The original Nightmare On Elm Street from 1984 was a rite of passage for all Gen Xers. There is no more quintessential horror movie than this one with the snark spewing razor-fingered dream bandit. I remember being terrified by this film and full-on belly laughing in several scenes. Not many horror movies can pull that off. It was released at the perfect time, right in the middle of the parental ban on “rock porn” by the Parents Music Resource Center by artists like Motley Crew, Cyndi Lauper, and Prince and in the height of Satanic Panic. For those of us whose parents were free-thinking enough not to ban scary movies from our house, Freddy Krueger was the perfect icon.
The idea that a demon can invade your dreams when you are the most vulnerable is terrifying. It made us question every nightmare we ever had and all the ones that came after watching. As scary as it was, though, there was an absurd sensibility to it all that thumbed its nose like conventional horror movies. Krueger was a turd and knew it. Yes, he had a fully developed revenge plot, but first and foremost, he just wanted to torture kids.
He was sarcastic and obnoxious and laughed at his own jokes. With a killer like that, it should come as no surprise that a certain amount of dream logic is necessary to view the ambiguous ending of Nightmare On Elm Street that set up a bevy of sequels, including the fantastic Dream Warriors. Here’s everything you need to know about the ending of NOES and how it makes sense within the greater franchise.
The ending of Nightmare On Elm Street
Freddy Krueger is revealed to be a pedophile who had worked as a groundskeeper at the elementary school Nancy and her friends attended. Their parents had banded together to stop him and burned him to death. Understandably that made a guy mad, and thus he returned from the dead to haunt the dreams of the children he had been molesting. Nancy was his favorite; therefore, she was tormented the most and saved for last. He only had control over the dream world because he was dead, but he could control everything inside dreams. So while all the kids slept, he invaded their nightmares and killed them in their sleep, which resulted in memorable deaths like Johnny Depp’s bloody bed fountain.
After Krueger takes out nearly all of Nancy’s friends and family, she hatches a plan to stop him. She designs a series of booby traps in the real world and prepares to fall asleep so she can drag Krueger out of the dream world he controls and into the real world, where she has the upper hand. He kills her mother, and Nancy pulls him out of her dream, where she declares that “she knows the secret now. This is all a dream”. She turns her back on him and walks out of the house.
At first, everything seems great. Nancy’s mother wishes her a great day, and all of her dead friends are alive again, waiting in a car striped like Krueger’s sweater. Then, in the final moments, Freddy’s infamous laugh rings out. It seems Nancy did not defeat Krueger, and she is still in his dream. Nancy may have depleted some of his power, but the deaths are real. He still had some control over the dream world. He was showing her it was only a matter of time before he rebuilt his power and came looking for her and other vulnerable kids again.
At first glance, this nonsensical ending seems like sequel bait. The kind of twist ending that films from the era are known for that allowed for the expansion of popular film stories. Although you need to squint a little to make the bigger picture make sense, and even though it is obvious fodder for subsequent movies, the ending of Nightmare On Elm Street does make sense within the greater universe of the movies. It even sets up nicely some of the later films.
Did Nancy ever escape her dream?
It appeared that Nancy could drag Krueger out of the dreamscape and into the real world. The final scene, however, puts all that into question. As she is driven to school with all her friends, Krueger’s maniacal laugh rings out. How can all her friends and mother be alive? How did Freddy avoid being trapped and killed by Nancy? Considering that there were so many movies, many of which featured Nancy in them, what really happened? When combined with Nancy’s final words to Krueger and looking through the lens of eight different sequels(we aren’t going to mention the abysmal 2010 remake), we can finally make sense of that wonky dream logic.
Taken at face value, Nancy was not successful. She never defeated Krueger and didn’t pull him into the real world. Instead, she remains inside Krueger’s dream, where she is doomed to live in his nightmare world. Considering the glut of IP that came after this classic, the more reasonable interpretation is less dark.
Both Freddy and Nancy won the final battle. Nancy took some of his power away when she realized she could also control the dreamscape. By refusing to be afraid of him, Krueger could no longer hurt her. When she took Glen’s advice and turned her back on Freddy, she took away his ability to hurt her. Freddy won because she didn’t vanquish him, and he succeeded in killing nearly everyone who mattered to Nancy.
The weirdest part is that Nancy probably never left the dream world. She may have thought she woke up and brought him out of her nightmare, but her mother’s murder proves otherwise. He disappeared along with her mother’s skeleton in a blue-lit void in the bed. Her father is completely nonplussed by all this strangeness too, which seems to indicate none of that happened in the real world. This makes absolutely no sense unless you consider Nancy never left her dream. The final sequence is simply his way of saying, “You may have won this battle, Nancy, but I’m still here.” We know from subsequent NOES movies she is still haunted by the past and occasional nightmares. He may not be able to kill her like he did her friends, but he can make her life hell.
Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge picks up five years after the events of the original. Jesse Walsh and his family have moved into Nancy’s home. He begins to have vivid nightmares and finds Nancy’s diary. Once he realizes their experiences are similar, he suspects that Krueger is controlling him through his dreams in the real world. Using the same hazy dream logic as the first film, Freddy’s abilities have evolved. He feeds on fear, and the more frightened someone is, the more power he has. Jesse becomes a conduit for him in the real world because he fears not only Krueger but himself.
When Nancy returns in Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, it is confirmed her mother and friends died, and she is alive. She has survived by limiting her dreams through medication. Nancy is an intern at a hospital where Kristen and a group of other teens live. The last of the Elm Street kids are all in a psychiatric hospital after being psychically tortured by Freddy. For the most part, Krueger is still confined to dreams, but Kristen’s ability to pull others into her dreams opens the doors for expanded victim groups. It also makes space for additional victim attack strategies, which are eventually employed in NOES 3,4,5, and 6. Freddy’s ability to develop new skills like possession and his victims’ own supernatural powers allow everything to make a misty sort of sense reserved for the best nightmares.
Nightmare On Elm Street is available on Netflix right now.
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.