Based on a True Story: ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’
Over time, the tagline: “Based on a true story” has lost the impact on audiences it once had. Too often, that tagline means the film is loosely based on an event at best, or unrecognizable from the initial inspiration at worst. An example of the latter can be found in Texas Chainsaw Massacre. While both the remake and the original claim to be inspired by events, viewers would be surprised to know the true story in which Texas Chainsaw Massacre is based did not actually happen in Texas, nor did it involve a chainsaw, and by many accounts, neither was there even a massacre.
Horror directors know some cinematic magic happens when they claim the unbelievable events you are about to see really happened. This concept is what made found footage films The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity soar to popularity.
However, one of horror’s most popular franchises was able to solidify itself into horror history with very few viewers ever even having the inkling that much of the film was actually inspired by true events.
Historically, the idea of a dream demon is nothing new. Known by many names to different European countries in the early 1800s such as The Alp, The Mare, The Mart, the belief was the same. The demon would come in during the night and would press upon a sleeping person, causing them the inability to move or scream. This is the origin of the term “nightmare”.
The belief in this demonic creature was so much so that there were sets of superstitions in different European cultures to keep the Mare away. No matter the differences in practice, there seemed to be a consensus on clogging up keyholes in bedroom doors to prevent the Mare from entering.
Moreover, the belief of a demon who causes you bad dreams and horrible experiences in the dead of night was not specific to only Europe. Japanese culture also believed that evil dreams were not happenstance, rather they were caused by evil spirits.
In that sense, Freddy Krueger being a dream demon is based off of very old legends of dream demons before him that spanned across different cultures.
The inspiration doesn’t stop there however. Wes Craven explains that the character of Freddy was born in Craven’s own childhood as a strange disfigured man once stared at young Wes through his bedroom window.
The iconic sweater Fred Krueger wears is a result of Wes Craven’s own intuitiveness when it comes to horror. Reportedly, Wes Craven heard that the eye has the most difficult time processing the colors red and green next to each other, and thus the Freddy sweater was born.
The most unique part of the A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise has always been the manner in which Freddy Krueger kills. The notion that you are not safe when you dream is a terrifying concept to say the least. That is why it’s so incredibly surprising that this concept was inspired by actual events. Wes Craven shared that he had seen an article in the LA Times detailing the tragic tale of a Hmong refugee. Apparently, this teenager was having horrible nightmares after arriving in the United States. So horrendous, in fact, that the sufferer began to claim that he would die should he fall asleep. Reportedly, some of the methods that protagonist Nancy uses in the film in order to stay awake, such as keeping a coffee pot by her bed, were inspired by methods the Hmong refugee used himself. Unfortunately, when sleep inevitably came, the teenager’s predictions were correct.
Scarier still, the story of this refugee was not unique. These exact circumstances surrounded the deaths of at least 13 other Hmong refugees, the majority of the victims being teenagers and young men. The deaths were investigated. and ultimately reported as cases of SUNDS: Sudden Unexplained Nocturnal Death Syndrome. These mysterious deaths from the late seventies to early eighties to this day remain unexplained.
While audiences may know the wiser now, it’s no surprise why Wes Craven did not boast the true events tagline during A Nightmare on Elm Street’s release in the 1980’s. Information was not as easily accessible then, so best not to mislead them into believing the indestructible dream demon is a real thing. Because it isn’t…is it?