Heather Langenkamp from 'A Nightmare on Elm Street' Is Still the Ultimate Scream Queen
Heather Langenkamp, the beloved scream queen who played final girl Nancy Thompson in the <i>Nightmare on Elm Street</i> series, could never get past the horror genre, so she made a documentary about life as a "final girl."
I set out with my Polaroid camera to photograph and interview disappearing Hollywood, the version that matters most to me—the directors, actors, special-effects artists, producers, and composers who’ve had great influence but have since fallen under the radar. This is a record and a reminder of the true soul of the movies.
Actor, Producer, Businesswoman
A Nightmare on Elm Street’s Nancy Thompson is undoubtedly one of the most beloved final girls in horror history. Played by Heather Langenkamp, Nancy was more than just your girl next door. She proved to be a very resourceful heroine and a damsel who could fight back and kick Freddy’s ass.
As the Elm Street franchise expanded, the Nancy character faded into the background, while Freddy Krueger became a huge icon. Heather Langenkamp asks, “Why does the heroine fade into obscurity while the villain becomes the celebrated hero?” Driven to explore why this phenomenon occurred, in 2010 she picked up her video camera and traveled to a series of horror conventions seeking the answer from the fans. From this she produced the home-grown but in-depth documentary I Am Nancy.
Oddly enough I met Heather Langenkamp at a Star Trek convention. Along with her husband, David Anderson, she runs AFX Studio, an Academy Award–winning special effects makeup company that recently did the creature effects for Star Trek: Into Darkness. When I approached her autograph table, she showed me several stills on which I could have her autograph. I whispered, “I am Nancy Fan.” She smiled and pulled out a still from the original Nightmare on Elm Street.
VICE: What was your life like before you became an actor?
Heather Langenkamp: I was born and raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I lived there until the end of junior high. My father worked for the Carter administration, so we moved to Washington, DC, where I ended up going to a very fancy all-girls high school full of very famous politicians and ambassadors’ children. It took some getting used to, because I felt outside of that world. The school had a really great acting program, and I poured all of my teenage angst into it. By senior year I knew that I wanted to be an actor, but I didn't dare admit it or tell my parents, because I had already spent years laying the groundwork to go to Stanford University for Russian studies.
How did decide to risk it and go for showbiz?
The summer before senior year, I went back to Tulsa, where they happened to be making The Outsiders. It was the world's greatest coincidence. Of course, my girlfriends and I were huge fans of Matt Dillon so we followed him all over town and were trying to find out where the cast were hanging out—you know, just being completely crazy teenagers. Through hanging around, my friend found out they needed a couple hundred extras, and we got to be in the film. Which then led me to getting one line in Francis Ford Coppola's next S. E. Hinton film, Rumble Fish. By the end of that summer, I had my SAG card. I thought, What do I do? What do I do? I wound up going to Stanford but came to LA on the weekends. I met an agent, and one of the first auditions I went on was for the lead in a low-budget movie, and I got it! That helped cement the idea that I should take a year off from school and live in Los Angeles to see what might happen. Within that year I got A Nightmare on Elm Street.
Did you have any reservations about the stigma surrounding the horror genre when you accepted the role of Nancy?
At the time, I weighed it and thought, "No one is ever going to see this movie." But I also liked how complicated she was. I honestly didn't think it could hurt me. In some ways I was wrong. It is a hard stigma to break. Even when I was working in television, they always treated me like they saved me from some horrible fate of being a scream queen—they looked down upon the horror genre. “Thank god we picked you up off the gutters of Hollywood!” So here I was in my mid 20s, thinking, How am I ever going to do anything else?
What is it about horror that traps actors in the genre?
I have read tons of final-girl theory, but part of it has to do with how strong the imagery is, which makes it difficult for people to divorce themselves from it. It could also relate to the fact that they see someone get broken down. Mutilated, even! They simply can't break free of that image. I tried desperately to get other kinds of work. It just never happened.
Does that upset you?
As time passed I dealt with the fact that I was not going to be an ingenue. To hell with the ingenue! It became clear that this is the role that I am going to be known for. At first I was embarrassed and a little grim, because I never understood why I couldn't get beyond being Nancy. Eventually I realized that I am really proud of it. You can't regret the things you have done, and I have to have a sense of humor about the reality of what I was thrust into. I didn't do anything wrong. I just innocently said yes to a five-week part in a movie in the summer of 1984.
Being a scream queen is nothing to be ashamed of.
It's difficult when you come from Washington, DC. To put it in perspective, one of my best friends from school is one of President Obama's national-security advisers. People who have really important jobs. My skew is very warped. I was brought up to think that I should be an ambassador or a senator. It took a long time for me to realize that being a scream queen is equal to that.
Is that why you produced the documentary, I Am Nancy?
Once I came to terms with it, I decided to commit to it. To own it. The bad way to talk about it would be, "If life gives you lemons, make lemonade." It's not like that at all. I wanted to do something that was going to give me a whole new attitude. The documentary came about when I was working with my sister-in-law on Cabin in the Woods. It was a very difficult film to make, and the two of us were always together. One day while we were working, I phoned Wes Craven, because I saw in the paper that he was going to be doing a personal appearance at an anniversary screening of A Nightmare on Elm Street and I also wanted to attend. His secretary wouldn’t let me through to him and said I could leave him a message. As I was spelling out my last name, my sister-in-law's mouth dropped. When I hung up, I put my head down, about to cry, and she was like, "You call that bitch back and tell her to turn around and get the spelling off that Nightmare on Elm Street poster hanging in the office!" She looked at me and said, "You are Nancy." That day we decided to make a documentary about my investigation into what the character represents to me as well as what she means to the fans.
Why do you think the fans connect so strongly with Nancy?
She was the girl next door, but she also had an intense, alcoholic mother. So her rite of passage was taking control of her nightmares and assuming the role of the parent—which is visualized by that gray streak in her hair that she wakes up with. She was a very modern character. Through the fans I learned Nancy represents someone who can face one's fears.
Have you ever personally had to seek the powers of Nancy?
A few years ago. we discovered my son had a brain tumor. My worst nightmare. Oddly enough, it was just a few months after I'd finished making the documentary. All the insight I gathered from the fans became extremely useful to me. Face your fears, face your fears, became my mantra.
Working in makeup effects, how do you feel about CGI?
CGI works for well for some things. It excels in an action film. One example of where it doesn't work well is in nightmares, because seeing your worst fears in hyper-reality is way too much for people to bear and not actually what they are like. Dreams are full of wonky bits of imagination. The imagination is a little imperfect. That's why practical effects make such a connection with the viewer. Makeup effects will hopefully always remain an important asset to the film industry.
Have you ever dreamed about Freddy Krueger?
When I worked on Nightmare 3, I had reoccurring nightmares about saving Patricia Arquette from a sinking ship. What a metaphor! In the dream, the ship was rocking back and forth, slowly filling with water. A really obvious dream. It was hilarious! Meanwhile, the set conditions were really bad. Most of the scenes were shot in an abandoned hospital, and there was bird shit everywhere, and the cast quarters were in rooms where they once did tests on monkeys. It was dirty and haunted. Plus there wasn’t very much food on set. Therefore all the kids working on the movie were weakened and freaked out. Especially Patricia. I was protecting her in the movie and in real life.
But every once in a while, I'll dream of a claw in my face or a giant tongue wrapped around my head.