'Nightmare On Elm Street' Was Inspired By Real-Life Dream Deaths

Entertainment | October 21, 2019

Detail of the poster art for the German release of 'A Nightmare on Elm Street.' Source: wrongsideoftheart.com

When a horror film says that it’s based on true events that’s usually a bunch of hokum. But the strange thing about A Nightmare on Elm Street - the film Freddy Krueger, a sleep demon with razors on his fingers - is that it’s actually based somewhat in fact. Krueger is one of the most well known monsters from 1980’s horror, but the inspiration for his exploits is more horrific than anything he committed in the films.

Writer-Director Wes Craven was inspired by a series of LA Times articles investigating the mysterious sleep deaths of Asian men across the country who were coming to a violent end while in bed. Some of the deceased refused to sleep, and others simply passed without realizing anything was wrong, but they all suffered horrible deaths that traumatized their families and inspired Craven. 

Freddy Krueger Was Based On A Real Guy, But A Wave Of Mysterious Deaths Inspired His Methods

Source: (New Line Cinema)

Wes Craven pulled from a wealth of sources when he wrote A Nightmare on Elm Street. To create Freddy Krueger he thought back to an old man that the young Craven saw watching him outside his window, and while Krueger’s methods of using someone’s dreams to kill them are fantastical they’re actually based in fact. The idea of someone being attacked and dying in their sleep comes from a series of LA Times articles published in the early ‘80s that detail the mysterious deaths of Asian men around the country, mostly the Hmong people who emigrated from Southern China, Vietnam, and Laos. Many of these people escaped the killing fields of Cambodia, where the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia's communist ruling party, carried out some of the most gruesome mass killings of the 20th century. 

Craven Was Immediately Drawn To The Story

Source: (New Line Cinema)

Craven was immediately drawn to the idea of people dying violently in their sleep with no explanation. While the articles offer a medical diagnosis of the deceased, they also note how it’s hard to tell exactly what’s happening with these people. One story details a family fleeing Asia for America, and even though they escaped the violence of their former lives, their son was dealing with nightmares where he was being chased by something. Craven told Vulture:

[The boy] told his parents he was afraid that if he slept, the thing chasing him would get him, so he tried to stay awake for days at a time. When he finally fell asleep, his parents thought this crisis was over. Then they heard screams in the middle of the night. By the time they got to him, he was dead. He died in the middle of a nightmare.

The Mysterious Phenomenon Was Referred To As 'Pokkuri'

Source: (New Line Cinema)

One article from the LA Times about the deaths of young Asian men, specifically in Japan and the Philippines, states that hundreds of healthy young men were dying in their sleep, often with a final gasp or shout, and that doctors had no idea why. The phenomenon was most prevalent with men who immigrated to America, but western doctors were unsure of the cause. 

The LA Times reports that the Japanese called the phenomenon “pokkuri,” which translates to “piercing,” suggesting that the death occurs with a sudden snap or slice like a sudden, fatal heart attack. Doctor Michio Inui of the Tokyo Metropolitan Medical Examiner’s office told the Times:

It’s not a matter of the heart being good or bad. They seem to be dying of heart failure, but we can only guess about the cause. 

An Estimated 1,000 Men Died Of Pokkuri In One Year

Source: (New Line Cinema)

While there were no nationwide statistics to provide solid numbers about these mysterious deaths, the LA Times reported that in 1980 at least 80 men died from pokkuri in Tokyo alone. An estimated 500 men passed away from the mysterious ailment in all of Japan, and Doctor Inui estimated that nearly 1,000 men died from the snap in a given year, although they were unable to provide accurate numbers to back up the belief. The lack of substantial evidence of pokkuri is exactly what makes it so terrifying. It’s not that it wasn’t happening, it’s that proving it was nearly impossible - just like the deaths in A Nightmare on Elm Street

Hmong Men And Women Across America Were Afflicted By The Mysterious Condition

Source: (New Line Cinema)

It wasn’t just the LA Times that was taking notice of the mysterious deaths. In 1980, two American researchers drew a parallel between the deaths of 72 Laotian, Vietnamese, and Cambodian refugees in the United States over a six-year period and the wave of sleep deaths occurring in Asia at the same time. In 1981, medical professionals were able to get a better handle on the case when the trend of mysterious deaths continued ticking upward. Whether they were Orange Country, Los Angeles, Portland, or Minneapolis, each death was the same. Doctor Tom Pendergast explained:

All were either found dead in the morning or were observed during the night to be making some gurgling noises and in a collapsed state from which they could not be revived.

Medical Professionals Decided That The Deaths Were Caused By 'Cardiac Artery Disease'

Source: (New Line Cinema)

At the time it was believed that the deaths among Hmong men were caused either by stress or from surviving a gas attack by the North Vietnamese. Initially, researchers worried that the deaths were being caused by a kind of illness that spread from person to person, although that was ruled out as researchers continued to look deeper into the cause of the deaths. 

At the time medical investigators noted that it was impossible to measure stress, so they had no way of knowing how much stress the Hmong were dealing with, although with this line of thinking they were able to ascertain that the problem started in the heart. A Hmong man in Seattle who survived the pokkuri was suffering ventricular fibrillation, meaning that his “heart was contracting without making normal beats.” When his heart was finally examined surgically the doctors found “no sign of cardiac artery disease” that is typically aligned with a heart attack. 

The Filipino People Connected The Deaths To Angry Spirits Of Their Ancestors

Source: (New Line Cinema)

While speaking with the LA times, country medical examiner Lewman said that the Filipino people referred to these sudden deaths as “Bangungut syndrome” or “nightmare syndrome,” making the deaths even eerier. According to widow Xiong You, no one from her village experienced a sudden death like the ones occurring in the ‘80s until they moved to a city. Was it the sudden shock of an urban area that caused this nighttime cardiac arrest? She told the paper that she wished her family had never moved to America.

Some Hmong people believed they were being punished by their ancestors for abandoning their homeland for America, a fear that formed around the idea that the Hmong weren’t able to take care of their families back home because they were long gone. Whatever the cause, this mysterious illness is even more terrifying than the dream demon it helped create. 

Tags: 1980s News | A Nightmare On Elm Street | Horror | Movies In The 1980s | Rare Facts And Stories About History | Wes Craven

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Jacob Shelton


Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.