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The Deaths That Inspired A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, A Gingerbread Overlook And MORE!
The Bite #85

The Deaths That Inspired A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, A Gingerbread Overlook And MORE!

November 19, 2019

In this Issue:


By Nina Nesseth*

“Whatever you do, don’t fall asleep” might be reasonable enough for Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), who understood that falling asleep meant falling prey to a knife-gloved man in a dirty red and green sweater. But what do you do when the threat awaiting you on the other side of sleep isn’t Freddy Krueger, but something more horrifying?

When A Nightmare on Elm Street celebrated its 30th anniversary, Wes Craven celebrated by tweeting facts about the film, including one that raised eyebrows: “ANOES was inspired by actual events. I read an article about a boy scared to go to sleep. When he finally did, he died.”

He would fill in the details in an interview with Vulture later that month. The boy and his family had escaped genocide in Cambodia, seeking refuge in the United States where he started having terrible nightmares and was afraid to go to sleep. According to Craven’s recollection, the boy ultimately died during one of his nightmares.

This was all part of a larger, unexplained phenomenon. The first reported incidence of unexplained sleep deaths was reported in 1917 in the Philippines, but, as a syndrome, it didn’t hit the world stage until 1981 when a report was submitted by the Center for Disease Control (CDC). With large numbers of South-East Asian populations, notably Hmong people, entering the United States in the late 1970s, American doctors were mystified by how apparently healthy young men (on average 33 years old) were suddenly dying in their sleep.

Medical literature eventually landed on a vague name for the condition: Sudden Unexplained Nocturnal Death Syndrome or SUNDS. In various Asian countries, there are different names for similar-sounding conditions: in Japan, it’s known as Pokkuri Death Syndrome (pokkuri translates to “suddenly and unexpectedly”); in the Philippines it’s Bangungut (a Tagalog term meaning “to rise and moan in sleep”) and is said to follow nightmares; and in Thailand it’s Lai Tai (lai being a frightened sound or a moan in sleep, tai meaning “death”).

The prevalence of the syndrome in South-East Asian people (men especially) did not go unnoticed, but it wasn’t until 2002 that a link was suggested between Brugada Syndrome, a genetic condition affecting the electrical activity of the heart — with a similar incidence in South-East Asian people — and SUNDS. But Brugada didn’t explain every case of SUNDS. One recent study identified roughly 100 rare variations on 33 genes that are potentially linked to SUNDS.

But where do nightmares fit into the picture? It can’t be a coincidence that, in Hmong culture, SUNDS is sometimes associated with a sleep spirit known as dab tsog. Similar to the night hag found in a number of cultures, dab tsog will press on your chest in your sleep. Night Terrors, associated with dab tsog and stress, were reported in larger numbers in the early 1980s, when Hmong refugees would have recently arrived in the United States. The number of reported night terrors made a sharp decline as time put distance between people and their trauma, and by 1987 incidents of SUNDS had decreased to 1/100 000 from 59/100 000 in 1981. This gave birth to the hypothesis that stress from night terrors heaped onto preexisting stress made already susceptible people more likely to have sudden cardiac death in their sleep.

As for the deaths that inspired it all for Wes Craven? Given the many facets of SUNDS that remain unexplained, the syndrome, in all its mystery, may be more terrifying than Freddy himself.

*Nina Nesseth is a Canadian horror fan, writer, and professional science communicator. You can find more of her writing over at Nightmare on Film Street and in her book The Science of Orphan Black: The Official Companion (2017, ECW Press).


Image Of The Week #85 - The Nightmare - The Bite

What Nightmares Are Made Of

At the nexus between A Nightmare On Elm Street and Sudden Unexplained Nocturnal Death Syndrome (SUNDS) lies Henry Fuseli’s iconic 1781 painting, The Nightmare. It’s been studied and dissected since its initial exhibition and continues to be used as a symbol for the horrors of our nightmares.



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Things We Love #85 - Gingerbread Shining Overlook - The Bite


The family that makes elaborate gingerbread houses out of iconic horror landmarks together stays together … or something. Back in 2015Redditor eudicotyledon shared their family’s tradition with the world. Naturally, we’re still impressed.


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