Without a doubt, Freddy Krueger is among the more fantastical killers of the modern horror canon. Invading your dreams, he is both everywhere and nowhere. He doesn’t embody your fears, he becomes a new one, something apart from everything else in your mind. His first onscreen appearance is a striking one: arms almost comically outstretched, spanning an inhuman width, a black silhouette gleefully ambling toward you. But the character has more roots in reality than we might wish to admit.

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A Nightmare on Elm Street was released in 1984, which feels significant thanks to Freddy’s backstory. Wes Craven made Krueger a pedophile, specifically a child killer, which feels strangely atypical for other villains of the slasher genre. Yes, Krueger focuses on teens, but the change-up is part of an act of revenge, not to mention the fact that the teens in question are the children of those who murdered him. So in essence, he’s staying true to his child killer roots.

Why does this matter, and more specifically, why does it matter in 1984? It matters because 1984 was also the year the milk carton project was launched. The early ‘80s saw a sharp rise in paranoia revolving around child abduction. The milk-carton initiative was part of an awareness campaign, spawning the term “milk carton kids” and various melodramatic media for Lifetime.

When 6-year-old Etan Patz went missing on his way to school in 1979, panic swept Manhattan. The 38-year-old case was finally solved earlier this year, but its ramifications were felt long before, among every child growing up in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. Between stranger danger and family passwords, the fear of abduction was ever present. For years if not decades, the prime suspect in the case was a man named Jose Ramos, whose penchant for trying to lure young boys into a drain pipe gave him a striking resemblance to another of horror’s heaviest hitters: Pennywise.

Etan’s parents, Stanley and Julie Patz, in 1980. Credit John Sotomayor/The New York Times

Etan’s parents, Stanley and Julie Patz, in 1980. Credit John Sotomayor/The New York Times

By 1983, President Ronald Reagan had declared May 23 (the anniversary of Patz’s disappearance) National Missing Children’s Day. With the milk carton launch the next year, that brings us back to Freddy.

Craven has reported numerous times that his main source of inspiration was the sudden deaths of refugees escaping the Killing Fields of Cambodia and, as The Nightmare reminded us, sleep paralysis (Freddy’s look, including the hat, is a recurring theme among sleep paralysis nightmares since well before the film’s inception). But that doesn’t make the convenient timing of A Nightmare on Elm Street any less interesting in this context.

Right at the moment when parents’ fears about harm coming to their children is peaking, Krueger arrives on the scene. In life, Krueger is a stranger striking children at random—the embodiment of parents’ worst fears. In death, he attacks the children of his killers where their parents can’t protect them: in their minds. Whether human or supernatural, his target remains the same and the parents feel helpless against him.

Even the end of the film can serve as an unsettling parallel to the rampant fear of the time. Ignoring sequels and later mythology for the time being, Freddy’s return at the end leaves us wondering what’s real and what isn’t and it’s that uncertainty that’s so reminiscent of the paranoia around abduction: is the threat real? How real?

And so while much of the conservatism that can be found in other slasher films of the era is designed to highlight the unique horrors of being a teenager, A Nightmare on Elm Street ends up in the unique position of accidentally speaking to parents’ greatest fears. The fear not that their children will have sex or grow up too soon, but that they’ll be taken from them and never grow up at all.