Cinematic Haunts: The Facts Behind ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’
~The Facts Behind A Nightmare On Elm Street~
~Article by Annie Riordan~
“Wes Craven had come across a few articles about some teenagers who were absolutely terrified – terrified! – to go to sleep.”
“In the middle of the night they heard these horrendous screams and crashings and they ran in and he’s thrashing on the bed. They ran to him and by the time they got to him he was dead. They did an autopsy on him and there was nothing physically wrong with him. And I just thought: “My God.”
September 28, 2009, Monday, 4:37 AM: I sit down at my iMac, coffee in hand, postponing the looming workweek ahead as long as possible by screwing around online for a few precious minutes. I’m in luck. MySpace has posted a trailer for the remake of A Nightmare On Elm Street, due out in April of 2010, a long seven months from now. Normally, I’m not so eager about impending remakes of the cherished horror movies I grew up with, but this is different. Jackie Earle Haley is in it, and the weird little crush I have on him is outdone only by my 20-year-old crush on Freddy Krueger. Look, I never said I wasn’t deeply disturbed.
30 minutes later, as I begrudgingly stand beneath the shower, readying for the day job, which starts in an hour, the elusive muse of writing finally arrives and smacks me upside the head. The writer’s block I’ve been semi-panicking over for about a week now (i.e. what in the HELL am I going to write about for October’s Cinematic Haunts column that hasn’t already been written about a kazillion times already?) disappears, replaced by inspiration.
With only fifteen minutes left before I have to haul my ass to work, I sit back down in front of the computer. Without any solid information to go on, I simply type “true story nightmare elm street” into the Google search box and take my chances.
The results were disappointing, to say the least:
It (is) impossible that “Nightmare on Elm St” is based on true events. If someone told you that, they were either teasing you, they were talking about a different movie or if they really believe it, well… what I can I say, they must be gullible, too.
True story? I highly doubt it.
Yeah, well guess what, Virginia? There really is a Santa Claws. (Sorry, couldn’t resist the pun)
Alas, there is no wisecracking, burn-scarred pervert lurking around our subconscious in a tacky ass Christmas sweater and homemade razor glove. But venture into Asia and you’ll find a rich culture brimming with folklore about nocturnal demons and lethal nightmares responsible for over 230 documented deaths of young men.
In the early 1980s, newspapers in Chicago and Los Angeles ran a few brief, forgettable articles about a strange epidemic that had seized the Southeast Asian population. Perfectly sane and healthy young men were complaining about horrific nightmares and refusing to sleep for days on end. Convinced that their dreams were being invaded by a demon, the frightened men became addicted to black coffee and other stimulants in a desperate effort to stay awake. Eventually, their exhausted bodies would inevitably surrender to sleep and relieved family members would carry the young men to bed…only to be summoned hours later by blood curdling screams coming from the victim’s bedroom. The young men would be found thrashing on their beds in the grip of a powerful nightmare and, before they could be awakened, they would suddenly and violently expire. Autopsies turned up nothing. Fear within the Southeast Asian neighborhoods grew and whispers of bangungot began to circulate. It was these articles which caught the attention of a young Wes Craven, inspiring him to write the original Elm Street script and adding in a couple of childhood traumas: a schoolyard bully named Krueger who had terrorized him, and a badly dressed bum who had given him quite a scare one night.
“In the Philippines, it’s called bangungot, in Japan pokkuri, in Thailand, something else.” says Dr. Robert Kirschner. “But it all roughly translates as the same thing: nightmare death.”
Bangungot seems to be a bastard cousin of Old Hag Syndrome, or “sleep paralysis” as it is more commonly known. I once had a friend who suffered from severe sleep paralysis and he related to me the following tale: upon waking from a deep sleep late one night, he found himself unable to move. His arms and legs were frozen and useless. Taking a breath was impossible. When he opened his eyes, he saw a small, pale creature sitting on his chest. As he watched, the creature took out a dagger and began cutting him open, as if performing an autopsy on his still living body. My friend said he could feel the knife, could feel the pain of being cut open, could feel the weight of the “demon” sitting on his chest. Only when he screamed was he able to move at last.
If this scene has a familiar ring to it, it may be due to the fact that the famed Gothic artist Fuseli perfectly captured the experience in his 1781 oil painting appropriately entitled “The Nightmare.” The painting depicts an incubi sitting upon the chest of a sleeping woman while a demonic horse (a night mare, perhaps?) looks on. Interestingly, despite the subject of the painting, sleep paralysis rarely afflicts women. Reports of nocturnal attacks by incubi were common in mediaeval Europe and were always of a sexual nature, whereas the succubi (the female incubus) were more often described by their male victims as a suffocating presence pressing down on their chests.
Sometimes it’s a demon, sometimes it’s an old woman pushing on your chest with her cold, gnarled hands. Some theorize that the alien abduction phenomena of the 80s and 90s could be partly blamed on sleep paralysis as well, so I guess you can throw an alien shoving an anal probe up your ass into the mix as well. Whatever the cast of characters, it’s a very real and very frightening experience for the afflicted. But for those of Asian descent, it could also be a death sentence.
Nearly every country and culture in the world recognizes this affliction. The people of Turkey call it “the dark presser.” In Africa, it is known as the “devil riding on your back.” The Hmong know it as “the crushing demon.” But Turkish, African and American men very rarely die from this sleep disorder. The Hmong, however – along with the Vietnamese, Laotion, Chinese, Japanese, Cambodian, etc – do. The Center for Disease Control christened the disorder Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome. It is also known as Asian Death Syndrome and Brugada Syndrome.
The Japanese have taken a different approach to pokkuri, or “peaceful death” usually during sleep. Somewhere near Osaka there is a temple dedicated to pokkuri, where the elderly go to pray for a sudden death. Long, lingering deaths are not dignified and bring unwanted burdens onto family members. Dying suddenly in one’s sleep is seen as a blessing, and thousands of people flock to the temple every year, hoping to receive the gift of a quick and sudden death without a long illness.
No one knows for sure why exactly this disorder only seems to be fatal to the male Asian population. Some theorize it is due to a high carbohydrate intake shortly before sleep. Others attribute it tosurvivor guilt as many of the afflicted were refugees fleeing Pol Pot’s bloody Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s. Recent reports state that the hearts of the victims were slightly enlarged and showed defects in their conduction systems which caused their hearts to literally “short out.” It has been also been speculated that the disease is a hereditary one and may be linked to a sudden and unexplained inflammation of the pancreas, although neither of these explanations has been positively proven as of yet. To this day, no one knows for sure whether the physical defects caused the nightmare death, or if the nightmare death caused the physical defects. The exact causes of sleep paralysis and the Asian Death Syndrome remain as much a mystery to this day as dreams and nightmares themselves. Despite all of our advances in the medical field, the world of dreams and night terrors continue to defy scientific explanation. Perhaps, maybe – just maybe, mind you – the principle of Occam’s Razor applies. Maybe the simplest explanation is the correct one, and the creatures that haunt our dreams are real.
Pretty terrifying thought, isn’t it?
Marge Thompson: What the hell are dreams, anyway?
Dr. King: Mysteries, incredible body hocus-pocus.
Truth is, we still don’t know what they are
or where they come from.
~A Nightmare On Elm Street, 1984