We've all heard the tagline "based on a true story" applied to horror movies, but what are the real stories behind these scary films?
The Movie Story: Norman Bates is a psychologically disturbed hotel owner who has delusions this his dead mother, whose body he keeps in the cellar, wants to kill hotel guests. He develops a dual personality and dresses like her when he commits his murders.
The Real Story: The character Norman Bates was inspired by Ed Gein, a Wisconsin man who was arrested in 1957 for committing two murders and digging up the corpses of countless other women who reminded him of his dead mother. He skinned the bodies to make lamp shades, socks and a "woman suit" in hopes of becoming a woman. He was found to be insane and spent the rest of his life in a mental institution.
The Exorcist (1973)
The Movie Story: A pair of priests attempt to exorcise a demon that has possessed a 12-year-old girl living in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC.
The Real Story: William Peter Blatty, screenwriter and author of the novel The Exorcist, was inspired by an article he read in college at Georgetown University about an exorcism performed on a 13-year-old boy in Mount Rainier, Maryland in 1949. The story's details have been muddled through the years -- perhaps intentionally so, in order to protect the family -- but the boy's actual home lay in Cottage City, Maryland, and the exorcism was performed in St. Louis. Evidence points to the boy's behavior not being nearly as outrageous or supernatural as was portrayed in the film.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
The Movie Story: A group of young people traveling through rural Texas fall prey to a family of cannibals, including Leatherface, who wears a mask made from the skin of his victims.
The Real Story: Again Ed Gein (see Psycho), whose exploits also inspired the films Deranged and, in part, The Silence of the Lambs.
The Movie Story: A 25-foot-long great white shark terrorizes the fictional Northeastern fishing community of Amity Island, attacking swimmers and boaters for several days during the summer.
The Real Story: Screenwriter and novelist Peter Benchley was inspired in part by a series of shark attacks that plagued the New Jersey shore in 1916. Over a 12-day period in July of that year, five people were attacked, four of whom died. A seven-foot-long great white shark was killed on July 14, and its stomach was found to contain human remains. To this day, there is a debate over whether or not that shark was the culprit -- some scientists argue that it was probably a bull shark -- but no further attacks were reported that summer after it was killed.
Audrey Rose (1977)
The Movie Story: A couple's young daughter exhibits increasingly outrageous behavior, forcing them to consider the possibility that the soul of another young girl, Audrey Rose, has taken residence in her body.
The Real Story: Frank De Felitta was inspired to write the novel -- and later the movie script -- after he heard his six-year-old son, Raymond, who'd never taken piano lessons, playing music perfectly on the family piano. De Felitta consulted a Los Angeles occultist, who called Raymond's talent as an "incarnation leak," explaining that the boy had lived many lifetimes. The incident led to the author's personal belief in reincarnation.
The Hills Have Eyes (1977)
The Movie Story: A family driving through the southwestern desert in an RV takes a short cut that leads them to run headlong into a family of violent cannibals who live in caves in the hills.
The Real Story: The movie was inspired by the legend of Alexander "Sawney" Bean, a Scottsman of the 15th or 16th century who reportedly headed a 40-person clan that killed and ate over 1,000 people, living in caves for 25 years before being caught and put to death. His life has inspired numerous stories and films worldwide, including The Hills Have Eyes and the British film Raw Meat, but most serious historians today don't believe that Bean ever existed.
The Amityville Horror (1979)
The Movie Story: The Lutz family moves into a riverside house, the site of a mass murder the year before. They encounter a series of malevolent paranormal events that drive them out of the house after only 28 days.
The Real Story: Perhaps the most notorious horror movie "based on a true story," the film is based on a self-proclaimed nonfiction book describing what George and Kathy Lutz experienced during their four weeks in the house, including disembodied voices, cold spots, demonic imagery, inverted crucifixes and walls "bleeding" green slime. Most, if not all, of the events portrayed in both the book and the movie have been called into question by investigators, and it is widely believed that the entire incident was a hoax.
The Entity (1981)
The Movie Story: Carla Moran, a single mother of three, is plagued by a supernatural entity that abuses and rapes her repeatedly. She receives help from paranormal researchers, who document the haunting and attempt to trap the spirit.
The Real Story: In 1974, paranormal researchers Kerry Gaynor and Barry Taff investigated the case of a woman believed to be named Doris Bither. Bither lived in Culver City, California and claimed to have been physically and sexually assaulted by an entity. Gaynor and Taff witnessed objects move in her house, captured photos of floating lights and saw a humanoid apparition, but they never saw it assault the woman and never tried to capture it. Gaynor stated that the attacks diminished when Moran moved.
Dead Ringers (1988)
The Movie Story: Twin gynecologists Beverly and Elliot Mantle make a habit of sharing women. However, Beverly, the more sensitive of the two, falls in love with their latest conquest, but when she discovers their scheme, she rejects them, sending Beverly into a cycle of drug abuse and dragging his brother down with him.
The Real Story: On July 19, 1975, the decomposing, emaciated bodies of 45-year-old twin gynecologists Stewart and Cyril Marcus were discovered in their apartment. The cause of death was extreme withdrawal due to an addiction to barbiturates. It's unclear what led to their shocking state.
The Movie Story: In 1816, poet Lord Byron gathers fellow poet Percy Shelley and his soon-to-be-wife Mary, along with Mary's half sister Claire and Byron's doctor, John Polidori, at his Swiss mansion. They tell ghost stories and experience surreal supernatural encounters that are physical manifestations of their fears.
The Real Story: In the rainy summer of 1816, Percy Shelley and Mary Godwin (soon to be Shelley) visited Lord Byron at his Swiss villa. Due to the rain, they stayed indoors discussing the animation of dead matter and reading German ghost stories. Byron suggested they each write their own supernatural tale, and Godwin came up with Frankenstein, while Byron wrote what would later be adapted by Polidori into The Vampyre.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
The Movie Story: Henry is a serial killer who's killed hundreds of people, sometimes aided by his roommate, Otis. He finds some solace in Otis's sister, Becky.
The Real Story: Writer/director John McNaughton was inspired by serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, who had an accomplice named Ottis Toole and a romantic relationship with Otis' young relative (his niece, Frieda Powell). However, the movie's killing spree is based more on Lucas' confessions than on actual fact. Lucas confessed to 600 murders, in part because the confessions led police to offer him improved conditions in jail. Most of his confessions were disproved, but Lucas was still convicted of 11 murders, including that of Powell, and spent the rest of his life in prison.
The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)
The Movie Story: American anthropologist Dennis Alan is hired by a pharmaceutical company to acquire a sample of a drug used in Haitian voodoo rituals, a paralyzing powder that simulates death.
The Real Story: The movie is an exaggerated adaptation of a 1985 book by Canadian scientist Wade Davis, a nonfiction account of his experiences with zombification in Haiti. He stated that a powder of natural toxins could be used to place a victim into a death-like state, to be resuscitated in a hypnotic trance by a controlling "master." One notable case referenced was that of Clairvius Narcisse, who reportedly served as a zombie for two years in the 1960s. There remains a debate over the veracity of Davis's claims.
The Mothman Prophecies (2002)
The Movie Story: Reporter John Klein gets lost while driving and ends up in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, where he encounters the so-called Mothman, a winged creature whose appearance seems to foretell disastrous events -- notably, the collapse of a bridge over the Ohio River leading to Point Pleasant.
The Real Story: Reports of sightings of a large, unidentified winged creature -- dubbed the Mothman -- occurred in Point Pleasant, West Virginia for 13 months between 1966 and 1967. Then, on December 15, 1967, the Silver Bridge, connecting Point Pleasant to Ohio over the Ohio River, collapsed, killing 46 people.
Open Water (2004)
The Movie Story: When unmarried couple Daniel and Susan take a group scuba diving trip, a mistake by the crew while taking a head count of the divers who return to the boat leaves the couple floating alone in the ocean, surrounded by sharks.
The Real Story: In January 1998, married couple Tom and Eileen Lonergan disappeared off Australia’s Great Barrier Reef after a diving company accidentally left them behind in the water. It took two days -- when a bag containing a wallet and passports was found -- for the crew to realize that they'd left the couple behind. A search was conducted, but their bodies were never found. Belongings discovered weeks later showed no signs of the violent shark attack that the film suggests.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)
The Movie Story: A priest is on trial for the death of a young woman named Emily Rose, upon whom he had performed an exorcism. Through flashbacks, we see the tribulations that she suffered while possessed.
The Real Story: The film was inspired by Anneliese Michel, a 16-year-old German girl who, in 1968, began displaying symptoms of demonic possession. For years, she suffered paralysis, self-abuse, starvation and demonic visions until 1975, when two priests performed exorcisms of what was believed to be several demons over 10 months. During that time, Anneliese barely ate, and she died of starvation in July 1976. Her parents and the priests were tried and found guilty of manslaughter. They were sentenced to six months in jail.
Wolf Creek (2005)
The Movie Story: Two female British tourists and an Australian man venture into the Australian Outback to camp in Wolf Creek National Park. When their car breaks down, they’re rescued by a tow truck driver who ends up holding them captive and torturing them.
The Real Story: Greg McLean originally wrote the script as fiction, but upon learning of two real-life Australian killers who attacked travellers, he edited the story to reflect the real cases –- namely, Bradley John Murdoch, who killed a British tourist and tried to abduct another in July 2001, and Ivan Milat, who picked up hitchhikers and took them into the woods to torture and kill them during the '90s. Both Murdoch and Milat were captured and sentenced to life in prison.
An American Haunting (2006)
The Movie Story: Nineteenth-century landowner John Bell and his family are tormented by an invisible entity, which targets his daughter Betsy in particular.
The Real Story: The movie is based on the legend of the Bell Witch, a tale that originated in Tennessee in the 1800s. It is believed by many to be a work of fiction, although the characters in the story were real. According to the tale, John Bell was poisoned by the ghost, and although the film's marketing declared that it is "validated by the State of Tennessee as the only case in US history where a spirit has caused the death of a human being," there is no such validation on record. Some claim that The Blair Witch Project was also influenced by the story.
The Movie Story: An American news crew travels to Burundi to chronicle the capture of a man-eating crocodile, which ends up being 30 feet long and responsible for over 300 deaths.
The Real Story: The story is based on Gustave, a 20-foot-long crocodile living in Burundi that is believed to be the largest crocodile on record on the African continent. It is rumored to have killed 300 people, although that number is almost certainly inflated. High-profile attempts to capture Gustave have failed, and the creature, believed to be over 65 years old, still lives in the Ruzizi River area of Burundi.
Them (Ils) (2007)
The Movie Story: A young French couple are spending a weekend in a run-down, isolated mansion in the Romanian countryside when, at 3:00 AM one morning, they find themselves surrounded by unknown hooded assailants with murderous intentions.
The Real Story: Supposedly, the film is based on the "true story" of an Austrian couple who were murdered by three teenagers while vacationing in the Czech Republic, but no concrete evidence has emerged to prove this tale.
The Haunting in Connecticut (2009)
The Movie Story: The Campbell family moves to Connecticut to be near the doctor caring for their ill son, Matt. They soon realize that their new home is a former mortuary haunted by a malevolent force.
The Real Story: The film's inspiration was the Parker family, who moved to Connecticut in 1986 to be close to the specialists treating their 14-year-old son, Paul, for cancer. In the basement, where Paul slept, they discovered embalming equipment that implied that the house had been a funeral home. They reported encountering unexplained phenomena, like bloody floors, disembodied voices and shadowy figures. Paul became possessed by a force that caused him to attack his family. Eventually, an exorcism was performed to cleanse the house.