horror movies “based on a true story”: House of the Devil

mv5bmtaxmdaxodg5odreqtjeqwpwz15bbwu3mdi5odyxodi-_v1_sy1000_cr006741000_al_“During the 1980s over 70% of American adults believed in the existence of abusive Satanic Cults… Another 30% rationalized the lack of evidence due to government cover ups… The following is based on true unexplained events…”

This is the text which opens the 2009 film, The House of the Devil.

What is true:

  • The statistics – which don’t actually say that any Satanic ritual abuse (SRA) occurred.  The stats are about beliefs.  I don’t know which survey was used to cull these particular statistics, but I found this article which mentions a 1990 study that reported “that 90 percent of Utah citizens believed that ritualistic sex abuse was occurring.”  So the belief was certainly there.

What is not true:

  • Any of the actual events depicted in the film.

The verdict: This film is more an homage to films made in the 1980s.  It was recorded on 16mm film to give it an authentic early 80s look, and uses familiar tropes, like the baby-sitter under attack.  The use of a “based on a true story” tagline is likely an homage as well, since many films of that era used it.  “True unexplained events” could mean anything, really.  There were thousands of cases of SRA reported in the 1980s, most of them after a few high-profile cases such as the one described in the book Michelle Remembers, and the McMartin preschool trial.  In the end, however, the preschool trial led to charges dropped and dismissed, with no evidence of any actual Satanic abuse, and Michelle Remembers was largely discredited.  In many cases of alleged SRA, recovered memories (which are highly questionable and often false memories) played a large role.


horror movies “based on a true story”: The Conjuring (and Annabelle)

“Based on the true case files of the Warrens,” proclaims the tagline of “The Conjuring.”  The Warrens have been involved in a number of these “based on a true story” horror movies, including The Amityville Horror and The Haunting in Connecticut.

What is true:

  • Ed and Lorraine Warren investigated the haunting of the Perron family
  • They found a ghost named Bathsheba, who had been a practicing Satanist and sacrificed her daughter as part of a ritual, then later hung herself.
  • Carolyn Perron was possessed by the ghost of Bathsheba.
  • Doors in the house would bang shut and stick for no reason.  The girls had their hair and legs pulled at night.

What is not true:

  • The haunting did not end after the exorcism done by the Warrens.  The family asked the Warrens to leave because the supernatural events seemed worse when they were around, and the family continued to live with the ghosts for many years afterwards.

The verdict: While many of the scary details in the movie are made up, the essence of the story and some of the details of the haunting are quite accurate…. not surprising given the cooperation of the Warrens and the Perron family in the making of the film.


Bonus: Annabelle

This movie does not claim to be “based on a true story,” and is in fact mostly fiction.  Here is what is true:

  • A mother buys the Annabelle doll for her daughter, who is a nurse (this occurs at the end of the movie)
  • Annabelle was known to change positions in the house, and once had blood drips on her; she was also known to leave notes
  • During a seance a spirit claiming to be the ghost of a little girl named Annabelle said she felt safe with the nurse and her roommates and just wanted to be loved, which made her owners keep the doll
  • Help was first sought from a priest, who then referred the case to the Warrens
  • The Warrens determined that it was a demonic spirit in the doll, not a ghost
  • When the Warrens took the doll from the home, they experienced car trouble while transporting it (much like the priest in the movie when he tries to remove the doll)
  • A priest helping the Warrens with an exorcism picked up the doll and said something along the lines of, “You’re just a doll!” and threw it down.  After leaving, he was involved in a near-fatal car accident (likely ending up in the hospital, similar to the priest in the movie)
  • The doll is now locked in a glass case at the Warren’s museum.

What is not true:

  • The doll was not a collector’s doll but rather a large Raggedy Ann doll.
  • Anything that happened before the doll was bought at the collector’s shop.

The verdict: “Annabelle” is a fanciful imagining of how the doll came to be possessed by a demon, drawing heavily on horror favorites such as “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Helter Skelter.”  Personally I would have liked to see more about the real case involving the nurse and her roommates…


horror movies “based on a true story”: The Haunting in Connecticut

Yet another haunted house tale “based on true events.”  Is this any closer to the truth than The Amityville Horror? What makes the true story behind this movie kind of cool is that the house was examined by Ed and Lorraine Warren, the ghosthunters whose story is told in the movie “The Conjuring.”

What is true:

  • A family moved into a house in Connecticut in order to be closer to the hospital for their son’s cancer treatments.
  • The house was formerly a funeral home.
  • The morticians of said funeral home were reportedly involved in necromancy.
  • The family reported smelling foul odors, like rotting flesh and excrement.
  • Lorraine Warren reported hearing the sound of a chain rattling (in the space in the house where coffins were raised and lowered between floors).  Other members of the team also reported cold spots and visions.
  • The family reported that their son’s demeanor changed from “preppy” to more Goth (wearing dark clothes, writing dark poetry, etc.).
  • A priest was called in to “exorcise” the house.

What is not true:

  • The house did not burn down.
  • No corpses were found in the walls.
  • The son was not possessed at any point.

The verdict?  The movie takes the true haunting and invents a Hollywood climax.  Unfortunately, it’s hard for a movie to relay the creepiness of an old house and cold spots.  While the son was not “possessed,” living in the house did seem to change him, although the changes could also be attributed to going through cancer treatments or just normal teenage behavior.

Side note: The “sequel,” The Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia, has literally nothing to do with this movie.  Although it might be fodder for another “based on a true story” post!

horror movies “based on a true story”: Open Water

“Based on true events.”  Today we’ll look at this oft-used tagline for horror movies to examine the truth behind the shark attack movie “Open Water.”

What is true:

  • In 1998, a couple (Tom and Eileen Lonergan) went scuba diving and did not return because the boat crew did not take an accurate headcount.
  • They were discovered to be missing when a bag of their belongings was found on the boat.
  • Some of their gear washed up on shore.
  • Sometimes weird things are found in shark bellies.

What is not true:

  • No camera containing photos of the missing couple was found in a shark belly.
  • There is no evidence to suggest that the couple was eaten by sharks.

As with most other horror movies “based on a true story,” Open Water takes a true situation and imagines the most horrific possibility.  Most of the film deals with the emotions of a troubled couple (in the movie, the couple is just frustrated that they can’t spend enough time together; in real life, the diaries revealed that the husband had a “death wish”) as they realize they are stranded and most likely won’t be saved.

The verdict? The emotional truth is very likely close to what actually happened.  It is a horrific situation, even without the sharks.  Personally, any water where I can’t see the bottom makes me nervous, so the idea of being stranded out in open water like this freaks me out!

horror movies “based on a true story”: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

The tagline says, “What happened is true.”  Tobe Hooper based this classic horror flick on serial killer Ed Gein (who has inspired several other “based on a true story” movies…).  I will examine things that are true/false based only on events in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (not the other Gein-inspired movies).

What is true:

  • Ed Gein lived on an isolated farm.
  • Ed Gein made trophies… and other stuff… out of body parts and bones: including skin lampshades, belts, and bowls made out of skulls.
  • Ed Gein did have several skin masks that he wore.
  • Ed Gein was convicted of killing and decapitating two women.
  • Ed Gein often went grave robbing (you see reports of this at the beginning of the movie)

What isn’t true:

  • Ed Gein lived in Wisconsin, not Texas.
  • The two women definitely killed by Gein were local business owners, not random teens.
  • Ed Gein lived alone after the (suspicious) death of his brother and the deaths of his parents… this was definitely not a family affair.
  • Most of the body parts found when the police raided Gein’s house were taken from graves.
  • While the bodies found were dismembered, there is no evidence that Gein used a chainsaw.

The verdict? Obviously, this is very loosely based on Gein’s murders.  This was more of a “what would happen if a VW bus full of teens happened across this guy?”  Or a, “Hey, we’ve got a guy in a skin mask!  Let’s call him Leatherface and hand him a chainsaw!”  The true elements are merely the fact that this guy existed – which I suppose is horror enough.  The plot of the teens accidentally discovering the farmhouse of horrors and being killed off is entirely fictional.

horror movies “based on a true story”: The Amityville Horror

Ah, horror movies and the oft-used tagline that draws us in over and over: “Based on a true story.”

I’ll start with The Amityville Horror because it was probably one of the earliest horror movies to really claim that it was based on true events.  Jay Anson wrote a book about these events and the movie, based on the tale contained in the book, was made two years later.

What is true:

  • There was a house in Amityville, NY, on 112 Ocean Avenue.
  • A family named DeFeo lived there, and the oldest son, Ronald DeFeo Jr., was found guilty of killing his entire family in that house.
  • The Lutz family lived there for 28 days before leaving.

What isn’t true:

  • The house was not built on the site of an ancient Indian burial ground or anything else having to do with the local native tribes.
  • The police were never called during the month that the Lutz family lived there.  The local priest was contacted by the family, but claims that he never visited the house.
  • In the book, the youngest daughter of the Lutz family has an imaginary friend named Jodie, described as a pig-like creature with red eyes.  By the time of the remake, Jodie has become one of the murdered DeFeo children (none of the DeFeo children were named Jodie).

The veracity of the story told within the pages of The Amityville Horror has been debated for decades, complete with lawsuits and other books about “what really happened.”  Even the transition from book to movie led to a number of differences, which were even more warped when it came time for the 2005 remake.

The sequels to the book were total fiction, which is interesting, since in my library system at least, The Amityville Horror II by John G. Jones, is located in nonfiction.  The disclaimer in the book states that it is a work of fiction, although does sort of follow along with George & Kathy Lutz’s statements that they were followed by the evil after they left the house.  The movie sequel, Amityville II: The Possession, is actually based on the book Murder in Amityville by Hans Holzer, which is about the DeFeo murders and Holzer’s theory that the house was built on an Indian burial ground (also used in the remake of the first movie), but the movie turned this into a family living in the house after the Lutz family.

The verdict?  Whatever may or may not have happened in that house will only be known to those who lived it… But the premise of living in a house where multiple murders were committed is extremely creepy.  And if the book and subsequent movies are based on what the family SAID happened (whether or not it could be verified)… then it’s about as true as horror movies “based on a true story” come!

book to real-life connection *spoilers*

A while back I read this book by Lisa McMann, Dead to You. (You might not want to continue reading if you want to read this book and not have the end spoiled for you!)

The story follows a boy named Ethan returning to a family from whom he was kidnapped years ago, and his struggle to fit in, especially since his brother doesn’t believe this is truly Ethan.  After learning some stuff in biology class, the brother points out that the new “Ethan” has different ears than the Ethan from old photos.  The family is still willing to believe that “Ethan” is their son, until the real Ethan’s body is found.

A couple weeks ago I stumbled across a new DVD at the library and put myself on hold for it immediately.  “The Imposter” (2012) is a documentary about a family whose son Nicholas went missing about 3 years prior, who receive a call that their son has been found in Spain.  Only this was not really their son.

I just finished watching “The Imposter” and some of the similarities to Dead to You are pretty amazing.  A private detective looks at the new Nicholas’s ears and compares to photos and determines that this is not Nicholas.  The family does not want to believe that this is not Nicholas.  These two things made me wonder if Lisa McMann had heard of this story and based Dead to You on it.  But I couldn’t find anything on her website or blog to tell…

“The Imposter,” like Dead to You, is from the point of view of the returned “son.”  In “The Imposter,” however, we hear a very different story – not Ethan’s own conviction that he could have been kidnapped, but an adult con man’s ultimate con.  He talks about pretending to be a vulnerable teenager on the streets in order to be taken to a safe home for homeless teens and get a meal and a bed, and how he continued lying in order to avoid being arrested.  It was really quite amazing how he managed to con his way, to find this random missing persons case in Texas.  How as a darker skinned, dark haired, dark eyed adult French man was able to convince an entire family that he was their fair-haired, fair-skinned, blue-eyed teenage American son.  And even more amazing was how much the family wanted to believe that he was their son.

As they say, “Truth is stranger than fiction.”