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Why A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET’S Nancy Is Horror’s Greatest Final Girl
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With the 35th anniversary of Wes Craven’s horror classic A Nightmare on Elm Street upon us, you will no doubt hear a lot of people singing the praises of the man who gave us Freddy Krueger, Robert Englund. And he deserves that honor to be sure. But we believe that another member of the cast of the original film deserves just as much praise all these years later, and that’s Heather Langenkamp. She played heroine Nancy Thompson in three of the Nightmare films, which just so happen to be the best three films in the whole franchise.

Heather Langenkamp as Nancy Thompson in the A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, together with Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger.

New Line Cinema

When most people are asked to name the ultimate “Final Girl,” the usual response is Jamie Lee Curtis. After all, she’s the most iconic slasher survivor to the mainstream masses, due to 1978’s Halloween. But while Jamie will always be viewed as the first (even if she was preceded by others), I think Langenkamp actually deserves the title of greatest. Nancy stands apart from the other Final Girls of the era for several reasons. The kneejerk response is to say that it’s because she’s so smart, but Halloween’s Laurie Strode is clearly also intelligent. And certainly Laurie is brave, and defends herself against the attacks of Michael Myers.

No, the big difference between Nancy and all the rest is just how proactive she is. It’s not that she is just willing to fight back at the end, as the best of the Final Girls always do. It was that she is willing to go to extraordinary measures to defeat her tormentor Freddy Krueger before his next attack. Unlike most horror movie heroines of the era, she draws her would-be killer out and beats him at his own game. The final act of Nightmare has Nancy setting up an elaborate set of booby traps all over her house. In ten minutes, no less! All this in an an effort to nail Freddy once she pulls him out of her nightmare. And then, she essentially shames him into nonexistence. That’s just badass.

Nancy turns her back on Freddy on the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, taking away all his power.

New Line Cinema

Unlike a lot of slasher flicks of the era, Wes Craven chose to make A Nightmare on Elm Street a pretty candid commentary on the times in which it was set. The film highlights the particular struggles that teens of that era had to face that previous generations didn’t. This is perfectly personified by Nancy. She is the child of divorce, with two parents that can barely look at one another anymore. Gen Xers were the first American generation to grow up with predominantly divorced parents, and Nancy’s circumstances reflect that. A lot of media of the time tried to pretend we all still lived in ’50s sitcom suburban bliss, but Nightmare refused to do this.

Because of her circumstances at home, Nancy has to teach herself how to survive, and how to be her own parental figure; her Baby Boomer parents are too self-involved to see what was really going on, or how they are the cause of it. These traits made her resonate strongly with the young people who were the primary demographic for this film when it was released. All of these things help to make Nancy the quintessential horror heroine for a whole generation of movie fans.

Nancy Thompson is lured into the boiler room to confront Freddy in the original A Nightmare on Elm Street.

New Line Cinema

Nancy’s evolution continues in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, where she becomes an amazing adult mentor. After skipping out on Nightmare 2 (where the inhabitants of her old house describe her as “having gone crazy”), we find out that she hasn’t gone off the deep end after all. She has become an intern therapist, working at the Westin Hills Institute in her hometown of Springwood. She helps the kids that were sent there by their parents to realize their true potential as the “Dream Warriors,” allowing them to fight Freddy on his own turf.

Heather Langenkamp's character of Nancy becomes a mentor to Kristen Parker, played by a young Patricia Arquette, in Nightmare on Elm Stree 3: Dream Warriors

New Line Cinema

Unlike most figures of authority in the lives of these slasher movie teens, Nancy never lies to them or tells them that what they are experiencing isn’t real. Now age 23 in Dream Warriors—certainly an adult figure to a bunch of teens⁠—she represents not only how a survivor of trauma can help others, but also how an adult can relate to teenagers without talking down to them or invalidating their experiences. Even though she dies in that film, the surviving Elm Street kids are better off for having had her guidance.

But death can’t keep Nancy down, and Wes Craven finds an ingenious way to bring her back one last time for the final film in the original cycle. In Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, we follow the “real” Heather Langenkamp, some ten years after her role in the original Nightmare. Obviously, this “real” Heather is, of course, also a fictional character. Like the real Heather, she’s an actress married to a special effects expert, and had a history of being stalked by an obsessive fan. But obviously everything else that happens to this Heather is total fabrication.

Heather Langenkamp plays a version of herself, in Wes Crave's very meta New Nightmare.

New Line Cinema

At the end of New Nightmare, she overcomes all the trauma that’s been inflicted on her, and morphs into Nancy Thompson once again. She symbolically finds strength in the character she once inhabited. “Actress” Heather has to find whatever she brought to Nancy years before in order to become her once more to defeat her nemesis as she had a decade prior. But as amazing as New Nightmare is, it is still a side story living outside the continuity of the original films. We think the greatest horror movie heroine deserves a chance to come back for real.

With decades-later legacy sequels all the rage right now, it is rather shocking that New Line Cinema hasn’t announced the return of A Nightmare on Elm Street with Robert Englund coming back one more time as the original version of Freddy. Certainly, this seems like a business no-brainer, especially after the box office that 2018’s Halloween delivered. But if they do go this route, if the OG Freddy comes back, then so must Nancy. And despite the character’s death in Dream Warriors, there’s a very easy way to do that.

Kristen Parker (Patricia Arquette) cradles the body of the recently deceased Nancy Thompson in Dream Warriors.

New Line Cinema

In Dream Warriors, once Nancy is killed by Freddy, the character of Kristen (Patrica Arquette) cradles her body and sobs, “I’m gonna dream you into a beautiful dream…forever and ever.” Kristen had the power to pull people into her dreams, so for her, those weren’t necessarily just words. The original shooting script’s epilogue made Nancy’s transition into the “Beautiful Dream” world rather explicit, as her love interest character of Dr. Neil Gordon makes a mention of seeing Nancy whenever he goes to sleep. But all those hints were dropped from the final film.

Nevertheless, writer Andy Mangels took this idea of Nancy living on as a protector of the “Beautiful Dream” in his Nightmare on Elm Street comic back in the early ’90s. If the producers of a Nightmare requel wanted to bring back Heather Langenkamp, the road map on how to do it all right there. Assuming Langenkamp is game for this, of course. But if Jamie Lee Curtis got to turn into a kick ass take-no-prisoners type, and the original Sarah Connor got to come back too, we think it’s Nancy’s turn. The greatest horror heroine deserves it.

Featured Image: New Line Cinema