Monsters and Matinees: It’s only a Horror Movie – unless it’s True

It’s only a Horror Movie – unless it’s True

Horror films can sometimes be too much even for the most fervent fan.

Maybe it’s a scene so gross that you close your eyes.

Or the minute you realize there’s a demon involved, and you change the channel (devil movies are a huge no for me).

Perhaps there’s a scene so terrifying that you turn on the lights like I do with The Haunting and that masterful moment when Julie Harris thinks a friend is next to her until she realizes that, no, that’s not a human. (If you’ve seen the movie, you know what I’m talking about.)

That’s when we tell ourselves “It’s only a movie. … It’s only a movie” and that usually works.

But what if it’s not only a movie? What if it was real?

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was one of multiple films that drew on real killer Ed Gein as inspiration – in this case, for the character of Leatherface.

“What happened is true. Now the motion picture that’s just as real.”

– Texas Chainsaw Massacre

That was the tagline for Tobe Hooper’s groundbreaking 1979 film that drew some inspiration for its chainsaw-wielding maniac Leatherface from a real killer. The film was creepy enough on its own, then became much darker learning there was some smidgen of reality in it.

True-life murderers are a frequent theme of “based on a true story” horror films, as are hauntings and paranormal activities.

Take real paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren who have become their own film franchise that started with the 2013 movie The Conjuring and continued with its direct sequels and then the Annabelle and Nun movies. In total, they have made more than $2 billion at the box office. And there’s more.

The Warrens also were called in for other cases that were the basis of earlier movies like The Amityville Horror. That film is a good place to start as we look at eight times real life became reel life in classic horror movies.

Actors James Brolin and Margot Kidder in a scene from The Amityville Horror. Notice the top windows of the house are lit to appear like “eyes” in this film based off a real haunting.

The Amityville Horror (1979)

Posters for The Amityville Horror show a Dutch Colonial house that is the same architecture of the real home that is the basis for this film. To illustrate that, the two distinctive half-curved windows under the gambrel roof are brightly lit to look like demonic eyes. The image has always haunted me.

Making the house feel alive was an integral part of this movie based on a haunting in Amityville, N.Y. where Ronald DeFeo Jr. shot and murdered six members of his family in 1974. Only 13 months later, the Lutz family bought the house despite knowing its history. At a friend’s request, they agreed to have the house blessed, but it didn’t quite work out as planned.

They left after only 28 days because of frightening experiences including a “greenish-black slime” with a mind of its own.

The film, directed by Stuart Rosenberg and starring James Brolin and Margot Kidder, was based on a book by Jay Anson. Although many of the scariest details were later debunked, the story has remained popular, becoming the basis for multiple books and movies, including a 2005 remake by Michael Bay. Plus, I still can’t look at a Dutch Colonial house without being creeped out.

Yes, even Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds had a basis in the reality of a bird attack in a seaside California town.

The Birds (1963)

In 1961, Alfred Hitchcock heard of an account in the Santa Cruz Sentinel of birds inexplicably attacking the small seaside town of Capitola in Santa Cruz County. It was reported that “hordes of seabirds were dive-bombing their homes, crashing into cars and spewing half-digested anchovies onto lawns.”

Hitch reached out to the paper for help in researching his next film which was based off the Daphne du Maurier novella “The Birds.” The final movie, set in a fictional seaside town in California, contained similar images as described at the time of bird attack, including crashing into homes and cars, terrorizing residents and even killing people.

It wasn’t until 2011 that researchers finally found an explanation for that long-ago California bird attack and a few other “animals acting strangely” incidents by linking them to poison from a toxic algae that resulted in disorientation and seizures, among other problems.

The title character of The Blob eats its way through a small town looking for more victims.

The Blob (1958)

I was blown away a few years back when my young niece, only 11 at the time, shared a YouTube video about how The Blob was based on a true story. “Inspired by” is a better description, but it’s still unsettling.

In the film, a gelatin-like substance from a meteorite absorbs people and grows large enough to engulf a diner while Steve McQueen and his teen buddies try to convince the adults of the danger.

Newspaper articles often inspired film writers.

The inspiration was a 1950 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Two Philadelphia police officers saw something fall from the sky and found a large mass about 6 feet in diameter that “gave off a purplish glow, almost a mist, that looked as though it contained crystals,” the paper reported. Unfortunately, it dissolved in about 25 minutes, leaving nothing for investigators to see. I still believe it happened.

The Exorcist (1973)

As a student at Georgetown University, William Peter Blatty read a Washington Post article with the headline Priest Frees Mt. Rainier Boy Reported Held in Devil’s Grip. It was about the real exorcism in 1949 of a boy who was seemingly possessed. Multiple priests were brought in with between 30 and 40 exorcisms reportedly performed.

This haunting image from The Exorcist captures the sense of horror that pervades this film.

The story inspired Blatty’s 1971 novel The Exorcist which he turned into the screenplay for the Oscar-winning film starring young Linda Blair as a teen possessed by a demon. Among the similarities between the reel/real stories were the use of the Ouija board, attacks on priests and all the vomiting.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope was inspired by the 1924 Leopold-Loeb murder case. The film starred John Dall, left, James Stewart and Farley Granger.

Rope (1948)

This Alfred Hitchcock psychological thriller is usually discussed in terms of its technical achievement of appearing like it was filmed in one continuous take. It wasn’t, but it came close by using only four cuts with some nifty sleight-of-hand like a person walking in front of the camera to create the illusion.

But there’s something else that’s interesting about the film. It was based on the 1929 play Rope’s End by Patrick Hamilton that told of the Leopold-Loeb murder case, considered the first “trial of the century.” In 1924, two University of Chicago students murdered a teen under the belief that their “innate superiority” would help them pull off the perfect crime. It didn’t. They were caught and sentenced to 99 years in prison.

In the film, the murderers are played by Farley Granger and John Dall who kill a friend, put his body in a trunk in their apartment and then host a dinner party. Arrogant, aren’t they? Jimmy Stewart is their former professor and one of the party guests.

Anthony Perkins starred as Norman Bates in Psycho, one of multiple film characters that had similarities to real killer Ed Gein.

Psycho (1960) and

Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

These two well-regarded, but quite different horror movies, both drew inspiration from notorious Wisconsin murderer Ed Gein – called the Butcher of Planfield – in the 1950s.

The convicted murderer also was a grave robber who – this gets gross – would take the bones and skins of corpses and create keepsakes including lampshades and a suit made from skin, like Leatherface’s mask in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Psycho was based off the 1959 novel by Robert Bloch who lived less than 50 miles from Gein. While Bloch didn’t mean for Bates – the reclusive young man who kept his mother’s mummified body in his house – to be a stand-in for Gein, the two had many similarities. Both were loners in rural areas who worshiped their mothers, wore women’s clothes and were murderers.

Gein was the inspiration for other film killers including Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs.

Psycho spawned an ill-advised shot-for-shot 1998 remake by Gus Van Sant, along with three sequels, a TV movie and series (Bates Motel).

The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)

The poster for “The Town That Dread Sundown” touts the fact that the film is based off a true story.

This is another terrifying story based off a heinous true-life serial killer. For 10 weeks in 1946, a murderer dubbed “The Phantom of Texarkana” – a region at the Texas/Arkansas border – attacked eight people, killing five. He was never identified.

That led to the film’s poster proclamation that the killer “still lurks the streets of Texarkana, Ark.” City officials were among those not pleased with that tagline and threatened to sue if it wasn’t removed, but it remained on many posters.

The image of the killer’s face covered by a hood was disturbing and has since become a frequent film image. Among the mostly amateur cast were Ben Johnson and Dawn Welles (Gilligan’s Island). Ryan Murphy and Jason Blum produced a 2016 sequel.


The fact that a film is based on a true story can draw viewers in, but also keep some away. I am, if you can’t already tell, in the latter category. (Give me a big-bug horror movie any day because I know that can’t happen. Right?)

You can tell me that I’m missing some good films and to get over it, but here’s the thing: Even writing about these movies is too much for me. I started this piece early one evening but once it got dark my anxiety started to rise. I could feel my heart beat faster as I typed about devils and demons. I freaked out so much I stopped writing, quickly left the room, turned on more lights and watched a piece of romantic fluff to shake the foreboding mood I was in.

I continued to write the next day during daylight hours and was fine. But as I finalized the story in late afternoon, the lights started to flicker. I could feel my heart again beat faster – and the lights kept flickering for a good 20 minutes. I’ve never been so happy to finish an article.

And that’s my true story about horror films.

 Toni Ruberto for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Toni’s Monsters and Matinees articles here.

Toni Ruberto, born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., is an editor and writer at The Buffalo News. She shares her love for classic movies in her blog, Watching Forever. Toni was the president of the former Buffalo chapter of TCM Backlot and now leads the offshoot group, Buffalo Classic Movie Buffs. She is proud to have put Buffalo and its glorious old movie palaces in the spotlight as the inaugural winner of the TCM in Your Hometown contest. You can find Toni on Twitter at @toniruberto.

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5 Responses to Monsters and Matinees: It’s only a Horror Movie – unless it’s True

  1. Jo Gabriel says:

    As always, I really enjoyed reading your informative posts, and this collection of true-life-inspired horror films is a great read!

    You put together the perfect round-up of films, just in time for Halloween. I got shivers being reminded that each film is nightmare-inducing. Keep the lights on Toni and have a wonderful Halloween! Cheers, Joey

    • Toni Ruberto says:

      Thank you, Jo. It was a different type of story that I thought would be fun – then it freaked me out while I was writing! I always keep my lights on.


  2. Jennifer Garlen says:

    It’s strange how many different movies used the same real life crimes for inspiration. I’m more or less with you on the gorier, modern horror films. I love Pre-Code horror and almost everything up to the 1960s, but serial killers are too real for me! I’ll take the Blob and the Universal monsters over human monsters every time.

    • Toni Ruberto says:

      Hi Jennifer,
      As always, I learned a lot in writing this story. I was surprised by how much real-life crime played into horror movies (there are so many more I didn’t get into). I’m with you – give me the Blob and the Universal monsters, too! Thanks for reading.


  3. Pingback: Not just for Halloween: 31 classic haunted house films – Watching Forever

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