THE TERRIFYING TRUTH BEHIND HORROR MOVIES
Every Halloween season brings forth the cozy sweaters, the pumpkin-spiced drinks, and the undeniable beauty of autumn colors. But for me, it brings out something else. It’s the only time of the year that I sit down every single night and watch a horror movie.
This has in more recent years been dubbed, “Shocktober” when many consume horror movies on a daily basis. Maybe it’s the young boy in me wanting to challenge my level of fear and masculinity, or perhaps it could even be the curiosity deep down of what I would do if thrust into the horrified shoes of those being victimized. Either way, I would crawl into the corner of the couch, turn off the lights, and watch from a safe distance as the terror unfolded on the screen. But the more I watched, the more I became interested in just exactly what inspired the dark and deranged minds of those who’d created these movies. I was surprised to find that more than a fair share had been inspired by true events. And that, more than anything, became all the more terrifying. Here is just a small glimpse of some of those films based on true stories.
The Exorcist (1973)
Perhaps the most classic supernatural horror film in modern history, The Exorcist, swept the nation and made the world fear the Devil unlike ever before. Directed by William Friedkin and written by William Peter Blatty, this demon-possession film was based on Blatty’s original novel of the same name. The novel wasn’t entirely dreamt up, however, and was steeped in much reality.
In 1948, a young boy known by the alias of “Robbie Mannheim,” began to act very odd in his hometown of Cottage City, Maryland. He’d spit, shout profanities, and would suffer deep scratches all over his body. His family soon called in a group of priests of different faiths and the activity intensified. Edward Hughes, a Roman Catholic priest, claimed that when he placed a Bible to the boy’s forehead, Robbie began to levitate and the bed below him started to vibrate. When the priest asked who seemed to be in control of the boy, a harsh voice spewed from his mouth, proclaiming “I am legion.” As the activity progressed, the family thought that moving to a new home would help calm the demon within the boy. But it didn’t. Now in St. Louis, Missouri, the priests were called in once again. Confined to a psychiatric ward of a hospital, six weeks of exorcisms were performed on the boy. During this time, scratches appeared all over his body from out of nowhere, guttural voices erupting from the boy spouting expletives and hate. The priests had only one defense left to try to rid young Robbie of the demon. They baptized him, forcing a communion wafer into his mouth. While the effects weren’t immediate, within days, he seemed to be devoid of any further possession.
While the film, The Exorcist, portrayed a young girl with much more horrifying experiences, there is no doubt that this story was just as scary, if true. The testimony of the priests involved holds much weight, one even claiming that he was thrown across the room at one point during the baptism/exorcism. And while the movie version went on to become one of the most successful films in history, for young Robbie, the memories of his experience presumably live on. And one can only hope that the demons within him will stay at bay for many years to come.
The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)
This film came to us from the director, Charles B. Pierce, who is best known for his 1972 cult-classic docudrama, The Legend of Boggy Creek. In this 1976 slasher movie, a small town Texas Ranger is investigating a slew of gruesome murders by a hooded serial killer known only as the Phantom. This predecessor to 1978’s Halloween, was raw and gritty, following the predator on his murderous rampage of young lovers in the town. While this plot may seem simple, it became much more complex when I learned that it was based on an actual unsolved string of murders in Texarkana, Arkansas.
To learn more about the actual case, I interviewed documentary filmmaker, Joshua Zeman, who investigated this case heavily in a one hour special on Chiller TV, titled, Killer Legends. Zeman learned that the murders in Texarkana were dubbed, “The Moonlight Murders.” Four brutal crimes occurred in less than three months. The first of the crimes took place with young couples who were parked at several “Lover’s Lanes” in the area. The fourth crime was the shooting of a couple in their farmhouse on the outskirts of town. By the end of the supposed rampage, several were severely wounded, and five people had been shot dead.
But the story of the Moonlight Murders didn’t end there. Zeman also discovered that once the film that was made, the town didn’t turn away from it. They embraced it. They would hold an annual screening during the Halloween season on the grounds where some the murders had taken place. It had become somewhat of a sense of pride to the town. So much so, that another version of the film with the same title was released in 2014 in which a copycat killer who saw the 1976 version began to terrorize the town in the same fashion almost sixty-five years later. The meta nature of this entire string of events was almost too hard to believe, but it soon became clear that anything to draw publicity to a small town struggling to survive would be welcomed. Even at the dismay of the original victims and their families. To hear the entire interview about the Moonlight Murders with Joshua Zeman, CLICK HERE
The Entity (1982)
Carla wakes up from a peaceful sleep to the worst nightmare she could imagine. She is being brutally assaulted by an unknown and unseen presence. Completely traumatized, she reaches out to friends and family who believe she has gone crazy. This is when she enlists the assistance of two parapsychologists to investigate. They discover that there is a dark and evil spirit attached to Carla, and it isn’t through with her. The true story behind this film was inspired by the strikingly similar experience of Doris Bither in 1974.
While at a California bookstore, Blither approached two men who she’d overheard were talking about investigating a haunted home nearby. She explained to them that she believed her home also to have some sort of entity haunting it, and she wanted them to investigate. One of these men was Kerry Gaynor, an associate of the now-famous Dr. Barry Taff. Soon, they were learning all about Doris’ current living situation. She was in her mid-thirties, a single Mom of four children, an alcoholic, and suffered serious emotional distress. Gaynor and Dr. Taff were hesitant to take on the case, worried that her claim of hauntings was just a mask for her personal life. But they agreed to at least assess the situation in the home.
Dr. Taff arrived to see a home in complete disarray. The house was unlivable, and her children seemed to have to fend for themselves to eat. It was clear that this was not something Dr. Taff could work with, and he decided to leave, claiming that Doris was very uncooperative, to begin with, even though she had been the one to ask for help. This all changed one evening when she called Dr. Taff pleading for his help. Apparently, the violent activity in the home had intensified and that it was now hurting her children as well. Dr. Taff and a team of investigators documented what they believed were four different manifestations haunting the home. One was a harmless old man that never caused trouble. But the others weren’t as innocent. Things in the home would begin to levitate and be thrown across the room, and the family was being attacked on a daily basis. But Doris seemed to be the centerpiece of the supposed evil spirits. Witnesses claimed to see her attacked by an invisible force that threw her against a wall, punched, and slapped. Immediately, Dr. Taff assembled a team of photographers to accompany Doris in her bedroom one night. He asked Doris to provoke the entities, and soon, a green mist appeared, morphing into a male figure. Sadly, little could be seen on the photos taken, but one curious photo of Doris, sitting on her bed, showed a strange arc of light over her head.
Eventually, she moved her family to Texas, hoping this would end the traumatic attacks of the entities, but she did report that it had followed her and the rampage continued. Very little is known of what happened to her and her family after that. But according to one of her children, she had died in 1995. Was this the final confrontation between the entity and Doris? We’ll never truly know. But we now have this 1982 horror film to cast a dark shadow on the tragic happenings of Doris Blither.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Perhaps the most unique slasher film in horror history, this killer not only hunted down his victims in real-life, but he did so in their dreams. Freddy Kruger, dawning his now iconic sweater, hat, and claws, has become an international cultural icon, spawning one of the most successful movie franchises of all time. But no good idea comes without some sort of inspiration. And as I soon learned, the brilliantly gruesome idea for the film, according to the creator, Wes Craven, originated from a very unlikely source.
In various interviews about how he came up with the idea of “a nightmare that could kill.” He admitted that it came from a newspaper article he’d come across in which the deaths of several South East Asian refugees were unsolved. The refugees, seventeen men, and one woman had fled to the United States in 1975, fearing the horrible genocide taking place in their communist province of Hmong during the Vietnam War. Most of them took refuge in Minnesota and California, adjusting to a modern American world. This caused a great deal of anxiety and a sense of isolation, especially since they spoke very little English. The transition was so intense that many of the eighteen refugees immediately sought out doctor’s to treat outbreaks of imaginary venereal diseases and parasites that they truly believed were thriving under their skin.
The paranoia only intensified, and tragically, all eighteen refugees were found dead in their beds, the cause of death being attributed to “Probable Cardiac Arrhythmia.” However, other doctors attributed their deaths to something known as “Sudden Unexpected Death Syndrome.” This is a condition that seemed only to affect young Hmong males, as well as Filipinos. Victims seem to die of fright and a core belief that what happened in their dream was in fact reality.
In Hmong culture, a spirit called “dab tsuam,” often takes the form of a woman, snatching men while they sleep and taking them to the spirit world. There the dab tsuam will torture and kill them. Hmong men would go so far as to dress like a woman before falling asleep, hoping to fool the spirit from taking them. In many instances, this legend has become fodder for many claims of sleep paralysis, but going one step further, it had indeed been connected to Sudden Unexpected Death Syndrome as well.
These horrific deaths of the refugees were a great tragedy to those seeking a better life in America. But without a chance glance at an article one day, the world may never have been introduced to the burnt and scarred monster we love to hate in the form of Freddy Kruger. And as he continues to haunt our nightmares on the silver screen, we can only hope that the impetus of “Freddy” remains a tragedy that never repeats itself again.
The Conjuring (2013)
Considered a modern-day classic, this strikingly authentic film came to us from the brilliant direction of James Wan, best known for his work on the original Saw movie, and 2010’s Insidious. In the film, we follow a duo of paranormal investigators who are also husband and wife. They are summoned to the home of Carolyn and Roger Perron. The Perrons and their five daughters have recently moved into a farmhouse where a supernatural force seems to be present. The events in the home take a drastic and horrifying turn as the investigators uncover the troubling history of the farmhouse. While this uniquely stylized film garnered much praise for its original content, it was based heavily on real events and real people.
Ed and Lorraine Warren were indeed a married couple who were also paranormal investigators. In 1952, they founded the New England Society for Psychic Research. They are most notably recognized for their work on the Amityville incident, and to a much lesser and controversial extent, The Enfield Poltergeist case that became the basis of the sequel to The Conjuring. But this case out of Harrisville, Road Island with the Perron family would be one of the Warren’s greatest challenges.
The Perrons claimed that they were experiencing both haunting and spiritual possessions amongst the family of five daughters. The claims consisted of both harmless and angry spirits moving things around the home, causing unbearable stenches, slamming doors shut, and in dramatic fashion, levitating the beds of the children at 5:15 in the morning. As the activity increased, and progressively became more dangerous, the Warrens dug deep to find out the history behind the farmhouse and the property, hoping this would help find some answers and a possible resolution. What they found was horrific in nature. Over eight generations of families had lived and died on the property, including 93-year-old Mrs. John Arnold, who’d hung herself from the rafters in a nearby barn. Several other suicides had taken place there as well, including more hangings and poisonings. Even more tragic was the unsolved rape and murder of eleven-year-old Prudence Arnold. It was also reported that there were two drownings in the creek near the home and four men had mysteriously frozen to death on the property. With so many gruesome acts having been committed in this area, it was no wonder that so much paranormal activity seemed to be plaguing the Perron family.
While the film portrayed the Warrens in a very altruistic and heroic light, performing a successful exorcism of the home towards the end of the film, the Perron daughters claimed that this was anything but the truth. Apparently, the Warrens were not successful in their cleansing endeavors. And while their intentions were good, the activity seemed only to get worse with the Warrens present. Fearing for his family’s safety and lives, the father, Roger Perron demanded that the Warrens leave and never return. This contention between the actual events and the film would only continue in the sequel, The Conjuring 2, where the Warrens were once again portrayed as heroes and being much more involved in these cases than they were. More about this contention can be heard directly from the eldest daughter, Andrea Perron, in an extensive interview with Jim Harold by CLICKING HERE.
Whether we like it or not, horror movies have become a cultural staple in our lives, inducing some of the most primal reactions and emotions we can muster. They make us fear the unknown, prepare for the worst, and most importantly, play out our worst nightmares from a safe distance of imagination. But when we discover that some of these terrifying and disturbing movies are directly connected to actual events, it blurs the lines between reality and fantasy with haunting results. And it proves, that when we sit down to watch our greatest fears be played out before our wide or covered eyes, sometimes the truth is far scarier than anything we could create in the darkest corner of our minds.
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Ryan Sprague is a professional playwright & screenwriter in New York City. He is also an investigative journalist, focusing on the topic of UFOs. He is the author of the upcoming book, Somewhere in the Skies: A Human Approach to an Alien Phenomenon, published by Richard Dolan Press. He is the co-host of the critically acclaimed podcast, Into the Fray, available on iTunes & Stitcher. His other work can be found at somewhereintheskies.com