When Wes Craven first dreamed up the idea for A Nightmare on Elm Street, no studio wanted to produce the film. The iconic 1984 horror flick is about Freddy Krueger, a boogeyman who kills teenagers in their dreams. What most people don’t know is that A Nightmare on Elm Street is based on a series of actual unexplained events.
Craven stumbled upon an article in the LA Times about the puzzling case of a child who died in his sleep and was intrigued. Apparently, there had been a series of similar nightmarish cases, all unsolved. What could explain this mindboggling mystery?
In the Middle of a Nightmare
Wes Craven shared that the idea for the movie originated from a newspaper article he’d read about a refugee child from the Cambodian genocide. The kid was too scared to go to sleep; he was terrified that he’d be killed in his dreams and never wake up again.
Furthermore, Wes read that when the child “finally fell asleep, his parents thought this crisis was over. Then they heard screams in the middle of the night, [and] by the time they got to him, he was dead. He died in the middle of a nightmare.” And this wasn’t the only time it happened.
The Mysterious Phenomenon
The story that inspired Craven wasn’t an isolated event. Throughout the 1980s, many Southeast Asian refugees living in the US passed away in their sleep with no explanation. Most of those with this affliction were men of the Hmong people, in their twenties and thirties.
Public health experts began to express worry over the mysterious phenomenon after a significant number of Hmong men died in the same way. They were primarily refugees from Laos, the country neighboring Cambodia, where the Hmong are a minority group. The weirdest part is that it all started because of the Vietnam War.
Fighting in the Vietnam War
During the Vietnam War, over 30,000 Hmong soldiers were recruited to fight against the North Vietnamese army by the CIA. They bravely fought communism alongside the US troops but were killed at alarming rates. Statistically, Hmong deaths surpassed US causalities tenfold. After the war ended in 1975, Laos was declared a communist nation.
The Hmong people were persecuted for helping the US during the war and were considered traitors. So, they had no choice but to flee their home and become refugees. Most Hmong asylum seekers made long and treacherous journeys to Thailand or America, searching for a safe sanctuary.
Refugees in Crisis
Sadly, even after immigrating, the Hmong people’s suffering was far from over. Many Laotian refugees were severely traumatized by their ordeals in the war and the persecution they faced thereafter. The Hmong now faced the trials and tribulations of displacement far from their homeland, and unfortunately, sunk into poverty.
Furthermore, many male teenagers and young men were soon struck by a highly puzzling ailment and began dying in their sleep for no apparent reason. Headlines in the LA Times from the ’70s and ’80s read “Night Deaths of Asian Men Unexplained” and “Mysterious Fatal Malady Striking Hmong Men.”
Died in His Sleep
According to one 1981 article, a 47-year-old refugee from Laos named Yong Leng Thao died in his sleep while crying. The LA Times wrote that he was the 13th Hmong refugee to die in his sleep since 1978. Another article claimed that there had been 20 victims of the malady.
All but two of the victims had been young men; the mysterious night terror struck only one female and one older person. After numerous autopsies, the deaths were attributed to some kind of unexplained cardiovascular seizure.
No Medical Explanation
However, health officials could find no reason for these seizures, which were slowly becoming the leading cause of death among Hmong adults. These unexplained deaths were hashed off as seizures or heart attacks by coroners for years before the authorities connected the dots.
They discovered that all the dead had been found in the morning or apprehended in the middle of the night when the victims began making gurgling noises in their sleep before collapsing into an unrevivable state. Soon newspapers revealed that these mysterious deaths were occurring elsewhere too.
Unexplained Night Deaths
A 1983 article in the LA Times reported that nocturnal deaths of healthy young men were common outside of the US, in other groups aside from the Hmong. Apparently, healthy men in Japan, the Philippines, and Indonesia were also dying in their sleep for no known reason.
The article read, “each year hundreds of apparently healthy young Japanese die suddenly in their sleep, sometimes with a gasp or shout.” In Japan, the mysterious fatal ailment is called pokkuri, which means, loosely translated, a “demise with a snap.”
Nocturnal Death Syndrome
American researchers published a piece in a medical journal about the mystery and called it “nocturnal death syndrome.” They uncovered that the syndrome had killed 72 Cambodian, Laotian, and Vietnamese refugees in the US since 1975.
In the Philippines, the disease is called bangungut and is thought to be caused by falling asleep after a heavy meal. Nightmares almost always accompany the deaths. Japanese medical professionals believe the deaths are related to some kind of heart spasm, which may be related to severe stress.
There Is Only Speculation
Though experts haven’t found any medical explanation for the syndrome, some members of the affected communities have attributed the deaths to chemical toxins that they believed soldiers were exposed to during the Vietnam war. Doctors have disproven this theory for lack of concrete evidence.
Chemical nerve agents can cause poisoning, but there is no reason they would only affect men and only during their sleep. Some Hmong people believe the deaths are caused by ancestral spirits who are punishing them for leaving their homeland and not performing their religious rituals.
One Two, Freddy’s Coming for You
Since the ’80s, this unexplained phenomenon has been named Sudden Unexplained Nocturnal Death Syndrome (SUNDS). The Center for Disease Control has researched the syndrome in-depth, yet no one has discovered the reason for the SUNDS deaths or succeeded in solving the mystery.
Wes Craven came up with a reason for unexplained nocturnal death, in the shape of Freddy Krueger. Freddy gives a face to the fear of dying in one’s sleep and has made generations of teens terrified to dream for fear that Freddy will come for them.
Based on His Bully
Craven based the villainous, dream-assailing character of Freddy Krueger on a terrifying, hat-wearing man he saw as a kid. One night during his childhood, Wes saw an older man walking about underneath his window, who stopped and stared at him before walking away.
The director took the name Freddy Krueger directly from his childhood bully, Fred Krueger. A Nightmare on Elm Street wasn’t the first time Craven drew inspiration from his former foe; in his 1972 movie The Last House on the Left, the villain is named Krug.
The Adults Are Villains
Craven explained that the Cambodian refugee he read about “became the central line of Nightmare on Elm Street,” saying, “Here was a youngster having a vision of a horror that everyone older was denying.” Freddy was the villain and an adult, but the teenager’s parents were also kind of villains.
None of the adults in the film believes Nancy when she says the teenager’s deaths are caused by nightmares. Robert Englund, who plays Freddy, explained, “In Nightmare, all the adults are damaged: They’re alcoholic, they’re on pills, they’re not around.”
Creating the Boogeyman
Originally, Wes wrote Freddy as a child molester by later changed the script. Other movies in the franchise adopted the pedophile idea, but the first film focuses on Krueger as a kidnapper and murderer. Craven explained that “Freddy stands for the worst of parenthood and adulthood.”
He’s “the adult who wants children to die… He’s the boogeyman and the worst fear of children – the adult that’s out to get them… that evil, twisted, perverted father figure that… is able to get them at their most vulnerable… when they’re asleep!”
“The Better the Villain”
Craven wanted to create an original bad guy, he explained, “A lot of the killers were wearing masks: Leatherface, Michael Myers, Jason.” Wes wanted his “villain to have a “mask,” but be able to talk and taunt and threaten.” So, he came up with the idea of Freddy’s burn scars.
Jack Shoulder, the sequel’s director, said all “great characters in horror films,” such as Frankenstein or Dracula, “had personalities.” Craven and Shoulder were inspired by legendary horror filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock who said, “The better the villain, the better the movie.”
Cut by Freddy’s Glove
Craven thought using a knife as a weapon was cliched and wanted to create a unique weapon for his boogeyman. So, he thought, “how about a glove with steak knives?” The special effects designer, Jim Doyle, shared, “I sketched a few gloves, then built a “hero” glove. You know, the sharp one.”
He explained that “The rest of the time, we had “stunt gloves.” The hero glove was dangerous. Every time someone put it on, they hurt themselves because if you closed your fist, the blades cut your forearm.”
The House That Freddy Built
When Wes first tried to make A Nightmare on Elm Street, no studio wanted to produce the movie. Finally, New Line Cinema, founded by Robert Shaye, agreed to finance the film. Shaye had never produced a film before Nightmare, only distributed movies.
Shaye “always felt like an outsider” and distributed mostly fringe movies, like the early work of John Waters. He thought Craven’s idea was “fantastic because everybody has nightmares.” After the film’s surprise success, New Line Cinema became a production company and was nicknamed “The House That Freddy Built.”
Not Hollywood Types
Though Shaye later admitted that they went way over budget, the movie’s financing started small at $700,000. Luckily, Craven wanted to cast actors who weren’t classic Hollywood types anyway. They held an open audition for Nancy, and Heather Langenkamp beat 200 other actresses for the role.
Her costar Amanda Wyss, who plays Tina, was also picked out of the girls who auditioned for Nancy’s role. She received a call back and was paired with Heather after it became clear that they had excellent chemistry together.
Johnny Depp’s Debut
Initially, Craven wanted a “big, blond, beach-jock, football-player guy” for the role of Glen. However, instead, they considered casting Charlie Sheen for the part before changing their mind when, according to Shaye, he asked for too much money. That’s when they discovered Johnny Depp.
Craven shared that another cast member said to him, “I have a friend who’s in town. His name’s Johnny Depp, he’s in a band, and he’s interested in getting into movies.” The director remembered Johnny as “constantly smoking unfiltered cigarettes” and “greasy and pale and sickly.”
His Daughter Picked Depp
Craven wasn’t sure about Johnny Depp. He didn’t seem like the hot-boyfriend type to him, so he sought the advice of someone more qualified. “My 14-year-old daughter was in from New York with a friend,” Craven explained. So, he showed the girls the headshots of the actors he was considering.
When Wes asked them, “Who would you pick?” both girls chose Depp without hesitation. Craven remembered saying, “Are you serious?” to which they answered, “He’s beautiful.” Craven thought Johnny “looked like he needed a bath” but trusted his daughter’s gut feeling.
Nightmare Launched Depp’s Career
Depp was utterly inexperienced when he was cast as Glen in Nightmare. Englund shared that Depp was extremely polite to him and even called him “sir” for the first few days. According to Heather, “Johnny was very nervous” and would become easily flustered by cues on set, causing her and Amanda to crack up.
“When Tina and I are laughing [in the film], we’re totally laughing at Johnny.” Soon Depp got the hang of it, and A Nightmare on Elm Street became the film that launched his long and prosperous career.
Garcia’s Life Was a Nightmare
Jsu Garcia (billed as Nick Corri), the actor who played Rod, went through some personal nightmares while shooting the film. Jsu shared in an interview, “I was 19, and my life was horrible.”
He continued, “I’d finished being homeless and had a feeling of emptiness, so I’d do drugs.” Garcia revealed that he’d snort heroin in the set’s bathroom and was high in the scene when he’s talking to Heather through his cell bars. Langenkamp saw Jsu’s watery, unfocused eyes and thought he was giving his best performance ever.
Robert Understood Freddy
Craven had trouble finding the right actor to portray Krueger. He felt that everyone was “too quiet” and “too compassionate towards children.” When Robert Englund, a TV actor, came for an audition, Craven thought he was too short and had too much baby fat.
However, something about Robert just fit; “he impressed me with his willingness to go to the dark places in his mind. Robert understood Freddy.” Englund used some tricks in his audition; he greased back his hair, put ash under his eyes, and posed like Klaus Kinski.
The House They Built for Freddy
Freddy’s lair is set in a boiler room that acts as the nocturnal villain’s house and workshop in the original film. It’s revealed that when Freddy was alive, he would bring his young victims there, and he continues to bring teens, like Tina and Nancy, there in their dreams.
The bedroom was makeshift and intended to make Krueger look like a hobo, rejected and cast out by society. They filled the boiler room set with creepy things like naked Barbies and babies’ bottles, along with Freddy’s tools and metal scraps.
The Incredible Set Design
The set design in Nightmare is awe-inspiring, especially considering the movie’s low budget. When Freddy assaults Nancy in the bath, they built a bathroom set over a pool. That way, the villain can pull Nancy into an underwater dream world.
For the part when Freddy’s face and hands reach for Nancy through the wall as she lays in bed, the special effects designer built a wall from spandex. And for the melting staircase, which was based on Robert Shaye’s nightmares, they made special steps filled with pancake mix.
The Upside-Down Room
The most impressive set they built is the revolving room used for Tina and Glen’s deaths. Craven and his cameraman sat wearing harnesses on seats taken from a racing car that were bolted to the wall to shoot the scenes while the room rotated.
In Glen’s geyser death scene, they used water, dyed red, because the fake blood was too thick. When the room revolved, the water’s weight threw it off balance and caused the room to spin faster, which made the blood pour out suddenly, covering Wes and Heather completely.
One, Two, Buckle My Shoe
Charles Bernstein wrote the film score, but Freddy Krueger’s theme song, based on the childhood rhyme, One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, was written by Wes Craven and already part of the script. The theme song’s melody was arranged by Heather Langenkamp’s boyfriend, Alan Pasqua.
One of the three kids who sang the vocals for Freddy’s theme was the producer, Robert Shaye’s 14-year-old daughter. Shaye himself also appears in the film as a correspondent for the local television news channel as well as the broadcaster’s voice on the KRGR radio station.
Jason Was Almost Freddy
Kane Hodder, the stuntman known for his role as Jason Voorhees, Friday the 13th’s iconic villain, almost portrayed Freddy. Apparently, Craven wanted someone big like Hodder for the role, but he was also looking for an actor with real burn scars.
Hodder did kind of get his chance to play Freddy later. In the movie Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday, it is Hodder’s hand that grabs Jason’s mask. Sean Cunningham, the director of Friday the 13th, was friends with Craven and had worked with him on previous films.
The Evil Dead
Sean Cunningham also helped shoot some scenes in Nightmare for which two cameramen were needed. Furthermore, in the part when Nancy is trying desperately not to fall asleep, a scene from the Sam Raimi horror flick, The Evil Dead, is shown on her TV screen.
Wes included it because Raimi used a poster of Craven’s 1977 movie, Hills Have Eyes, in The Evil Dead. Raimi kept the horror movie crossover going when he placed Freddy Krueger’s glove in the tool shed in his film Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn.
An Alternate Ending
Craven wanted the ending to be different, but Shaye disagreed with him and wanted to ensure there would be a hook for a sequel. Craven wanted to end with Nancy leaving the house on a foggy day, to get in the car with her friends only to realize it had all been a dream.
Shaye preferred an ending in which Krueger comes back, and the audience realizes it’s a dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream. In the end, they filmed more than ten different endings and only decided on the final one during postproduction.
A Youth Power Flick
Nancy is such a brave heroine, thanks to Craven’s teenage daughter, who called out her dad for making the female leads stumble and trip in his previous films. She told him that girls aren’t that weak and clumsy, so he made Nancy fight back.
According to Heather, “Nightmare is a feminist movie, but I look at it more as a ‘youth power’ film. People love that she’s a girl, but Nancy doesn’t think of herself as a girl. She’s just like, ‘I need to save my friends.'”
The Moral of the Story
Amanda Wyss, who played Tina, said, “I think Tina was lost… she mistook being intimate with her boyfriend Rod as some sort of love. Ultimately, having sex with Rod killed her. In horror films, the whore-y girl has to be murdered.”
What Wyss meant is that Nightmare on Elm Street ascribes to the familiar morality play used in most horror movies, in which teens who engage in sexual activity are killed while those who abstain prevail. Tina is killed right after she has sex, really driving the point home.
Morality Sucks. Or Does It?
The crew couldn’t believe that Craven killed off the lead, Tina, in the first few minutes, but he insisted it would make the movie succeed. Unlike Tina, Nancy refuses to get hot and heavy with Glen and spends the night clutching Tina’s crucifix, with her boyfriend asleep in another room.
Glen hears Tina and Rod making love and exclaims, “morality sucks,” picking fun at the movie itself. However, morality is what saves Glen, at least for a few more reels, before he too meets a very gory end.
A Surprise Success
Wes’s then-wife Mimi recalled, “The first time Wes and I saw the movie with a real audience was in New York… They were screaming at the screen: “Don’t go in there, you stupid… woman!” We walked out, going, “Okay, this is good.” The film was a surprise success.
Nightmare raked in $24 million, paying back the low budget it was made with and more. Wes Craven was against making sequels to the movie, but New Line wanted to keep the franchise going, so they did so without him.
Where Is Heather Langenkamp Now?
Heather Langenkamp did participate in some of the sequels: A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. Langenkamp shared that she had a hard time being cast outside the horror genre after Nightmare.
Before 1984 she’d appeared in The Outsiders; afterward, she acted almost only in slasher flicks, aside from a short stint on the show Growing Pains. Nowadays, Heather still appears in scary shows like American Horror Story. She was recently cast as the lead in The Midnight Club.
Heather Is a Film Producer
Aside from acting, Heather is also a film producer and the co-owner of the makeup FX firm, AFX Studio. She worked on special makeup effects in several films, including Dawn of the Dead and The Cabin in the Woods.
After divorcing her first husband, Alan Pasqua (who arranged Freddy Krueger’s theme song), Heather married David LeRoy Anderson, a special effects artist. Langenkamp and LeRoy actually met through Wes Craven at a wrap party for the director’s 1989 film The Serpent and the Rainbow. They had two children together.
Wyss Was in Fast Times at Ridgemont High
Heather’s costar Amanda Wyss played Lisa in Fast Times at Ridgemont High before being cast in Nightmare on Elm Street. Afterward, she also appeared in several horror flicks, including Better Off Dead and the cult classic Shakma.
Amanda has appeared in many television shows. Fans might have recognized her as Beth Curtis in Cheers or Stevie in Charmed. In the 2000s, Amanda guest starred in CSI, Judging Amy, Dexter, Cold Case, and more. More recently, Wyss has appeared in Badland and Murder in the First.
Nick Corri AKA Jsu Garcia
The actor who played Rod Lane (and was credited as Nick Corri) nowadays goes by his real name Jsu Garcia. He started his acting career on the television show Fame. After Nightmare, he appeared in films such as Wildcats, Slaves of New York, Vampire in Brooklyn, and many more.
Throughout the 2000s, Jsu acted in Along Came Polly, The Lost City, and various shows, including CSI: Miami, CSI: NY, and Without and Trace. Now Jsu is an ordained minister in the religious corporation the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness.
Johnny Depp’s Jumped Off
Out of the entire cast, Johnny Depp became, by far, the most successful. Depp acted in the series 21 Jump Street from 1987 to 1990 before graduating to more serious roles. In the ’90s, he became a household name and is now among the most famous actors in the world.
Depp starred in films such as Benny & Joon, Donnie Brasco, Edward Scissorhands, and many more. In the 2000s, he embodied Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean and gained critical acclaim for movies like Chocolat and Finding Neverland.
Very Eccentric Roles
Over the years, Depp became known for his very eccentric roles. He often collaborated with Tim Burton in movies like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland, and Sweeny Todd. Later, Johnny played Gellert Grindelwald in the Harry Potter spinoff Fantastic Beasts.
Depp has dated some of the world’s leading ladies, including Winona Ryder, Kate Moss, and Vanessa Paradis. He and Vanessa have a daughter together named Lily-Rose Depp, who is now a famous actress and model too. More recently, his relationship with actress Amber Heard made headlines.
Freddy Krueger Forever
Before playing Freddy, Robert Englund was known for his role as Willie in the series V. After portraying Krueger, Englund became immortalized for his terrifying acting and reprised his role in many of the sequels. Like Heather, Robert remained in the horror niche afterward.
Over the years, Robert has acted in countless films, including Wishmaster, Hatchet, Red, Inkubus, and Fear Clinic. In 1988 he starred as Freddy in the series Freddy’s Nightmares. Soon fans will be able to see him in the next season of Stranger Things on Netflix.
The Teenage Icon, John Saxon
The actors who played Nancy’s parents, John Saxon and Ronee Blakley, were the highest billed cast in Nightmare. John was well known for his teenage roles in Rock, Pretty Baby, and Portrait in Black, which made him an icon. Saxon had already played cops in horror films like Black Christmas and Tenebrae.
He starred in Enter the Dragon alongside Bruce Lee in 1973 and dabbled in the Western genre. Saxon was also very active in Italian cinema from the ’60s till the ’80s. The multitalented, genre-crossing actor passed away in 2020.
Ronee Blakley Was Married to Wim Wenders
Ronee was acclaimed for her 1975 role in the Robert Altman movie Nashville as well as her career as a musician. After Nightmare on Elm Street, she continued acting for a few more years, appearing in films like Cinématon and Murder by Numbers before retiring from Hollywood.
Until 1981, Blakley was married to the talented German movie director Wim Wenders. She has one daughter named Sarah Blakley-Cartwright from a later relationship with screenwriter Carroll Cartwright. In 2012, Ronee wrote and directed the film Of One Blood, in which her daughter starred.
The Slasher Film
Nightmare on Elm Street was a revolutionary horror film and changed the face of the genre. Before its time, movies like it were called monster movies. With the help of directors like Wes Craven and his contemporaries Sean Cunningham, John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, and George Romero, the monster movie changed.
Low-budget horror films like Nightmare, Halloween, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Friday the 13th became huge successes and are now considered the most iconic horror flicks of all time. They invented the slasher film as it is today.
Nine, Ten, Never Sleep Again
The flick is now considered one of the all-time greatest horror movies and left behind an intimidating legacy. Aside from being a cult classic of epic proportions with numerous sequels, spinoffs, remakes, comic books, and crossovers, A Nightmare on Elm Street is critically acclaimed.
Critics praise the movie’s transgression of “the boundaries between the imaginary and real.” Wes Craven achieved his dream of bringing to life the horror experienced by the Hmong people, who could not escape their nightmares. He also left generations of fans with a sleep phobia.