As the 30th anniversary of the original theatrical release of Wes Craven’s 1984 masterpiece A Nightmare On Elm Street approaches, the time is right to take a look back at the humble beginnings of this now-iconic franchise. After making his name in the horror genre with Last House On The Left and The Hills Have Eyes in the early 1980s, Craven found the inspiration for his most enduring classic with a true story straight out of the newspapers. Although it is a pretty common and convincing practice employed by many genre film-makers to claim that their film is based on true events (we are looking at you, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), Mr. Craven drew his inspiration from a variety of sources and then-current news articles.
As told in the excellent recent documentary Never Sleep Again, Craven was clearly inspired by true events. That is not to say that the original script is based on a real life boogey-man that stalks you in your sleep; that all come into play later. Rather, the story evolved from a series of articles that Craven read in the L.A. Times concerning young men that were dying in the middle of nightmares. One particular case concerned a young man who suffered from severe nightmares, and became convinced he was going to die if he went back to sleep. The victim’s father was a physician and gave his son a prescription for sleeping pills, which he refused to take, hiding them beneath his sheets. After three nights awake the young man finally fell asleep only to be found by his parents in the middle of the night, screaming and thrashing in his bed. Before they could even get to him, he was dead. In the aftermath, his parents found the stashed sleeping pills, along with a Mr.Coffee machine in his closet with a hidden extension cord.
This strange story was the beginning of the series of films that have haunted our dreams for nearly three decades, and the other pieces of the puzzle came together for Mr. Craven as he shaped his own reasons for this strange series of unexplained deaths. 30 years later we all know the story of Fred Krueger, the “Springwood Slasher” ; he is as ingrained in horror culture now as deep as Frankenstein’s monster and Count Orlok.
But what really happened to that young man, who was so rightly terrified to fall asleep?
Well, it turns out that it was actually a rare disease known as Bangungot, also charmingly known as “sudden unexpected nocturnal death syndrome”. In the early 1980s it became something of an epidemic in the Southeast Asian and Filipino population, with young men inexplicably becoming haunted by severe nightmares. Convinced that their dreams were being invaded by demons, the frightened men became addicted to black coffee and other stimulants in a desperate effort to stay awake. Following this rash of deaths, fear within the Southeast Asian neighborhoods grew and whispers of Bangungot began to circulate.
Nearly every country and culture in the world recognizes this affliction in one version or another. 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. However, Asian people seem to be strangely susceptible to a fatal version of the disease.
Recent studies theorize that the occurrence stems from a severe swelling of the pancreas, a gland that produces digestive enzymes, particularly insulin, to metabolize the carbohydrates that we take in. In victims suffering from this condition, the swelling becomes so severe that the pancreas literally digests itself. Complications from this swelling are thought to cause the nightmares as shock begins to deprive the major organs of blood and oxygen, bringing hallucinations and eventually death as the body poisons itself.
At least that is what they want us to believe…
So, once again, science explains the demon. Well, sort of.
There is really no rhyme or reason to the (thankfully very rare) deaths that occur due to Bangungot, nor is there an explanation as to why Asians and Filipinos are more likely to die from it. Doctors recommend patients suffering from the disease cut out carbs and alcohol, but they say that for everything.
So, maybe the simplest answer is the best one.
Maybe there is a demon out there haunting the dream world, and he cannot be stopped.
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