Blending a police procedural with real-life horror, Scott Derrickson’s Deliver Us from Evil hit theaters this weekend. The film is based on the 2001 book Beware the Night, which details the true-life supernatural exploits of a New York City cop, Ralph Sarchie, who investigates frightening cases of demonic possession. Deliver Us from Evil is hardly the only film to take inspiration from the realm of real exorcists and the supernatural. Here are ten other terrifying true-life tales behind other films that deal with demonic possession.
An unassuming home in Culver City, California became the site of a vicious demonic attack during the early ’70s. Doris Blither, a single mom with four children and a troubled past, claimed she was being violently raped by ghosts. The events were dismissed by doctors who suspected Doris’ alcoholism and abusive history led the woman to injure herself. A team of paranormal researchers, Dr. Barry Taff and Kerry Gaynor, later investigated the claims. They were skeptical, but observed a series of strange phenomenon (bruising, orbs, unexplained activity) that became part of an extensive report. Author Frank De Felitta used Taff and Gaynor’s findings as the basis for his book, The Entity . Barbara Hershey starred in the film adaptation of the same name in 1983. In 2009, Doris’ son Brian Harris, who was 10 years old when the demonic activity was taking place, spoke about the attacks:
The whole rape thing was real. My room was right next door to my mother’s. I would hear the attacks happening. Things being thrown, her screaming. Then she would come out of the bedroom and have all these bruises. On her legs, her inner thighs. Just like in the movie.
There were times were we would see it happen in front of us. It was like if a man was standing in front of my mother and would start to beat her. Imagine a woman being beaten. You could see her being picked up and thrown around. Sounds, slaps… but there was no one there to actually do it. We all felt it too. pulling, biting and scratching… we were all attacked.
Doris and her family eventually left the home. Future residents reported no strange activity, but Doris claimed the spectral rapist still haunted her, influencing her thoughts. She also believed she was impregnated by one of the invisible attackers.
One strange thing to note about the film: Doris’ teenage son experienced an attack in which he was thrown, and his arm was broken. The actor playing the boy, David Labiosa, actually broke his arm while filming the same situation for the movie.
William Friedkin’s 1973 horror classic The Exorcist, inspired by William Peter Blatty’s novel of the same name, remains one of the most frightening films ever put to screen. The supernatural events in the story hailed from a real-life case of demonic possession in the late 1940s, centered on a boy (unlike the girl, played by Linda Blair, in the film) named Roland Doe (also known as Robbie Mannheim). Doe’s aunt was a spiritualist, and it’s believed she introduced him to a Ouija board when he was a teenager. Demonic activity started when Doe’s aunt died, and the family started to report strange noises and objects levitating. The Lutheran church performed an exorcism, but things only seemed to get worse. Doe seemed to develop an aversion to sacred objects and holy water, and spoke in a demonic voice. Disturbing writings appeared on his body. Several exorcisms later, Doe came under the care of a Roman Catholic priest at Georgetown University Hospital. It was a violent battle, leaving one priest with a broken nose and the other with a wound from a mattress bedspring. The ritual was repeated 30 times, which seemed to free Doe from the demons. It’s said he went on to live a normal and happy life, but skeptics started to dig into the wild claims. Some parties involved with Doe’s case admitted facts might have been embellished. Several investigators insisted Doe was simply disturbed.
The hotly debated Lutz case, about a family who moved into a home on 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville, New York where a mass murder occurred a year prior, has inspired numerous films and documentaries about the reportedly paranormal events that took place there. The spooky house, with ocular quarter-round attic windows, previously belonged to the DeFeo family. In 1974, 23-year-old Ronald DeFeo, Jr. shot and killed his entire family, claiming strange voices made him do it. The house remained empty for 13 months after the murders, until the Lutzes moved in. Paranormal occurrences seemed to plague the family almost immediately. Unseen forces seemed to control their lives, emotions, and thoughts. Flies, cold spots, odors, and green slime reportedly appeared. George Lutz, the patriarch of the family who bore a resemblance to DeFeo, started behaving strangely. After being terrorized for 28 days, the Lutzes moved out. Jay Anson published The Amityville Horror in 1977, detailing the grisly murders and chilling phenomenon inflicted upon the Lutzes, which was adapted for a 1979 movie. Sensationalist marketing of the book led to deeper investigations. Many experts rejected claims about the haunted house and its possessed residents, but the Lutzes insisted they were telling the truth. Debates about the case’s legitimacy continue to this day. Future residents of the home reported no strange occurrences. The documentary My Amityville Horror interviewed one of the Lutz children, Daniel, who restated the original claims of his mother and stepfather. He also stated his belief that he and George Lutz were both possessed, possibly due to George’s dabbling in the occult.
Before directing Deliver Us From Evil, Sinister filmmaker Scott Derrickson tackled another true-life case of demonic possession in 2005’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose, starring Dexter’s Jennifer Carpenter. The film was loosely based on the story of a German woman who underwent an exorcism in 1975, Anneliese Michel. She died the following year due to lack of medical attention. Investigators proved she had been malnourished and dehydrated, which led to her parents and the priests involved being charged with negligent homicide. Michel, a devoted Catholic, suffered from epilepsy, depression, and suicidal thoughts, but she was convinced she was actually suffering from demonic possession. Treatment at a psychiatric hospital and medication seemed to worsen her symptoms, which convinced her family (also religious) of the possession claims. Michel’s behavior became stranger. She took to eating insects, drank her own urine, screamed helplessly for hours, and aggressively attacked those around her. She performed hundreds of genuflections a day (tearing the ligaments in her knees) seeking salvation. Near the end of her life, she had endured 67 Catholic exorcisms over a period of ten months in an attempt to cure her. The state charged all parties involved after her death. The priests claimed Michel had six demons inside her, including Adolf Hitler, Judas Iscariot, and Nero. The case became part of a media frenzy, which led to the Catholic church putting a limit on the number of exorcisms performed in Germany. Michel became somewhat of a martyr. Believers continue to visit her grave, while others call the tragic case an incident of misdiagnosed mental illness.
The woefully underappreciated Elias Koteas starred as a clergyman who helps a family uncover the dark secrets behind the paranormal occurrences in their home in 2009’s The Haunting of Connecticut. The tale is based on the real-life case of Carmen Snedeker and her family, detailed in Ray Garton’s 1992 book, In a Dark Place: The Story of a True Haunting . The Snedekers moved into the Southington, Connecticut home to be near a hospital for their cancer-stricken son. They had no idea the house used to be a funeral parlor, until they discovered mortuary equipment in the basement. The family reportedly saw several demons wandering the halls and heard unexplained noises at night. Famed paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren looked into the claims, suggesting that the morticians who operated the funeral home engaged in necrophilia with the bodies and necromancy in an attempt to raise the dead. An exorcism was performed on the house and its residents, but the family wound up moving a short time after.
Ken Russell’s 1971 tale of lust and corruption set at a convent in a French commune was inspired by the provocative case of 17th-century Roman Catholic priest Urbain Grandier and the Loudun possessions. A wealthy, well-connected, and handsome figure, Grandier was convicted of sorcery and burned at the stake after claims that he bewitched a convent of Ursuline nuns. The women spoke in tongues, screamed, made obscene gestures toward men, and claimed they were pregnant and possessed. Thousands attended a public exorcism of the nuns. Grandier’s trial and execution further amplified the spectacle. The priest insisted he was innocent until the end. It’s possible that due to his reputation, stemming from several illicit relationships with women related to Loudun royalty, that Grandier was set up.
Horror legend Wes Craven entered the world of zombies when he directed 1988’s The Serpent and the Rainbow. A non-fiction book of the same name authored by ethnobotanist Wade Davis inspired the film. The true-life tome studied the case of a Haitian man by the name of Clairvius Narcisse, who allegedly rose from the dead and returned to his home almost two decades later. Davis’ book supported the claim that Narcisse was poisoned (allegedly by his brother who he had fought with over land) with pufferfish and toad venom, which induced the appearance of death. He was buried, quickly dug up, and given Datura (a strong hallucinogen), which caused memory loss. He claimed he was forced to work on a sugar plantation like a slave and fed Datura to keep him docile. When his enslavers died, Narcisse’s memory returned as he was no longer being drugged with Datura, and he went home. Vodou practitioners didn’t question the incident, believing Narcisse’s resurrection was a product of folk magic.
The Sam Raimi-produced 2012 fright film The Possession centers on a young girl who falls under the control of a malevolent spirit that lives inside a cursed antique box. The story is based on an account of an allegedly haunted dybbuk box — a wine cabinet auctioned off on eBay that reportedly once belonged to a Polish Holocaust survivor named Havela. It contained two pennies from the 1020s, locks of hair, a statue engraved with the Hebrew word “Shalom” (peace), a wine goblet, a dried rose, and a candle holder. Various owners of the box have reported paranormal incidents, including uncontrollable nightmares, strange smells (jasmine and… cat urine), unexplained balding, health issues, burned out lights, and more. Believing the object contained a malicious Jewish mythology spirit, the dybbuk, the box was apparently sealed forever by Rabbis and hidden in a secret location. Also weird: The Possession director Ole Bornedal reported strange incidents during the making of the movie, including an unexplained fire that burned down the prop warehouse containing the movie’s set, five days after filming wrapped.
Martin Scorsese called it one of the scariest horror films of all time. The Changeling, starring George C. Scott as a writer haunted by a troubled spirit at a secluded historical mansion, was actually based on real events. The script was written by Russell Hunter, inspired by his time living in the Henry Treat Rogers Mansion in Denver, Colorado. A noted playwright and musician, Hunter was drawn to the Rogers estate due to its impressive architecture and inexplicable low rent. Unexplained noises, poltergeist activity, and the discovery of a secret room and diary (penned by a young boy who was reportedly trapped there) convinced Hunter to seek the help of a medium. To tell the rest of the story would essentially give away the movie, but the details are public knowledge if you’re curious. The home was demolished in the 1970s, during which time a bulldozer operator was reportedly killed in an explosion. It’s said that the hauntings followed Hunter to another residence.
Roger and Carolyn Perron purchased their dream home in 1970 — the Arnold Estate, an old Rhode Island farmhouse. The idyllic setting became a place of nightmares after a series of violent paranormal occurrences overwhelmed the family. They sought help from esteemed ghost hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren, who concluded that the estate was haunted by a murderous Satanist named Bathsheba Sherman who lived there during the early 19th century. The spirit of Bathsheba reportedly possessed Carolyn Perron, and the Warrens helped exorcise the demons. The Perron family eventually moved out. The eldest Perron daughter, Andrea, chronicled the terrifying experience in the book House of Darkness: House of Light — The True Story. James Wan transformed the true-life tale into the blockbuster horror film, The Conjuring, starring Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Ron Livingston, and Lili Taylor. The movie was 20 years in the works, prompted after Ed Warren played his recorded interview with Carolyn Perron for one of the producers. Lorraine Warren and Andrea Perron served as consultants on the film and still claim the strange events are true.