Freddy Krueger Is Based On The Disturbing True Tale Of 18 People Inexplicably Dying In Their Sleep

Horror movies based on true events are even creepier after you hear the real-life tale, and Nightmare on Elm Street is no exception. The story of the infamous, striped-sweater-wearing maniac was not just the invention of writer/director West Craven; the movie is actually based on real-life events. As is often the case with violent movies based on true stories, the real inspiration for Freddy Krueger is pretty disturbing.

In 1977, well over 100 Laos refugees inexplicably died in their sleep. The deaths of these perfectly healthy Hmong men have since been attributed to cardiac arrhythmia, but superstitious Lao people blame dab tsuam, an evil spirit that kills you in your sleep, and who appears in the form of a jealous woman.

The phenomenon was labeled "Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome" (SUNDS), a term that was coined after healthy men all over the world began mysteriously dying in their sleep. If Freddy gives you nightmares, you don't even want to begin thinking about dab tsuam. 

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  • In 1977, Hmong Men Living In America Began Mysteriously Dying

    In 1977, Hmong Men Living In America Began Mysteriously Dying
    Photo: Lawdson / YouTube

    Ly Houa, a Hmong medic living in America, is thought to be the first victim killed by what was originally called "Asian Death Syndrome." After he died in his sleep in 1977, a social worker who knew him was surprised, as he was physically active and in good health.

    Houa's death was reported by the LA Times, who went on to cover 20 similar stories over the course of the next four years. The victims were primarily men who shared a median age of 33, and who were generally known to be healthy. It was reported that several witnesses heard the victims emit groans or experience breathing trouble for a short while before their deaths.

    Others claimed to have heard victims speak of having nightmares several nights prior to their deaths. In 1981, 26 Hmong men — most of whom were refugees — died in their sleep, causing the Federal Center for Disease Control to label their cause of death Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome (SUNDS). According to the Orange County Medical Examiner, half the total deaths of Hmong people during that time period are attributed to SUNDS.

  • Some Hmong People Believe The Deaths Were Caused By A Malevolent Spirit Named Dab Tsuam

    Along with Filipinos, many Hmong people believe in a spirit called "dab tsuam" or "dab tsog" who takes the form of a jealous woman and visits men while they sleep. These malicious spirits trap and crush their victims in a manner similar to the hallucinations sometimes experienced by those who suffer from sleep paralysis. The dab tsuam visit people who don't honor their ancestors and the spirits who guard their village, and they're also said to show up if a person performs a ritual poorly. Many men are believed to dress up as women when they go to bed in order to trick the dab tsuam.

  • Hallucinations May Have Scared The Victims To Death

    Some researchers have suggested that the mysterious deaths may be related to sleep paralysis, which occurs when the mechanism that forces people to refrain from physical activity while sleeping doesn't turn off after an individual wakes up.

    A sleep paralysis victim is fully awake, but completely unable to move. To make things worse, many experience scary hallucinations during their paralysis, such as shadow people, or an old hag who pins her victims down by sitting on their chest. Scientifically, these are considered to be hypnopompic hallucinations leftover from the person's dream-state.

    These hallucinations are referred to as "tsog tsuam" by the Hmong people, and are thought to plague those who do not respect their ancestors. It's possible that the Hmong victims were so terrified of being visited by evil spirits that they unknowingly willed themselves to die. This phenomena is known as the nocebo effect, which works similarly to the placebo effect. By focusing intensley on negative thoughts, one's worst nightmares eventually come true.

  • People All Over The World Have Died From SUNDS

    People All Over The World Have Died From SUNDS
    Photo: Lawdson / YouTube

    At the time of the 1977 SUNDS outbreak, there were only about 35,000 Hmong people living in America, making the amount of people affected by the syndrome seem monumental. However, similarly mysterious deaths had been common in several Asian countries for years, and many of these victims weren't Hmong.

    Such deaths have occurred in places like the Philippines, Thailand, and Japan. More than 500 Japanese men were believed to have died as a result of "Pokkuri," and 230 healthy Thai men succumbed to death during sleep between 1982 and 1990. "Bangungut" curses the people of the Philippines, and is thought to be responsible for the deaths of 43 out of 100,000 Filipino people every year.

    Many of the mysterious deaths in Thailand were attributed to stress brought on by working under harsh conditions for upwards of 13 hours a day, suggesting that the plague is brought on by more than just genetics. 

  • Wes Craven Was Inspired By The Story Of A Man Who Dreaded Sleep, And Who Died Mid-Slumber

    A Nightmare on Elm Street was released in 1984, three years after the film's director/writer heard about the mysterious deaths of several Hmong people. Wes Craven claims three newspaper articles he read in the LA Times inspired the character of Freddie Krueger, who comes for his victims while they sleep.

    Craven recalled the story of a 21-year-old who was so sure that his nightmares would kill him that he refused to go to sleep. Concerned for his health, the man's family gave him some sleeping pills, which he promptly threw out. A short time later, he finally fell asleep, only to begin screaming and thrashing around. When his family found him, the man was dead, with no determinable cause of death. 

    As evidence of the man's commitment to staying awake, a coffee maker was found hidden in his room. It's not clear if this story actually occurred, or if Craven accidentally put pieces of several different stories together, but the tale resulted in one of the biggest and most beloved horror characters ever conceived. 

  • The Deaths May Have Been Caused By Stress, Poison, Acute Fear, Or Starchy Food

    After a series of men began dying in their sleep in 1977, the fact that all the victims were all in good health baffled authorities. Since most of the Hmong people who died were refugees — many of whom hadn't been living in America very long — medical professionals blamed their unexplained deaths on the stress of moving and culture shock.

    A former Lao general claimed that his countrymen died from a delayed response to gas attacks inflicted by their communist enemies. Doctors in the Philippines believed the victims suffered from sleep paralysis before they died, and that their deaths were caused by acute hemorrhagic pancreatitis. This extreme inflammation of the pancreas could have possibly been brought on by the alcohol and starchy foods the victims consumed before bed. A medical examiner in Minnesota took the mysterious incidents to a macabre place when he suggested that the victims died after being frightened to death.