Before there was a Freddy Krueger, there was the night terror.
The horror icon wasn’t born in a boiler room, but he did originate in troubling dreams. A string of real-world deaths inspired the A Nightmare on Elm Street films. Witnesses and survivors didn’t report a burn-scarred face or a striped sweater. Death came without warning or explanation, while its victims slept.
In the late 1970s to the mid 80s, more than 110 men died in their sleep. Until their quiet final moments, they were young and healthy. Their families were stunned. Investigators were bewildered. With the victims all being Asian, medical authorities named the sleep scourge “Asian Death Syndrome.” Witnesses and families called it the night terror.
The first case was reported in California’s Orange County in 1977. By the summer of 1981, 20 people had fallen victim to the night terror. Authorities and medical responders were powerless as men across the country went to sleep and never woke up.
The Master of Horror with a Master’s Degree
The exotic morbidity of the night terror caught the media’s attention, with the Los Angeles Times running a string of stories on the “medical mystery” in 1981. The New York Times and newspapers in Connecticut, Florida and elsewhere devoted column inches to the sleep deaths.
Wes Craven, a filmmaker with a handful of low budget hits under his belt, read the stories. In previous films, he had coaxed terror from families threatened by gangs of maniacs. Reading of the sleep deaths, he was inspired to create the least earthbound and most memorable monster he would ever invent: Freddy Krueger, a killer who attacks in dreams.
Craven’s own background blended ivory tower knowledge with guttural instincts. He received a Master’s from John Hopkins University before breaking into film by working in pornography. His horror movie inspiration was Night of the Living Dead. In 2011, he told The Baltimore Sun: "Seeing that in New York City with a packed house and everybody screaming and running up and down the aisles, laughing or saying the lines by heart — I had never experienced anything like it. I thought, this is what the theater of the absurd must have been like in the days of Ionesco and Pirandello — fistfights in the aisles with theatergoers who thought it was blasphemy."
His first film, The Last House on the Left, was a sordid entertainment inspired by the Ingmar Bergman European art film The Virgin Spring. His follow-up, The Hills Have Eyes, was sourced in a mythic figure from 15th-century Scottish history but also featured cannibal desert mutants.
In a 2008 Cinema Fantastique interview, Craven said he wanted a subject more primal than the chattering maniacs he'd presented thus far. “I wanted to do something that was tied into the deepest recesses of our subconscious,” Craven said. “I had a history in academics, so I knew there were certain things that were universal.”
A former psychology student, Craven filtered the sleep death stories through Jung and Freud to form a monster that lurks in the subconscious.
Exiles on Elm Street
Every town in America may have an Elm Street, but the horror that inspired the classic '80s slasher started halfway across the globe.
Freddy Krueger’s real-life victims weren't white, middle-class teens, as played by Heather Langenkamp and Johnny Depp in A Nightmare on Elm Street. They didn’t talk in mall slang, excessively blow dry their hair or dress in early 80s-style pastels. They were mostly male and were uniformly Asian. They were refugees with poor English skills who had fled their homeland to escape a nearly genocidal conflict.
They were the Hmong, a largely pre-literate or non-literate nomadic people from the mountains of Southeast Asia. Originally from southern China, they fled what had been their homeland for thousands of years in the mid-19th century, when the Manchu dynasty labeled them barbarians. They escaped to neighboring countries, notably Vietnam and Laos.
For the Hmong who relocated to Laos, their struggle continued first under French Colonial rule before settling down for the decades of Laotian royal power. When the Vietnam War spread to Laos and Cambodia, the American supported Royal Lao government recruited the Hmong to fight the Communist Pathet Lao troops.
The Hmong gained a reputation as fierce fighters, but the war devastated their people. An estimated one-third of the Hmong population in Laos was wiped out in the conflict. Following the 1975 Communist takeover, about 100,000 Hmong fled Laos to seek asylum in Thailand. Of the Hmongs who remained in Laos, thousands were detained in reeducation camps.
Away from their home, the Hmong struggled to adapt. They were mountain farmers and warriors with a unique religion centered on animals and spirits. They farmed by growing opium and cleared fields with fire. Their written language only came into being in the 20th century; many couldn’t read it anyway.
Then they came to America and began dying in their sleep.
American Dream, Interrupted
The first modern recorded victim of the so-called “Asian Death Syndrome" was Ly Houa, of Orange County. Before his sudden 1977 death, he had acclimated to American life and worked as a medic. An Orange County social worker who knew him told the L.A. Times said she was shocked to hear of his passing. Houa was in robust physical condition, she said, and health-conscious through his professional expertise.
By the summer of 1981, the L.A. Times reported, 20 Hmong men living in America died under the same circumstances. All were young and showed no signs of ill health until death took them in their sleep. Their families said most didn’t smoke or drink. Some witnesses said they heard troubled breathings and groans right before the death.
Only about 35,000 Hmong lived in America at the time. For the communities scattered throughout the states, the deaths were more than morbid curiosities. They were a seeming existential threat to their people. The ratio of victims to total Hmongs in the country equalled all five leading causes of death for other American men in their age group. Orange County Medical Examiner Tom Prendergast told a reporter that the mysterious incidents accounted for half of all deaths among the Hmong in America during that period.
The deaths prompted an inquiry by the Federal Center for Disease Control. They tried to contain the unexplained horror of the sleep death in the dry wording of “Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome,” or SUNDS.
Officials suspected cardiac failure, but were otherwise baffled. Many blamed the stress of culture shock for refugees moving to the U.S. Minnesota Medical Examiner Dr. Michael McGee told the New York Times he thought Hmong victims in St. Paul may have been frightened to death. Hang Pao, a former Laotian general and a political leader for the Hmong, publically attributed the deaths to wartime gassing attacks. Pao, eager to turn public opinion against the Hmong’s old communists foes, said the nighttime seizures were delayed reactions to the chemical toxins the Pathet Lao used to poison villages.
No definite cause emerged. The mystery deaths peaked in 1981, when 26 men, mostly Hmong refugees from Laos, died in their sleep. A few victims of the seizures who were immediately treated by CPR survived.
A Pattern of Nightmares
While the sudden sleep death hit the American Hmong refugees the hardest, the mystery illness wasn’t limited to their people alone. The sleeping death was striking Asian men across the globe.
The disease had a long history in Asia, even in countries with no Hmong population. In 1983, the Associate Press reported that Japanese and Filipinos were dying from similar unexplained deaths. Researchers estimated that between 500 and 1,000 Japanese men, described in their 20s and 30s and healthy, died in their sleep of the condition known in Japan as “Pokkuri,” wordplay slang for death that occurs in a “snap.”
Recently uncovered research indicated it wasn’t new. CDC official Roy Baron and forensic pathologist Robert Kirscher published a report saying the attacks predated the Hmong arrival in America.
As researchers dug into the cultures with histories of SUNDS, they found something surprising. Freddy Krueger wasn’t the only killer stalking its victims through their dreams. According to Asian folklore, monsters had been preying on sleepers for years.
Hmong traditional beliefs revolve around nature spirits and ancestor worship. Among the most feared spirits is a nightmare monster known as the Dab Tsog. When Hmong fail to perform religious rituals properly, their ancestor and village spirits stop guarding them, leaving them vulnerable to the Tsog Tsuam, the crushing attack the Dab Tsog uses to press the life out of its victims.
Shelley Adler, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, conducted dozens of field interviews among the Hmong population while researching her 2011 book Sleep Paralysis. She found people who survived SUNDS, who related tales of dream visitations from dark creatures. One interviewee said a large, hairy monster, which he likened to an American stuffed animal, accosted him in his dream. As the oversized creature set on him with claws and teeth, the dreamer was paralyzed but still able to hear voices in his home.
The Dab Tsog doesn’t haunt the dreams of Asian men alone. In the Philippines, where 43 people out of 100,000 die from SUNDS per year, the death was known as Bangungut, a Tagalog word meaning “to rise and moan during sleep.”
Filipino folklore holds that malevolent spirits called Batibat are behind Bangungut. The Batibat have the appearance of ugly, obese women and live in trees. They infest houses when the trees they live in are used to build a home. Enraged by their displacement, they wait until the homeowners are asleep they kill them in the style of the Tsog Tsaum, sitting on their victim’s chest and face to force out their life force like air from a balloon.
Waking up from a Nightmare
By the time A Nightmare on Elm Street was released in 1984, the Hmong SUNDS was slowing to a halt after its 1981 peak. It hadn’t been cured, but after taking the lives of 116 healthy young men, the night terror shuffled back into whatever dark dream it came from.
As Freddy Krueger grew increasingly cartoonish and prone to one-liners in his follow-up films, the real-life sleep deaths became less deadly. Officials like Kirschner took an optimistic assessment, postulating that stress from American culture shock caused the previous attacks. With the Hmong more used to life in the states, Kirschner said, the stress was reduced and the danger was over.
The same year, SUNDS researchers made a breakthrough. After studying the medical histories of three survivors of the attacks, medical examiners were able to identify ventricular arrhythmias as the cause of the fatal cardiac arrests. The cause of the arrhythmias wasn’t yet known, but medical authorities now knew what happened to the heart before the SUNDS deaths. In 1988, CDC pathologist Roy Gibson Parrish published a study proposing that SUNDS victims were likely carriers of hereditary defects that affected tissues that conduct electric signals. While in most cases the defects wouldn’t be a problem, they could become fatal in a body undergoing stress.
And while the Hmong were moving past their twin traumas of warfare and displacement, the night terror was attacking displaced Asian elsewhere in the globe. In 1990, two Thai men working construction in Singapore died in their sleep on the same night.
The coincidence of two SUNDS death in a single night was shocking. But they weren’t alone. About 200 Thai people living in Singapore are believed to have died in their sleep since 1983. In Sleep Paralysis, Adler quoted heart specialist Michael Brodsky attributing the deaths to stress, saying that the men were working 13-plus hour days while enduring slavery-like conditions.
In 1992, two cardiologists brothers in Italy, Pedro and Josep Brugada, discovered how to spot warning signs for SUNDS on an electrocardiogram. For their efforts, SUNDS was rechristened Brugada Syndrome. The treatment for Brugada is an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator. Doctors install the device in the chest like a pacemaker. When the heart starts shorting out during a SUNDS attack, the cardioverter-defribillator emits electrical shocks to kick the heart into gear and prevent cardiac arrest.
Is the Real Killer Still Out There?
Science can now detect Brugada Syndrome and counteract its fatal attacks. A cataloguing of the genetic abnormalities behind the syndrome is also underway. But the question of why it gripped and released the Hmong refugee population in the early 80s remains a mystery.
In 2011, Shelley Adler proposed an answer. Her book Sleep Paralysis suggests that the Hmong’s nightmare monster, Dab Tsog, caused the deaths. Dab Tsog wasn’t real, of course. But it didn’t have to be real to be fatal, Adler wrote. If people believed strongly enough that it existed, it became real enough to kill. After years of research in the Hmong community, Adler believes the cultural belief in night spirits factored strongly in their deaths. Her theory is similar to investigators who attribute the deaths to culture shock, only informed by a more nuanced understanding of folk beliefs and the Hmong culture.
She believes that stress brought on by to cultural disruption and intense feelings of powerlessness in America could have a fatal impact for people who believe evil spirits can kill men who fail to fulfill religious obligations. Shelley says the mind, driven by despair and the conviction they will be killed, orders the attack. The body carries out the order via ventricular arrhythmias.
The obvious, and terrifying, implication is that if you believe that Freddy is coming for you, he might actually come.
Or, Is Wes Craven Making it All Up?
Wes Craven has told the story behind Elm Street several times. It's a great story. He says he came across three small articles in the Los Angeles Times about immigrant men from Southeast Asia — specified sometimes as Cambodians — who died in the middle of nightmares. Craven says the reporters didn’t see a pattern. He made the connection himself.
As Craven tells it, the third victim’s story is the most vivid — and has the clearest line to the Nightmare mythos. A 21-year-old son of a doctor kept himself awake for days out of fear of something attacking him in his nightmares. His family gave him sleeping pills and implored him to rest. After about a week, he finally fell asleep watching television. In the middle of the night, the family wakes to screams and crashing. They run to his room, only to find the man dead. An autopsy reveals no cause of death, but the family finds a hidden coffee maker and discarded sleeping pills.
“It struck me as such an incredibly dramatic story that I was intrigued by it for a year, at least, before I finally thought I should write something about this kind of situation,” Craven said in a 2008 interview.
You can easily see how that would inspire a filmmaker like Craven. It’s a great tale about generational clash, adorned with telling details like the coffee maker.
The problem is, it might not have ever been printed. I spent hours combing the L. A. Times' digital archive and never found a story that matched the vivid details in Craven’s account. I searched for doctors’ sons, coffee makers, sleeping pills — any combination of words or phrases that would lead to Craven’s story. I watched videos about the making of Nightmare on Elm Street and freeze-framed every time I saw a newspaper article.
Some of the details from Craven’s story did emerge, albeit piecemeal and with different details. The first known victim was a professional medic, which might explain why the director mentions a doctor. In an L.A. Times story from February, 1981, a man died after falling asleep watching television, but he was 47 and a father, not Craven’s young man. They are Laotian, not Cambodians. There is no hidden coffee machine.
To my great disappointment, Craven declined to participate in this article. I desperately want to know if he has a yellowing, tattered newspaper clipping filed away somewhere. Because, having investigated, I now believe he either made up that story as show business self-promotion gimmick, or he invented it in a drugged-up haze.
At the time Nightmare was conceived, Wes Craven wasn’t the grandfatherly gentleman of horror he is today. The early 80s were dark days for the man who would eventually helm Scream. His early low-budget horror successes were distant in the rearview and his recent projects, including early comic book adaptation Swamp Thing, were box office duds. While he didn’t get a paycheck for three years, his personal life crashed around him. His first marriage had failed and his drug use escalated from marijuana to cocaine. He got clean before writing Elm Street, but retained a good dose of Hunter Thompson-style writing quirks — banging out screenplay drafts in his studio wearing a pith helmet and a bathrobe, for example.
Craven has said that he hung onto the nightmare-death idea for more than a year before writing the screenplay. Isn't it possible that a coked-up Wes Craven, dressed only in a pith helmet and bathrobe, had actually read one of the above-mentioned Hmong stories, which his over-stimulated mind then enhanced with details that he would later misremember as being part of the article? Craven only directed two Elm Street films: the original and 1994’s Wes Craven's New Nightmare, an exercise in meta-terror that brought Freddy into the real world to terrorize the people behind his films. Was Freddy's fictional origin story a thin veil over a forgotten truth?
Or has Freddy, actually an ancient malevolent trickster god, willed himself into existence by implanting false details to inspire a down-on-his-luck filmmaker? Now that would make a great horror movie.