This article contains spoilers for Stranger Things Season 4 and Scream (2022).
A swimming pool boils and beer cans spontaneously explode. What started as a harmless suburban party ends in bedlam. Teens rush away in a panic, trampling both the living and the dead, fleeing the flames that threaten to consume them. With the light from the blaze illuminating his scarred face, Freddy Krueger raises his arms toward the mass huddled before him and proudly declares, “You are all my children now.”
These words, spoken by Robert Englund’s Freddy Krueger in 1985’s A Nightmare on Elm Street II, reflect the state of pop culture in the 1980s. Freddy was everywhere, not just in our nightmares and cinema screens. Despite his horrid appearance and murderous proclivities, Freddy became one of the decade’s true pop culture icons, moving off the movie screen to appear on t-shirts, lunch boxes, and 1-900 numbers. Even when lesser entries Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare and Freddy vs. Jason failed to continue the franchise into the ‘90s and 2000s, Freddy remained a cultural constant.
Much of the character’s success can be attributed to Englund’s performance. Even when playing the character as a straightforward (if supernatural) serial killer in director Wes Craven’s 1984 original A Nightmare on Elm Street, Englund brought a wit as sharp as the blades on Freddy’s glove. Where 1978’s Halloween and 1981’s Friday the 13th Part II established Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees as horror icons, Englund’s charismatic and terrifying performance gave Freddy a staying power that his forerunners lacked.
Thanks to the ubiquity of Englund and Freddy in the 1980s, it’s no surprise that the Netflix series Stranger Things would work Nightmare into its pop culture pastiche. Earlier episodes contained nods to the franchise, including a recreation of Freddy’s face pushing through the wall in the first Nightmare movie and giving co-lead Natalia Dyer’s character the same name and personality as Nightmare‘s original final girl, Nancy (Heather Langenkamp).
With its fourth season, Stranger Things goes even further than reference, casting Englund into the series and echoing, but not re-creating, his most famous role. Englund arrives in episode four as Victor Creel, a man condemned to an asylum for killing his family several decades earlier. Creel contends that a demon murdered his wife and children, slicing out their eyes in the process, but no one believes him. When an investigation by Nancy and Robin (Maya Hawke) leads them to Creel, they find him desperate and broken, his own eyes sliced out in hopes to die and reunite with his family.
As Creel, Englund gets to stretch acting muscles rarely afforded him as Freddy. The series treated Freddy as a congenital evil, the son of a nun sexually abused by “100 maniacs,” a man who murdered children even before becoming a dream demon. In fact, Englund only got to play a sympathetic figure in the franchise when he played himself in Craven’s metatextual proto-Scream take, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994).
But Creel’s sympathy does not rid Englund of Freddy’s ghost. Season 4’s prime villain, a demon dubbed “Vecna” by the Hawkins kids, operates in a manner similar to the Dream Master. Vecna terrorizes teens by bombarding them with nightmares of past traumas and attacks their “sleep” by putting them in trances, where he has full use of his power. While the Hawkins kids do learn about Vecna through some direct encounters, the most useful information comes from Creel himself. By describing the horrors of the past, Creel helps the kids make sense of the horrors of the present.
In other words, Stranger Things positions Englund as a horror elder statesman, giving him a position of respect. Some may see this positioning as a mistake on the part of the series. After all, Stranger Things has been roundly criticized for its commitment to nostalgia, with some contending that the series offers nothing more than re-heated, lesser versions of 1980s pop culture. Englund’s casting and the framing of the Vecna character could be seen as yet another attempt to earn credibility through style instead of substance.
However, Stranger Things uses Englund to move forward and honor the next generation, something unique among legacy horror stories. While Scream (2022), Halloween (2018), and even the Syfy series Chucky all make gestures toward turning the power over to the next generation of final girls (and guys, and others), they ultimately reserve power for the legacy characters. Sydney (Neve Campbell) and Gale (Courteney Cox) get bigger hero shots than the Carpenter sisters (Melissa Barrera and Jenna Ortega) in Scream, Laurie Strode’s daughter and granddaughter narratively exist to prove Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) as the only one who understands Michael, and Chucky’s original best friend Andy (Alex Vincent) returns to the franchise as a grizzled doll hunter.
But with its own Nancy and set of teens, Stranger Things does not need to enlist a hero from a previous franchise. Instead by making Englund a source of information, he’s able to empower the next generation. The legacy actor here is most associated with being the villain, not stopping the villain. So this allows Nancy and Robin to take action, not forcing them to wait until Langenkamp’s Nancy or any other Dream Warrior shows up to save the day.
By enshrining Englund as an elder statesman, Stranger Things escapes its most persistent shortcoming and shows the way forward for 2020’s horror. In the same way, the Hawkins kids use the information and guidance they received from their predecessors to battle monsters in the manner that seems best to them, creators of modern horror can take what they’ve learned from Englund, Craven, and other masters to wrestle with new terrors, monsters unique to the 21st century. The heroes of Stranger Things may all be Freddy’s children, but they are not his clones.
Stranger Things season 4 volume 1 is available to stream on Netflix now. Volume 2 will premiere July 1.