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Sunday, May 17, 2009
A Quarter-Century of Krueger: Freddy's Folkloric Origins
Despite being one of horror's most unique characters, and certainly the most unorthodox and original of the classic movie slashers, Freddy Krueger does indeed have his origins as a fictional creation. Wes Craven himself has on occasion spoken of the Germanic and Teutonic folklore that partially inspired the character, and is the reason for the writer/director giving him the German name of Frederick Krueger in the first place.
And so, if we delve into the area of such Germanic folklore, we do find evidence of the concept of the dream demon--a figure which bears more than a passing resemblance to everyone's favorite movie maniac. Often referred to as an incubus, an alp, or a mare (hence, nightmare), these creatures have persisted in the cultural memory of the same region of Europe which gave us vampires, werewolves, and so many other staples of modern horror.
Alp is typically the name associated with the kind of creature that inspired Mr. Krueger. Kind of a cross between an incubus and a vampire, amongst the only distinguishing characteristics of the alp are its propensity for attacking children during their sleep, and its trademark hat (sound familiar?) The alp also commonly has the ability to shape-shift.
It is almost always male, and chooses as its main target a female victim. An alp attack, known as an alpdrücke, stems from the alp's ability to enter its target's mind and create horrible nightmares. The alp was believed to very literally "feed" on dreams, much like its cinematic descendant. It is also known to sit atop the sleeping victim, creating intense pressure that will either awaken the person, or kill her. Some have indicated that this may have been an early explanation for what is now diagnosed as sleep apnia. Unlike the incubus, alp attacks were rarely reported to be sexual in nature.
The belief that nightmares were the result of demonic intervention was fairly common in the ancient world. The mare was a creature thought to take the shape of a decrepit old woman. Like the alp, it was believed to press on the chest of its victim and impede breathing. The French referred to this creature as a cochemar. The Swedes called it a mara, and such a being was thought to have taken the life of King Suercher of Sweden in the 12th century.
The French peasantry believed that pregnant women were particularly susceptible to the attacks of the cochemar, which interestingly enough, ties into Freddy's actions in the fifth Nightmare on Elm Street film, The Dream Child.
Like a rogue character from one of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, Fred Krueger represents a direct link between our modern-day movie monsters and the more ancient, mythic evils that once inspired dread in the days long before they became sources of entertainment. Maybe this basic, primal connection is part of what has given the character such an undeniable appeal. Much as he is to the protagonists whose dreams he haunts, perhaps Freddy is somehow present in all our minds, in one form or another...
Freddy cartoon by Montygog.