In November 1984, filmmaker Wes Craven introduced the world to Freddy Kreuger, an undead child-killer who had a fire-scarred face and a glove with fives knives in place of a right hand. The infamous villain from A Nightmare on Elm Street and its six sequels would wait for his young victims to fall asleep, then enter their dreams and treat them to mental torture before killing them in an unpleasant fashion.
In the first, third and seventh editions of the Nightmare films, Freddy met his toughest challenge—Nancy Thompson, a teenager who grew into a woman and stood up against the super villain. Playing the role of Nancy was Heather Anderson (Langenkamp to her fans), whose known in Malibu as much for her education activism (former Malibu High PTA president) as she is worldwide for being Freddy's heroic opponent.
Nearly 30 years later, the nightmare has not ended for Anderson. About five times a year she attends horror conventions throughout the country (even sometimes abroad), where she meets fans and sees some of the other actors who were in the films with her.
"I met a fan today who had come all the way from Australia for this convention," said Anderson on Saturday at the Rock and Shock event in Worcester, Mass. "In the past, I've met people who came from the Middle East, others who traveled all day by car. It seems crazy, but these fans are devoted to horror."
What creates such devotion to a genre featuring stories that nobody sane would enjoy in real life? Anderson has some ideas.
"There is an element of excitement and danger that just pumps them up," she said. "It makes them feel alive and scared at the same time. They really identify with the characters in the film in a way they can't with other movies, because with horror they feel like they are part of the story as it unfolds."
There have been plenty of horror movies over the years, and although they might succeed in frightening the viewers in the moment, only a select few have staying power, and one of them is the original Nightmare. It was a hit in the theaters (grossing nearly $26 million on a budget under $2 million) and then benefited from coming out just as the VCR was becoming popular. Soon the movie, as well as its sequels, became a memorable part of film history.
"I think it's something everybody can relate to," said Anderson about Nightmare's appeal. "Everybody falls asleep. Everybody has dreams. So there is nobody who doesn't understand the vulnerability we have when we're sleeping, and that's the magical part of the movie."
When attending horror conventions, Anderson is often joined by Freddy's alter ego, actor Robert Englund. And with him come his many fans, some dressed in costume and others sporting multiple Freddy tattoos. The lines to meet him are always long, while Anderson's for many years were much smaller. A few years ago, Anderson decided to find out more about this love for Freddy and why Nancy didn't receive the same treatment. She explored these issues in her 2011 documentary I Am Nancy, which included interviews with fans at three conventions in the United States and two in Europe.
"I still don't totally understand the love for Freddy, even after making the movie, but I got some great answers," she said. "From some people, I got really intense answers. I heard from kids who were in the hospital who got through their ordeal by watching the movie. One fan said, 'I wanted to see someone suffering more than me.'"
Others told her the movie created feelings of nostalgia, bringing back memories of watching the films with family and friends.
"People's memories are so fond of those moments nearly 30 years ago when the first movie came out," she said. "And I love that people are clinging to those memories, and this movie is a part of them."
The documentary also had a positive effect. After its release, Anderson saw the lines at her table grow. This past weekend in Worcester, it featured a consistent stream of fans eager to meet her.
"The documentary gave people the OK to love Nancy in a sort of way, and be very nostalgic," she said.
While Anderson is often joined by various actors and actresses who starred in the films with her, one co-star has yet to make an appearance—a man who made his acting debut in the original Nightmare. That man is Johnny Depp. And no, Anderson does not have his number saved in her cellphone.
"I would have stayed his friend had I known what he would become," she said with laughter. "But I was young and recently married at that time. And there is no place for a young handsome actor in your life when you're newly married. He is a super person and an incredible actor, but darn, I really missed out on that friendship."
A portion of the money collected at Rock & Shock went to the Scare Foundation, a nonprofit group supported by horror and suspense artists with a mission to combat teen homelessness and poverty. Go here for more information on the organization.