Strange Real-Life Stories Behind Cinema’s Scariest Movies

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Most fans of Hitchcock’s 1963 avian frightfest The Birds are familiar with the filmmaker’s nod to a 1952 short story of the same name, written by British author Daphne du Maurier. The director modeled his aerial terror after Du Maurier’s tale about a community in England that find themselves under attack by massive flocks of seabirds. Hitchcock’s story takes place in California, which happens to be the site of a similar real-life event that also inspired the auteur’s famous film.

A group of scientists recently solved the unusual mystery behind a 1961 incident, in which disoriented seabirds crashed into houses — suicide-style — across California’s Monterey Bay. It appears that the birds ingested toxic algae (thanks to the area’s leaky septic tanks), which caused confusion, seizures, and death. Hitch studied the poisonous headlines for his thriller, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Since life is usually far more frightening than fiction (just look at the potential presidential candidates), we decided to dig into several other real-life stories behind scary movies past the break. Leave us your own picks below.

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Real-life creepy killer, the “Vampire of Düsseldorf” Peter Kürten, was one of several German psychopaths that director Fritz Lang found inspiration in for his 1931 noir thriller, M. Lang’s story about a tormented child murderer terrorizing the youthful population of Berlin bears the biggest resemblance to Kürten’s violent sex crimes, which shocked the 1920s. Lang has denied a direct influence, but Peter Lorre’s Hans Beckert could easily be a cinematic Kürten — who was executed by guillotine after being charged with multiple rape-murders. Lang’s movie has even been dubbed The Vampire of Düsseldorf in several other countries, like Spain.

Jaws

The Jersey Shore isn’t just the site of orange-baked fist-pumpers looking for a good time. Cinema’s first blockbuster movie, Jaws, references a gory 1916 series of shark attacks along New Jersey’s coastline. Steven Spielberg’s 1975 film is based on Peter Benchley’s novel of the same name, but the author’s work was influenced by the real-life incident that found four people dead over a twelve-day period. That summer, record heat and a polio epidemic drew enormous crowds to the shore where panic spread after the “Jersey man-eater” attacked. In turn, hundreds of sharks were captured in an attempt to stop the assault. Spielberg alludes to the 1916 attacks during a scene when Richard Dreyfuss’ character Matt Hooper pleads with the mayor to close the beach.

Dead Ringers

David Cronenberg’s mad twin gynecologists who created sadistic instruments to operate on “mutant women,” were loosely modeled after real-life drug-addicted doctors, Stewart and Cyril Marcus. (Cronenberg also used the novel Twins by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland to aid his script.) The Marcus twins were renowned specialists who were found dead in their squalid Manhattan apartment, having suffered from a nasty barbiturate withdrawal. The bodies were there for a week before being recovered. Jeremy Irons — who plays both brothers in the 1988 film — attempts to operate while intoxicated, which is also something the Marcus twins did in the months right before their death (in case you needed another reason to fear doctors … ).

The Shining

Stephen King may not enjoy Stanley Kubrick’s retelling of his 1977 horror novel, but the author’s creepy experience at the Stanley Hotel in Colorado inspired his book and became the backbone of Kubrick’s legendary film. King and his wife went to the resort for a much-needed vacation after his first two novels were published. The hotel was closing for the winter and the couple were the only guests checking in. The eerily quiet setting, spending the night in a reportedly haunted room (yes, number 217), and strange dreams prompted King’s disturbing story — all of which Jack Nicholson and his family experience in the film.

A Nightmare on Elm Street

A Nightmare on Elm Street‘s story tells a universal tale about childhood anxiety and the infamous bogeyman. Wes Craven used his own boyhood biographical experiences to inform his movie about a slasher madman who attacks teens in their sleep, but the director’s other inspiration comes in part from a report about Cambodian refugees in the 1970s. An article in the LA Times about Khmer refugees suffering from disturbing nightmares and refusing to sleep fed Craven’s scary story. Many of the men died soon after, and the phenomenon became studied as an unusual type of sudden unexpected death syndrome.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

It’s always amazing to realize that Tobe Hooper’s 1974 chainsaw extravaganza isn’t as bloody as it seems — a compliment to the director’s ability to craft a tense, terrifying film. The real-life story behind Hooper’s horror classic is far more gruesome, however. Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein was the inspiration for the director’s mute manchild, Leatherface — the killer who hunts his prey, hails from a family of cannibals, and wears a mask made from human skin. Gein also kept trophies of his unfortunate victims and inspired several other horror flicks — including Psycho, and Silence of the Lambs.

The Entity

There’s a reason why Martin Scorsese named The Entity as one of the scariest horror films of all time. The idea of an incubus tormenting a woman in her home is disturbing to say the least. Frank De Felitta’s novel of the same name, which inspired the film, was based on a real-life case that was studied by paranormal experts for years. Doris Bither claimed unseen, malevolent spirits physically attacked her and that they followed her from home to home. Bither had an abusive background and battled her own demons, but her strange story has been repeatedly accounted for by the doctor and his associate who worked with her, as well as her children.

The Blob

We prefer to think of Steve McQueen as the king of cool behind the wheel of a dangerously speeding car, but the actor got his start in the 1958 sci-fi/horror flick The Blob. The indie-made alien film about an amoeba-like being that ravages small town Pennsylvania found its basis in a weird 1950 incident. Several Philadelphia policemen discovered a large, “domed disk of quivering jelly.” The gelatinous substance was eventually believed to be star jelly — a substance excreted during meteor showers. When the men tried to pick up the slimy “blob,” it apparently evaporated into an “odorless, sticky scum.” News reports embellished the incident, calling the substance a flying saucer that had a purple glow, and thus The Blob was born.