While it’s true that many horror filmmakers have plastered the phony “true story” label on their movies in hopes of filling theater seats and winning box office gold, some scary movies have been inspired by real-life events. Tragic tales, actual murder cases, and dark memories are usually the basis for these films, proving that truth can be more terrifying than fiction. Most of us know the story behind famous fright films like The Exorcist, The Amityville Horror, or even Texas Chainsaw Massacre (serial killer Ed Gein has inspired dozens of movies thanks to his gruesome history), but we wanted to fill you in on several lesser-known, real-life plotlines that influenced popular works of horror. Test your knowledge past the break, and feel free to chat about any of your favorite true terror tales in the comments.
A story about a pizza-faced madman who terrorizes teens in their dreams doesn’t sound like it could possibly be based on a real-life story, but director Wes Craven was inspired to create the 1984 slasher classic after reading an article in the LA Times. The disturbing write-up detailed one man’s bizarre death. Craven explained more about the case behind A Nightmare on Elm Street in a 2008 interview:
“It was a series of articles in the LA Times, about men from South East Asia, who were from immigrant families and who had died in the middle of nightmares — and the paper never correlated them, never said, ‘Hey, we’ve had another story like this.’ The third one was the son of a physician. He was about twenty-one; I’ve subsequently found out this is a phenomenon in Laos, Cambodia. Everybody in his family said almost exactly these lines: ‘You must sleep.’ He said, ‘No, you don’t understand; I’ve had nightmares before — this is different.’ He was given sleeping pills and told to take them and supposedly did, but he stayed up. I forget what the total days he stayed up was, but it was a phenomenal amount — something like six, seven days. Finally, he was watching television with the family, fell asleep on the couch, and everybody said, ‘Thank god.’ They literally carried him upstairs to bed; he was completely exhausted. Everybody went to bed, thinking it was all over. In the middle of the night, they heard screams and crashing. They ran into the room, and by the time they got to him he was dead. They had an autopsy performed, and there was no heart attack; he just had died for unexplained reasons. They found in his closet a Mr. Coffee maker, full of hot coffee that he had used to keep awake, and they also found all his sleeping pills that they thought he had taken; he had spit them back out and hidden them. It struck me as such an incredibly dramatic story that I was intrigued by it for a year, at least, before I finally thought I should write something about this kind of situation.”
Writer Don Mancini conceived of the script for his killer doll movie Child’s Play as a satire about toy marketing and merchandising for children, but the idea developed into a horror film. In the creepy 1988 movie, a serial killer uses voodoo rituals to transfer his soul into a doll and possesses a child’s toy. The idea for this twist was apparently inspired by a real-life voodoo vendetta that a Jamaican nurse inflicted upon Key West painter and author Robert Eugene Otto. She gave Robert the Doll to Otto in 1904, but eventually turned against her employer and cursed it. The writer would apparently talk to the doll when he was a child. Otto’s family would find things missing or moved in his room, and heard him screaming at night. After Otto passed away, the doll was left behind and wound up with the new homeowners who also experienced similar attacks, claiming the doll could move and was trying to kill them. Robert now has his own website, has appeared on the travel channel, and is displayed in a museum where he’s a featured stop on a ghost tour.
Director Wes Craven based his 1977 cult horror film The Hills Have Eyes — about a family hunted by deformed cannibals — on the Sawney Bean story. In 15th and 16th-century Scotland, Bean left home and took to the coastal caves with a woman where they lived for a number of years and had 14 children. The clan ambushed innocent passersby and murdered them for food. When locals began to notice the disappearances and body parts started washing up on shore, the family was hunted and brought to trial. At that time, they numbered 48, most of them the product of incest. The entire family was executed for the murder and cannibalization of over 1,000 people. Craven’s film puts an exploitation spin on the story with horrifying effect.
Irvin Yeaworth’s 1958 film (and its 1988 remake) about an alien blob that falls from outer space and engulfs people into a miserable, gooey death was based on a 1950 case in Philadelphia. A group of policemen discovered a “domed disk of quivering jelly, six feet in diameter, one foot thick at the center and an inch or two near the edge.” When they tried to move it, it dissolved into a sticky scum. The substance is called star jelly and is usually reported seen near the site of a meteorite landing. However, due to the location of the event, it’s also believed that the substance the officers saw was industrial waste since the gas company was located in the same vicinity.
There really were twin gynecologists who operated on “mutant women.” David Cronenberg’s chilling tale of two brothers who succumb to drugs and depression in Dead Ringers was based on a novel by Bari Wood, which in turn was based on a troubling real-life story. Identical twin gynecologists in New York City Stewart and Cyril Marcus were successful doctors who shared everything, including a nasty addiction to barbiturates. In 1975, their decomposing bodies were found in their East Side apartment (dead about a week). Their slow decline had been largely ignored, despite incidents reported by hospital staff and patients about their strange behavior. They essential died from withdrawal, but the spin Cronenberg puts on the twins’ tragic story makes you wonder if there wasn’t some part of them that vowed to die together.
After Elliot Hoover loses his daughter in a fiery car crash, 11 years later he becomes convinced that a little girl named Ivy is really his little girl reincarnated. The surreal 1977 film Audrey Rose is based on Frank De Felitta’s 1975 novel of the same name, and was inspired by a real-life experience the author had with his own son. A 1976 People article details the background of De Felitta’s mysterious encounter with the metaphysical and how Audrey Rose was born:
“He and his wife, Dorothy, were relaxing on the terrace of their Los Angeles home in the summer of 1971. Suddenly they heard piano music in the style of Fats Waller coming from the house. ‘We went in and there was Raymond at the piano, going like the devil. We were shocked. In fact, we were scared. Raymond said his fingers were doing it.’ The boy, then 6, had never before displayed any hint of musical talent.
De Felitta consulted a Los Angeles occultist named Barbara Ryan, who explained Raymond’s mystifying talent as ‘an incarnation leak.’ ‘She told me that Raymond was one of those souls who had been through many lifetimes,’ De Felitta says. ‘They have innate memories of past lives, and they pick up where they left off in a past life.’ Fascinated, Frank began to read American mystic Edgar Cayce, Hindu texts on reincarnation and the works of a University of Virginia psychiatrist investigating the subject.”
It’s not a far stretch to believe that a series of real-life shark attacks inspired the novel that became the framework for the first American blockbuster, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Peter Benchley’s book of the same name looked to a set of 1916 shark attacks in New Jersey that killed four people and injured many others. The beasts caused a national panic and saw seaside communities abandoning waters in droves, despite the attacks being a mostly rare occurrence. The grisly incident is largely responsible for the public opinion of sharks as man-eating murderers.
Jack Ketchum’s disturbing novel The Girl Next Door was adapted for the big screen in 2007. The film about the sadistic torture and murder of an innocent, orphaned girl is brutal and extremely challenging to watch — which makes the fact that it’s based on a real-life case bone chilling. The real girl next door was Sylvia Likens who was the abandoned child of carnival workers, left to a local family (along with her sister) in the hopes of the children living a righteous life. Instead, she was severely abused and killed at the hands of Gertrude Baniszewski and her children. She had only lived in the house for three months.
Filming home invasion horror flick The Strangers was a personal experience for writer-director Bryan Bertino. “As a kid, I lived in a house on a street in the middle of nowhere. One night, while our parents were out, somebody knocked on the front door and my little sister answered it. At the door were some people asking for somebody that didn’t live there,” he explained in his production notes. “We later found out that these people were knocking on doors in the area and, if no one was home, breaking into the houses. In The Strangers, the fact that someone is at home does not deter the people who’ve knocked on the front door; it’s the reverse.” Bertino’s main inspirations for the story, however, are the Manson murders and the unsolved quadruple homicide case known as the Keddie Cabin Murders. In 1981 at a resort town in the Sierra Nevada foothills, an entire family was stabbed, strangled, and bludgeoned to death.
Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining seems to be one of those movies that has fans in opposite camps: those who love the movie, but have never read the book, and those that dislike the film and praise Stephen King’s 1977 novel as the real hero. Part of that may be influenced by King himself, who was very vocal in his hatred for Kubrick’s movie — at least upon its initial release. King has a strong personal attachment to the story about a family that spends one winter playing caretaker for a massive hotel. Isolation and strange phenomenon overtakes them. King and his wife Tabitha spent an evening in a similar Colorado hotel that was eerily empty. “When we arrived, they were just getting ready to close for the season,” the author once explained. “We found ourselves the only guests in the place — with all those long, empty corridors… ” After a surreal dinner in a dining room where King and his wife were the only guests, and a terrible nightmare later that evening, King knew what kind of story he was being compelled to write. “That night I dreamed of my three-year-old son running through the corridors, looking back over his shoulder, eyes wide, screaming. He was being chased by a fire-hose. I woke up with a tremendous jerk, sweating all over, within an inch of falling out of bed. I got up, lit a cigarette, sat in a chair looking out the window at the Rockies, and by the time the cigarette was done, I had the bones of the book firmly set in my mind.”