Of all the horror movies to be based on a true story, A Nightmare on Elm Street seems like an unlikely candidate. The film follows main character Nancy Thompson as she and her high school friends discover a murderous mad man named Freddy Kreuger haunts their dreams.
The teens are gaslit by their parents who insist that these are only bad dreams and no one can be hurt by a bad dream. Even so, as the kids in town are violently murdered in their sleep, the truth about Freddy Krueger eventually comes out. It turns out, the adults in town know exactly who this mysterious dream villain was. Years ago, Krueger was an ordinary man who was discovered to be responsible for child murders in town but was not convicted of any crime due to a technicality. The town’s parents then gathered and murdered Freddy Krueger in order to protect their children and enact justice. At some point, Krueger became a vengeful spirit and developed the ability to actually harm people in his demented dream world.
Nightmare was written and directed by Wes Craven who has long been fascinated by the relationship between dreams, the world of a horror movie, and reality. He would go on to explore all three in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare which starred Heather Langenkamp both as her iconic Nightmare character Nancy, and as herself — the actress who is participating in movies about Freddy Krueger while being stalked by him in her “real life”. Craven continued play with the concept of a meta slasher movie with the Scream franchise, which feature a cast of characters who are aware of the tropes and “rules” of horror movies while being unaware they themselves are in a horror movie.
Here’s a good example from Scream (1996) where Jamie Kennedy’s character, Randy, an obsessive horror fan, screams at Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween (1978) that the killer is behind her while the “real” killer is behind Randy, prompting the audience to mirror the character’s response. It’s all very meta:
All of this playing with reality makes it even more creepy that Craven’s famous Nightmare on Elm Street franchise is based on real life events. Craven was inspired to write the script after reading a series of articles in the Los Angeles Times about Hmong refugees who had escaped genocide in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam only to be haunted by extreme nightmares. The safety they worked so hard to experience during the day disappeared when they were exhausted and in their dreams they were returned to the horrors they had run from.
It’s easy to see how this kind of claustrophobic inability to escape from horror would inspire a scary movie, but it’s important to remember that even in real life, nightmares can be more than just a nightmare. Stressors are stressors and even if they are “just in your head” your body will react as if the stress is real since it does not share our cultural bias that mental health is somehow distinct from and less “real” than physical health. Those Hmong refugees in the Los Angeles Times article died within the year from unknown causes. The phenomena that killed these refugees became known as Asian Death Syndrome.
With that origin story in mind, take a look at Glenn’s death scene:
Makes it a lot creepier, right?
What’s the point of a scary dream being “just a dream” if it can kill you all the same? It’s a pretty scary idea, perhaps even more so than that of a mad man with knives for fingers seeking to enact revenge. My hope as a horror fan is that one day this franchise will be revamped by someone who both treats Craven’s legacy with pride and wants to explore the even creepier aspects of the story’s real life inspiration — the idea that some horrors are so traumatic we can never really escape from them.