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Based on a true story (sort of): part one

Updated on July 25, 2013

***Warning: Hub may contain spoilers***

A trailer for a new horror movie catches your eye as you fast-forward through the commercials to watch your favorite DVR’d television show. As the world’s foremost horror fan and expert, you quickly rewind back to the beginning of the commercial to check it out. Somewhere in between the snippets of a scary movie, you see those familiar five little words: “Based on a True Story”.

“Based on a True Story” is a popular marketing technique used by studios to brand horror movies. After all, if it’s based on a true story, that means it’s extra-scary and extra-enticing. But is it really based on a true story or are those five words more along the lines of clever, yet false advertising? Read the inspirations for the movies and decide for yourself.

The Blair Witch Project official release poster

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The true story of a marketing scheme

It’s hard to pinpoint when this tagline began down the road to where we are now, with almost every horror movie “based on a true story”. My own suspicions is that while it was sparsely used in the time of The Exorcist, it rapidly gained popularity starting with The Blair Witch Project.

The Blair Witch Project was filmed documentary-style, with a “first person” perspective. It follows college students who are tracking the legend of the Blair Witch and what happens to them. Before the movie was released, filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez put up a website in an attempt to legitimize the Blair Witch legend. They added pieces of “evidence” and enough information to fool the masses. When bits of the film were masterfully leaked as being the last film made by college students who disappeared, it validated the idea that this was a true story to the point that a police officer actually offered to help find the missing students. By the time the movie hit theatres, there was so much debate on what was real and what was not that the movie made a quarter of a billion dollars at the box office. Not too shabby for one of the lowest budgeted films in recent history.

The ability of Blair Witch filmmakers to make people want to watch a real-life horror story unfold on film caught the attention of studios everywhere. The most similar ruse up to that point was The War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938, where a partial reading by Orson Welles deceived many of those who listened into believing that an alien invasion was occurring at the time of the broadcast. With Blair Witch, Myrick and Sanchez clearly had tapped into a well of marketing genius.

The Amityville Horror movie poster

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The Amityville Horror (1979, original)

Quite possibly the most famous of all “based on a true story” haunted house movies, The Amityville Horror started out as a terrifying book by Jay Anson in 1977 (The Amityville Horror: A True Story) and found its way onto the big screen in 1979. Despite the aged nature of the book and movie, the story itself continues to scare horror fans today.

The movie follows the story of George and Kathy Lutz, who in December of 1975 moved the now famous house located at 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville, NY. Over the next 28 days, the Lutz family were the victims of extraordinary paranormal activity, which tormented and terrified them until they finally left the home. Thirteen months before they moved in, 23-year old Ronald DeFeo, Jr murdered his entire family in the home, which was the cause of the haunting. A priest was brought in to bless the house, but it did no good as the activity in the home became too much to bear, forcing them to leave their home behind. Both the book and the movie made several claims of specific activity: flying objects, green ooze coming from the walls, a multitude of flies, cold spots and lots of other spooky and downright scary occurrences.

Over the years, the Lutz family has been accused of perpetrating a hoax. Even a lawyer came forward and claimed to have helped them make up the entire story. A family who bought the home after the incidents said that there was no damage to the home as the Lutz family claimed had occurred during their stay. The Lutz family has remained true to their tale, and in March of 2013 Danny Lutz (the son who was seven at the time they moved in) corroborated the stories of the 1970’s in a documentary entitled My Amityville Horror.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre movie poster

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The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974, original)

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre tells the tale of a cannibalistic family who viciously murders anyone that happens upon them. The main bad guy in the movie is Leatherface, who does the majority of the killing for the family and covers his deformed face with the skin of his victims. The movie, billed as “Based on a True Story”, was wildly successful and spawned a prequel, a remake and a lot of sequels. It was even banned in several countries when the original movie was released due to the grotesque nature of the film.

The opening monologue states, “The film which you are about to see is an account of the tragedy which befell a group of five youths. For them, an idyllic summer afternoon drive became a nightmare. The events of that day were to lead to the discovery of one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of American history.” The words sounded a lot more promising than a simple “Based on a True Story” tagline.

As a child, I remember kids talking about the movie as if it really happened. My personal favorite of these urban legends was the one about the real family living in Texas that kills people and serves them up as BBQ to tourists passing through. When they ran out of meat, they just killed another family. It was said that they had the best ribs in the country. The moral of the story was if you planned on traveling in Texas, avoid family-owned BBQ joints and stick to the main highways.

Director, producer and writer Tobe Hooper has long since admitted that the original movie’s claim to be true was purposefully deceiving. The reasoning behind the scam was that he used the film as a political response to the government’s “lies” about Watergate, the Vietnam War, and other events during that time. It also didn’t hurt that the claim drew in a much larger crowd than anticipated and inspired countless other future filmmakers.

While the movie itself is not true, it was very loosely inspired by a real serial killer, Ed Gein. Not only did Gein inspire this movie, but others as well, including Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs. While Gein killed two women, there was not a chainsaw or a family involved. He is far better known for grave robbing and using the skin of the corpses to make himself clothing made of women. His motive was not because he was disfigured by disease, as Leatherface, but because he wanted to be a woman.

The Exorcist movie poster

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The Exorcist (1973)

Perhaps the scariest movie ever made, the claims of The Exorcist to be “Based on a True Story” took the head-spinning, vomit-inducing fright fest to a whole new level. The movie itself originated with a true story of an exorcism, although the rest of the story details are fictional.

Much like The Amityville Horror, The Exorcist started out as a book of the same name by William Peter Blatty. The real exorcism was that of Roland Doe (a pseudonym), and not the young daughter of celebrities. The details of Doe’s exorcism came from a diary of the priest who performed the exorcism. While in the movie Regan’s possession came about mysteriously, Doe was believed to have dabbled with a Ouija board with an aunt, and later attempted to contact that same aunt when she passed away. Unexplained events began in the home of Roland Doe before he became possessed.

The Exorcist does take notes from the accounts of Doe’s many exorcisms, including speaking with a guttural voice, writing appearing on his body, and injury to the priest attending the funeral. However, The Exorcist also took a lot of liberties with the film, resulting in many differences from the original possession story on which the movie is based.

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    • j.brown profile image

      Joshua David Brown 4 years ago from Fort Smith, Arkansas

      Agreed. :)

    • Angie Martin profile image
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      Angie Martin 4 years ago from Frazier Park, California

      Hi J. Brown,

      I tackled The Conjuring in Part Two that I posted yesterday. I cannot wait to see the movie to see if it lives up to the hype. While I think that was the most true movie in comparison to its real-life tale (whether or not you believe the tale), I found the story of the box in The Possession to be the most fascinating.

      You've brought up something that completely slipped my mind when I was writing this hub series: Faces of Death. The mere mention of the name brings up memories of kids running around asking if you wanted to watch someone die. I completely stayed away from it, but since it came out that it's not true, I may watch it someday.

      You're right that the marketing around The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was a huge build for the number of movies that use the tagline today. I think at this point, the tagline is in serious overkill mode and moviemakers should reconsider the use of it. If it's used all the time, it almost becomes a joke. But when used sparingly, those movies that use it suddenly become more credible.

    • Angie Martin profile image
      Author

      Angie Martin 4 years ago from Frazier Park, California

      Hi Gator, I think a lot of people would agree with you that they are more likely to watch a movie (horror or not) if it says it's "based on a true story". I know with horror movies, it makes it far scarier to think it really happened!

    • Angie Martin profile image
      Author

      Angie Martin 4 years ago from Frazier Park, California

      Thanks for the input, Tom! I watched The Exorcist late at night as a young kid with my step-sister of the same age and my younger sister. We fell asleep in the same bed and I kept staring at them, terrified the bed would shake or one of them would sit up and their head would rotate.

      In researching this hub (and the next two parts), the only thing that completely freaked me out is The Exorcist. When I was searching for the movie poster, all these photos of Regan popped up. I realized that the makeup job they did on her was enough of a scare to last a lifetime.

      Though they will never make another movie that holds up to that level of "scary", hopefully you can find a new movie to scare you. I would hate to go through life not being terrified of something! :)

    • Tom London profile image

      Tom London 4 years ago from London, United Kingdom

      Awesome hub! The Exorcist is the last movie that I found scary; nothing else past it, no matter how hard I was trying to find anything, could scare me enough. Thanks for sharing this.

    • j.brown profile image

      Joshua David Brown 4 years ago from Fort Smith, Arkansas

      The Conjuring is seeming to be this summer's horror blockbuster I think. I hope it lives up to the "hype". The entire marketing campaigns that were used for films like "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" just to name one of the major early contributors to the horror marketing scheme of "based on true events". I am always drawn to the films which are loosely based on true stories regardless if they are marketed as such. There are the more low budget D.I.Y. horror films that actually try to replicate the REAL LIFE horrors of mankind in a much disturbing manner such as The August Underground Trilogy of films by Fred Vogel and Toe Tag Pictures. Faces of Death was touted as being real and for decades people were either drawn into the collection of scenes by this, or they were driven away by the same falsehood. After nearly two decades the film creators came out and told the story of how many of the scenes were faked and then more people actually opened their minds to view the original Faces of Death. It is all about the "shock" factor of true life horror that reals people in. I would even go as far as calling it "car wreck film making" because of the fact that when you drive by a car wreck you have a slight morbid fascination you face mentally, whether to look or turn away. I really enjoy this hub and hope to read more!! Thank you for posting Angie!

    • Drunken gator profile image

      Drunken gator 4 years ago

      Great stuff Angie. To be honest I am more likely to watch a movie if it does say it's "based on a true story".

    • AUPADHYAY profile image

      ANIL KUMAR UPADHYAY 4 years ago from INDIA, UTTAR PRADESH STATE, KANPUR CITY

      Amazing hub, anglemartin, I will definitely wait for the another one. Glad to read it. Voting it up.

    • Angie Martin profile image
      Author

      Angie Martin 4 years ago from Frazier Park, California

      Thanks for the feedback! The Conjuring does have that same warning. I am tackling that story in part two which will be released tomorrow, just in time for the movie. :)

    • Thief12 profile image

      Thief12 4 years ago from Puerto Rico

      Great hub. Very interesting. I think the new film, The Conjuring, bears the same "warning".