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FEARNET's Guide To Horror Films 'Based On A True Story'

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When it comes to monsters or the supernatural, what is truth?  What occurrences can actually be proven to have happened, versus what people may truly believe happened, even if what they think happened didn’t actually happen (my brain hurts now).  But let’s face it, stating that a horror film is based on “true events” is a tactic often used to make the chills a little more real, and the threat a little more relatable.

Case in point is the recent Video On Demand release of The Haunting in Connecticut (2009), based on the “true story” of the Snedeker Family, who rented an old house in Southington Connecticut in the 1980’s that turned out to have once been a funeral home.  In the film, which contains some truly creepy moments, the family moves into the house to be closer to a hospital that is treating their son for cancer.  But upon their arrival strange occurrences and menacing apparitions begin to plague them, and as the terror mounts, dark secrets about the house’s past begin to emerge.  As for the reality of the story, most of the basic historical facts are true, but of the supernatural events…well who knows?  This is a well documented case (there’s even a Discovery Channel show about it), however much of the tale is still in dispute.  Judge for yourself, with our exclusive The Haunting in CT behind-the-scenes clip below along with our guide to horror films 'based on a true story'.

Let’s see how some other famous “true” horror movies of the past stack up:

PSYCHO (1960) / THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974) 
Two landmark horror films, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and Tobe Hooper respectively, that both used the same real life source but to totally different results (and stories).  The source was the infamous Ed Gein, the mild mannered Wisconsin man with a severe “mother complex”, who stunned local authorities when they discovered that he was a serial killer of women who skinned his victims to create masks, “women costumes” and the furnishings of his home (he also reportedly ate some of them).

What Hitchcock and Psycho author Robert Bloch took from the story is obvious to anyone who’s seen the film (and shame on you if you haven’t).  What Hooper took was far more visceral as he turned his lone killer into an entire family of flesh-skinners, but this time, with personality to spare. 
TRUTH OR SCARE: The story of Ed Gein is absolutely true, and has been well documented.  Notably, Psycho never claimed to be based on true story, but TCM did, as the chainsaw wielding Leatherface exhibits various attributes based on Gein.

THE EXORCIST (1973)
Another landmark horror film, that still packs a jolt over 35 years later.  An upper middle-class mom suddenly finds herself confronted with the fact that her 12 year old daughter is either suffering from a severe neurological disorder, or is possessed by a demon (voiced to iconic perfection by the late Mercedes McCambridge).  The Exorcist remains one of the ultimate thrill rides, especially as the tag team of priests (brilliantly played by Max von Sydow and Jason Miller) fend off curses, projectile vomit and flying furniture while they attempt to cast the demon out.
TRUTH OR SCARE: The movie was faithfully adapted by William Peter Blatty from his own novel, with Blatty basing his novel on the real life story of a 13 year old boy who endured a six week exorcism back in 1949.  The story of priests performing an exorcism is true; whether the boy was actually possessed…

THE AMITYVILLE HORROR (1979)
This is the granddaddy of all the “true” haunted house movies, and still the most controversial, as the Lutz family that supposedly endured the terror of the house, made a pile of cash on their story afterwards.  Still, despite some clunky plotting, the film grabs you, using a slow build of truly menacing images to make its case (the swarm of flies on the window is unforgettable).  And with it’s “evil eyes” like exterior, the Amityville home is one of the most recognizable haunted houses on film. 
TRUTH OR SCARE:  It is true that before the Lutz’s moved into the house, it was the scene of a notorious multiple murder carried out by Ronald DeFeo Jr., who shot and killed six members of his family.  But much of the supernatural shenanigans that the Lutz’s claim to have happened to them has since been debunked, or at the very least, brought into question. 

 

THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW (1988)
This was Wes Craven’s first big budget film, with a lush look and polished production values that were leap years ahead of Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes and even A Nightmare on Elm Street.  Based on the book by noted anthropologist Wade Davis, Serpent tells the story of a scientist (played by Bill Pullman) who sneaks into Haiti to find and investigate a drug that can lower the metabolic rate of a victim so they appear dead; perhaps the origin of the zombie legend.  But in the course of his travels, our hero ends up embroiled in the chaotic events and brutal situations that occurred during the overthrow of the vicious dictator “Baby Doc” Duvalier, including getting “zombified” himself by an evil police chief who uses voodoo to retain his power.
TRUTH OR SCARE: Craven liberally uses the facts of the book to tell his own story, but the investigation of the drug (documented by Davis), as well as the historical setting are true (much of the film was actually shot in Haiti, as well as the Dominican Republic). It also contains an unforgettable scene involving a hammer, nails and Pullman’s groin.

FROM HELL (2001)
Another take on the Jack The Ripper story, this one from the Hughes Brothers (Menace II Society), based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell.  The film stars Johnny Depp as Inspector Abberline, who uses opium and his unique powers of deduction (often at the same time) to slowly uncover a sinister conspiracy that may hold the answer to the Ripper’s identity and motive.
TRUTH OR SCARE:  The five “Ripper” murders that occurred in the Whitechappel area of London in 1888 are fact, but other than the names of the victims, the characters and events are pure fiction.  Two other notable Ripper films that also pose a government/aristocracy connection to the crimes are A Study in Terror (1965) and Murder By Decree (1979), with both films featuring none other than Sherlock Holmes as the investigating detective.
 

THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE (2005)
In this intriguing and intelligently made film, a priest is put on trial for killing a young woman during an exorcism, using flashbacks to detail the ordeal Emily went through as the priest tried to rid her of multiple demons.  What makes the film so fascinating is how the film explores the question of secular authority versus religious belief.  It also packs a few good shocks.
TRUTH OR SCARE: The events in the film actually took place in Germany, to a young woman named Anneliese Michel, and is based on a book written by the anthropologist who testified in the actual trial. As with The Exorcist, the exorcism ceremony did indeed take place (over a ten month period), and the girl did eventually die (of starvation), but whether any actual supernatural entities were involved, can never be proven.  Additionally, the movie’s producers admitted they took great liberties with the source.

AN AMERICAN HAUNTING (2005)
Back to the haunted house, circa America in the early 1800’s, as a Tennessee family is subjected to some truly horrifying events at the hands (and curse) of a local witch.  Supernatural shocks include apparitions, bumps in the night, and young girl tormented by spirits and tossed around like a rag doll.  The film features a high powered cast (Donald Sutherland, Sissy Spacek, Rachel Hurd-Wood) but is undone by an uneven tone (horror or satire), and the ultimate revelation may leave you cold, or just pissed off
TRUTH OR SCARE: The film is based on Brent Monahan's novel, The Bell Witch: An American Haunting which intriguingly details the only known case in which the U.S. government acknowledged a death by supernatural forces.  But like the other haunting/possession films noted above, there’s no physical proof of the spirits at work.

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