Updated: Aug 23, 2019
Nightmare on Elm street came out on November 9th, 1984, written and directed by none other than Wes Craven. The film's budget was $1.8 million and grossed over $25 million in the U.S. alone. It was one of the first incredibly successful horror comedies. It now has a 94% approval rating on Rotten tomatoes.
To give a very brief plot rundown: four teenagers in the fictitious town of Springfield, OH are tracked down by a burnt killer named Freddy Krueger in their dreams. Freddy Krueger is the town pedophile and child murderer who was burnt to death by outraged parents and who now appears in dreams with a glove of blades to kill his victims.
By Craven's account, his own adolescent experiences led him to the name Freddy Krueger; he had been bullied at school by a child named Fred Krueger. The teen actors of the movie include Heather Langenkamp (a horror icon) and a young and adorable Johnny Depp. Of course, Robert Englund, played the iconic Freddy and absolutely crushed it. They have since tried to remake the movie in 2010 without Englund as Freddy and the movie was highly criticized and widely disliked.
Wes Craven contributed his idea for the movie to Sudden Asian Death Syndrome or more generally known as Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome. There were 117 male deaths of southeast Asian refugees reported to the CDC between 1986 and 1988 and the CDC suggests this will continue at 1-2 deaths per year per 100,000 males respectively.
SUNDS as it is called, was first recognized in refugees fleeing from Cambodian genocide. In the 70's and 80's, stories started to develop about refugees who died in their sleep or who were too scared to sleep for fear of dying. The refugees give it a name that translates to "nightmare death" as all of these men die in the same way: they cry out in their sleep and then drop dead.
The average age of these men was 33 and they were all healthy men with no previous symptoms. It only occurs in men and occurs when they're asleep. These refugees were absolutely terrified at the time because they had no understanding of what was going on. The LA times, NY Times and all sorts of newspapers were writing these terrifying articles about these nightmare deaths and these refugees were terrified to go to sleep in fear it would happen to them.
Back in 2014, Wes Craven articulated a story about a specific Hmong refugee family which really pushed the idea of Freddy Krueger to the forefront of his imagination. The family fled the Killing Fields and came to America, and their young son began having terrible dreams. “He 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."
One such refugee, Vang Xiong, who actually survived and did not die from this reported this nightmare he would have at night:
"A tall, white-skinned female spirit came and lay on top of me," he said. "Her weight made it difficult for me to breathe, I tried to call out but could only manage a whisper. I tried to turn onto my side put she’d pinned me down. After 15 minutes, she left. And I woke screaming."
This is actually incredibly common among people with sleep disorders like sleep paralysis or night terrors and she's known as the "night hag".
One article talked about a man named Dr. Robert Kirschner who had investigated five of these deaths himself. Two of which were a Laotian father and son who died in a northside Chicago apartment in bed and asleep only 15 months apart. Another doctor, Dr. Friedrich Eckner of the University of Illinois College of Medicine, examined the hearts of 18 SUNDS victims. He noted all 18 hearts were slightly enlarged and 17 showed defects in their conduction systems. These systems were full of frayed and curled fibers as if their hearts had "just shorted out."
The theory is that stress may cause these already defective hearts to overload and result in sudden death. It is not surprising that perhaps a nightmare would be the cause of this and therefore it was common for the men to be having nightmares just before their deaths. Despite the super scientific explanation, the concept is terrifying. The idea that a nightmare can literally kill you is mind-boggling and will make you think twice before you rest your head on the pillow at night.
So let's get into true life inspiration: the sleep disorders that go bump in the night, starting with sleep paralysis. Sleep paralysis is when a person is aware that they are waking up or falling asleep, but they cannot move or sleep. These episodes can be extremely scary because the person may hallucinate and hear, see, or feel things that are not actually there. These episodes can happen to those who are otherwise healthy, those with narcolepsy or may be triggered by lack of sleep, psychological stress or abnormal sleep habits. It is a pretty common condition and is normally not serious or dangerous. In fact, 8-50% off people have experienced sleep paralysis at least once and about 5% of people have regular episodes.
Although sleep paralysis is not dangerous, it is scary. People have reported hearing humming, hissing and whispers, feeling that they are being dragged out of bed, feeling vibrations through their body or numbness. Some have even reported seeing supernatural creatures scaring them and have felt pressure on their chest during these hallucinations. A common example is seeing a shadow figure in the corner of the room or watching outside of the window. This can cause so much fear that the body tightens and causes pain and spasms in the limbs. Some common types of hallucinations during sleep paralysis include feeling an "intruder" in the room with you, feeling that something is sitting on your chest and unusual body experiences such as flying or floating.
A man once reported that his sleep paralysis began as a demonic dark fuzzy figure that would hover above his bed and suck the breath out of his mouth. Then it transitioned to this figure sliding into bed next to him and would growl, get angry and rise above him. He decided to try to just fall back asleep and the creature whispered, "yes, just fall asleep. You'll be safe" in a sinister sarcastic way.
Many people confuse sleep terrors and nightmares, but they are in fact different. When a person wakes up from a nightmare, they may remember details of the nightmare but a person who has a sleep terror will not remember the whole things. It is possible to remember fragments of the sleep terror but not the whole thing. Nightmares get gradually scarier as they go one, while the fear from a night terror is much more sudden. Nightmares occur during REM sleep when vivid dreaming happens, but sleep terrors occur during non-REM sleep. Specifically, it occurs in stage 3, which is called deep sleep and happens during the beginning half of the night while REM sleep happens in the second half. There is also a difference in how common they are. About 35-45% of people have one nightmare a month, while only about 10% of people have had a night terror in their entire lifetime.
Night terrors may cause a person to scream or shout, sit up in bed, stare wide-eyed, sweat, increase their pulse, kick and thrash, or wake in a confused state. The confusion happens because they are only partially awake when they wake up from a night terror. They could be caused from sleep deprivation, stress, fever, some medications, alcohol use, mood disorders or trauma. They are also more common if you used to sleepwalk or talk as a child. They're more common in children but only about 2% of adults have them. It's important to keep in mind that this could be higher because a lot of people don’t remember having them.
Nightmares can also be recurring, which means the same theme or event is repeated. These are common in trauma survivors and people with PTSD. I (Kiley) personally have recurring nightmares from PTSD (these are also called PTSD nightmares), which are exact replays of the trauma. I also have nightmares related to the trauma indirectly or symbolically but the dreams from PTSD are night terrors, not nightmares. I don’t remember much from them, just bits and pieces. My nightmares, on the other hand, I remember every part of, and I'm often violently attacked, kidnapped, or tortured. I've experienced weird sleep habits my entire life even before being diagnosed with PTSD.
When I was younger, I had sleep paralysis that I think stemmed from a recurring nightmare. I saw this large man with completely black eyes and all of his skin peeling off of him. He had red horns and would stand in the corner of my room. Sometimes he would walk up to me and start quietly laughing louder and louder. In the nightmares he would chase me around the woods. Often, I was trying to get to my family because he would have them locked away, but the woods would be burning. He would be walking and laughing through the woods but sometimes would start sprinting directly at me.
I've had weird sleep my entire life. I used to aggressively sleepwalk when I was younger, and I would walk downstairs to my fridge and just sit in front of it with the door open and I would open up my bedroom window on the third floor. I had to sleep with a baby gate and used a night light until I was 15. Thankfully, I don’t get the night terrors as often anymore, but I still have the same recurring nightmare from time to time and sometimes wake up crying or saying weird things in my sleep.
Although night terrors, nightmares and sleep paralysis are (usually) harmless (unless you're a southeast Asian refugee with a heart anomaly), they are still absolutely terrifying. Kiley is one lucky gal. Just kidding. Sweet dreams.