When looking at the real life inspiration behind a horror film, it’s hard to believe that some ideas can spawn from a real occurrence. This is especially true when you look at A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. It seems ludicrous that a nightmare could kill you, but it actually did happen to eighteen otherwise healthy Laotian refugees!
Director Wes Craven said that he got the idea for “a nightmare that could kill” from a newspaper article he read about the mysterious deaths of several South East Asian refugees. The refugees, seventeen men and one woman, hailed from a mountainous province of Laos called Hmong. They fled to the United States in 1975 when the Pathet Lao, a communist dictatorship accused of committing genocide on its own people, took control of the country. The Hmong people were especially in danger of reprisal from the Pathet Lao since many of them served as anti-communist soldiers who helped rescue downed American pilots during the Vietnam War.
The Hmong were an isolated people forced into the modern world by war. Despite fighting on the side of the Americans, very few of those who resettled in America spoke English; their native language had only recently been written down. Their religion was based in Animism, a belief that all things posses a spirit. Settling mainly in Minnesota and California, adjusting to life in a strange land was wrought with anxiety. So overwhelming was the move from Laos to America that many Hmong refugees almost immediately sought out doctors to treat outbreaks of imaginary venereal disease and parasites they believed were living under their skin.
Eventually, all eighteen refugees were found dead in their beds with the official cause of death listed as “probable cardiac arrhythmia”. However, another cause of death, one that doctors did not want to discuss, was known by the unfortunate name of “oriental nightmare death syndrome.” Now known as “Sudden Unexpected Death Syndrome”, it is a condition that seems to affect young Hmong males as well as Filipinos, where it claims 43 out of 100,000 victims per year. They seem to literally die of fright from their own belief of what happens in their dreams.
In Hmong culture, a spirit known as “dab tsuam,” in the form of a jealous woman, takes men to the spirit world while they sleep. Some Hmong men will even dress as women before going to bed, in order to fool the dab tsuam. In the Philippines, the spirit is a batibat. Also called Bangungot, the Filipino word for nightmare, it takes the form of a hag, which sits on its victim’s face or chest suffocating them to death. Because of this, many people associate this condition with sleep paralysis, or hag syndrome, although both are similar sudden unexpected death syndrome tends to take the condition one step farther.
If you’d like to find out more, you can read Bruce Thowpaou Bliatcut’s book, HMONG SUDDEN UNEXPECTED NOCTURNAL DEATH SYNDROME: A CULTURAL STUDY. In it, he goes into the in-depth cultural origins of this strange disorder including its links to outside forces such as environmental pollutants and exposure to violence and war.
Though a far cry from the burnt sweater -wearing Freddy Kruger, this historical event was the major influence for the nightmare man who would grace our screens and our own nightmares for decades.