How the Cambodian Killing Fields Led to Nightmare on Elm Street

Are Killer Nightmares Real?

A Promotional image of Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors

The short answer is no. You will not die in real life if you die in a dream. However, it's also impossible to know if one who died in their sleep also died in their dream. But many people, myself included, have had killer nightmares, in that we have been killed in our dreams, but we have lived to tell the tale. The idea that dying in one's dreams leads to death for real was perpetuated by Wes Craven's Nightmare on Elm Street.

A bit about dreams and sleep

Researchers are still trying to decipher what happens when we sleep. Clinical psychologist Rubin Naiman Ph.D. specializing in integrative sleep and dream medicine at the University of Arizona views the human brain as a second gut. While we sleep, it digests the day's events and eliminates what isn't needed, and keeps the rest. The bit that's kept makes us, us. This view has been reinforced over the decades through testing and research.

Neato-Burrito Dream Facts


Dreaming occurs the entire time we're sleeping, not only during REM sleep. We are more likely to remember the dream when we're in REM.

Dreams are only strange after we wake up. While we're dreaming, everything seems completely normal. Applying waking rules to dreams for interpretations doesn't work.


If you remember your dreams, you are more likely to be sensitive to sounds both while awake and asleep, aka a light sleeper.


The myth that dreams happen in a split second is just that, a myth. Most dreams run only a few minutes, but others can last 20 to 60 minutes.


Nightmares aren't all about fear. A 2014 study of 331 participants found that many of our bad dreams stem from feelings of failure, guilt, anxiety, and sadness. The study also found that men are more likely to have nightmares focused on violence and physical aggression. On the other hand, women tended to have nightmares focusing on interpersonal relationships struggles.

The inspiration for Nightmare on Elm Street

In 1980, writer/director Wes Craven read a news article about three young refugees from the Cambodian Killing Fields plagued by horrific nightmares. The young man became so frightened that they tried to stay awake as long as possible. Finally, sleep overtook them, and each awoke screaming only to die from unknown causes (Schuster n.d.).

Side Note: Cambodian Killing Fields

Choeung Ek Killing Field: The bones of victims killed by Khmer Rouge soldiers.

The Cambodian Killing Fields is the genocide of the Cambodian people shortly after the Cambodian Civil War. Dictator Pol Pot and his communist Khmer Rouge regime killed and buried over 3 million people.

Earlier Killer Nightmares

I found a 1951 Time Magazine article that reports on a 37-year-old man, Nemecio Tutop, who worked on a sugar plantation on the island of Oahu. He went to bed in his quarters in perfect health only to die in his sleep. Tutop was the 37th Philipano citizen to die of mysterious causes while asleep. Dr. Majoska, who investigated the deaths, found that some deaths might have been related to acute pancreatitis. While sleeping, the condition will wake a person every hour or so with pain. Usually, they fall back to sleep and then die. However, 18 of the deaths had no inflammation of the pancreas. Dr. Majoska then discovered that in the Philippines, there is a belief that nightmares can kill you. Majoska chalked the mysterious deaths up to the dream-death theory called bangugut, death by nightmare, also known as Brugada syndrome. Brugada syndrome is also known as Sudden arrhythmic death syndrome (detikHealth, 2010; Time, 1951).

Sudden Arrhythmic Death Syndrome (SADS)

During sleep, the seemingly unexplained death of otherwise healthy young people of South East Asian descent can be attributed to a sudden irregular heartbeat where the heart fails to pump blood. The condition is usually discovered post-mortem but can be caught early with an EEG. Many reported that SADS victims cried out in their sleep before being found dead, strengthening the idea that a nightmare caused the death. Brugada syndrome's propensity to cause sleep deaths has strengthened the belief of sleep demons in South Asian mythology.

Who is Freddie Krueger?

The infamous boogieman from Nightmare on Elm Street gets his name from an actual bully that harassed Craven as a child.

New Line Cinema/Frazer Harrison/Getty Images North America

Krueger had it bad from the get-go, a product of gang rape by mentally deranged psychopaths. Krueger was a family man by day, a serial killer known as the "Springwood Slasher." Originally, Krueger was slated to be a child molester. Still, at the time, a high-profile child molestation case (The McMartin Preschool molestation accusations) steered producers away from this idea, and instead, Krueger became a child killer. His weapon of choice was a custom glove with blades for fingers.

After Kruger's trial, he was left off on a technicality. A mob of angry parents took Kruger back to the school where he'd committed the murders and changed him to the boiler, and set the school on fire, burning Kruger to death. In the afterlife, Kruger was given a choice to burn in hell or return as a dream daemon where he could continue to murder people with his razor blade hand.

Freddy Kruger Lookalikes

In Amarillo, Texas, an old school-turned church is the location of a legend of a janitor who murdered children and burned their bodies in the boiler before hanging himself. Paranormal enthusiasts and teenagers report that ghosts of the janitor and the children haunt the building. In addition to restless specters, other reports include that swings move by themselves and cellphones and radios have a mind of their own when in the school's proximity.

The Motivation for Murdering Children

In 1929, the Summit Elementary school was built as a black school before desegregation. In 1972, the school closed (along with several others) after Summit students were placed in mixed classrooms. The legend goes as follows:

Summitt School, Amarillo, Texas, photograph, 1928;( accessed August 31, 2019), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History,; crediting Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum.

The janitor, a member of a local chapter of the KKK who couldn't stand the thought of white children learning alongside black children, murdered several black Summit children protesting the future voluntary desegregation plan before hanging himself.

Many locals believe the tale to be accurate.

To Recap

No matter how scary your nightmares are, they won't kill you.

The first Nightmare on Elm Street is the best in the franchise.

The Summit School, now the Summit Baptist Church in Amarillo, Texas, is not haunted, and no janitor ever killed children there.

A syndrome plagues those of Southeast Asian descent that can kill otherwise healthy people while they sleep.


Klein, Sarah (2014). 9 Things you Probably didn't Know About Dreaming. Life: Wellness.

detikHealth, (2010). "Nightmares that can kill."

Schuster, Mike (n.d.). "10 Facts You May Not Know About the Nightmare on Elm Street Movies". IFC

Time Magazine (1951). "Medicine: Nightmare Death.",9171,806038,00.html



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Cynthia Varady

Cynthia Varady

Award-winning author, short storyteller, fantasy, sci-fi, and true crime. She/her