The Truth Behind Nightmare on Elm Street

Everyone knows the true stories behind The Exorcist and The Amityville Horror, but what inspired Freddy Krueger?

Everyone knows that the most popular horror movies are based on true stories.  The Exorcist (and subsequent versions), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and The Amityville Horror.  But are there other famous horror movies that are, at least slightly, based on fact?  One true horror story that caught my attention was Nightmare on Elm Street.  How could anything about a nightmare serial killer be real?

Released in 1984, Nightmare on Elm Street was written and directed by Wes Craven.  The inspiration for Nightmare on elm Street came to Craven when he ran across three separate LA Times articles about South East Asian men who had died in their sleep.  In an interview about Nightmare on Elm Street, Craven discussed the article that gave him the basic idea for the movie.  At first he joked that the idea had come to him in a dream but then continued with the truth.

“No, it was a series of articles in the LA TIMES, three small articles about men from South East Asia, who were from immigrant families and who had died in the middle of nightmares—and the paper never correlated them, never said, ‘Hey, we’ve had another story like this.’ The third one was the son of a physician. He was about twenty-one; I’ve subsequently found out this is a phenomenon in Laos, Cambodia. Everybody in his family said almost exactly these lines: ‘You must sleep.’ He said, ‘No, you don’t understand; I’ve had nightmares before—this is different.’ He was given sleeping pills and told to take them and supposedly did, but he stayed up. I forget what the total days he stayed up was, but it was a phenomenal amount—something like six, seven days. Finally, he was watching television with the family, fell asleep on the couch, and everybody said, ‘Thank god.’ They literally carried him upstairs to bed; he was completely exhausted. Everybody went to bed, thinking it was all over. In the middle of the night, they heard screams and crashing. They ran into the room, and by the time they got to him he was dead. They had an autopsy performed, and there was no heart attack; he just had died for unexplained reasons. They found in his closet a Mr. Coffee maker, full of hot coffee that he had used to keep awake, and they also found all his sleeping pills that they thought he had taken; he had spit them back out and hidden them.”

As it turns out the phenomena referred to as Asian Death Syndrome is in fact a fairly common occurrence for men from the South East Asia region (specifically Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Japan, and the Philippines).  Most medical professionals categorize these deaths as SUNDS, or Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome, because when autopsies are performed there are usually no direct causes found.  All the autopsies show is that the men die from sudden heart stoppage.  What is curious however is that the men are fairly healthy guys in their late 20’s or early 30’s, who haven’t shown any sign illness.  Even more, these Asian men have extraordinarily low rates of cardiac disease and malfunction, which is attributed to a low-fat diet.

It seems it wasn’t the way that these men died that caught Craven’s attention, it was the fact that this young man was so particularly afraid of death and to fall asleep that he did everything in his power to stay awake.  Did he know that he was going to die due to some pre-existing, unknown, heart condition?  Or had he caught a glimpse of Freddy?  Perhaps it was something worse than Freddy?

In any case, Wes Craven was successful in bringing to the screen a truly horrifying tale that has kept audience members awake for many years and will for years to come.