The idea of a sadistic child murderer chasing and killing teens in their dreams led to one of the most successful horror film franchises of all time. In 1984, A Nightmare on Elm Street was released to audiences. Robert Englund’s performance of Freddy Krueger grew to iconic status in the 1980s and remains beloved to genre fans still today. Heather Langenkamp still tops all-time best final girl lists by way of her turn as Nancy Thompson in A Nightmare on Elm Street. The film easily cemented Wes Craven’s reputation as a master of horror. Yet, the creation of A Nightmare on Elm Street was not purely from the late director’s imagination. In fact, he drew real-life inspiration from a combination of his younger experiences as well as a news story from the time period.
The basis for the Freddy Krueger character in A Nightmare on Elm Street came from a terrifying situation. Craven stated in the documentary Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy, that looking out his window one night as a young child he saw an old man. The old man spotted him and young Wes jumped back to hide. After some time passed, Wes crept back to the window. He looked down and saw the man was still there in the shadows. Waiting. The man smiled malevolently and motioned to scare the boy.
A scenario that would haunt him well into adulthood, Wes Craven did not know what to do with it until he came across a series of fascinating, yet horrifying newspaper articles that eventually inspired him to write the screenplay for A Nightmare on Elm Street: Laotian refugee men were dying in their sleep. Healthy young men were found dead for no reason understood by the medical community. This news story was chronicled in 1981 from the Los Angeles Times and New York Times. Bright scientific minds, autopsies, and detailed studies all yielding unsatisfying results.
To understand where the trauma began, one must jump back to the mid-1970s during a war torn Vietnam. For several years before, the Laotian Civil War had raged on in the Kingdom of Laos. A communist political party known as the Pathet Lao formed to take over democratic control. In the final days, the Pathet Lao threatened to exterminate the Hmong people and so thousands fled to the United States. From these refugees are the men that began to mysteriously die in their sleep once situated in isolated areas within the U.S.
As the strange death toll began to rise, medical experts were left scratching their heads as to the exact cause. Speculation led to the possibility of anything from an irregular heartbeat to simply being frightened to death in their sleep. The assimilation of Hmong people into American culture led to a shift of their religious beliefs. Where once their faith centered on the presence of a parallel spiritual world had now changed to Christianity and Buddhism. Those that remained true to the prior faith believed the possibility of spirits inducing terror through nightmare.
The official name given by medical authorities in the U.S. was Asian Death Syndrome. The refugees with loved ones affected called it by a variant of names such as “bangungut” meaning Nightmare Death or Night Terror. Craven’s specific interest in this story focused on a young Cambodian boy that refused to go back to sleep after a series of bad dreams. The nights wore on until he could no longer resist the foe that eventually sneaks up on us all. He fell asleep. His parents were relieved until they heard him screaming in terror as he passed away. Similar to Nancy Thompson, the parents discovered the boy hid a coffee pot under his bed to keep awake. Sleeping pills given to him by his parents were found unused beneath his pillow. Sadly, these relics left behind only temporarily extended the inevitable. People have to sleep.
Like characters right out of a horror flick, the individuals in this situation are faced with a no-win situation. Sleep is an essential element for humans to survive. Long-term effects can lead to the ultimate breakdown of the physical body. An article from the Cleveland Clinic website describes some of the potential issues of sleep deprivation are “high blood pressure, diabetes, heart attack, heart failure, or stroke.” The real-life people that died in their sleep had little time to do anything about their situation. Even if there was some life-saving solution, after a certain amount of time they would enter a physical point of no return. Once the nightmares began, the individual affected was doomed one way or another.
To this day, the mystery remains intact. For how can one really know what another dreamed before they died? There is no one who has awakened to answer the question. One specialist at the time, an assistant medical examiner named Dr. Michael McGee, believed the possibility that these young men might have been “literally frightened to death.” We have all had nightmares. One has to wonder what terror in a person’s waking life must be experienced to have the kind of nightmares that could frighten someone to death. Or, even more sinister, what kind of insidious dream entity is created based on the evil that humans do to each other?
*Updated November 19, 2019