For many of us who were children in the 1990s, the name Freddie Krueger is synonymous with unbridled terror.
The enormous popularity of A Nightmare on Elm Street amongst teens and the mentally unstable a decade earlier meant that most of my peers had an older sibling, cousin or neighborhood hooligan who had seen it. These assholes then took it upon themselves to regale us with campfire stories about the beloved, sweater clad serial killer with knives for hands.
I was scared stupid by Freddie, but it wasn’t until decade later that I sat in a lecture theater at Melbourne University and actually saw the movie. Taking my seat, I worried that the three bags of ‘rave juice’ I’d ingested the night before (a mix of red bull, vodka and bartender urine served in a sandwich bag with a glow stick) was going to resurface due the cold fear brewing in my belly.
As it turned out though, by age eighteen, the pubescent horrors of pimples, homework and handjobs rendered A Nightmare on Elm Street nothing more than a mildly titillating and way to waste an afternoon. Something else I realized that afternoon was that my fear of Freddie Krueger had very little to do with ol’ Fred himself, but in fact owed itself largely to an infamous children’s book I had desperately tried to forget.
The way in which I discovered this book was so creepy and unsettling I have to wonder if Stephen King wasn’t hosting his own un-aired version of Punk’d (but forgot to pop out from behind a partition to inform me it was all an elaborate hoax).
So as it goes, on a rainy afternoon in the mid-90s I was wandering around the grass that lined my suburban street. Across from my home was a house that had famously been inhabited by a witch (read: an elderly woman who owned a cat). She had recently died/re-entered the hellm outh, and the house was temporarily, and eerily empty.
As I plucked daisies from the grass for a flower crown (yes, I started that trend 20 years ago, NBD) I noticed something nestled beneath a tree on the witch’s front lawn.
I nervously inched over to it, my curiosity fading as I began to recognize the object as a book and not something I actually wanted, like an ice-cream maker or a photo of Paul Rudd in speedos.
What I discovered was a damp, well-worn tome- it’s pages browned around the edges but protected by the thick, fibrous skin that bound it. Immediately I knew this book was evil, but I also knew I had to keep it.
I presumed the witch had left it as bait, and though whatever evil curse it held would probably be the cause of my untimely death, I suddenly felt as if I had stepped into a Roald Dahl story, only in this one I was the STAR!
I scurried back to my bedroom and knelt down by the fireplace (I’m not inventing this for dramatic effect okay, I had a fireplace in my room, control your jealousy). I studied the cover of the book – it was by far the most horrible and upsetting image I had ever (and have ever) seen.
On the cover was a medieval-style illustration of a demonic-looking man dressed in an orange peasant blouse (as if that isn’t horrifying enough) with a plume of feathered hair and long, snaking fingers.
Somehow I mustered the guts to flip through the book, only to discover each illustration more nightmarish than the last. Before me were scenes of child mutilation, animal cruelty and deadly eating disorders. I had opened Pandora’s box.
The book in question is Struwwelpeter. I’m sure many of you were already aware of this because this absurdly vile book (written by the German lunatic Heinrich Hoffmann) is also an enormously popular children’s classic.
Hoffmann wrote Struwwelpeter in 1845 and the book is made up of ten stories: each one detailing the horrific and gory consequences of children who did not listen to their parents. A girl is burned to death for playing with matches, a thumb-sucker has his fingers lopped off and little boy starves himself to death because he won’t eat his soup.
I am yet to uncover any proof, but I can’t help but think that the disfigured maniac that graced the cover of Struwwelpeter was inspiration for Wes Craven’s knife-fingered Freddie Krueger. In fact, when one compares Struwwelpeter and Freddie side-by-side, Freddie kinda looks like a middle-aged hipster with adult acne after a spending spree in the knitwear section at Urban Outfitters.
Struwwelpeter on the other hand, is genuinely and timelessly terrifying.
So on that rainy afternoon, having slammed the book shut with my clammy little hands I sat and pondered my next move.
I thought about returning the book to where I found it, but the idea of venturing back outside was too daunting.
I thought about showing it to my parents, but how could I trust them now? They’d probably take one look at it and hack my hands off with a meat cleaver for never finishing my flower crown. No, parents were murderous and vengeful creatures; I’d gathered that much from Struwwelpeter, so I could no longer expect them to protect me.
And that’s when I remembered Mother Goose.
My best friend at the time had a big, plush Mother Goose toy, which wore an adorable baby blue bonnet. I thought Mother Goose was delightful, however my friend Renee, who was prone to fits of feverish and irrational paranoia, believed Mother Goose to be the spawn of Satan himself.
Because of this, an absurd ritual had developed whenever I had a play date at Renee’s house. When we were absolutely sure her mother was sufficiently distracted by her daytime soap, we would sneak into Renee’s darkened bedroom, armed with toilet rolls. With a glean in her eyes I now associate with methadone addicts and the criminally insane, Renee would pull open her closet door and scream “NOW!” We would then launch our toilet paper missiles into the back of the closet where Renee kept Mother Goose crammed into the very back corner.
As if Mother Goose may fly forward and rip our little faces to shreds, Renee would then slam the closet door shut, a defiant grin on her crazy, sweat-beaded face.
Back in my room, nursing Struwwelpeter, I suddenly knew what to do.
I hurried to the creaky Victorian closet my brother and I shared; inherited from a long deceased relative. On reflection, our parents also sourced our wrought iron childhood beds from a local hospital after years of death and disease had rendered them undesirable – so yeah, my parents were clearly evil.
Frantically, I burrowed through the piles of OshKosk B’Gosh skivvies until I got to the closet floor and there I shoved the damp copy of Struwwelpeter. I desperately hoped that this ceremonial act would banish the book and its unholy wealth of curses the way that Renee had iced that evil bitch Mother Goose.
Over the following months I thought often of Struwwelpeter, mummified in candy-colored clothing, deep in my closet. Nobody in my household knew he was there, and I prayed that they never would.
But years went by and I managed to suppress all memory of the book, until now.
As I stumbled out of A Nightmare on Elm Street and back into the austere, ivy-covered University campus, I thought again of Struwwelpeter.
I still lived in the house where I had buried him 15 years earlier but my childhood bedroom was now a dining room. I had no clue where Struwwelpeter’s sarcophagus closet had ended up or what had become of the book itself.
My mother is very sentimental (regardless of her apparent thirst for children’s blood) and I knew that there was no way, when unearthing a vintage children’s book from her sons’ closet that she would have thrown Struwwelpeter away.
No, that thing was still somewhere in my house. Maybe sandwiched between well thumbed copies Peter Rabbit and The Berenstain Bears in our attic, just waiting to be resurrected.
Then suddenly I was hit with a revelation. Maybe the bad luck I had experienced in my life – the seemingly endless array of slapstick humiliations that had plagued me since primary school was the result of a curse!
Here I was, shuffling through life lamenting the proverbial chastity belt I couldn’t unlock all through high school and presuming my inability to master a single creative, athletic or social skill were my fault, when in fact it was Struwwelpeter the whole time.
Like poor, stupid Eve nibbling that apple in the Garden of Eden (and in turn, fucking us all over) I had picked up my own cursed fruit one day and invited into my home.
The logical next step would have been to search my house from the basement to the attic until I found this motherfucker and could triumphantly burn it like Germaine Greer griping a flaming brassiere. That, or force my entire family to abandon our beloved home of 20 years.
But this was 2007 and I was eighteen years old. I didn’t have energy to rifle through my house – at this time the only things I was capable of doing was downing rave juice, alleviating erections and dancing to Bette Davis Eyes.
So that’s exactly what I did.
I suppose Struwwelpeter is still stashed away somewhere in my house, pulsating with the curse placed upon it by that long-deceased witch across the street. I think of it on occasion and a shiver inevitably shoots down my spine.
But then I think of Mother Goose - her evil, beady little eyes glowing from the back of a closet, and I know that my old friend Renee, wherever she is, is definitely worse of than I am.