‘A Nightmare On Elm Street’ Was Based On A Real Medical Condition And It’s Totally Terrifying

by Gwendolyn Plummer
Gwen is a writer, reader, hockey fan, concert goer, and lunchtime enthusiast.

Without a doubt, A Nightmare on Elm Street is one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen.

Though I’ve only watched it once, I don’t think I could ever sit through it again.

The scariest thing about A Nightmare on Elm Street to me was that it all seemed a little too real.

I could prevent myself from ending up like people in horror movies by never going into haunted houses, or by keeping far away from deserted hospitals. But when it comes to Freddy Krueger, all I would have to do is fall asleep.

Of course, as any parent will tell you, scary movies aren’t real, and you shouldn’t stay up all night because you’re scared of Freddy Krueger.

Well, it turns out they’re wrong.

A Nightmare on Elm Street is actually based of a totally real — albeit rare — medical condition.

Keep reading to learn the true story behind A Nightmare on Elm Street.

A Nightmare on Elm Street title card

The idea behind A Nightmare on Elm Street may seem pretty far-fetched or fake, but believe it or not, it’s based on something very real.

Wes Craven

According to BuzzFeed, the movie’s director, Wes Craven, got the idea from a real story he read in the newspaper.

Intersection of Elm St and 13th St

In the 1980s, a wave of deaths shocked the world.

According to a report by The Los Angeles Times from 1987, around 130 people died mysteriously in their sleep.

These deaths became of interest in the US in the late 1970s. The New York Times reported on them a little earlier, in 1981. Just three years later, Wes Craven would take inspiration from these deaths for his most popular feature film.

The medical condition became known as “Asian death syndrome,” as most of the people affected were of Southeast Asian descent living in the United States.

Freddy Krueger

The afflicted would suddenly scream in their sleep — and then they would die.

Some Southeast Asian countries already had a name for this strange phenomenon. According to The Los Angeles Times, it is called bangungut in the Philippines and pokkuri in Japan.

Both of these words translate, roughly, to the same thing: “nightmare death.”

As these strange, scary deaths happened more and more often, doctors took a closer look at the victims.

Dr. Robert Kirshner was at the forefront of this research. He found that all of the victims were in perfect health before their sudden death.


Kirschner told The Los Angeles Times:

These are all healthy men with no previous symptoms; the average age was 33. The situation is almost always the same. It only occurs in men and it only occurs in their sleep. The report is they cry out and die or are found dead the next morning.

Chest X-Ray

At the time, no one could figure out exactly why these men were suddenly screaming, then dying, in their sleep. All of the men did have slightly enlarged hearts, and the majority had “defects” in the system that carries electronic impulses from the brain to the heart.

Kirschner theorized that “a random electronic discharge,” perhaps caused by a nightmare, “shorted out” and overloaded these systems. This may have led to a sudden death.

We don’t know much more about “Asian death sydrome” today than we did in the 1980s.

Freddy Krueger

The tragic, sudden deaths gave Wes Craven the idea to create Freddy Krueger, a monster who kills teenagers in their dreams, and one of the most iconic characters in the horror genre.

He obviously took some artistic liberties, but I think it’s pretty creepy that Freddy Krueger’s origin story is actually rooted in our world.

A Nightmare On Elm Street title card

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