The Real Stories Behind Classic Horror Movies
Actor Max Schreck in the 1922 film Nosferatu.
A Symphony of Horror is basically an unauthorized knock-off of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula.
The filmmakers couldn’t get permission from the late Stoker’s estate to adapt the book,
so they made certain changes. Instead of Count Dracula, the main villain is Count Orlok.
Copyright drama aside, stories of undead beings feeding off the living
have been around a lot longer than Stoker’s novel. The modern idea of vampires
likely evolved from old European folk beliefs.
Before people understood how diseases spread, vampirism may have been a
way to explain deaths from the plague, tuberculosis and other unseen maladies
that ravaged communities. Different regions had different ways of stopping vampires.
In Romania, one remedy was to cut out the heart of a suspected vampire
(i.e., a cadaver) and burn it to ashes.
Some have speculated Stoker’s Dracula was based on Vlad the Impaler,
aka Vlad III Dracula, a 15th-century ruler of Wallachia in Romania.
In Stoker’s research notes for Dracula, he recorded that “dracula” means “devil”
in the Wallachian language. However, scholars suspect he appropriated
the name without knowing very much about Vlad. In any case,
there was already a lot of vampire fiction by then:
Lord Byron’s epic poem The Giaour (1813),
the penny dreadful Varney the Vampire (1847)
and the lesbian vampire novel Carmilla (1872), to name a few.
The Exorcist (1973)
Linda Blair as Regan MacNeil in the 1973 film The Exorcist
In August 1949, The Washington Post ran at least two stories about
a 14-year-old boy’s exorcism in Maryland.
In one, the newspaper reported,
“the boy broke into a violent tantrum of screaming,
cursing and voicing of Latin phrases—a language he had never studied.”
The story inspired author William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel The Exorcist,
the basis for the 1973 film in which a young Linda Blair
projectile-vomits pea soup.
In reality, the boy who inspired Blair’s character
was probably troubled, not possessed.
A Marylander named Mark Opsasnick who
didn’t buy the story investigated it and published his findings
in Strange Magazine in 1999. Opsasnick identified
the boy in the story and interviewed people who’d
known him (though he did not release the boy’s name),
and concluded the boy likely had psychological
problems and was mimicking the priest’s Latin.
View of the home of Ronald DeFeo Jr where he shot and killed his parents, two sisters and two brothers on November 14, 1974.
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
On November 13, 1974, 23-year-old Ronald “Butch” DeFeo Jr.
murdered his entire family in their sleep.
One year later, the Lutz family purchased the house in Amityville,
New York where the horror took place.
Parents George and Kathy Lutz then claimed they experienced
shocking paranormal phenomena in the house: green slime
oozing from the walls, a creature with red eyes and multiple
family members levitating in their beds. The claims appeared
in Jay Anson’s 1977 book The Amityville Horror,
which inspired the 1979 movie of the same title,
which inspired many more movies.
Butch DeFeo’s lawyer later admitted that he,
George and Kathy had “created this horror story over
many bottles of wine.”
Even so, the tale raised the profile of Ed and Lorriane Warren,
a couple who got involved with the Amityville story
and helped promote it.
“They set themselves up as psychics and clairvoyants
who investigate ghosts and hauntings,” says Benjamin Radford,
deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine.
“They would hear about stories either in the news or just sort
of through the grapevine, and they would sort of introduce
themselves into the story.” But more on them later.
The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)
Bill Pullman in the 1988 film The Serpent and the Rainbow.
In 1985, a white American graduate student named Wade Davis
published a book with an extremely long title:
The Serpent and the Rainbow:
A Harvard Scientist's Astonishing Journey into the Secret
Societies of Haitian Voodoo, Zombies, and Magic.
In it, Davis claimed he’d discovered that secret Haitian societies used tetrodotoxin,
a toxin found in puffer fish, to trick people into thinking they’d died
and come back to life as zombies from Haitian folklore.
Many other scientists denounced Davis’ claim as bunk,
including tetrodotoxin expert C.Y. Kao, who called it “a carefully planned,
premeditated case of scientific fraud.”
The story grabbed the attention of horror filmmaker Wes Craven,
who adapted the book into the 1988 film
The Serpent and the Rainbow starring Bill Pullman as a Harvard researcher based on Davis.
Writing in a 1989 issue of Latin American Anthropology Review,
anthropologist Robert Lawless seemed to consider this fitting,
since the book already read “like the first draft for a Hollywood movie
with Davis himself as an Indiana-Jones-type hero.”
The Haunting in Connecticut (2009)
American ghost hunters Lorraine and Ed Warren, 1980.
Russell McPhedran/Fairfax Media/Getty Images
Remember Ed and Lorraine Warren, the ghost hunters from Amityville?
A decade after Amityville, they became involved with the Snedeker family.
Parents Allen and Carmen Snedeker claimed they’d experienced paranormal phenomena at
the Connecticut house they rented in 1986. Most shockingly,
both parents claimed demons had raped them.
“Part of the modus operandi of the Warrens was to solicit help in publicizing these stories,
” Radford explains. The Warrens hired a horror novelist named Ray Garton
to write a book about the Snedekers’ haunting, but Garton soon
“realized that a lot of the information wasn’t making sense," Radford says.
Garton objected to his publisher’s decision to sell the 1992
book In a Dark Place: The Story of a True Haunting as non-fiction,
and admitted the story wasn’t true. In 2009, a movie inspired by
the Snedeker case called The Haunting in Connecticut came out.
“I suspect the movie will begin with the words: ‘Based on a true story,
’” Garton told Horror Bound magazine at the time. “Be warned:
Just about anything that begins with any variation of this phrase
is trying a little too hard to convince you of something that probably isn't true.”
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