Can a Nightmare Kill You?

(Last Updated On: October 19, 2021)

While your friends who never remember anything about their dreams may be jealous of the vivid alternate lives you get to live, vivid nightmares are a pretty good counter argument. Grass is always greener on the other side and all that. Some of us get night terrors though, which can leave you feeling really awful when you jolt straight up in the middle of the night. Maybe you’ve had the unfortunate experience of dying in a dream, or you just watched Freddy Krueger get up to some shenanigans on Elm Street. No matter the reason, you’re thinking about it now. Can a nightmare really kill you?

The Actual Inspiration for A Nightmare on Elm Street

You might think we brought up the claw-handed Freddy Krueger as a joke, but there is actually a sort-of functional reason to bring up the guy. Wes Craven was inspired by a syndrome that goes by multiple names. We’ll do a run-down of the common ones, but what you might see it most frequently referred to as is sudden unexplained nocturnal death syndrome (SUNDS) or Brugada syndrome. There’s also the similar sudden arrhythmic death syndrome–yes it is in fact called SADS. Like Brugada syndrome, it also mainly occurs during sleep.

What made SUNDS a curiosity was its propensity to kill otherwise healthy people (and generally younger) in their sleep. Sound familiar? Because it should if you’ve seen A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Craven was inspired by a pretty specific story too; the story of a child who escaped the Killing Fields during the Cambodian genocide (1975-1979). He suffered from very vivid nightmares and was afraid of a figure in his nightmares chasing him. As a result, he feared sleeping, for if he was to fall asleep he would be caught by the nightmare. To solve the issue he tried to just never sleep–something you can’t really do since it’s not compatible with life or normal functioning. Eventually, sleep took him. In the middle of the night his parents heard screams, and the child had passed away by the time his parents reached him. 

The Vietnam War

This wasn’t an isolated incident either, dozens of refugees fleeing to America from Southeast Asia died to similarly inexplicable circumstances. Most of the people who died were in their 20s and 30s; many of whom were Hmong refugees. The Hmong people were largely persecuted in Laos during this time, thanks to the CIA having them fight in Northern Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Hmong soldiers inducted to the Vietnam War died about 10 times more often than their American counterparts. 

Hmong refugees who fled to the states found themselves traumatized from events overseas and struggled to resettle in America. Their trauma didn’t end once they made it to the US either; Hmong refugees suffered from high poverty rates. Eventually Hmong refugees started dying mysteriously in their sleep, something significant enough to get the SUNDS ball rolling. 

Sleep Paralysis

In Indonesia, Cambodia, and among the Hmong people these deaths are closely associated with sleep paralysis–something we’ve written about on the blog before. But the gist is basically your body is supposed to paralyze itself when you’re asleep so you don’t sleepwalk. It’s a problem when your brain wakes up and is still kind of dreaming but you the paralytic hasn’t worn off. Chiefly though, sleep paralysis and SUNDS are not the same thing. At the same time, while SUNDS is associated with nightmares, it’s obviously super hard to make the assertion that the fatality was directly caused by a nightmare–”unexplained” is in the name of the syndrome. 

Further Reading: What Are Night Hags?

What we do know about SUNDS is that it’s genetic, and the gene altered is one that has to do with getting positively charged sodium ions into the heart. The ion channels governed by this gene specifically help regulate the heart’s normal rhythm. Sometimes Brugada syndrome/SUNDS appears without a genetic cause, though these cases are still associated with heart-related conditions or issues. 

Sometimes the real nightmare is math. Here’s some number nightmares.

About the Author:

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Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.