Rebecca McCallum assesses the journey of Nancy and Heather across the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise…
Fearless and tenacious, with an inner fight that will not be quashed, Nancy Thompson is one of horror’s most adored and memorable final girls, brought to life by the incomparable Heather Langenkamp, who – as director Wes Craven himself said – ‘gave Nancy her strength’. By taking the courageous decision to put herself front and centre in New Nightmare, the arc of Heather and Nancy is poignantly intertwined, their journeys across three instalments of the Elm Street franchise being both cyclical and tragic, their strong spirits and unwavering survival instincts ensuring that they continue to uplift and empower.
Fighting Alone –A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
In the first outing of the series themes of loss and survival are firmly at the core of Nancy’s story, as she balances the impact of grief with courage and a willingness to stay alive. Whilst Fred Kruger (Robert Englund) invades the highly personal and intimate spaces of both her dreams and her bedroom, Nancy watches as those she loves are savagely murdered. Furthermore, she is failed repeatedly by the people she trusts – be it asking her boyfriend Glen (Johnny Depp, making his screen debut) to keep watch, or trying to alert her dismissive father (John Saxon). Haunted and hunted by a man in a red and green sweater with knifed fingers, Nancy also contends with the discovery of a dark secret that the parents of Elm Street have been keeping from their children, linking the past and present.
The blueprint of the girl next door, Nancy is warm, relatable and has audiences willing her to make it to the end. As the body count mounts and Freddy closes in, Nancy steps up to the plate and realises that her inner strength and determination are her greatest resources. Knowing too that she needs to up her game, she undertakes research, gathers supplies and ensures she is fully prepared. Although pursued by Freddy throughout the film, she takes back control in their final confrontation where he becomes the pursued and the hunted. Never allowing herself to surrender to fear, she continues to find the daringness to face him and fight back with gutsiness and heart.
By the end of the film, Nancy’s mother, boyfriend and friends are all gone. She may have battled Freddy and won, but he has torn the fabric of her world apart, and her life will never be the same again.
Fighting for Others – A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 3: Dream Warriors (1987)
Six years later, Nancy is now a post-graduate specialising in dream patterning. In true selfless style she harnesses the trauma which she has undergone to help and support others. Despite living her life, the scars of her history are apparent – she takes prescribed medication and is healing from the loss of her mother. However her survivor spirit is still strong, as evidenced by the Balinese dream doll that she keeps on her mantelpiece.
At Westin Hills psychiatric hospital, where Nancy is newly employed, the well-meaning Dr Neil Gordon (Craig Wasson) and steely Dr Simms (Priscilla Pointer) are struggling to calm a new patient, teenager Kristen (Patricia Arquette), who has been admitted following a suicide attempt. When backed into a corner with fear Kristen begins to recite the Freddy nursery rhyme before Nancy concludes it, approaching the teen with understanding and respect, an instant unspoken bond formed between them. Key to Nancy’s success in being able to reach the patients – when those in authority cannot – is her commitment to listening to the teens rather than judging them. When Kristen experiences a deadly nightmare featuring an oversized phallic-like Freddy, it is Nancy she calls for. Gifted with the ability to pull people into her dream, Kristen is joined by Nancy as both women face the knife-fingered villain together.
As part of her work at the hospital, Nancy attends therapy sessions with Kristen and a wider group of teenagers whose dreams are being invaded by Freddy. When she tells them they are the last of the Elm Street children atoning for their parents crimes and describes Freddy in detail, a deep connection is forged. By persuading Dr Gordon to prescribe hypnocil, Nancy facilitates the opportunity for herself and the youngsters to enter the dreamworld and fight Freddy together: encouraging them to embrace their individual strengths, she proves that she is not just a protector, but a force of empowerment.
In the final showdown there is a heart-breaking moment when Nancy rejoices, believing Freddy to be dead. However, he soon remerges cruelly in the guise of her father before brutally stabbing her. Ever fierce, Nancy rises one final time to prevent Freddy from harming the teens, fighting with her last breath before dying in Kristen’s arms. Freddy has gone (at least for now) but at the significant cost of Nancy’s life.
In Dream Warriors, although we see that Nancy has moved on, she is still unable to escape the past – from the model of her home which she finds on a visit to Kristen’s mother, to the strained relationship with her father who still dismisses her after all these years, to the death that surrounds her at every turn. The legacy of one of horror’s most inspirational heroines is summarised perfectly at her burial: ‘her courage and spirit shall remain with us’.
Fighting As Herself – Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)
In the franchises’ final offering Heather now plays herself, and there are many parallels between the fictional world and the real one. She is happily married to Chase (David Newsom) with whom she has a child, Dylan (Miko Hughes) – a fact reflected in reality as the actress was at the time a mother to a young son herself. Heather’s own experiences of stalking and harassment are also depicted with great power and resonance. Always on high alert, she carries the weight of portraying Nancy Thompson everywhere she goes, from being recognised by chauffeurs to a literal ‘voice from the past’ call from New Line Cinema.
The dismissiveness which we saw Nancy repeatedly subjected to becomes a reoccurring theme for Heather too, who is told her conviction that Freddy is causing her real-world torment is all in her imagination. Invited to be part of the ‘ultimate nightmare’ in a final Elm Street film, Heather turns this down: now she has a child her perspective on horror has shifted. She is plagued by unwanted calls, letters and frequent nightmares, all of which seem to align with the inception of Craven’s (who also stars as himself) latest project. Unfortunately for Heather, like Nancy, death and tragedy envelope her at every turn: she loses her husband in a tragic ‘accident’ which has Freddy’s claw marks all over it, before Dylan – who seems to be possessed by Freddy – becomes so unwell he is admitted to hospital.
While Heather openly admits to being frightened, in picking up the phone every time it rings and insisting on the cover being pulled back on her husband’s scarred body at the morgue, she also wields bravery and the ability to confront events: qualities synonymous with Nancy. A single parent alone in her tragedy, Heather watches over Dylan as he sleeps, refuelling with her faithful black coffee. When he falls from a climbing structure in a playground, she runs and catches him, a visual manifestation of her protector status.
Desperately running out of options, Heather visits Craven with the hope of gaining some insights, only for him to present her with a challenging question: ‘are you prepared to play Nancy one last time?’ As she fights to save both herself and her son from the terror of Freddy, Heather’s parenting skills and mental health are scrutinised by medical staff. When Dylan disappears from hospital, she chases after him, never stopping to avoid danger before demanding that Freddy takes her in order to keep her son alive.
Eventually she finds Dylan at home, deep in a nightmare which she joins him in after taking sleeping pills. Smart enough to take a knife with her, once inside the dream she finds Craven’s script which confirms ‘there was no movie, just her life’ as she and Nancy become ever more interwoven. Despite Freddy being stronger than ever, she faces him directly, declaring a triumphant ‘fuck you!’. Tossed and thrown about, even when badly beaten she continues to fight her way to Dylan. Together, they push Freddy into the furnace, leaving him to burn. Emerging from the nightmare she holds her son tightly, before finding the script with a note from Wes, thanking her for resurrecting Nancy and affirming that it is all ‘just a story’.
Nancy starts as a teenage girl surrounded by those she loves being cruelly stolen from her. Although she is left to fight alone in A Nightmare on Elm Street, her instinct to hold on and pull through reigns strong. Evolving into a grown woman, in Dream Warriors Nancy commits to turning her own trauma and experiences into constructive and caring ways to help others as she emerges as a natural leader. Sadly, her fierceness and willingness to confront Freddy results in her tragic death. By playing Nancy again in New Nightmare, Heather reclaims this narrative and prevents Freddy from emerging victorious.
Over the course of a decade, the narrative of Nancy and Heather reveals itself to be one of loss and loneliness. In true final girl style however, both women refuse to allow this to define them: instead they fight, they endure and they move forward.
Rebecca’s series on Hitchcock’s Women is available now. For more discussion on Wes Craven and meta-slashers, check out our upcoming podcast episode on Scream later this month.