Pull back the curtain and see how a suspense writer puts the thrills and chills together.

SIGN UP FOR SNEAK PEEKS OF MY NEXT BOOK + NEWSLETTER-ONLY UPDATES.

It’s been over thirty years since Wes Craven’s A Nightmare On Elm Street terrorized a generation. Thanks to a bunch of schlocky sequels, it’s easy to forget how frightening the original was. People were afraid to go to sleep. One of my friends watched it in junior high and was so scared that I didn’t dare to watch until I was an adult. It’s rare to see any modern horror movie wield that kind of power.

But as scary as Nightmare was, it pales in comparison to the true story that inspired it.

In the early 1980s, young Asian men were dying in their sleep. The men, seemingly healthy immigrants and refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, had no reported health problems, other than horrible nightmares and being terrified to sleep.

One particular young man was convinced a demon was trying to kill him through his nightmares. His parents didn’t believe him, and his father, who was a physician, gave him sleeping pills. After three full nights of staying awake, the exhausted man finally collapsed, and several hours later, woke up his family with his screams. They found him thrashing around on his bed, apparently in intense pain. Before they could get to him, he was dead.

They later found the unconsumed sleeping pills hidden in his room, along with a Mr. Coffee maker.

In 1981, the Centers for Disease Control began tracking these mysterious nocturnal deaths. Over 104 men, averaging 33 years of age, and one woman, have died in this manner, according to Dr. Gib Parrish, a CDC medical epidemiologist. Ninety-eight percent of the deaths occurred between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m.

The condition is unknown in other ethnic groups.

Twenty-six men, often Hmong refugees from the highlands of northern Laos, died in their sleep in 1981. The victims were usually dead by the time they were discovered, but when medics arrived quickly, the men’s hearts were fibrillating or contracting wildly.

While there are several theories about what causes sudden unexpected nocturnal death syndrome, no one has been able to figure out why these men died.

Craven read about the deaths in the L.A. Times, and a monster was born. He created Freddy Krueger, the pedophiliac janitor who was burned alive by vengeful parents. Freddy, of course, gets the last laugh by continuing to torture the town’s children in their dreams.

Have you seen A Nightmare On Elm Street? Did you know it was inspired by true events? What is your favourite classic horror movie?

The short-lived Nightmare On Elm Street: Real Nightmares television series was quite good as well.

– With files from the Los Angeles Times

1 part newsletter, 1 part unnerving updates,
2 parts sneak peeks of new projects.

75 Comments

    • JH

      Yeah, it’s an interesting one, that’s for sure.

      Reply
  1. Avatar

    I’ve never seen the movie or any of the sequels, but the story inspiring it is quite interesting.

    Reply
    • JH

      If you like scary movies, the first one is worth a watch. I’m not really into slashers, but the writing is quite good. It’s a classic for a reason.

      Thanks for commenting!

      Reply
    • Avatar

      The movies make it much more interesting. I hope you have already watched them if not you’re a very staid individual

      Reply
  2. Avatar

    Elm Street scared the heck out of me when I was a middle schooler/early high schooler. I remember the sleepover parties where we scared each other all over again and made bleary eyed dads have to try and calm a room of teenage girls. Freddy was truly horrifying. I had not heard about the truth at the seed of the story. Interesting.

    Reply
    • JH

      Yes, it really was scary. I didn’t have the guts to watch it until I was older. I think it still stands the test of time, in a lot of ways.

      Reply
    • JH

      Welcome to my blog, Bob, and thanks for commenting. I don’t think I saw Dream Warriors. I’m pretty sure I stopped with the first one…and the TV series, which was great.

      Reply
  3. Avatar

    I vaguely remember this story from way back, but I had no idea it was the inspiration for Nightmare on Elm Street. I first saw that movie as a teenager and I remember not being able to sleep at all until I tucked my Bible under my covers like a teddy bear!

    Reply
    • JH

      Yes, you can definitely see how the true story got Wes Craven’s mind working. It is an incredibly sad and scary disorder.

      Glad to see I’m not the only one who got really freaked out by that movie!

      Reply
  4. Avatar

    I never knew these movies were inspired by a true story. That is creepy! I’ve seen many of the sequels but I don’t recall ever watching the original. I;m wondering if I should or if I should just say I did. ;P

    Reply
    • JH

      I think the original is probably the best, Chrys. Personally, after I heard people give their informal reviews, I didn’t bother with the sequels.

      Try it this Halloween! πŸ™‚

      Reply
    • JH

      Welcome to my blog, Jeremy, and thanks for commenting. Funny, I’ve never heard that before. It’s usually lauded as a classic. The original Dracula with Bela Lugosi is pretty amusing if you watch it today (especially the bat on the string) but it still has its place in horror-movie history.

      Reply
  5. Avatar

    I had no idea that was based on real events! Freddy Krueger is terrifying.

    Most of my favorite horror movies are more psychological or where you don’t see the monster until the end, if at all.

    Reply
    • JH

      Me too, Madeline. Those are my favorites as well. I really don’t care for slasher flicks very much.

      Sadly, psychological horrors don’t make the “Blood, Boobs & Carnage” cut. πŸ˜‰

      Reply
  6. Avatar

    I’d never heard the story behind the story – fascinating!

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks, Elle! Yeah, I didn’t know it until recently either. It’s pretty creepy.

      Reply
  7. Avatar

    I didn’t know it was inspired by real events. How creepy.
    I remember seeing it in the theater and yes, it was scary.
    Thanks for participating in our blogfest!

    Reply
    • JH

      Well, you know I had to, Alex. How could I miss, “Blood, Boobs & Carnage?”

      Reply
  8. Avatar

    Great pick! The Nightmare series is a favorite of mine. I’ve got the box set. Had no idea about the true story part. Very mysterious and scary.

    Arlee Bird
    A to Z Challenge Co-host
    Road trippin’ with A to Z
    Tossing It Out

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks so much, Arlee, and welcome to my blog. I really want to thank you for starting the A to Z Challenge. It’s made a huge difference to me.

      Reply
  9. Avatar

    I had no idea the horrifying movie was based on a real story. It was really scary. They don’t make them like those anymore.

    Reply
    • JH

      No, they definitely don’t, but every now and then, there are gems. I particularly enjoyed “The Conjuring” and “The Woman in Black” and am hoping Hollywood doesn’t blow it with the sequels.

      Welcome to my blog, Susan, and thanks for commenting!

      Reply
  10. Avatar

    I grew up on Elm Street so all the kids used to tell me I was going to get killed when I was little LOL. As cheesy as Wes Craven can be, those were scary!!

    Reply
    • JH

      Welcome to my blog, Darcy, and thanks for commenting! Those kids were not very nice, to put it mildly.

      Kids can be sadistic! No wonder they’re often the subject of horror movies.

      Reply
  11. Avatar

    I had no idea there was a true story behind the inspiration here. I always found these the scariest (and least stupid) of the scary movie franchises.

    Reply
    • JH

      Welcome to my blog, Hart, and thanks for commenting. I agree. When I finally watched Nightmare, I was impressed by how cheesy it WASN’T.

      Reply
  12. Avatar

    I am not able to watch most horror movies (unless they are really good) because I get almost physically sick seeing gore…I would never be able to be a doctor!! This was true when I was little, as well…watching Jaws: The Revenge was my first and only attempt to watch a horror movie as a kid and kinda scarred me for life! My best friend, though loved horror movies. I got a phone call from her the day after she had gone across the street to a friend’s house to watch A Nightmare on Elm Street. Partway through the movie, she was so terrified that she ran out of her friend’s house at night in the dark, across the busy street to her own house and began banging frantically on the door to her house, breaking the window glass and cutting up her hand, resulting in a trip to the emergency room! I still remember thinking how glad I was that I hadn’t spent the night at her house that night!!

    This is a fascinating bit of behind the scenes…I never knew the movie franchise came from a true occurrence.

    Reply
    • JH

      I’m with you, Jaime. I can’t stand gore–to this day, I still hide my eyes during gory parts. Definitely no future med student here, either.

      Thanks for sharing that story. It perfectly illustrates how much hysteria this movie caused back in the day.

      Reply
  13. Avatar

    How fascinating. That story would make for a good movie itself! I was a huge Nightmare fan back in the day. I had Freddy all over my walls and my brother couldn’t even walk into my room without getting nightmares!

    Reply
    • JH

      Wow, no kidding, Christine. You must have been brave to sleep in a room that had Freddy all over the walls.

      Thanks for checking out my blog! Hope to see you back here.

      Reply
  14. Avatar

    I’ve heard about this before, but can’t remember where. Nope, haven’t seen the movie. I was little when it came out and it was too scary for me then and it’s too scary for me now.

    Reply
    • JH

      It’s a pretty scary movie, to be sure. Last year was the 30th anniversary of Nightmare, so there were a few articles about Craven’s inspiration. That’s probably how you saw it.

      Reply
    • JH

      Welcome to my blog! Hope to see you back here.

      And you are very welcome. I love to tell interesting stories that might surprise people, or let them in on neat behind-the-scenes info.

      Reply
  15. Avatar

    I didn’t see this movie until college, so it didn’t quite have the same effect on me, but it was pretty scary. I never knew it had a real background. I wonder what caused all the deaths… It is kind of chilling to think about…
    Happy Blogfest! πŸ™‚

    @TarkabarkaHolgy from
    Multicolored Diary
    MopDog

    Reply
    • JH

      Yes, I think it’s much scarier when you watch it as a child.

      I hope they figure out what causes these strange deaths someday. I can only imagine how horrifying it is for the person going through it.

      Reply
  16. Avatar

    Wow, this was a great choice for the B,B&C Blogfest!

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks so much! It took me a while to decide what to choose for the blogfest. I think I’ve been pondering my options since I first signed up!

      Reply
  17. Avatar

    I’ve seen bits and pieces of the movie here and there on TV, but I’ve never seen the whole thing.

    Reply
    • JH

      Welcome to my blog, Ken. It’s worth a watch if you like scary movies.

      Reply
  18. Avatar

    This is one movie I have seen and wish I hadn’t. I can’t think about it and then sleep. I’m a sissy really. A Mary Poppins kind of reader. πŸ™‚

    Reply
    • JH

      No worries, Lee! We can’t all be horror-movie fans. It was a great, creative movie, though. At least it had a bit of a story to it.

      I’d say it’s better than most of the ’80s slashers.

      Reply
    • JH

      Definitely weird. I really wonder what was causing them, and if it’s still happening today.

      Thanks for visiting my blog!

      Reply
  19. Avatar

    Hi Holli!

    I loved ‘A Nightmare On Elm Street.’ Freddy was the object of many of my friends’ nightmares, which was always amusing. πŸ˜‰ I’ve read of nocturnal death syndrome, but had no idea that was the basis for this movie. It makes perfect sense!

    ‘The Exorcist’ is my all-time favorite horror film, but it wasn’t until I saw the spider walk that it really scared me. Every version I saw when I was younger had that scene edited out and when I saw it, I think it traumatized me. lol The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre also scared the hell out of me. I saw it back in the 80’s and because it was based on true events and I lived in Texas…well, let’s just say my imagination had a field day with that one for a while.

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks for commenting, Dawn! For some reason, I couldn’t get into The Exorcist. I think it’s because I heard it hyped for so many years before I finally saw, and then when I saw it, I didn’t find it scary at all–just gross.

      Haven’t seen Texas Chainsaw, but I do know the true story it’s based on. Let’s just say the actual movie bears little resemblance to an odd, lonely graverobber who murdered two people and gutted them. Sometimes Hollywood takes a lot of creative license. πŸ˜‰

      Reply
  20. Avatar

    i did not know that it was based on true events! whoa!

    I watched #3 dream warriors when i was 10. had marionette nightmares for a month. Marionettes and ventriloquist dolls still creep me out even now.

    the last scary movie i watched was woman in black with daniel radcliffe. my poor dog suffered my cuddling when i watched it the first time.

    Reply
    • JH

      I love Woman in Black! It’s one of my favorites.

      Marionettes and ventriloquists are really creepy. I’ve never understood why anyone likes them. They’re right up there with clowns.

      Reply
  21. Avatar

    “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” are my two favourites within the series.

    I didn’t know until just recently, but the movie “A Nightmare on Elm Street” apparently saved the company that produced it. After the success of the series, New Line Cinema became affectionately known as “the house that Freddy built”. Robert Shaye, the founder of New Line Cinema (and brother of actress Lin Shaye) mentioned this in the documentary “Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy”. I thought that was pretty cool. πŸ™‚

    One of my favourite horror movies is “It’s Alive”. Released in 1974 and directed by Larry Cohen, it’s about a mutant baby with a nasty habit of killing when it’s scared (and it’s easily scared). I wouldn’t call this movie particularly frightening, but it holds a special place as one of my favourites because it is a lot smarter than anyone would expect it to be. Getting past the idea of a killer baby, there are some subtexts discussed within the movie’s framework that were “hot button topics” in the 70’s. Subjects like abortion, environmental waste and the effects it has on people and the world we live in, pharmaceuticals, etc. Getting back to the killer baby, there is the relationship that it has with its parents (especially its father) that is, at times, heartbreaking. I really like it when a movie surprises me, and this one definitely did.

    Reply
    • JH

      I remember It’s Alive, Mark! It creeped me out when I was a kid, but I don’t recall any of the depth. I was probably too young to pick up on those things when I watched it. Do you think it’s worth a re-watch?

      I do remember “the house that Freddy built.” I bet they never imagined that a horror movie would be the thing to save the day!

      Thanks for commenting and for sharing those awesome stories!

      Reply
  22. Avatar

    I LOVE A Nightmare on Elm Street and the third move, Dream Warriors. The others are terrible. I had no idea it was based on a true story. Thank you for educating me. Great post!

    As a teenager, I watched them over and over, read all the books and watched the TV series. I even loved the Fat Boys song, Are You Ready For Freddy? Me? Obsessed? How dare you? So rude!

    It’d all good nostalgia now, but the original film still has a really uncomfortable edge, apart from the Mr Tickle arms!

    My favourite horror movie is the original (and best) Halloween. The claustrophobic camera angles, the juxtaposition between quiet suburbia and serial killer and the senseless meaningless of it. Michael Myers was much less scary once he was given a motive.

    Reply
    • JH

      I love Halloween, both the original and the Rob Zombie version. It’s my need to know what turns ordinary people into psychopathic killers, I guess.

      Books? I didn’t know there were Nightmare on Elm Street books. Were they any good?

      I’m glad I was able to let you in on an interesting fact about one of your favourite childhood movies. πŸ™‚

      Reply
  23. Avatar

    I never knew the true story behind NIGHTMARE ON ELM street. I am not so fond of stories or movies where it is only the monster and a flock of faceless victims. Likr TD, I enjoyed the original HALLOWEEN because it had a victim who refused to become one and fought back.

    My post is about Mercy Thompson who lives in a world of monsters and is scarily fragile … yet refuses to buckle and fights not only for herself but for those she loves.

    Fascinating, fun post. πŸ™‚

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks Roland, and welcome to my blog! Hope to see you here again.

      That was one of the things I liked about Nightmare. I found the backstory about Freddy–who he was, what he did, and what happened to him–way more interesting than the slasher stuff. That movie has a bit of depth.

      Reply
  24. Avatar

    I’ve never heard this before. That’s a pretty astounding story…and even scarier than the movie that was inspired by it. I remember finding the movie terrifying when I first saw it as a teen. Just the thought of being trapped in a nightmare with a killer with no way at all to escape…

    Stephanie
    http://stephie5741.blogspot.com

    Reply
    • JH

      That was the power of Craven’s idea, I think…everyone has to sleep eventually. We can’t avoid it.

      Thanks for commenting, Stephanie. It’s awesome that so many people hadn’t heard of this story. I was afraid it might be old news.

      Reply
  25. Avatar

    I did not know it was inspired by true events, but that was one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen. The sequels were never as scary. Phantasm was another that scared me nearly to death. I still expect to hear the words BOY!! when I walk past a mirror. *shivvers*

    No, modern horror movies just don’t compare. Or, perhaps I just matured and became too skeptic to believe in those monsters.

    Reply
    • JH

      Welcome back, Dolorah! I do think there’s a certain magic to horror movies when we’re kids. When we get older, we tend to become a little more jaded.

      I’ve never seen Phantasm. I shall add that to my list.

      Reply
  26. Avatar

    I didn’t know it was based on a true story. I got chills. Slashers have always been fun for me, because I don’t see them as realistic. I’d like to keep it that way.

    I wouldn’t want to have a nightmare. wha-ha-ha

    Anna from Elements of Writing

    Reply
    • JH

      That’s why the movie “Hostel” bothered me so much. Have you seen it? It seemed very real, like something that could have happened. I was relieved to find out that’s not the case (yet).

      Reply
  27. Avatar

    I am so glad you posted about this movie. I’ve never seen any of them but now I think I’ll go ahead and watch the first one. Will be interesting to see the good writing behind the slashes! Happy BB&C…
    Michele at Angels Bark

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks for stopping by, Michele! Let me know what you think.

      I’ll make sure to check out your post.

      Reply
  28. Avatar

    Oh, yes. Now we’re talking. I did know the ‘inspired by true events’ thing, but not what it was inspired by. Pretty creepy.
    If I’m not mistaken, this was Johnny Depp’s first movie and he was killed first!
    THANK YOU for joining Alex and me in this EPIC blogfest!
    Heather M. Gardner

    Reply
    • JH

      You’re very welcome, Heather. Thanks for hosting it! It was fun.

      And you’re right about Johnny Depp. I don’t think anyone realized what a huge star he would become. Except, maybe, fans of 21 Jump Street, which was an awesome show!

      Reply
  29. Avatar

    I’m over here from ‘Daring Creatives’ you were above me in the comment section. I’m totally new to the group and when it said to link to a post that needs love – I’m surprised you picked this one. I had to file through 80 some comments! That’s awesome. I see why now. What fantastic writing! I don’t usually read ‘nightmarish’ material but I completely enjoyed the intrigue and information. I could picture it so easily. Thanks for the being ‘above’ me in everyway. ha,ha. I don’t think your post needs love but you have mine. Nice to e-meet you and I’m looking forward to reading more when I return for another visit. Kellie from Princess & The Yard Ape

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks for commenting, Kellie. You were comment #68. πŸ˜‰ I usually link to my most recent post, but I’m always happy to find a new audience, including people who may not think they like reading this kind of thing but then are pleasantly surprised. I love hearing that!

      I really appreciate the kind words. I’ll try to find a less-loved post next time! Shouldn’t be too difficult. πŸ˜‰

      Reply
  30. Avatar

    I didn’t know it was based on a real story, but I am completely freaked out right now hahaha
    Always have to make sure to read your blog during the daytime…

    Reply
    • JH

      That’s a great compliment, AJ–thank you! πŸ™‚

      Reply
  31. Avatar

    This must be a reposting, and timely! I don’t watch slasher films, but I am fascinated by the original Psycho film. Also, one of my favorite classic plays is Arsenic and Old Lace which is based on true events, as well.

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks Mary…not a reposting. Just shared it again for my Halloween countdown.:)

      I normally don’t watch slashers either, but Nightmare is definitely one of the better ones. Hitchcock rules!

      Reply
  32. Avatar

    Wow! I love NoES, but I had no idea it was based on true events. I’d never even heard of people dreaming themselves to death. So bizarre they came from the same area in Laos. Thanks for the frightening info!

    Reply
    • JH

      I hadn’t either. It’s an incredibly scary, creepy story.

      Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.