The morning was spookily warm for Halloween week, so Freddy Krueger suggested we chat by the little koi pond in his Southern California backyard.
Let the record reflect that the terrifying villain from “Nightmare on Elm Street” was almost tender as he regarded the plump, orange fish mouth-breathing in the garden of his antique beach cottage. It hasn’t been so long since Robert Englund, the real human actor behind one of California’s scariest icons, came home one day to find his fish pond a bloody mess, raccoons having disemboweled several of the critters.
You’d think gore wouldn’t faze a guy famed for slasher movies, but at 68, Englund – a third-generation Californian – is protective and appreciative of beauty. In fact, he says, the scariest thing to him right now is the lack of appreciation in his home state for the fragility of our way of life here.
“Everybody here thinks life started yesterday,” said Englund, who was raised in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, the only child of a Lockheed engineer and a Pasadena-born housewife.
“But I remember when every intersection that was commercial had a produce stand on it. I grew up with fathers around barbecues smoking cigarettes and drinking martinis, arguing about which stand had the best cherries and tangerines and tomatoes, and every one of those stands was somebody’s truck farm.
“Then those stands were destroyed and there was a gas station and then a minimart on every corner. We may have gained a little in private business. But look at all we’ve lost.”
I had looked Englund up at the modest Laguna Beach bungalow where he and his wife, Nancy, have lived for decades, vaguely imagining some Halloween story. It wasn’t long before the conversation turned serious. I can’t say I was surprised.
Though California has reportedly gone to hell and been resurrected more times than, well, Freddy Krueger, a lot of the native Californians I meet these days seem to be unnaturally restless. Maybe it’s age, or the company I keep, but when I talk to people who are actually from here, I hear more concern than usual about their state’s future.
It’s not just the drought parching the Central Valley, or the plague of bark beetles that has descended on Lake Tahoe. It’s not just the fire-nadoes in Lake County or the apocalyptic mudslides engulfing the Tehachapi Mountains.
It’s the gridlock that paralyzes Los Angeles around the clock now. It’s the freakishly warm oceans, collapsing aquifers and algae-choked rivers. Sometimes it’s the disappearance of history, or the development that has surged like a bad rash as the economy has recovered, even in spots where it’s obvious that the land can’t support it.
In any case, as soon as Englund told me he was third-generation, I braced for the worry, though in his case, it was laced with hope and nostalgia.
“This place is the American dream,” he said, recalling the orange groves and surfing expeditions and PTA moms of his childhood. “We have to cherish it.”
How might that be done? Character actors aren’t policymakers. Still, Englund had interesting ideas, as a Californian who knows something about fear.
A little surprisingly, given that he makes his living from big, small and video-game screens, he believes people here would have more perspective if they lifted their eyes from their entertainment a little more often, and turned more toward the land and each other.
“I remember when I was a child going to Malibu,” he said. “And everybody there swam in the ocean and dove for abalone and ate outside.”
Years later, he said, he found himself back at that now-glitzy beach, surfing, “and every house seemed to be a walled-off fortress, and soundproofed.”
“Why would you live in Malibu,” he asked, laughing, “if you didn’t want to smell the sea and hear the waves?”
As a celebrity, he travels the world, signing autographs at Comic-Cons and appearing on film festival panels, and what also strikes him is how much Californians could learn about engaging from older places.
Would we feel so disconnected from our societies and landscapes, for instance, if more of us took evening promenades through our communities like the Italians? Or had a pub culture like the British that brought us into more regular contact?
“If I were king, I’d send every kid off with a backpack to Hong Kong or Tokyo or Mexico City or Paris or Rome or London for the summer after high school, so that when they come back, Notre Dame wasn’t just a hard word to spell,” said Englund.
“So that when they did go to college, and someone mentioned Notre Dame to them, they’d think of a great cathedral by the Seine with skateboarders and jugglers and a fabulous bookstore and cool French girls. … Americans think we have it better than everybody in the world, but it’s a great lie. Barcelona may be the best place to be young in the world right now.”
The arts also connect people and foster an appreciation for beauty, and California should make them more accessible, he added. Though he lettered in sports in high school, he said he spent much of his free time – and enjoyed some of his best rites of passage – acting in community theater as a kid.
To that end, he’s also a firm believer in the state’s Hollywood tax credit, which he feels should be even bigger: “I’m doing my fourth movie in Ohio in as many years,” he ruefully noted.
And by the way, he doesn’t worry that film violence damages and alienates people.
“I think cheap thrills are part of our culture, whether it’s boxing or people hoping for a crash at NASCAR races,” he noted. “There are warnings about content. You know what you’re getting with a horror movie – we’re not trying to bill ourselves as family entertainment. We all have free will.”
How will he spend Halloween? On the circuit with the cast of “The Walking Dead” in Atlanta. Visitors to his cottage will find house sitters handing out autographed glossies with the candy corn.
How his fellow Californians should celebrate the weekend is another matter. But he did mention a treat that would delight non-natives in less scary seasons.
“I have friends in L.A. who have never driven up the coast,” he marveled, ticking off favorite spots from Trinidad to Mendocino. “I think it’s a pilgrimage. I think every Californian should drive from Malibu to San Francisco every year on Highway 1.”