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The enduring importance of Nancy from A Nightmare on Elm Street

By Sara Century
Nancy in Wes Craven's New Nightmare

When A Nightmare on Elm Street was released in 1984, no one could have anticipated its massive effect on culture. The seemingly esoteric concept of a pedophile covered head to toe in burn scars, sporting knife gloves and horizontal stripes, with a penchant for haunting the dreams of teenagers somehow became one of the most important films of the late 20th century.

While the success of this film was in some ways unprecedented, it has nonetheless gone on to define much of what we understand of the horror genre. This is in no small part due to the presence of Nancy Thompson, one of the best-known final girls in all of horror.

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A Nightmare on Elm Street

The first Nightmare film introduces us to Nancy, whose friend group is haunted by nightmares of a man who they later discover was once a human named Fred Krueger, known for kidnapping and killing children. Krueger had been burned alive by the parents of his victims after getting out of prison due to a technicality. This commentary is deeply rooted in the failure of our justice system to hold predators accountable, and Nancy's struggle to bring this injustice to light is admirable.

Nancy does not sit idly by. She refuses to sleep. She doesn't ask for help and instead creates a plan to ensnare Krueger in the waking world. Once he is there, she soon gains the upper hand. Nancy's resilience and resourcefulness are the stuff of legend, and many women and queer people have taken her story to heart in their own journeys toward empowerment.

Though Nancy is a fantastic character, she is not the only woman in this film, and it's worth pointing out that her empowerment is directly tied to the brutal evisceration of her friend Tina. Women finding strength as an aftereffect to the violence inflicted upon their friends might be unsettlingly true to life, but it remains one of the most problematic aspects of the Final Girl trope. The idea that some women must be graphically murdered in order for another to find her power is one of the horror genre's most conflicting messages.

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Dream Warriors and Beyond

Of course, the ambiguous ending of the first film was truly only the beginning for Freddy Krueger, Nancy, and the Nightmare franchise. Though actor Heather Langenkamp did not return for the second film, Nancy's presence is still palpable as the protagonist moves into her family's old home and discovers her diary detailing her experiences from the first film.

By the third film, Dream Warriors, we discover that Nancy has dedicated her life to learning about sleep disorders and nightmares and has rapidly become a leading authority on them without a degree and at the age of 22. In the institution where she works, she discovers the long-lasting horror of Krueger, who left dozens of victims in his wake, from the children who died to the parents and siblings left behind. The quiet trauma of childhood horror is a theme throughout the franchise, but perhaps most especially in Dream Warriors. Nancy manages to beat Krueger again by symbolically stabbing him with his own glove, but it costs her a lot; in the fourth film, we see confirmation of her death in a tombstone with her name on it.

Of course, death in horror can be a temporary thing, and again that was nowhere near the end of Nancy's story. Wes Craven's New Nightmare managed to capitalize on the surrealism behind the celebrity of Freddy Krueger by introducing a fictionalized version of Heather Langenkamp as the protagonist, suffering from her association with Nancy as much as she's thrived from it. Freddy manages to break through to the real world once more, and Heather must take the lessons she's learned not just from Nancy but from Wes Craven's commentary on the character to defeat Krueger. A bizarre masterpiece of horror meta-commentary only barely preceding the Scream franchise, New Nightmare continues Nancy's story by merging it with Heather's.

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The Meta Appeal of Nancy's Story

After New Nightmare, Nancy's story took on increasingly meta aspects. For instance, Mahakaal, the Bollywood version of A Nightmare on Elm Street, featured a Nancy-esque character named Anita. Though this story further explored the connection between Nancy's family and Krueger, Anita was unfortunately considerably less proactive than Nancy. In the 1991 comic series Nightmares on Elm Street, considerable blanks in the film continuity are filled in as we discover what exactly Nancy was up to between the movies.

Almost universally praised by feminist horror films despite the sometimes problematic nature of the Final Girl trope, Nancy Thompson has appeared in countless essays and books. There have been easily a half dozen fan films about her continued story, and she's appeared in literature based around the franchise. She's been an action figure and a playable character in video games, as well as the featured character in the 2010 remake (despite a name and personality change).

Still, perhaps most important is the work and commentary that Langenkamp herself has contributed to the mythology. Appearing in several Nightmare-based documentaries and creating her own in I Am Nancy, the observations of and interviews by Langenkamp have only enhanced the mythology around the character. Langenkamp herself has spoken regularly on exactly how and why it is so disappointing (and reflective of society) that the villain of the franchise became so celebrated while Nancy remains comparatively niche in her appeal.

Though Freddy Krueger is the focus of the vast majority of the Nightmare franchise, there is no denying that Nancy is much of the glue that holds the original premise together. Without her radical presence, the film would have been nothing more than a standard slasher. Though Nancy's legacy has morphed and changed over the years, there is no denying that her influence is profound.

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