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4 horror movies (not) based on true stories

Updated: Apr 12, 2022

Based on a true story. Admit it: If you've seen this tagline on a movie, it seems more appealing. At least it used to. Plenty of horror movies use the "true story" gimmick as a means to sell tickets, when their roots are anything but. Here are four horror movies that claimed to be truth-based but...weren't.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was revolutionary in its time, spawning multiple sequels, prequels, and a 2003 remake. The original movie was advertised as a true story, and actor Gunnar Hansen, who played the movie's iconic villain, Leatherface, in the first film, reportedly received letters from people who claimed they knew actual victims. But you may be relieved to know there are no chainsaw wielding maniacs running loose in the Lone Star State.

Leatherface was long thought to have been inspired by Ed Gein. Known as 'The Butcher of Plainfield,' Gein confessed in 1957 to murdering two women and was later institutionalized after being found unfit to stand trial. However, he is best known for the collection of body parts he obtained through grave robbing in the hopes of reconstructing a new version of his dead mother. Gein has also been cited as the inspiration behind fictional murderers like Norman Bates and Buffalo Bill.

But according to Chainsaw director Tobe Hooper, the film was initially inspired by something far scarier than Leatherface -- Christmas shopping. In 2004, Hooper told Texas Monthly that he first conceived the idea in December 1972 when he found himself in the middle of a Christmas shopping frenzy -- right next to a large display rack of chainsaws. Hooper said "I did a rack focus to the saws, and I thought, ‘I know a way I could get through this crowd really quickly.’" Fortunately, he chose to forego the felony option and instead went home and brainstormed the story, resulting in what would later become the phenomenon we know today.

The Quiet Ones (2014)

The Quiet Ones was released in April 2014 to less than stellar reviews from critics and audiences alike. The film follows Oxford University professor Joseph Coupland (Jared Harris) who wants to cure mental illness -- quite a lofty goal to begin with. As if that's not enough, he's using Jane Harper (Olivia Cooke), a young orphan he found in a mental hospital, to achieve his ends. Jane believes her doll, Evey, is possessed, but the professor sets out to prove the paranormal activity is all in Jane's head. But as the story progresses, the students assisting him in the experiment began to realize there might be something more sinister going on.

But was the movie really inspired by actual events, as it claimed? Well...sort of.

The Quiet Ones was inspired by The Philip Experiment, which took place on the other side of the world from Oxford, in Toronto. The experiment began in 1972 and was conducted by the now defunct Toronto Society for Psychical Research. Their goal was to prove that ghosts and paranormal activity were a product of the human mind. The leader of the experiment, Dr. A.R.G. Owen, created an entity named Philip, giving him an entire backstory, including how he supposedly died.

The Philip Experiment was decidedly less exciting than The Quiet Ones. It took participants over a year to see any sort of paranormal manifestation from the fictional ghost Philip. Even when they did manage things like table movement, it required much effort and persistence on their part. Most of the scientific community never seriously studied the experiment results.

And...that's pretty much it. Technically, The Quiet Ones didn't lie when it said it was inspired by true events. But there were no anguished teenage mental patients, demonic entities, possessed dolls, cults, or violence. The story may have started on nonfictional grounds, but was largely embellished for the big screen.

Annabelle (2014)

Supernatural horror film The Conjuring was released in 2013. Inspired by the true events that plagued a family in a Rhode Island farmhouse in the 1970's, the film was a huge hit, raking in over $40 million on opening weekend and making paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (who investigated the hauntings, both on and offscreen) even more well known than they already were. With the success of The Conjuring, more movies were inevitable, and a prequel, Annabelle, was released the following year.

Annabelle recalls the events of another case the Warrens took on, this one involving an allegedly possessed doll. In the movie, the lives of John (Ward Horton) and his pregnant wife, Mia (Annabelle Wallis), are turned upside down after John gives Mia the Annabelle doll as a gift. It begins with a satanic cult breaking into their house and leads to Annabelle wanting their unborn daughter's soul.

But the real story of Annabelle is quite different. The Raggedy Ann doll -- no, it wasn't a creepy looking porcelain doll -- was given to a nursing student named Donna in 1970. Before long, Donna and her roommate, Angie, noticed strange things happening. They would come home to find the doll in a different position than where they left it, or even in a different room entirely. Donna reported finding the doll with blood droplets on its hand and chest, as well as notes written on parchment paper she didn't remember buying.

About six weeks after the activity began, Donna contacted a medium. A seance was held, and the medium told the roommates the doll was possessed by the spirit of a seven-year-old girl named Annabelle Higgins, who had died in the fields outside their apartment building. Thinking this spirit was harmless, the girls allowed "Annabelle" to stay in the doll.

But the paranormal activity only worsened. Angie's fiancé, Lou, who was staying with the girls at the time, seemed to bear the brunt of "Annabelle's" wrath. Annabelle was held responsible for more than one incident that left Lou with visible scratch marks, as well as attempts to strangle him.

Donna finally realized the spirit inside the doll was not an innocent child. She contacted a priest, who eventually led her to the Warrens. Upon investigation, they concluded what you've probably already figured out: The doll was not possessed by the spirit of a little girl, but by a demon posing as a harmless ghost, with the ultimate goal of possessing a human.

"Annabelle" was exorcised by a priest, who also cleansed the apartment. The Warrens took the doll with them when they left, and have kept it ever since. It can now be found inside a custom built case in their Occult Museum.

If you've seen the movie, you've probably realized by now that the stories are completely different. The creepy porcelain doll, satanic cult, demon sacrifice, and even married protagonists were all works of fiction. The only details that remained the same were the doll's name and desire to possess a human. Frankly, I think they should have gone with the true story for the movie. It would have been much more interesting.

The Strangers (2008)

Creepy home invasion film The Strangers was released in summer 2008 and freaked audiences out. I remember seeing this movie while staying with a friend, and being terrified to leave our bedroom that night to walk across the house and use the bathroom.

The film follows a couple (Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman) who are stalked by masked intruders while staying at a remote cabin. Perhaps the most disturbing part of the story is the ending (so yeah, spoiler alert, but you probably knew this already). During the last few minutes, we find out these intruders have been messing with our protagonist's heads for one simple reason: They were home.

A terrifying story, but is it true? Eh...not really. The movie's screenwriter/director Bryan Bertino based the story on an incident from his childhood. One night, while he and his sister were home alone, a group of strangers knocked on their door, asking for someone who didn't live there. Bertino later discovered these people were knocking on other doors in the neighborhood, robbing the unlucky homeowners who happened to be out at the time.

No doubt this was a frightening experience for Bertino, his sister and their neighbors. But robbery is different from premeditated murder. While there are likely true stories that resemble the events of The Strangers, the things that happened on screen didn't happen in real life. Still, it might not be a bad idea to get a security system. And a gun.

Are there any other "true" horror movies whose stories were largely embellished or even completely fabricated? Let me know below.


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