I remember reading an article in the 1980s about writer/director Wes Craven’s inspiration for Freddy Krueger, who visits his victims dreams and kills them while they’re asleep. Craven has since talked about this inspiration often, and it involves a news story he stumbled across about a Cambodian refugee boy from the Killing Fields who was plagued with nightmares. One night, his parents heard him screaming. He had died in his sleep.
This isn’t the only time that Craven has made films inspired by real-life events. His 1988 Haitian zombie flick The Serpent and the Rainbow was a fictionalized story of antrhopologist Wade Davis who studied drugs allegedly used to induce zombification for slavery. Because Craven had two well-known films in the 80s based on real-life accounts, this led to a minor urban legend that there’s real truth to someone dying in real life if they die in their dreams.
As anyone who occasionally suffers from nightmares might tell you, this is a terrifying concept, so it got me thinking: if you die in a dream, would you really die in real life?
The Answer: Sure, it could happen. But how would anyone know what you were dreaming?
Ultimately, that’s the answer to its logical conclusion. It would be impossible to prove that anyone who died in his or her sleep was killed in the dream or because of it. For all anyone knows, the person could have been dreaming about puppies and kittens riding rainbows made of sparkles and cotton candy. Terrifying.
The child Craven cites in his inspiration story actually falls more in line with a disorder known as night terrors, which includes fits of screaming, fear and flailing while sleeping. Unlike nightmares, which can often be remembered and which occur at the end of REM sleep, night terrors are not specifically linked to dreaming. They are more often associated with other sleep disorders like sleepwalking, and they usually occur primarily in children, which might indicate a developmental issue rather than an ongoing adult one.
In fact, when someone dreams – whether they are having a nightmare or a nice little dream about puppies and kittens riding rainbows made of sparkles and cotton candy – he or she usually doesn’t move or make noise. While a person is dreaming, his or her brain releases the chemicals glycine and GABA, which essentially paralyze the sleeper. When a person rises to consciousness before his or her body is ready to wake up from this, he or she will feel paralyzed and sometimes sense the weight of something on their chest. This has led to tales of the succubus and incubus demons, which are malevolent creatures that pin people down while they sleep and sometimes have sex with them.
So while the story of Freddy Krueger killing someone in his or her sleep makes a good horror movie, it’s not really based in fact. But you still have to wonder…
Can you survive dying in your dream?
Sure you can. People do it every night all over the world. Death dreams are actually quite common. However, they don’t really mean true death.
Like most of our dreams, the presence of death is largely symbolic. Death dreams often have a deeper meaning than what you literally see in your head during your nightmares. The human mind takes the conscious worries and chews them up in the dream world, interpreting them and trying to figure things out with the subconscious mind. Usually death is symbolic of greater concepts, like the end of something or general guilt and fear.
This makes sense, considering sex and death are two of the most powerful subconscious concepts in the human mind. Advertisers have been using this imagery to subliminally manipulate the public for decades.
That’s right. We’re all death-obsessed perverts, or at least our subconscious minds are. Craven was just tapping into our collective nervous energy with the Freddy Krueger character.
However, one does have to wonder if all dreams are symbolic, then…
What does Freddy Krueger really represent?
No, really. He’s a giant penis man with four murdering penises on his hand.
Many people have pointed out the not-so-subtle cautionary tale for teen sex that slashers represent. In fact, most of the famous on-screen killers – from the knife-wielding Norman Bates, Michael Myers, and Jason Voorhees to the gritty chainsaw killer Leatherface – brandish weapons that symbolize the male penis.
Freddy Krueger is no different. However, he doesn’t have just one blade, but four of them. On top of that, Freddy’s scarred and burned face and head resemble a phallic symbol, especially when he finally loses his hat, possibly symbolic of a condom. After all, Freddy becomes most dangerous to the main character of Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) in A Nightmare on Elm Street when she removes his hat in the dream. More over, near the end of the film, Freddy rises from a bed and erupts from a thin rubber sheet, further symbolizing the loss of safe sex, and he is vanquished (temporarily) when Nancy turns her back on him and refuses to give into his giant penis-ness.
Still not convinced? Consider the fact that Craven’s original concept for Freddy Krueger was a child molester rather than a child killer. Due to some real-life molestation cases in California, Krueger was made into a child-killer instead. (The child molester element was reinserted into the 2010 remake, but let’s not speak of that cinematic travesty again.)
Also, every death that occurs in 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street takes place in bed, and the teenage girl Tina (Amanda Wyss) is the only one seen penetrated with the knives. (Johnny Depp’s character of Glen was presumably butchered off-screen, considering the massive geyser of blood that erupts in his room, but he actually isn’t stabbed or sliced on screen.)
Before he became a wise-cracking sardonic comedian, Freddy Krueger was possibly the most phallic of all the 80s slasher villains. He was our two biggest subliminal triggers rolled up into one: sex and death in the same dream. However, in real life, we would wake up shaken but not dead.