When I Was Attacked, Wes Craven Movies Saved My Life

Renowned illustrator Hal Hefner writes about his own very real nightmare on Elm Street and how Wes Craven's work taught him to survive it.
Wes Craven and Nightmare on Elm Street
Hal Hefner reached into a previously unknown depth of "Craven training" when he was attacked on the street.
Hal Hefner

Hal Hefner is an award-winning artist best known for his “CONSUME” series that serves as acrid social commentary on everything from greed and corruption to narcissism and bigotry; as he says, “It is my artistic weapon.” Hefner had to improvise real-life weapons last May when he was relentlessly attacked on his suburban street by a drug-crazed stranger and the artist’s greatest ally was the memory of Wes Craven films to guide him. But we’ll let Hefner tell you that himself. — Editors

On May 31, 2022, Wes Craven saved my life. Obviously, since one of the greatest film directors of the 20th century passed away in 2015, he wasn’t physically there to aid me. But the deeply woven messages within his films were a driving force in my ability to be a survivor in my own real-life horror movie. Looking back on that fateful night, I truly should be dead right now, but because of the power Craven instilled in me as a latchkey-Gen X child of the ’80s, I’m here to write these words today.

We often look at horror films as schlocky entertainment that’s less than worthy of an Oscar or any other pretentious film award. If you look closely though, especially at many of the horror films of the ’80s, they were embedded with prescient social commentary. Nobody did this better than Wes Craven.

So when a typical night in my Los Angeles suburb became a living nightmare that left me stabbed, bruised, bleeding, and limping, it’s no wonder that I called upon my inner “Craven training” to fight for my life. Nobody ever watches a horror movie thinking one day they’ll star in one of their own, but sometimes terror has a way of finding you — or you finding it. On a warm summer night in May I found it in the form of a violent monster, incoherently whacked out of his mind on drugs.

My six-year-old and I were walking our dog down our street in a Los Angeles suburb. In his own world of child’s play, my son was running ahead of my dog and testing his super speed. Unbeknownst to both of us, a menacing figure lurked in the bushes and he stopped my son dead in his tracks. The unkempt man blocked the sidewalk and reared up on his tippy toes, tilting his head towards the sky as he yelled. As he straddled the cement, his dead bulging eyes gazed with dark intent and I heard the man ask my son, “Are you ready to die?”

I heard the man ask my son, “Are you ready to die?”

I ran to my son’s side and grabbed him as the disheveled man turned his stare upon me. I tried to disarm him with words of assurance and we slowly stepped back as I pushed my son behind me. He zeroed in on me and began screaming racist obscenities and hurling accusations of me being a demon. Shielding my son, I bent down and told him to run home as the man taunted him again. I pushed my son to go while standing in the man’s path and he took off and raced home.

My job was now clear: I had to distract the man until my son was officially safe in our house a mere 900 feet or so away. I also wanted to make sure he didn’t see where we lived, so I began trying to reason with him while I moved to the other side of the street. He followed my every move, becoming more aggressive with each step. His verbal assault became increasingly delusional, shifting in and out of consciousness in his drugged-out state of reality.

When I became silent and tried to leave, he chased me, threatening to follow me home to kill me and my family. Taking shelter behind a car and determined to not engage in any physical entanglement or reveal the location of my house, I grabbed my dog’s leash tightly and called 911. It took forever to get through and the man was growing more enraged and delusional as I pleaded with the police to come as quickly as possible.

That’s when he grabbed a rake out of a gardener’s truck parked on my street and attacked. I defended myself with my forearms protecting my face and eyes as my phone dropped out of my hand. He picked it up and taunted me with my phone as I begged him to give it back and to relax.

Something inside me clicked when he uttered what could easily be a line from Freddy Krueger, taunting one of his victims.

With my phone in his pocket, he attacked me again and didn’t stop until the rake broke. Then he stabbed me in the back with a shard of the sharp wooden handle and jumped on me. I fell onto the curb, rolling my ankle and letting go of my dog’s leash in the process. I limped onto the neighbor’s lawn, who refused to help me and shut their door in my face while watching from the inside. The attacker flung more racial slurs at both me and the neighbor as he declared he was going to kill me and “end my race.”

With cuts all over my arms, head, back, and a badly sprained ankle, I was in trouble, but I still hadn’t given up hope that I could get my phone back and escape with this being the worst of it. As he stopped several times to tweak out from the drugs, I tried to get my dog, but the guy lunged at her in order to get me to keep engaging with him. As I protected my dog, he hit me with another rake and I used this opportunity to smash him in the face with a punch. It dazed him enough that I could escape behind a truck as I screamed for help.

Like any monster in a horror film, this guy was pumped up on drugs and wasn’t going down easy. Shaking off my punch, he became more enraged and stumbled over to another gardener’s truck where he picked up a pair of long garden shears with two saw-like blades. He stuck out his tongue and smiled as he declared, “I’m gonna cut your dick off!”

It was at that moment that everything shifted. Something inside me clicked when he uttered what could easily be confused with a cheesy line from Freddy Krueger, taunting one of his victims. I was no longer playing it safe and on the defensive to shield my family. In my mind popped an image of Nancy Thompson from “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and in that instant I felt her fear turning into the determination not to die.

A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, Heather Langenkamp, 1984. ©New Line Cinema / Courtesy Everett Collection
Heather Langenkamp as Nancy Thompson in “A Nightmare on Elm Street”©New Line Cinema/Courtesy Everett Collection

Nancy was an all-American teen girl who beat Freddy on her own, and it was her determination to live that fueled her victory. As I looked at my house, now just a hundred feet behind me,  I saw my two daughters peering out the window as he tauntingly opened and closed the shears, lunging them in my direction. That image of Nancy gave me the courage to commit myself to this fight. I had more to do in this life, like see those girls and my son grow up. I wasn’t going to go down at the hands of some asshole who couldn’t handle his drugs. It was life or death, him or me, and I wasn’t going to die in front of my kids for absolutely nothing.

I ran to another gardening truck on my street as he focused on my terrified dog pitifully hiding next to a car nearby. Again, he tried to flush me out by running after my dog to kill her. I grabbed a shovel from the back of the truck and went after him. I swung it like a bat with the same vicious intent he showed me, breaking the shears and hitting him several times in the process.

He then picked up the broken shears and used them as knives. I countered his every move with a swing as Nancy’s fury flowed through my veins. He threw a blade at me and as I turned my back to protect myself from it, it cut me and he brought the other shear down on my hand and sliced my thumb. I dropped the shovel and he grabbed it and hit me with it.

Luckily, I was able to punch him again in the face and escape behind a giant street dumpster in front of the wooden skeleton of a house under construction. I screamed for help as he stood winded, finally out of breath. I knew this fight wasn’t over and I also knew I had an advantage in the construction site behind me. Since I was thinner than him, my goal was to slip through the fence, grab a 2 x 4, and if need be, bash him with it.

I was just like Nancy luring Freddy into the real world. I approached the gate of the site and just as I was ready to slip through, another neighbor came out and distracted him. The maniac took off down the street and my neighbor grabbed me, helping me into their house. I tried to gather the energy to explain what happened but my mouth was dry, I was bleeding all over, and I couldn’t focus on anything except making sure the attacker didn’t kill my dog. Just then, the police arrived.

The attack was over — and the mental and physical ramifications began. That night, I was the final girl. Little did I know that being Nancy comes with a price, one that we never get to see unfold for the final girls in the movies. I’m still struggling with the injuries and PTSD.

But I survived, and I’m so grateful to be alive.

David Hess in Wes Craven’s 1972 “The Last House on the Left”Courtesy Everett Collection

Every day I look back on that night, and the lessons learned from that horrific incident appear in all shapes and sizes. While recovering from my wounds, I ingested a ton of Craven’s horror classics including the entire “A Nightmare on Elm Street” series, “The Hills Have Eyes,” “The Last House on the Left,” “The People Under the Stairs,” and many more. In each one I saw elements of my experience reflected back at me.

Collectively, his films reflect society’s greatest fears and deliver an unconventional roadmap on how to survive them. As a kid, a teen, and an adult I’ve consumed so many movies with little to no impact on my life, but I had no idea that it was Craven’s films that subconsciously injected me with the power I’d need to survive my darkest hour.

All of Craven’s heroes have a purpose, and often they have unselfish motivations such as protecting those they love. These protagonists also possess an undying dedication to survival, which may not seem like a hard thing to tap into but I can say from experience it is.

What Nancy Thompson taught me is that I have to be ready to fight or be killed. I had to become a hunter while also being hunted. I had to tap into primal strength, strategy, and cunning to outsmart and defeat the monster who was out for my blood. It’s not a comforting thought to admit that you were prepared to use any means necessary to defend your life, but this is my reality. If not for the films of Wes Craven, perhaps that light would have never gone on in my mind.

Scratches from the attack are still visible as scars.Hal Hefner

Ironically, the rake left scars on my back that resemble Krueger’s claws and when I see them I can’t help but think about how this attack resonates with the “Elm Street” theme. All wounds heal and some take longer than others, especially the mental ones. Reflection is riddled with doubt, regret and a swelling of emotions. After the attack I’ve had to endure months of court hearings to ensure that my own personal Freddy wouldn’t get the chance to harm another person any time soon.

Again, parallels between Elm Street resonated as I did all I could to put this monster away — but with Los Angeles county’s controversial approach to lenient sentencing, the punishment didn’t fit the crimes. With a rap sheet nine pages long and spanning more than 15 years, this violent menace got the maximum punishment. It just wasn’t enough, especially in comparison to other states. When the justice system fails to protect your children, you see how people can seek vigilante justice like the parents on Elm Street.

The further I get from that night, the more I admire Wes and relish the social commentary in his films. Beyond the inspiration to fight the monsters of our world, I now have the empathy to see through the social horrors that create these creatures lurking on every Elm Street in every town. Homelessness, mental illness, the gap between the rich and poor, drug addiction, and the greed that stops progress from addressing these issues would all likely be the topics Craven would address in the horror film that I just lived through. My only hope is that I can be a fraction of the narrative master that Craven was as I push onward and continue using this incident as an inspiration to help others.

So the next time you watch a horror film, pay close attention. You never know what lessons you may need to call upon when facing down your own nightmare in the real world.

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