The disturbing real-life stories behind classic horror films

You’re probably already familiar with the ‘based on a true story’ tagline; a sentence that’s spliced into even the most outlandish horror movies in an effort to separate us from the contents of our wallets. But despite what movie marketeers claim, most cinematic scare stories are about as accurate a reflection of real life as the Super Mario brothers are of the career trajectories of Italian-American plumbers.

Nevertheless, like lies, the best horror stories have a grain of truth to them and some of the most terrifying have a whole lot more. Let us guide you through the spine-tinglingly true tales to have hit the silver screen.

Psycho (1960)

The reality: Shower-stalking mummy’s boy Norman Bates character was based on Ed Gein, who was arrested in 1957 for murdering two women - and digging up the corpses of countless others - who reminded him of his dead mum. A man with issues we suspect. The real Gein is below, accompanied by two US Marshals.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

The reality: The movie played heavily on its ‘based on a true story’ schtick. But whilst the events themselves were entirely fictitious, the character of chainsaw-wielding cannibal Leatherface was another character based on Gein (see Psycho, above), who also skinned his victims in order to make a bodysuit made of human flesh.  

The Exorcist (1973)

The reality: The film took its inspiration from the last known Catholic-sanctioned exorcism in the United States, where priests attended to a 13-year-old boy after his parents complained about his aggressive behaviour. The
facts are a little murky, so whilst there may be some truth to reports that the boy spoke in a demonic accent and moved objects with his mind; he almost definitely didn’t spin his head entirely round, levitate or talk gobbledygook.

Even spookier however is the so-called Exorcist curse, which afflicted the film’s crew. Depending on who you
ask, between four and nine people involved with the movie died either in production or shortly after; whilst filming was repeatedly delayed by a spate of mysterious fires and serious on-set accidents.

The Amityville Horror (1979)

The reality:  Haunted house flick Amityville is based on the real-life experiences of the Lutz family, who had only just overcome estate agents, removal men and endless reams of bubble wrap before finding out that the house they’d moved into was haunted. 

As in the film a mass murder had once take place in their new pad which perhaps explains how over a period of four weeks they experienced cold spots, inverted crucifixes and walls covered in green slime. That’s if they weren’t just making the whole thing up, which many suspected they were…

A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984) 

The reality: Craven based his movie’s marvellous MacGuffin on a real life condition that became known as Asian Death Syndrome. The affliction was found in Cambodian refugees who suffered recurring nightmares, after which they refused to sleep, fearing death if they did. Some were even proved right as they died shortly after. Spooky eh?

The Conjuring (2013)

The reality: The Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson characters are based on real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (she’s with Farmiga, below) of Amityville fame. The events of the film are based on the 1971 Perron case, which saw the family’s home in Harrisville, Rhode Island haunted by a 'witch'. The land that the house was built on was apparently cursed by a 19th century woman called Bathsheba Sherman so that whoever lived there somehow died.

Annabelle (2014)

The reality: This follow-up to The Conjuring focuses on the terrifying evil doll from the first film. Again, we’re sorry to report that Annabelle is REAL. She’s based on the abomination below - a Raggedy Ann doll bought for a woman named Donna by her mother in 1970. Some of the doll’s real-life antics include switching positions and rooms at night and leaving cryptic messages like “Help Us” written on parchment that wasn’t even in the room. Also one day blood mysteriously appeared all over it. 

The Warrens (see The Conjuring) suspected the doll was inhabited by the ghost of a seven-year-old girl called Annabelle Higgins who’d died in a car accident. You can still go and visit it at their museum… if you dare.

Image Credits: Rex Features