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Horror Legend Robert Englund on What Triggers ‘Our Most Primal Fears’

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Robert Englund didn’t set out to be scary, but it’s worked out pretty well anyway. Born in California, the classically trained Englund enjoyed his first success as an actor performing in regional theater in the Midwest. He returned to California to enter the film business in the early ’70s, an opportune moment for those shooting for a career as a character actor. Englund found success in that capacity, turning up in films like Stay Hungry, A Star Is Born, and Big Wednesday while dipping his toe in genre films by way of Tobe Hooper’s Eaten Alive and the Roger Corman–produced Galaxy of Terror. However, all of that changed in 1983 and 1984. For the widely watched science-fiction miniseries V, Englund played Willie, one of the seemingly friendly aliens who visit Earth with bad intentions. The following year he appeared in Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street as Freddy Krueger, a razor-gloved madman who invades the dreams of some unsuspecting teens.

Since then, Englund has largely stuck to the scary stuff. Beyond the Elm Street franchise, he’s appeared in everything from the 1989 remake of Phantom of the Opera to smaller-scale efforts like Fear Clinic and The Midnight Man. Englund’s latest role finds him playing himself while drawing on both his own sinister onscreen history and some dark corners from America’s past. For Travel Channel’s True Terror With Robert Englund, Englund guides viewers through a collection of macabre stories of vengeful ghosts, weird monsters, and premature burials that appeared in newspapers years ago. Speaking to Vulture by phone, Englund sounded quite bullish on the project, which combines his love of weird history with his ability to tell a spooky story.

This is a documentary series, but it seems of a piece with your horror career in many ways. What about hosting True Terror appealed to you?
I like that they all began as actual news stories in newspapers. I love that in the American psyche, if you go back 150 years to the 19th century, early 20th century, all of this stuff was reported. People took it seriously. Now, we were more superstitious back then. There was less science, but we were also more open to this stuff, even things that now we call ghost stories. The idea of precognitive dreams were taken more seriously.

And then some of these stories are absolutely verifiable and happened. People [really were] being buried alive because you paid a gravedigger a buck a body, you paid the guy to drive the wagon a buck a body, you paid the coffin maker a buck a coffin, and you probably tipped some guy in the coroner’s office to declare the bodies dead. It’s corruption and it’s a lack of respect for life. But it’s also so macabre and dark and strange and it triggers one of our most primal fears. And yet it happened all through the yellow fever and the smallpox epidemics in New Orleans. I love those kinds of stories because they’re really true. Some of it’s what-if, and some of it’s we-know-better-now terror, but some of it’s actually true terror.

When you listen to the wilder stories, where do you fall in the line between being a skeptic and being a believer?
My thing is with most of them [to approach them and ask] what if they were true? Or what do you think really happened? One of the most bizarre ones, obviously, is the one about cowboys and pterodactyls. But for me, I talked to somebody and they were saying that suppose in 1850, which is 170 years ago, that there was a couple of drunk cowboys at sunset making camp around a campfire in Arizona down by the Mexican border somewhere, and they’re lying there and they [see something that] glides a little bit. And now you go back to the saloon in town the next day in Bisbee, Arizona, or Tombstone, or somewhere, and you exaggerate a little bit. So what do we think they really saw? What do you think it really was? Were there giant buzzards? Were there monitor lizards, or geckos, that still existed in that part of the desert back then? Did they have a lot of fat and flab on them, or did they have, like some of the monitor lizards do, a fin on their spine that looked a little bit like a stegosaurus? And if you saw one on a rock 40 or 50 yards away, how big would you think that is? You know? And so, it’s that: What if? What could that be?

You’ve acted for decades now. What kind of skills do you have to draw on to play yourself when hosting a show like this?
I mean, that’s me up there, but it’s kind of the Robert Englund that I think a lot of my fans think I am. So, there’s a bit of Rod Serling. There’s a little dusting of Vincent Price. When I’m hosting it’s sort of a darker version of me. It’s the part of me that loves this stuff. It’s a part of me that, when I was a fanboy, that stayed with me all my life, that I love. Reporting on serial killers or stuff like that. It does intrigue me. It’s that part of my energy that I try to bring to the on-camera hosting.

I couldn’t help but be reminded of watching you as a host of the Nightmare on Elm Street spinoff, Freddy’s Nightmares, back in the ’80s. How did that differ from this?
When I did Freddy’s Nightmares, I was Freddy, almost as the sort of court-jester element of Freddy’s personality. Freddy the joker. I mean, I did embrace a bit of Rod Serling in both of them. With Freddy’s Nightmares I got to sort of be within the sequence, or come from the sequence, or maybe [interact with] a symbol of the sequence, or a prop from the sequence. I’m hoping that when we do more episodes of True Terror that perhaps I’ll be able to visit one of the more darker, stranger sets that they use.

Your history with horror goes back well before A Nightmare on Elm Street. You were in Tobe Hooper’s first film after Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Eaten Alive. Do you feel that movie put you on track to be in more genre films after that?
No, I was not on that track. I was going to be Strother Martin or Warren Oates. I was going to be the best friend, the sidekick for Jan Michael Vincent or for Henry Fonda or for Peter Strauss or Jeff Bridges. Those are the parts I was playing: the buddy, the sidekick. And somehow, in the middle of all of that, I did V, a science-fiction TV series that became an international hit overnight. And then, in my hiatus from the TV show, I did A Nightmare on Elm Street and it became an international hit overnight. And I went from being just a utility character actor to being an internationally recognized actor, overnight. It was like a one-two punch. That’s a class they don’t teach anywhere.

True Terror brings you full circle to A Nightmare on Elm Street, in a way, because Wes Craven treated Freddy almost like a figure of modern folklore, one with origins in a news story that had been lost in time.
Well, Freddy overlaps with the urban legends of the man with a hook hand, things like that. But that’s what Wes was trying to do. He was trying to create his own strange folk thing. Because Freddy’s also a lot about loss of innocence, so there’s a real subliminal thing going on. Teenagers, they don’t intellectualize their reaction to Freddy, but he is a lot about loss of innocence. What’s the name of the series? Nightmare on Elm Street. What’s Elm Street? It’s the street where Jack Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.

Our country was Mom, Dad, and apple pie. We had hope. We were innocent. We believed that if you worked hard and got good grades and everything, everything was going to be okay. And from the moment that they killed Jack Kennedy, we haven’t trusted anything. We lost our innocence. And that’s Elm Street. And it’s happened with families, and it’s happened with religion and it’s happened with government, but that’s why we’re so skeptical now. And that’s the nightmare on Elm Street. And Freddy’s sort of symbolic of that, and we sort of see it through the eyes, in every one of the episodes, of a new young girl. She sort of discovers the loss of innocence that no one tells her about, and the adults are all very flawed in those films.

Is it fair to say that True Terror connects to your ongoing interest in the underside of the American psyche?
Sure. I mean part of True Terror … it’s very American. It looks at all this shit we believed in, and also at how some of it’s true, and how dark it is and weird it is. The difference is that True Terror’s not legend or myth. It’s actual stuff that was in newspapers. Now, we’ve outgrown some of it. Science disproved much of it. We’re more skeptical of a lot of it. We’re less superstitious, but it was still part of who we were, and who we are.

Horror Legend Robert Englund on ‘Our Most Primal Fears’