Scariest Scene in A Nightmare on Elm Street

(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: Horror icon Freddy Krueger clawed his way out of a nightmare and into the pop culture pantheon in A Nightmare on Elm Street.)

Thirty-five years ago, the theatrical release of A Nightmare on Elm Street solidified director Wes Craven as a definitive voice in horror, launched a major horror franchise, and introduced an iconic movie monster in Freddy Krueger. Delivering his supernatural take on the slasher, Craven created a horrifically scarred killer whose favored slaying grounds is a place that should offer the most safety, in the nestled comfort of your dreams. Dreamscapes bleed into harrowing reality, often literally, and the only way to evade Freddy’s clutches is to stay awake. But no one can stay awake forever.

Craven demonstrates the high-stakes in this slasher right away with one of the most seminal horror scenes of the ‘80s. The blurred lines between waking life and imagination disorient as Craven goes straight for the jugular, offing a major character in the grisliest fashion after setting her up to be the lead character. This vital scene didn’t just set the tone for the rest of the film; it left an enduring, indelible mark on the genre. 

The Setup

Written and directed by Craven, who was inspired by a series of newspaper articles about Southeast Asian refugees that died in their sleep after suffering severe nightmares, A Nightmare on Elm Street follows the thread of what if dreams had the power to kill. High school teens Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), Tina Gray (Amanda Wyss), Glen Lantz (Johnny Depp), and Rod Lane (Jsu Garcia) discover they’ve been having nightmares about the same man. A horrifically scarred figure with a red and green striped sweater and a glove with razor blades attached to the fingers. Though it at first seems like a strange coincidence, it’s revealed to be the spirit of slain child murderer Fred Krueger (Robert Englund) that seeks revenge by invading the dreams of his murderers’ children. He’s out for blood.

The Story So Far

After waking from a horrific nightmare that leaves her with four slashes across her nightgown upon waking, a shaken Tina is hesitant to fall asleep the following night. She enlists her best friend Nancy and Nancy’s boyfriend Glen to sleep over for comfort and support. As Tina shares details about her dreams, Nancy recalls the same figure has started appearing in her dreams as well. The coincidence is interrupted when Tina’s tumultuous lover Rod crashes the sleepover. The foursome separates in different corners of the Gray household to settle in for sleep. Terror, of course, ensues.

The Scene

Tina wakes in the middle of the night from rocks pelted at her window and eerie whispers of her name. When she goes outside to investigate, she’s tormented and chased by Freddy Krueger in the alley until he catches her just outside her backdoor. As she tries to fight him off, it’s revealed to be a nightmare; Rod wakes in fright to see Tina struggling with an unseen foe. One that tears her open and drags her across the walls and ceiling. Her corpse drops onto the bed, splattering the pool of blood everywhere. 

From the opening title sequence, Craven is setting up minor misdirection. The entire focus is on Tina. Her foreboding travels through the boiler room in her nightmares, the relationships established with her friends and boyfriend. Her fears. Yet, at only 13-minutes into the runtime, Craven pulls the rug out from under the viewer with a disturbing nightmare that results in Tina’s gruesome demise. This scene works two-fold; it gives the viewer their first real glimpse of the horrific boogeyman, Freddy Krueger, and it shows just how gory it can be to die in your dreams. Craven is making a bold declaration that there will be no gentle death by natural causes in these nightmares turned reality.

Bringing this scene to life required the most complex special effects of the low budget production. How do you go about having a character thrash about a room and get slaughtered by an unseen presence while another looks on helpless and confused? For it, Craven turned to mechanical special effects designer Jim Doyle, who also played the uncredited face of Freddy in the wall above Nancy’s bed just before this classic scene. Craven showed Doyle a scene from Royal Wedding, which saw Fred Astaire dancing up the walls, to give an idea of the revolving room he envisioned. It took Doyle a month to build the framework and the inner revolving room on axles. Four crew members spun the room by hand. 

Everything inside the room was bolted down, from the furniture to the camera crew and actor Garcia. All except Wyss, who had to crawl around the bottom of the room as it rotated. The constant change of perspective gave Wyss a case of vertigo from the first spin, making her on-screen terror real. Craven had to tell her which direction was up and down between takes to keep her spatial awareness grounded.  

When Tina drops from the ceiling and lands on the bed, it’s a stuntwoman. Two crew members held her in place and released on “action!” That splash of blood from her landing ruffled some feathers with the MPAA, who insisted the blood splatter not exceed beyond two frames. 

The revolving room was the most expensive and complicated special effect of the film. Production reused it again when filming Glen’s death – Craven’s homage to The Shining – and Doyle kept it to rent out in later films like Larry Cohen’s The Stuff to recoup some of the costs he put into building it. It’s a shining example of how the film’s low budget proved to be a source of inspiration and innovation, rather than a shackle of limitation.

A Nightmare on Elm Street, even 35 years later, is a classic that bears no shortage of standout moments that elicits chills. Yet it’s the early demise of Tina that showcases just how well Craven had his finger on the pulse of horror. A brutal slaying of who was initially set up to be the film’s lead shook audiences to their core. Craven was and always will be a horror master, and this scene nails why. 

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