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

Updated on September 17, 2013

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

Welcome to part two of a three part series that examines the Hollywood claims of "Based on a True Story" for horror movies. Here you will find the real-life inspirations for the movies so you can decide for yourself if the movies are really "based on a true story."

The Exorcism of Emily Rose theatrical release poster

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The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)

It seems that movies about exorcism are deemed more scary if they are “Based on a True Story.” The idea that one could be possessed by a demon (or demons) and no longer have control of their body as they contort every which way is the most frightening of circumstances. With a haunted house, at least you have control over your own body.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose is yet another example of taking the exorcism story to new heights. The movie follows a trial of a priest who is charged with negligent homicide after the death of Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter, of Dexter), whom the priest and family believed was possessed by demons. Medical doctors had determined that she had epilepsy and also suffered from psychosis. The priest’s defense attorney (Laura Linney) is agnostic, but begins to experience unusual phenomena after she takes the case. The movie is just as much about the defense attorney and her struggles as it is about Emily Rose and her suffering.

The film is based on the life of Anneliese Michel, who was a young German girl that allegedly possessed by demons. At age 16, Anneliese was diagnosed with epilepsy after having a seizure. Not long after that, she said she was seeing images of demons and hearing voices while praying. Her parents sought out an exorcism, but she did not meet the requirements for having an exorcism (i.e., speaking in tongues, supernatural powers, etc.). Her pastor requested exorcism again, but was rejected as before. Short after this, she started starving herself, drank urine, mutilated herself, and attacked others. In 1975—seven years after her initial diagnosis of epilepsy—an exorcism was approved. She was assigned to the care of two priests who performed exorcisms from September 1975 until her death in July 1976. They regularly performed one to two exorcisms every week during this ten month period. Even though the exorcisms helped her to have more of a regular life than before, she still exhibited signs of possession. After her death, the priests were charged and tried. They were found guilty of manslaughter by means of negligence, and sentenced to six months in jail and three years of probation.

The similarities between the movie and the true life story are striking, and while there are some notable differences, the movie for the most part is very similar to the story of Anneliese Michel. Whether Anneliese was truly possessed or a victim of an extreme case of epilepsy and over-imaginative parents remains to be seen.

The Strangers movie poster

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The Strangers (2008)

Having a stranger knock on your door in the middle of the night is never a good sign. The Strangers takes the audience on a journey of what one couple (James and Kristen, played by Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler) goes through after answering a knock their door. Soon they are terrorized by three strangers each wearing different masks – a man in a sack mask, a woman in a Dollface mask, and a woman in a Pin up mask. Perhaps the most terrifying moment of the movie is near the end, when Kristen asks why the three strangers are doing this to them. Dollface responds: “Because you were home.”

The real-life basis for the movie came from the writer-director Bryan Bertino’s own life experience. As a child, there were burglaries where Bertino lived. He claims that one day when his parents were not home, there was a knock on his door. When his sister answered the door, the strangers asked for someone who didn’t live there. It was said that the criminals burglarizing the homes in his neighborhood would knock on doors and if someone didn’t answer they would break in. This is a great launching point for the movie, but really has nothing to do with the movie itself. The burglars in his neighborhood were looking for people that weren’t home, while in the movie the killers were looking for people that were home. The other inspiration, Bertino claims, is the Manson family. There are simply so many differences between the Manson murders and the movie that this claim extremely far-reaching.

The Strangers claims to have been “Inspired by a True Story” instead of “Based on a True Story.” Hollywood will sometimes use the former as a way to get around the fact that the movie is nothing like the event that it is about. The problem with this designation is that it misleads audiences just as much. Almost every movie, book or other work of fiction is “Inspired by a True Story.” While the storyline may not be directly related to a true event, creators and authors will infuse scenes or characters that are inspired by events or people they know. So technically just about every movie can make this claim. Moviemakers use the designation to get away with saying it and not being accused of lying, while still trying to trick audiences into thinking it really happened.

The Possession movie poster

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The Possession (2012)

Buying antique, vintage or even used items can be an interesting prospect. Sometimes looking at an antique, it’s easy to think about where that item came from, who used it, what it may have experienced during its long life. The Possession takes this idea a step further when a girl purchases an antique box at a garage sale. The girl becomes attached to the box in a manner that she actually becomes ill when she is away from it. She starts exhibiting behavior as if she has been possessed by a demon, people start dying, and the dad investigates the box. He discovers that it is a Dibbuk (or Dybbuk) box, which (according to Jewish folklore) is a container that houses an evil spirit called a dibbuk. The idea of buying something at a garage sale and having it be possessed by an evil spirit that is bent on destruction is certainly a frightening idea. But how true is the story?

The real Dibbuk box in question started with a wine box on eBay for a bid of $1.00. The box had unusual items in it, such as locks of hair, a dried flower, a couple pennies, etc. In the end there were 50 bids and the wine box sold for $280. The box is said to originally have come from an elderly Holocaust survivor who passed on the clear instructions of her grandmother to never open the box. Since then, various owners of the box have reported unusual activity, illness, nightmares, strange smells, bursts of supernatural violence and even terrible medical problems (one owner reported their mother having had a stroke when he gave her the box as a birthday present). The box is currently owned by Jason Haxton and resides in Kirksville, Missouri in the Still College of Osteopathic Medicine Museum. Even the movie set seemed to be plagued with a curse with light bulbs exploding and all of the props burning up once filming wrapped. Haxont offered to let the cast and crew of the movie use the box on set, which director Sam Raimi thought was a great idea. The rest of the cast and crew did not agree.

By far it is one of the more fascinating tales surrounding a movie that is “Based on a True Story.” Unfortunately, while the box itself is real and unusual events did occur with the box, and one of the owners did purchase the box at an estate sale (not a garage sale) there are still quite a few differences. Namely, the part about someone being possessed by the evil spirit that lives in the box.

You can read more about the Dibbuk box (and even view a link to the original eBay auction) at http://www.dibbukbox.com.

The Conjuring movie poster

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The Conjuring (2013)

Lorraine and Ed Warren are high up on the list of famous paranormal investigators. For over fifty years, they investigated haunting all across the United States, including the famous house at 112 Ocean, the center of The Amityville Horror. In February of 1976, just after the Lutz family fled from the home, the Warrens came upon the scene and went to the home to investigate. Whether you believe their stories to be true or believe them to be frauds, it’s only natural that eventually a summer blockbuster would revolve around the couple whose name is synonymous with paranormal activity.

Enter The Conjuring. The farmhouse in picturesque Harrisville, Rhode Island is the scene of the haunting of the Perron family which the Warrens investigated in the early 1970s. The Perron family claims as soon as they moved in, they saw spirits. Andrea Perron claims that most of the spirits were benign, or appeared benign. One would sweep the kitchen floor, one would kiss the children goodnight. Then came unexplained sounds and moving furniture. One of the spirits they called Manny, was believed to be that of Johnny Arnold who hung himself in the house in the 1800s. The family believed he was watching over them. There is corroboration for the family’s claims of seeing ghosts and experiencing paranormal activity. Both prior and subsequent residents of the home also say they experienced the same things. Things went wrong for the Perrons when they hired the Warrens to investigate. They held a séance, which brought a new demon spirit they believed to be that of Bathsheba, who wanted to get rid of the mother, Carolyn.

The movie itself is based on the Warrens’ files of their paranormal investigation at the home of the Perrons family. It also includes tales of Andrea Perron, one of the children living in the home at the time of the haunting. Whether you believe the tales are true, basing a movie directly on the investigation files and stories of first-hand witnesses are as close to being “Based on a True Story” as one can get.

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    • Drunken gator profile image

      Drunken gator 3 years ago

      Another great article. Looking forward to part three

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