Actress Heather Langenkamp is best known for her role as Nancy Thompson, the teenage object of affection for supernatural killer Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare on Elm Street series (parts one, three, and seven to be precise). Heather’s most recent project, the documentary I Am Nancy, looks back on those days as well as the decades worth of fan conventions that followed.
Heather recently sat down with Cinedelphia to discuss the origins of her new film, the gender politics of horror movies, and her years spent as a guest on the convention circuit.
CINEDELPHIA: To what extent have you been involved in the world of horror films outside of the Elm Street series?
HEATHER LANGENKAMP: I’ve been involved as an actor, of course. My husband and I have a business that makes special effects makeup so we’re kind of tangentially involved in the horror world because we often get asked to make special effects makeup for that industry.
C: So the horror film industry has continued to follow you throughout your professional career.
HL: Yeah, I didn’t think I’d be onboard the genre film world for this long. It keeps pulling me back in, like the famous line from The Godfather.
HL: I was definitely thinking in much broader terms, cultural and sociological terms. I’ve always been mystified by the growth of horror in our culture and the popularity of horror icons like Freddy. So that’s where I started. I was like “Wow, look at this, 30 years later, who would have thunk, this is the popular thing now.” It came from a really honest bewilderment on my part.
C: So the documentary is a more unique experience than, say, watching a DVD supplement.
HL: Well, so much has been written about this franchise over the eight or nine movies that they made about Freddy Krueger. I found in my own everyday life that I’ve had a lot of rich experiences…my sister-in-law [director Arlene Marechal] thought that it was fascinating enough to make a documentary about. So she approached me and said “This is interesting, a bizarre subculture that’s grown up around these films that most people have never heard of.” The director really came from the point of view that maybe your readers are coming from which is “Okay, who’s Nancy? What’s Freddy Krueger all about? Why are people going to these conventions and spending hard-earned money buying Freddy toys?” And I think that’s why the movie succeeds on so many levels, because the director herself was a total stranger to the world of horror cons. And she became a convert. Now she talks about Nancy like she was there all her life.
She’s like the biggest horror fan now out of everyone I know. She wants to get a tattoo, the whole nine yards.
HL: Well, my mom was a really fierce equal rights amendment promoter and believed whole-heartedly that women and men should be paid the same for the same job. I grew up in a household where equal rights and women in society were talked about a lot. My mom was a really active part of that whole conversation about what needs to be equal in our society. So I found myself involved in the horror subculture, which is really one of the least equal areas of filmmaking. You have a beautiful, voluptuous woman who’s the object of these horrible actions, sadistic death with chainsaws, it’s probably one of the least equal areas of filmmaking. Monsters are usually men, these masked figures who have some sort of sexual depravity that underlies their evil. And so I’m just in the middle of this world that I don’t understand. I’d been told my whole life that this is the wrong way to be a woman, the wrong way to have relations in our daily lives. And, as a result, I’ve always analyzed it in this sociological way. I don’t talk about it a lot because people will think I’m a total weirdo, but I’ve always been fascinated by that particular aspect. The Freddy/Nancy inequality in merchandising, for example, is a perfect display of the feelings I have about the characters.
C: What’s interesting in relation to that, as seen in the documentary, is the large number of females in this subculture.
HL: Yes, which I’d say is pretty new. In the first 10 to 15 years of meeting fans they were predominantly male, but now I really find with the 4th or 5th generation of this being popular is that horror is now really universal. Everyone loves it now. Parents love it, kids love it, grandparents love it, girls love it. And it shows that equality has actually moved forward. I think female characters in horror have evolved as well.
HL: Well, characters like Nancy certainly bring people in. And people are like “Oh, I can go see a movie where the woman isn’t going to have to be naked and get hacksawed?” It’s uncomfortable, for me anyways, to watch movies with a lot of sadistic violence against women and I think that’s actually decreased. Horror used to be a B-Movie, C-Movie realm where that exploitation was fun for people to watch. But it’s gotten more mainstream, they’ve really toned that part of it down so the sadism is directed at both sexes now. And so it’s okay for everyone to go watch it.
C: It’s all-embracing now?
HL: It’s all-embracing sadism.
C: I’m curious about your 20 years of involvement with horror conventions. What’s the experience like from the eyes of a guest? Are you constantly being shepherded places and barraged by fans?
HL: I thought that would be the case when I first started, I was really afraid of walking to the elevator by myself, but it’s very casual and if anything you’re just sitting down for long periods of times and having conversations with fans. It’s a really intense weekend for actors. We have pretty normal lives and then there’s these days where you’re constantly talking about this thing you did 25 years ago. Sometimes it’s really delightful and then some days it’s like, “Wow, maybe someday I won’t ever have to talk about this again.” You’re a normal human being so there are some days where you’re not as enthusiastic as others. But at the end of every day I’m really glad I was there and I’ve always had at least a couple conversations that really touched me or that brought a new aspect to this opportunity I’ve had to play Nancy, how fortunate I am to have this role and to see how people have come to love Nancy as more than a simple movie character. They’ve imparted a lot of psychological meaning to the role that Nancy played in the fight against Freddy. That’s the thing that I find most exciting and gratifying about my whole experience.
C: It’s great that these conventions give you the opportunity to learn about the fans to such an extent.
HL: I don’t know whether it’s horror movies or what, but horror fans are actually extremely sensitive and a lot of them really analyze the symbolism, the storylines, they really dissect things down to the finer details. I don’t have experience being a soap opera star or an action hero so I don’t know whether their fans do the same thing. Horror is a very symbolic medium, it’s very literary.
HL: I decided not to see that unfortunately, because now I’ve been asked so many times. I have such a strong, special relationship with the originals that I decided I didn’t want to have to deal with the feelings that would be brought up by seeing it. I avoid things, I’m not like Nancy in my real life, I am not facing my fears.
C: Are you at all familiar with the horror community in the Philadelphia area?
HL: One of the very first conventions I ever attended was [Cherry Hill’s] Monster Mania. I remember I had to leave early, my flight was at noon, and I had this very long line of fans. I’d never had such a long line before and I remember feeling incredibly guilty about the fact that I was leaving early. So I got my pen and ran down the line outside of the Cherry Hill hotel and signed as many as I could before I got in my car to go to the airport. I remember that of all the Philadelphia fans have always shown me aspects of their love for Nancy that no other city has ever done. It’s always been one of my favorite cities to go to.
Check back tomorrow to see where Nancy ranks on the list of Top 10 Final Girls courtesy of the gang at Final Girl Support Group.
Author: Eric Bresler
Eric is the Founder/Site Editor of Cinedelphia.com whose additional activities are numerous: Director/Curator of the Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art (PhilaMOCA), founder of Tokyo No Records, the brain behind Video Pirates, and active local film programmer including the Unknown Japan screening series. He’s served as a TLA Video Manager, Philadelphia Film Society Managing Director, and Adjunct Professor in Cinema Studies at Drexel University. He is shy and modest. Email Eric.