Another entry in my month-long celebration of all things Halloween
In 1984, director/writer Wes Craven released what may be one of the most original horror movies ever made, A Nightmare On Elm Street. The film’s premise was brilliant—a group of teens are stalked and killed in their dreams by a supernatural killer named Freddy Krueger (a star-making turn by Robert Englund). The whole idea that the moment you fall asleep is when the monster will strike was a completely terrifying thought—there’s no other time when we’re more vulnerable and everyone has to sleep eventually so there’s no escape. But where did Craven get the idea for a killer who murders you in your sleep? From reading about the experiences of the newly arrived Hmong immigrants and the mysterious things that were happening to them in America.
I previously blogged about sleep paralysis. Something similar was happening to the Hmong (specifically the men), but with more fatal results (studies found the Hmong in America were two to three times more likely to experience sleep paralysis than the general population and that the rate for the Hmong who had converted to Christianity was the highest of any known population in the world). But first a bit of background:
Starting in the 1950s and until the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, the Hmong—a tribal people of the hill country of Southeast Asia—were recruited and trained by the CIA to serve as a guerilla army to fight the Communist Pathet Lao insurgency. After the Communists won, most of the Hmong escaped to refugee camps in Thailand while more than 100,000 ended up immigrating to the United States.
The Hmong had barely settled in America in 1977 when dozens of seemingly healthy Hmong men started dying in their sleep without warning or any discernible causes. Baffled doctors labeled this epidemic SUNDS or Sudden Unexplained Nocturnal Death Syndrome.
Medical professionals today think these deaths were related to a form of Brugada Syndrome, which is a genetic heart condition, and may have been prevalent in groups like the Hmong because of their diet. But at the height of the SUNDS deaths (roughly between 1977-1981), explanations for what was happening ranged from fallout from secret biological tests the CIA had conducted on the Hmong during the war to a more supernatural cause—the dab tsog.
Like in many Asian cultures, the traditional religious practices of the Hmong include a form of ancestor worship. You gave offerings and paid homage to your ancestors and, in turn, they protected you from evil spirits like the dab tsog who were thought to sit on sleepers and suffocate them. This supernatural theory attributed the unexplained deaths to the dab tsog.
The thinking was that once the Hmong came to the United States and discarded their traditional customs, it left them vulnerable to attack by these evil forces (especially for those who had taken their assimilation one step further and accepted Christianity). The deaths only became less frequent once the Hmong started to re-embrace their traditional values.
Whatever you make of this theory, it made headlines all over the country. There were sensational articles in mainstream papers about things like how Hmong men were putting on make-up and wearing dresses to bed to try to trick the dab tsog into thinking they were women and spare them. And one person who came upon these stories was a director of horror movies seeking a fresh idea for his next project.
Here’s what Craven said about the inspiration for the iconic Freddy Krueger and the Nightmare On Elm Street series: “It was a series of articles in the LA Times, three small articles about men from South East Asia, who were from immigrant families and who had died in the middle of nightmares—and the paper never correlated them, never said, ‘Hey, we’ve had another story like this.’”
I can’t fault what Craven did with this idea because the film he created is definitely a classic of the genre—a very human child killer is released on a technicality. Outraged parents take the law into their own hands and, in essence, execute him themselves. Years later, the killer comes back to knock off the children of the people who murdered him in their sleep—that’s narrative gold. Of course, the film was cast with Caucasians including a group of pretty white teens (including a young Johnny Depp in his first major film role) and all evidence that the movie was inspired by real events involving the Hmong was erased.
But as I said when I wrote previously about Star Wars and how it had its roots in the Vietcong, it still would have been interesting if Craven had chosen to make his movie directly about its source material. Again, I love Nightmare On Elm Street and I can’t really knock it, but I’m also a big fan of horror movies and a part of me is a little miffed that such an incredible real-life story that could have been the basis for the great Asian American horror film was co-opted by someone else. We deserve our nightmares too.
Here’s the recently released trailer for the upcoming reboot of A Nightmare On Elm Street (and doesn’t look like we’ll see Asians in this one either):