We like to keep a reasonable distance between what we see on screen and what experience in our mundane, everyday, completely and utterly safe real life. That’s why there’s something indescribably sinister about the words “based on a true story”.
Luckily for us horror fans, this is often a vast exaggeration. We should by now all be familiar with how the “true story” tag line is stretched by cinematic delights such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Psycho and Silence Of The Lambs – all inspired by double murderer and serial grave desecrator Ed Gein and his questionable interior design aesthetics.Often, the end product is so vastly exaggerated that it bares no more than a passing resemblance to the bizarre facts on which it is based – Luckily for us.
There are however, a whole collection of films that reflect a whole host of bizarre “true” situations. You’ll be more than aware of some of these, such as The Amityville Horror and The Conjuring Franchise, but there are other, more obscure examples where the truth is surprisingly less objective and the inspiration somewhat stranger.
Let’s investigate three horror films based on an obscure true story you may not have known about.
The Birds (1963)
A delightfully creepy film with a particularly problematic production, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 film The Birds was inspired by an event that took place one August 1961 in Capitola, California, in addition to the Daphne du Maurier’s 1952 novella, The Birds, which was its self inspired by a report of a farmer being attacked by a flock of seagulls as he ploughed a field.
In both novella and 1961 incident, seabirds dive-bombed residents one mass, attacking cars and unshielded people, although lucky, no real life deaths were reported. The real-life Capitola incident was triggered by neurotoxins present in algae, although this wasn’t known at the time.
Now, I for one, am a big fan of birds in general – I’m the sort of person who’d spend an afternoon attempting to befriend the local crows – however, maybe think twice next time a flock of seagulls eye you up at the seaside. Everyone knows they’re out for blood at the best of times.
The Changeling (1980)
Not to be confused with the 2008 Angelina Jolie film, which is also based on a horrendous true story of its own, The Changeling (1980), tells the story of a New York composer who rents an old mansion following the death of his wife and daughter. Upon taking up residence, he finds an old journal in a hidden room which tells the story of a young boy who was murdered and who’s ghost is seemingly haunting the mansion.
There’s a bit more to it than that, but you catch my drift.
According to screenwriter Russell Hunter, the film’s events were inspired by the events that took place when living in the Henry Treat Rogers mansion one Denver, Colorado. After a spate of alleged paranormal activity, Hunter found a”century-old journal hidden in a room”. This journal supposedly contained the writings on “a disabled boy who was kept in isolation by his parents”.
Intrigued – as anyone would be – Hunter hosted a seance in which the spirit gave directions to another house, whereupon human remains were discovered, along with a golf medallions with the child’s name.
Certainly an interesting story, if it’s true.
According to the Denver Library, we can’t verify if Russell Hunter was a tenant of the Heart Treat Rogers mansion, but he certainly lived in Denver at the time, so it’s possible.
The mansion was built by Henry Treat Rogers and his wife around the turn of the 20th century and although they – supposedly – had no children of their own, their nice and nephew lived with them.
Although it wouldn’t be beyond the realms of possibility, there’s no historical or contemporary mentions of secret rooms or humans remains beyond Russell Hunter’s word. There’s never even been any photographic proof of journals or gold medallions either. No news reports either.
Of course, that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen – it just indicates that it probably didn’t. Never the less, its an interesting story, and is the only piece of writing Russell Hunter is remembered for.
The house itself has since been demolished.
A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984)
A Nightmare On Elm Street, is one of my favourite horror franchises. The wise-cracking claw-mitt-weilding Freddy is impossible not to love. The bastard son of a thousand maniacs is just outlandish for us to disengage from reality and safely watch his dream-wielding, murderous rampage from the comfort of our living rooms. Although he may infiltrate a dream or two, we’re more or less certain that he’s a harmless fictional character who can’t actually murder us in our dreams. Right?
In the 1970s, the Los Angeles Times reported on a number of strange deaths among Hmong refugees who’d recently settled in America from Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
By 1988, it was reported that 104 men, and one woman, averaging 33 years old had died in their sleep in the decade before, despite being otherwise healthy individuals. Doctors suspected these anomalous passings were due to factors that included genetics, psychological factors resulting from the trauma of fleeing genocide, and poor diet.
Southeast Asian culture as a whole holds ancestral spirits and ghosts in higher regard than those in the west. This connection between traditional beliefs and the trauma among Hmong refugees was examined by Dr Shelley Adler, and is better summarised in this article from the website Hmong American Experience.
Wes Craven stated this phenomenon was part of the inspiration for A Nightmare On Elm Street.
What’s your favourite scary movie?