Spoilers ahead for The Midnight Club.
Before Heather Langenkamp was cast as scream queen Nancy Thompson in the 1984 classic A Nightmare on Elm Street, she never expected to become associated with the horror genre. But Langenkamp quickly became an icon, returning for two well-regarded sequels: 1987’s Dream Warriors, in which a slightly older Nancy tries to protect the young patients at a psychiatric hospital, and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, a delightful meta-slasher in which Langenkamp plays herself.
In the years since her involvement in Elm Street, Langenkamp has mostly taken on small roles while running the makeup effects company AFX Studio with her husband, makeup artist David LeRoy Anderson. But with her role as Dr. Georgina Stanton in Mike Flanagan’s new YA horror series, The Midnight Club, Langenkamp is poised for a big return to acting. As Stanton, she’s generous, firm, and mysterious all at once, hiding deeper secrets behind a genuine affection for the young patients under her care at Brightcliffe Hospice. Langenkamp spoke with Vulture about Dr. Stanton’s motivations and how horror acting has evolved since she worked with Wes Craven in the ’80s.
Dr. Stanton is such a maternal presence throughout the show, but she’s kind of enigmatic, and you know she’s hiding secrets at any given point. How do you tackle that mix of motivations?
I leaned more heavily on the maternal administrator, this person who has to keep these teenagers on track as much as possible. The mysteries were never really revealed to me as we were shooting. You always want your character to have a big mysterious plot line going through the show, but I knew that that was going to be developed slower and later. I’m okay with that. If that means we can get a second season, that would be great.
Was the show pitched to you with the potential for future seasons?
I think that was always Mike Flanagan’s hope and intention. There are a lot of kids, and they all have different arcs. It would’ve been too hard to try to resolve all of those arcs in one season, ten episodes, with the structure that he had decided upon. And then of course this backstory about the scary cult — that, too, is only just beginning to be understood.
The final scene of the season reveals an hourglass tattoo on Dr. Stanton’s neck. Are you still in the dark about what exactly that indicates?
I know she was part of this cult, because all of them had the tattoo. I do kind of know which member of the cult she might have been. But I don’t know any of the story behind her activities in the cult. It’s also revealed that the doctor herself has cancer, or has been dealing with cancer this whole time. Or she might still be a practicing cult member who shaves her head or something.
Earlier in the final episode, there’s this scene between Dr. Stanton and Ilonka where the doctor says people like Julia Jayne don’t want to accept that they recovered because they were just lucky. Should we take that explanation at face value?
Obviously she’s hiding something from the kids, but as the person who reads the lines, I did take that at face value. I choose to believe for my character that she’s a voice for science and for the here and now. I think that speech reveals that her relationship to the cult is over, and then the reveal at the end makes you go, “Uh-oh! Am I correct about what I think about the doctor?”
Because of this show’s anthology format, with the kids telling stories and imagining these other realities, you also have the opportunity to play other roles, including a detective and even the devil.
It was a dream for me to be able to play the devil, because people don’t usually approach me to play those kinds of characters. I talked with the hair department and the wardrobe department and the producers about what kind of devil she would be. We just usually see men being devils, and I wanted to put a feminine twist on it; I really wanted her to be an extremely elegant, very attractive woman.
I pitched that she should have not only this one tattoo to depict all the souls that she’d acquired in her devilhood, but tattoos everywhere. Unfortunately, you don’t really see the tattoos as vividly as I thought perhaps you would, but she has big tattoos on her neck and running down her chest and down her hands and on her hands. And I wanted her to have that really white hair. There’s just something about white hair to me that shows a certain kind of power; a woman with very shocking white hair embodies wisdom but also the flip side, a complete knowing of everything.
Prior to the series, you spent recent years primarily working in makeup effects.
My husband and I have a company together, AFX Studio. I administer the company, and he is the makeup artist and the makeup-effects designer. He will get the scripts and break them down and create all the practical effects. It gives us a chance to work really closely and do a lot of projects together. Our company did an episode of Cabinet of Curiosities, which is coming out at the end of the month. This is the first time ever in our many days where I’ve had an acting project that coincides with one of his makeup-effects designs.
That reminds me of your marriage in New Nightmare, where that’s the case.
That character of Chase was modeled after Dave. That character is actually a special-effects guy who makes explosions, so it was a little different in that my husband does special-effects makeup. It’s been a really cool partnership. He’s really in favor of me getting out there in the acting world, because he knows how much I love it. But I’ve always wanted to also prop up our business and his career, because he, to me, is incredibly talented.
Are you hoping now that you’ll be doing more acting in the future?
This industry is very hard to understand, but I really, really hope to get a lot more acting work going forward. I’ve always known in my heart that I was going to be able to; an actor can pretty much work until the day he or she dies. It’s one of the beauties of this profession: People still need you when you’re very old. I always thought once I finished raising my family and put them on the path to their own success that I would be able to focus more intently on acting again.
It occurred to me that in Dream Warriors, you’re also playing a maternal role to a bunch of kids. Obviously it’s different, because Nancy is just a grad student in that movie.
[Laughs.] With a lot of ideas.
What was it like working with a younger generation?
We weren’t that far apart in age; we were four to five years apart. But the way my character was portrayed, it seemed like a much greater gap in age and maturity. It comes very naturally to me to be the mother figure to kids. It’s a real privilege if you get to have relationships like that in your life.
In the horror genre, you’re always trying to keep them safe, trying to prevent the worst from happening. But this portrayal is a little different, because the worst is already going to happen to all these kids. My job is less to prevent their demise and more to teach them what it means to live. It’s very hard for people who are terminally ill to find a reason to celebrate their own lives.
Most adults in horror don’t believe the kids. They minimize their fears and tell them that they’re being ridiculous. “There’s no such thing as Freddy Krueger,” right? And yet my character is the opposite of that: an adult who is really putting her whole being into helping them face this really horrible thing that’s definitely not imaginary. It’s quite a different adult role from most horror.
One of my favorite parts of the season is Stanton’s emphasis on agency. At least in the first few episodes, you think that Ilonka’s goal to find a cure for her illness is pretty understandable. But I really like that Stanton is there to tell her it’s not about that anymore.
I’m somebody who goes out and buys something that I hear works. “Oh, I hear this makes you live longer if you do this or you drink that.” We’re all trying to constantly extend our lives. It’s something that has become, especially in America, like a billion-dollar industry, telling us these things will keep us alive.
So many people in America have a relative or somebody who has died of cancer. There’s the moment when you just realize, We’re kind of done with all the things that might work. Or you could try just “one more thing,” try this thing or try that thing. So many people keep that attitude of, “I’m going to go find the thing that’s going to help me live longer.” Dr. Stanton firmly believes that sometimes the search for the thing is taking away from your enjoyment of your life.
How does Mike Flanagan’s style of directing differ from other horror directors you’ve worked with, most notably Wes Craven?
Film stories are actually incredibly simple. There’s usually one main story line and a B-story line, and oftentimes a very minor C- and D-story line. And weaving those together isn’t that tough. Good movies do it very well, and I think Nightmare on Elm Street really, really did it well. When you’re doing a series, your mission is quite different, because first of all, you’re doing character studies. You’re really doing deeper dives into all of the members of your cast.
The thing I liked most about The Midnight Club is that we really get to know these kids pretty well. The stories that they tell are not meant to be mini–Nightmare on Elm Street stories. They’re kid versions of scary stories. They might not be excellent, but they’re actually there to reveal. Sometimes stories don’t have to be great to be really meaningful. It’s tough to translate these Christopher Pike stories to this format in just 20 minutes, but I really admired that faith in storytelling that Mike obviously has. This young-adult fiction really impacted him as a teenager, and he really, really wanted to bring this important group of books to the screen. It seems like it’s not scary enough for some people, but I think people are kind of missing some of the point of what The Midnight Club represented in fiction for millions of young kids back in the ’90s.
How has your relationship to film — and to horror specifically, since that’s how you originally gained attention — evolved in the years since you were in the spotlight for Elm Street?
It’s almost like, “You don’t pick your parents.” You don’t pick the genre that you get to be known for. It’s something that I would never have imagined for myself, knowing who I am. I’m not someone who seeks out to be scared, first of all. Life is so scary on its own — I don’t need any additional scares. But I do really respect the genre, obviously; I’ve been working in it for 40 years now. The reason I respect it so much is because it is extremely difficult. It’s very difficult to make something that scares people. I couldn’t even make something scary if I tried. I do think there’s a lot of really bad horror out there that gets a lot of fans because they’re very generous as an audience. And then there are other people who are creating masterpieces.
I still feel like I’m an outsider looking in, oftentimes. You know, in our business, when we’re making makeup effects, we get scripts and you break them down and we go, “Okay, we’ve got to make a monster who’s going to impale this person on a pitchfork,” and so my husband will design something. And I continue to watch from the outside like, “That’s going to be a great effect.” I think I intentionally keep a little bit of distance from the graphic nature of horror and its visceral qualities. Because I’m the kind of person who holds images in my head for a very long time. I really protect my own imagination from a lot of horror, because I want to spend time in a place where Freddy Krueger doesn’t jump into my brain all the time and try to scare me. I’m glad to be part of this industry of horror-making, but I don’t want to be in the center of it, creating scary images for people, because it would sit inside my imagination and wreak havoc there if I focused on it all the time like people like Mike Flanagan do. I couldn’t be him. I don’t want to be thinking about horrible ways to kill teenagers.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.