The history of your favorite classic horror films

John Roman, U-Multirank

October 31, 2019 09:00 AM (CET)

Halloween in University

666 horror stories based on ‘real life’ stories

It’s Halloween, and the vale between the living and the dead is at its thinnest, making it the best time for scary movies. Many horror films and scary stories have a historical origin, and typically a good scientific explanation as to how/ why they occurred. Historians and modern-day scientists play a crucial role in debunking old folklore and providing up-to-date scientific explanations and even solutions. The concept of vampires, zombies and other creatures of the night were told as a way to explain the unknown during a time where deadly diseases were incurable.

But whether you believe the hype of scary movies based on ‘true stories’, or simply enjoy a good scare on Halloween, check out these six classic horror film and read about their origins.

  1. Nosferatu (1922)

    ‘The 1922 German film Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror is basically an unauthorized knock-off of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula. The filmmakers couldn’t get permission from the late Stoker’s estate to adapt the book, so they made certain changes. Instead of Count Dracula, the main villain is Count Orlok.

    The modern idea of vampires likely evolved from old European folklore. Before people understood how diseases spread, vampirism may have been a way to explain deaths from the plague, tuberculosis and other unseen maladies that ravaged communities. Different regions had different ways of stopping vampires. In Romania, one remedy was to cut out the heart of a suspected vampire (i.e., a cadaver) and burn it to ashes.’

  2. The Exorcist (1973)

    ‘In August 1949, The Washington Post ran at least two stories about a 14-year-old boy’s exorcism in Maryland. In one, the newspaper reported, “the boy broke into a violent tantrum of screaming, cursing and voicing of Latin phrases—a language he had never studied.” The story inspired author William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel The Exorcist, the basis for the 1973 film in which a young Linda Blair projectile-vomits pea soup.

    In reality, the boy who inspired Blair’s character was probably troubled, not possessed. A Marylander named Mark Opsasnick who didn’t buy the story investigated it and published his findings in Strange Magazine in 1999. Opsasnick identified the boy in the story and interviewed people who’d known him (though he did not release the boy’s name), and concluded the boy likely had psychological problems and was mimicking the priest’s Latin.’

  3. The Amityville Horror (1979)

    ‘On November 13, 1974, 23-year-old Ronald “Butch” DeFeo Jr. murdered his entire family in their sleep. One year later, the Lutz family purchased the house in Amityville, New York where the horror took place.

    Parents George and Kathy Lutz then claimed they experienced shocking paranormal phenomena in the house: green slime oozing from the walls, a creature with red eyes and multiple family members levitating in their beds. The claims appeared in Jay Anson’s 1977 book The Amityville Horror, which inspired the 1979 movie of the same title, which inspired many more movies.

    Butch DeFeo’s lawyer later admitted that he, George and Kathy had “created this horror story over many bottles of wine.” Even so, the tale raised the profile of Ed and Lorriane Warren, a couple who got involved with the Amityville story and helped promote it.’

  4. The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

    ‘In 1985, a white American graduate student named Wade Davis published a book with an extremely long title: The Serpent and the Rainbow: A Harvard Scientist's Astonishing Journey into the Secret Societies of Haitian Voodoo, Zombies, and Magic.

    In it, Davis claimed he’d discovered that secret Haitian societies used tetrodotoxin, a toxin found in puffer fish, to trick people into thinking they’d died and come back to life as zombies from Haitian folklore. Many other scientists denounced Davis’ claim as bunk, including tetrodotoxin expert C.Y. Kao, who called it “a carefully planned, premeditated case of scientific fraud.”

    The story grabbed the attention of horror filmmaker Wes Craven, who adapted the book into the 1988 film The Serpent and the Rainbow starring Bill Pullman as a Harvard researcher based on Davis. Writing in a 1989 issue of Latin American Anthropology Review, anthropologist Robert Lawless seemed to consider this fitting, since the book already read “like the first draft for a Hollywood movie with Davis himself as an Indiana-Jones-type hero.”

  5. The Haunting in Connecticut (2009)

    Remember Ed and Lorraine Warren, the ghost hunters from Amityville? A decade after Amityville, they became involved with the Snedeker family. Parents Allen and Carmen Snedeker claimed they’d experienced paranormal phenomena at the Connecticut house they rented in 1986. Most shockingly, both parents claimed demons had raped them.

    “Part of the modus operandi of the Warrens was to solicit help in publicizing these stories,” Radford explains. The Warrens hired a horror novelist named Ray Garton to write a book about the Snedekers’ haunting, but Garton soon “realized that a lot of the information wasn’t making sense," Radford says.

    Garton objected to his publisher’s decision to sell the 1992 book In a Dark Place: The Story of a True Haunting as non-fiction, and admitted the story wasn’t true. In 2009, a movie inspired by the Snedeker case called The Haunting in Connecticut came out. “I suspect the movie will begin with the words: ‘Based on a true story,’” Garton told Horror Bound magazine at the time. “Be warned: Just about anything that begins with any variation of this phrase is trying a little too hard to convince you of something that probably isn't true.”’

  6. The Conjuring (2013), et al.

    ‘Ed and Lorriane Warren promoted so many hauntings during their decades-long careers that they became horror movie characters themselves. Actors Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga have portrayed the couple in The Conjuring (2013), The Conjuring 2 (2016), The Nun (2018) and Annabelle Comes Home (2019), and will appear again in The Conjuring 3 (2020).

    The first Conjuring movie is about the Perron family, who claimed in the early 1970s that spirits were haunting their Rhode Island house. The film also references a previous Warren case about a supposedly haunted doll, which inspired the spin-off movies Annabelle (2014), Annabelle: Creation (2017) and Annabelle Comes Home. The second Conjuring opens with the Amityville haunting, then moves on to the Warrens’ involvement with the Enfield poltergeist outside London in the late ‘70s. This sequel also features a demon nun inspired by a spirit Lorraine claimed had haunted her home (this led to the spin-off The Nun).’

You can rest a little easier this Halloween knowing now the back story to these classic horror tales. If historical accuracy, folklore, or even our understanding of society and how we’ve come to be interests you, than maybe you would enjoy studying History. To learn more about why you should study history, visit our Why should I study history page. If you’re interested in visiting and exploring the sites where these horror films are based off, then check out our study destinations around the world on our Universities by Country page.

To learn more about the origin of these horror stories, check out the full article. Happy Halloween, and don’t forget to check under your bed before you go to sleep!


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