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SYFY WIRE A Nightmare on Elm Street

The True Stories That Inspired A Nightmare on Elm Street

We have a couple of key moments in Wes Craven's life to thank for one of the best horror movies ever.

By Matthew Jackson

A Nightmare on Elm Street (now airing on SYFY) is not the kind of film that screams "Based on a True Story." One of the most enduring supernatural horror movies ever made, it's a film all about the horrifying power of dreaming, a monster who lives in your subconscious, and all manner of reality-altering dark fantasy that proves deadly for a group of teenagers. But for all its fantastical content, Wes Craven's 1984 classic is indeed a film with roots in more than one true story, including something that happened to the director himself. 

Real-life motivations behind Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street

The core concept that gave Craven the jolt he needed to start writing what would become A Nightmare on Elm Street arrived in his mind in the early 1980s. In the wake of directing Swamp Thing, the filmmaker found himself without a job and on the hunt for a fresh idea. Fortunately, he found one in the pages of the Los Angeles Times

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Robert Englund attacks Heather Langenkamp in a scene from the film 'A Nightmare On Elm Street', 1984

I’d read an article in the L.A. Times about a family who had escaped the Killing Fields in Cambodia and managed to get to the U.S," Craven told Vulture in 2014. "Things were fine, and then suddenly the young son was having very disturbing nightmares. He told his parents he was afraid that if he slept, the thing chasing him would get him, so he tried to stay awake for days at a time. When he finally fell asleep, his parents thought this crisis was over. Then they heard screams in the middle of the night. By the time they got to him, he was dead. He died in the middle of a nightmare. Here was a youngster having a vision of a horror that everyone older was denying. That became the central line of Nightmare on Elm Street."

Armed with a real-life example of someone plagued by nightmares that ended up deadly, Craven set to work on the script, but A Nightmare on Elm Street is about more than a conceptual hook. The director also needed a memorable villain that would truly dial up the terror of the nightmares in question. To create the being that would ultimately become Freddy Krueger, Craven drew on a number of ideas, but one of them turned out to be a particularly frightening memory from his own childhood. In Never Sleep Again: The Making of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Craven recalled a man walking down the street past his childhood home one night, who somehow knew he was watching him and turned to meet his eyes with a frightening, creepy look. The man was wearing a battered fedora, which Craven ultimately gave to Freddy to add to his frightening allure.

These ideas and many more all went into the film, giving A Nightmare on Elm Street a layered, detailed quality that makes it one of the most frightening horror films of the 1980s, and a classic to this day.

A Nightmare on Elm Street is now airing on SYFY. Check out the schedule for details.