“Based on actual events.” A line that sends chill up the spine of horror movie lovers everywhere. But how closely do the films follow the truth? How much is there to be feared? And how much is Hollywood exaggerating?
Let’s start with the classics, shall we? We can then rate the believability on the exaggeration scale.
The film was released in 1973 to an absolutely horrified audience. Rumors spread of viewers fainting and running out of the theater. It was like nothing they’d ever seen. And who could blame them? The image of sweet, young Regan crab-walking backwards down the stairs and mutilating herself with a crucifix is disturbing to say the least. But the film was an interpretation based off the novel of the same title by William Peter Blatty, published in 1971.
The characters in the novel are fictitious, but the material comes from the very real story of an apparently possessed young man whose name was never released. He was referred to only as Roland Doe or sometimes Robbie Mannheim. The boy’s family sought help from their Lutheran Church when objects began to move on their own. The boy seemed to be the center of the activity and eventually underwent several exorcisms. He shunned any religious icons and became violent, even attacking the priests there to help. It is said that the exorcisms worked and that the boy grew up rather normal. Later, some of those involved stated that there may have been undiagnosed mental illness involved.
Exaggeration Aspect: High. The film (and the book) is still a classic and deserves its spot in the Horror Hall of Fame but it no way would I say this is based on “actual events”.
I thoroughly enjoyed the Conjuring films. The monsters were terrifying, the righteous defeated evil in the end—they’re great films for sure. But they aren’t so factual. The first Conjuring is based on the Perron family. Upon moving into the creepy old house, strange things start to happen and so they seek help. This comes in the form of Ed and Lorraine Warren, self-proclaimed demonologist and medium.
Above: The Perron Girls with the actors who portrayed them.
While the family insists that there is much truth to the film, they also admit that some is fabricated. The film portrays a brief stay in the house, but in actuality, the family lived there for about nine years. When the Warrens were called to help, Mr. Perron apparently wanted nothing to do with the investigation and was hesitant to even admit that the family was experiencing paranormal events. The witch from the film who possesses the mother is completely fabricated, as are much of the physical attacks. But the daughters stand firm that voices were heard and strange smells would fill up the home.
Exaggeration Aspect: Low-Medium. Their stories have remained consistent and while the silver screen certainly embellished the activity, there’s no doubt that something was happening in that house.
This one is interesting. It is a FACT that Ronald DeFeo shot and killed his entire family on 112 Ocean Drive in 1974. He pleaded insanity and said demonic voices made him do it. A year later, the Lutz family purchased the home and moved in with their young children. All still true in life and as it’s represented in the film. But what happens after is questionable.
The film was based on the book written by Jay Anson. Anson collaborated with the Lutz family on the details of their short time spent in the house. Tales of doors slamming, voices heard, and slime oozing from the walls were all incorporated into that best-selling book. The biggest red flag, however, was when William Weber, attorney to DeFeo, admitted that he colluded with the Lutz family and “created this horror story over many bottles of wine”. The Lutz family, as well as Anson and Weber, all financially benefited from this book to film adaptation.
The 2005 version incorporated the vengeful Native American spirits trapped in the basement but the indigenous people referenced did not even settle in that area.
Exaggeration Aspect: High. While it’s true that traumatic events happened, there is too much evidence pointing to the stories being complete lies.
First of all, if you haven’t seen this quiet, but terrifying film, do yourself a favor. Just don’t watch it alone. The film was released in 2005 and had a pretty positive response. It is based on the story of Anneliese Michel, a young German girl who died after undergoing an exorcism in 1976. The film follows the court hearing of the priest who led the exorcism as he is charged with negligence and manslaughter. In the actual case, Anneliese died after approximately 60-plus exorcisms at the hands of Father Arnold Renz and Pastor Ernst Alt, under the permission of Bishop Josef Stangl. The film aligns pretty accurately with fact as it follows young Emily and her decent into madness, whether it be demonically fueled or the suggested epilepsy. She started hearing voices, seeing faces, and developed an aversion to all things Christian, including crucifixes. Also in life as in the film, the family decided to rely on the exorcisms as opposed to medication and treatment. Anneliese (and the fictitious Emily Rose) died of malnourishment and dehydration. There were claims made that if the parents of Anneliese and the priests in charge of the exorcisms had called in a doctor or taken her to get medical care, she would have survived. In the film, we see Emily Rose medicated for epilepsy; she then stops taking the medication because she believes that her symptoms become worse. Her parents and her priest support this decision. In Anneliese’s story, she is treated for first tuberculosis, then depression and epilepsy. When the issues continued, the medication was stopped and the victim and her family turned to their faith only.
Anneliese Michel before Anneliese Michel after
Annaliese did portray quite disturbing behavior during her illness. She would lick her own urine off of the floor, eat insects, scream for hours on end, and even self-harm. The film portrays Emily Rose as a quiet and devout young girl, and Anneliese was certainly devout. It’s reported that the girl would do penance for the sin she saw around her, perhaps even taking on the shame her mother carried of having a child out of wedlock. Anneliese was eventually buried next to her illegitimate sister. At the time of her death, she weighed next to nothing and was suffering from pneumonia and severe dehydration. She was a ghost of her former self.
Exaggeration Aspect: Medium-High. This is a tragic story, to be sure. But there are too many elements involved that suggest mental illness. Had her family pursued more medical and psychiatric help, perhaps different medications or dosages, this young girl may have made it. It’s interesting to note that two years after her death, the family had the body exhumed under the excuse to upgrade the coffin, though it’s suspected it was because a nun had a prophecy that Anneliese’s body had not decomposed and was evidence of true possession. Upon examination, the body was decomposing just as it should. Regardless, the movie is still scary as hell.
This film was wonderfully done and absolutely deserves recognition. Released in 2012, we see the beloved Negan from TWD as a protective father, determined to save his daughter from an evil spirit that possesses her after she opens an old wine case. The wine case absolutely existed in real life. The girl? Not so much. The entire possession and family was fabricated but there is a wine case—famously titled the dybbuk box—that has quite the interesting history. The small box belonged to a Polish holocaust survivor and, upon her death, it was sold at an auction. A local antique dealer purchased it to sell in his store and ended up gifting it to his mother. What happened after that was a series of frightening events, all somehow tied back to the box. The mother suffered a stroke and was terrified of the box. The dybbuk box was posted to Ebay as a haunted item. It eventually found its way into the hands of a young man who soon suffered from nightmares, strange sounds and smells, and even loss of hair. The box then traveled to museum director Jason Haxton, who had it (the box) tested for harmful toxins. It’s worth noting that inside the box was an odd collection of items, including pennies, locks of hair, small statues, and candle holders. Haxton invited many paranormal professionals and people of faith to take a look, hoping to find a way to seal up the danger. Wiccans, Rabbi’s, paranormal investigators and more were all consulted. Haxton sealed the box up and would not sell nor release its whereabouts for some time. It wasn’t until recently that the box reappeared, making its debut as a haunted attraction for the Zak Bagan’s collection. Bagan’s is famous for his Travel Channel paranormal show, The Ghost Adventures.
Exaggeration Aspect: Medium. While the girl and her family were completely fabricated, the box is certainly real and no one can deny its intriguing and haunting history. Every single owner has had a string of bad luck and eerily similar nightmares.
Lesson of the day, kiddos: There are certainly enough strange and unexplainable stories out there. Do your research and you’ll find that, often times, the truth is scarier than fiction. Even then, I’ll always be in line for those horror films advertising the phrase “based on a true story.”