenge on the parents through his mental and physical torture of the children.
There is also a connection of bogeymen with fire and earth, connecting them to the giants of mythology (Warner 95, 96). Freddy Krueger, in both imaginings, is closely tied with these images. First, with his burns, but also with his dreamscape- a boiler room/basement. This imagery appears in the opening sequence of Craven’s Nightmare as Tina stands in front of fire, in a boiler room/basement, surrounded by steam pipes. Later, Nancy also goes down to this boiler room/basement. There is a further connection when Nancy’s mom tells the story of Freddy Krueger and reveals that she kept his glove, in an old furnace/stove. In this Nightmare, the boiler room/basement is connected to where Freddy Krueger was killed, but in the remake, it is specifically stated that Krueger lived in the basement of the pre-school, so there is a blurring of where Freddy lived, versus where he was killed- the seemingly abandoned industrial park. In Nightmare 2010, fire first appears in the opening scene, as Dean walks through the kitchen of the dinner. Freddy is described as “burned, melted” and frequently, the shots focus on close ups of Freddy’s claws as they create sparks when dragged along pipes in the boiler room/basement. Freddy is tied to the fire of bogeymans/giants past through his death, and with the earth with the boiler room/basement being underground.
In both films, Krueger exists only in the dreamworld, the realm of the supernatural, of the bogeyman. He is incapable of acting in the real world, although sometimes the effects of his actions can be carried into the real world. Craven’s Nancy carries a burn she gave herself in the dreamscape boiler room into reality, The lock of hair that Krueger slices off in the dreamscape also follows her back to the classroom. Nancy in both versions is capable of bringing back something of Freddy’s- his hat and a piece of his sweater.
Krueger can only get to the children once they fall asleep. In both films, we never see Krueger kill anyone in the real world. Dean in Nightmare 2010 appears to slit his own throat with a steak knife as Kris watches, Tina is spun around the ceiling and then slit open before falling dead onto the bed, as is Kris. The audience sees Rod get strangled and hanged by a sheet, but as if by an invisible force. Jesse’s death (the Rod character in 2010) flashes back and forth between the reality, and the dreamscape. In the dreamscape, he sees children, and the bodies of Dean and Kris in the boiler room. In reality, he is sliced open, and his bloody body simply falls to the floor in the locked cell. There is one more flashback to the dreamscape as Krueger tells Jesse that the brain “lives for seven minutes after death. We have six more minutes to play.” Again, this circles back to the idea that Krueger’s purpose is not punishment but torture of these children. It also reinforces Krueger’s connection to the supernatural and bogeymen.
While the ending of both movies would seem to suggest at first that Freddy can operate in the real world, this is eventually disproved. At the end of Craven’s Nightmare, Freddy is apparently dragged into the real world by Nancy, as seen in the complex booby trap end scenes. However, there are problems with buying into this. Freddy and the body of Nancy’s mother disappear into the bed, which argues against this scene taking place in reality. Also, Nancy is able to banish Freddy by stating “This is just a dream” despite words not having an effect on him before. This idea is banished for good when the closing scene shows that Nancy never left the dream world- as she and her friends are trapped in the Freddy car, and her mother is pulled back through the window in the door. Nightmare 2010 also plays with idea of Freddy existing in the real world, but as in the original, disproves it. The climatic scene centers around Nancy bringing Freddy out of the dreamscape and into the real world where she is able to cut off his hand and decapitate him before burning down the pre-school with his body still in it. However, in the final scene, as Nancy and her mother return home, Freddy appears in the mirror behind the mother, pulls her through the mirror, which shatters and then reforms with the mother’s blood on the outside, proving that the dream continues. This is further emphasized as the credits roll to the lyrics “ Whenever I want you, all I have to do is dream” by the Everly Brothers. The implication is that Freddy Krueger can never be destroyed, that as long as people dream, and remember him, the bogeyman will always exist.
While at first glance it may appear as though Freddy could be put in the same category as Mike Meyers and Jason Voorhies, his characterization, in both Craven’s original and the 2010 remake show that Krueger has deep connections to the bogeyman of folklore. He shares with bogeymen the characterization of a child killer in Craven’s version, and child molester in the 2010 remake. He harks back to deals made with the devil in Grimm’s stories, as the children were inadvertently traded to Krueger through the actions of the parents. The bogeyman as seductor is seen in the references to The Pied Piper of Hamlin, and as Krueger punishes the parents of the town through their children. Krueger as a bogeyman character is also supported by him only existing in the strictly supernatural world of the dreamscape and characters’ constant failure to destroy him.
The definition of folklore is “stories of a community passed down through generations by word of mouth”. Folklore in the modern world is very different than two hundred, or even one hundred years ago. Technology has changed how we tell stories, and global communications has redefined “word of mouth”. Furthermore, if we expand our definition of word of mouth to mean popular culture, then it’s easy to see that horror movies are the modern day’s answer to folklore. Ask anyone if they know who Mike Meyers, Jason Voorhies, and Freddy Krueger are- their stature alone would seem to indicate their folkloric status. Once we’ve situated these movies in this matrix, the opportunities for further research open up. Why do some of these characters display folkloric characteristics and some don’t? What is the significance of this? How do we situate this within the larger context of horror films as folklore? In what other ways do horror movies function as folklore? How do they inform or influence other mediums of “word of mouth”/popular culture? Finally, if true folklore is no longer being created, then studies such as this serve as a way to reinvigorate folklore studies and make previously ignored connections between folklore and popular culture.
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