Halloween! One year I will write up the history of Halloween and where we get our notions of the devil and demon worship from when it is derived from a combination of Pagan celebrations, Celtic customs and the Church feast of All Hallows Eve. None of which are particularly big on devil worship. But that year is not this year, and having exhausted my knowledge on Tudor ghosts I turn to the next big thing that interests me; “Based on a True Story.”
October traditionally brings with it a glut of horror films. Sometimes, some of them are even passable! But a common theme in horror films is the tagline; “Based on a True Story.” If you were cognisant in 1999 you may remember the successful viral marketing for The Blair Witch Project (1999). Billed as a true story the media campaign focused on how the actors had gone missing during filming and the found footage was exactly that. In essence, you were apparently watching the actual footage of something that actually happened rather than a film. Of course, this was not the case, but it was an interesting and, at the time, quite a novel idea. It was so convincing many filmgoers thought that the actors had died, and there was backlash when it was revealed it had all been fabricated.
To further the idea that the film was legitimate, it was apparently based on the true story of the Blair Witch. This was presented as a folk tale and further legitimised by a mockumentary released before the film. In truth, the myth of the Blair Witch was created by the filmmakers, so there really wasn’t anything of the piece based on a true story at all. Despite that, even though there had been many more films based on an actual true story or inspired by, at the very least, before (and after) The Blair Witch Project, it remains one of the most popular examples.
“Based on a True Story,” can cover a multitude of sins. As with The Blair Witch Project, it can refer to the true myth which itself was fictionalised. Rarely does it mean that the film is projecting actual events, instead it usually refers to films that have been inspired by events or experiences and sufficiently dramatised to make it marketable. Of course, some of them are based on a true story and manage to make a film less interesting and less terrifying than the original story. Kudos to them.
The Possession (2012)
The Film: After acquiring an old wooden box from a yard sale, a young girl is possessed by the violent spirit within it. The spirit is identified as a ‘dybbuk and the only way to save the girl is to return the spirit to the box. After usual horror film fare, the ritual to return the spirit is successful, but the box is lost, waiting to come into contact with the next person it can possess.
The True Story: “The Dybbuk Box”
Appearing in an eBay listing in 2004, the Dybbuk (or Dibbuk) Box is an old wine cabinet potentially possessed by a dybbuk (a malevolent spirit which appears in Jewish mythology). The box had originally been owned by a Polish Jew who purchased it in Spain while fleeing the Holocaust. The lady emigrated to America where the box remained with her until her family sold it at a yard sale where the eBay seller acquired it. The seller reported unsettling experiences relating to the box as soon as he took it to his furniture refinishing business. He intended to refinish it as a gift for his mother, but events overtook them. When examining the box, the seller’s mother suffered a stroke and the box was passed around various family members who all returned it for different reasons, citing strange occurrences that happened as soon as they took possession of the box. The box was sold through the seller’s shop and returned for having “a bad darkness.” The seller took the box to his house where events became stranger. The seller and visitors to the house reported having the same nightmares and waking up with bruises, they started seeing shadows moving out of the corner of their eye, smells of cat urine and jasmine flowers permeated the house, and when the seller attempted to keep the box in a storage unit the smoke alarm went off despite a conspicuous lack of fire.
The box was sold to a college student and the strange experiences continued. Electrical items shorted out frequently and for no reason, insects and bugs appeared around the box and the student and his room-mates started falling ill with mysterious ailments. When the student began hallucinating he sold it on. The box was bought by its current owner, Jason Haxton who has written a book about his experiences with it. As the director of a local medical museum, Haxton attempted to scientifically explain the odd occurrences that seemed to center on the box. Once again electronics began malfunctioning, those around it fell ill with mysterious illnesses and when Haxton returned the box to his home, he started having the same nightmares that the others had previously reported. The box can now be viewed at The Haunted Museum in Las Vegas.
The Amityville Horror (1979)
The Film: (There have been many films based on this particular haunting but I’ma stick with the original). A year after Ronald DeFeo Jr murders his entire family at their home in Amityville, New York, a young married couple, George and Kathy Lutz, move into the house with Kathy’s three children. They unsuccessfully try to have the house blessed, and strange things begin happening. The couple starts having nightmares about the murders, while George (who bears a resemblance to DeFeo) consistently wakes up at 3:15 am to check the boathouse. Discovering the house is built atop a Native American burial ground and it had once been owned by a Satan worshipper, the family flee the house and take to another state.
The True Story: “The Amityville Horror”
The film dramatises events from the book, ‘The Amityville Horror‘ which in turn had been dramatised from the accounts of George and Kathy Lutz. The house in question had indeed been the scene of a killing spree when Ronald DeFeo Jr murdered his mother, father, and siblings, for which he is still serving his sentence. A little over a year after the murders George and Kathy Lutz moved into the house with Kathy’s children, aware of the gruesome history. They remained in the house for only twenty-eight days before they abandoned it for Kathy’s mother’s house, selling the house and their possessions for a loss from a distance; they never returned to the house after the night they fled.
Until their deaths in 2004 and 2006 respectively Kathy and George Lutz maintained their story, as do their children, that they had been driven from the house by paranormal experiences, though they admitted that their story had been embellished by Jay Anson (the author of the book). Among the unexplained occurrences were the obligatory strange odours, cold spots, noises and furniture slamming. They also found fly infestations (despite the cold season), were plagued by nightmares about the murders that occurred in the house and George would wake up consistently at 3:15 (the time of the murders) and be compelled to check the boathouse. Although they fled the house they said in interviews that they were followed by the malevolent entity, something which demonologist Lorraine Warren (remember her name – she’s going to appear again) claimed was possible, as the spirit was not bound to the house itself.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)
The Film: Focusing on the trial of the priest who performs the exorcism on Emily Rose, the horror of her experiences are shown through flashbacks as the witnesses relate their testimonies. Emily, a Catholic in a small town in America, starts experiencing strange phenomena when she leaves home and begins a university course. Diagnosed with epilepsy, Emily continues to deteriorate having hallucinations and contorting. She returns home and with her family decide to undergo an exorcism as her medical treatment is having no effect. During the exorcism, it is revealed she is possessed by six demons. When the exorcism fails, Emily dies soon after and the priest in charge of the exorcism is tried for causing her death through negligence.
The True Story: Anneliese Michel
In 1968 aged 16, German Catholic Anneliese Michel suffered her first seizure. This in itself would not have been particularly remarkable, had her seizures not been central to her condition and later her exorcism. By 1970 Michel was undergoing treatment at a psychiatric hospital after she began hallucinating and seeing ‘devil faces’. Initially diagnosed with epilepsy, Anneliese was later diagnosed with various psychoses as her condition worsened. She could not pray without hallucinating or hearing voices and told doctors she was damned. She could not enter a church and her aversion to religious objects led herself and her family believe that she was possessed. Initially, the church refused the family’s request for an exorcism, but Anneliese continued to deteriorate. Now at home, she was aggressive, prone to injuring herself and would eat insects off the floor. She was underweight and she would eventually break her knees from being repeatedly ‘thrown down’ by an unknown force.
Two priests were given permission to perform the exorcism rites after Anneliese reacted with extreme aggression to a command one of the priests thought, rather than said. The exorcisms were performed over a period of ten months in 1975-1976. They recorded their attempts and their tapes were used as evidence, apparently demonstrating the various demons within Anneliese arguing with each other. They believed the exorcism to be ultimately successful, but Anneliese’s health had deteriorated to such an extent that she died shortly afterward.
The Haunting in Connecticut (2009)
The Film: A family moves into a house that used to be a funeral home complete with mortuary…and it goes from there. One of the family begins experiencing visions and exhibiting strange behaviour before it is discovered the previous owner dabbled in psychic research, seances and hid bodies in the walls for good measure. The family is tormented by demonic spirits until they can combat them with the assistance of a helpful ghost.
The True Story: “In a Dark Place: The Story of a True Haunting” (1992)
Horror novelist Ray Garton wrote the non-fiction In a Dark Place… (and later distanced himself very, very far from it) based on the accounts of Al and Carmen Snedeker who co-authored it, along with input from the paranormal investigator Lorraine Warren (the same Warren who investigated Amityville). The Snedeker family moved into an old Connecticut house in 1986 and soon discovered that one of the rooms had once been a mortuary; this led them to find the house used to be a funeral home. The family then began to see ghosts around the place, have visions even claimed to have been sexually assaulted by spirits. Against the backdrop of mop water turning to blood, strange noises, lights flickering despite a lack of light bulbs present, the Snedeker’s found all manner of artifacts relating to the house’s previous life. Eventually, they called in the Warrens to investigate the house. Lorraine and her husband Ed (also an investigator) lived in the house with the Snedeker’s for several weeks, confirming the house was infested by demons. It was suggested that the undertakers had engaged in necrophilia which explained the violence of the spirits, and they were laid to rest after the Warrens exorcised the house.
An American Haunting (2005)
The Film: In the modern day a mother gets her daughter ready to visit her father, before sitting down to read some letters and journalists apparently written by her ancestors. The documents tell the story of the Bell family who owned a farm in the 19th century. John Bell, the father, is found to have stolen land belonging to a woman known in their village for witchcraft. Shortly afterwards strange events begin to occur centering on John and his daughter Betsy. It transpires that the spirit is actually a manifested by Betsy to punish her father for sexually assaulting her. When Betsy kills her father the haunting stops, but the spirit appears once more in the modern day, beseeching the mother to not send her daughter off with her father.
The True Story: “The Bell Witch”
The Bell Witch was a spirit which haunted the Bell family from 1817-1821 at their home in Adams, Tennessee. The haunting began when the family began seeing apparitions of strange animals around their farm. This was followed by strange sounds within the home before members of the family felt that they were being slapped or pinched. Initially, the family kept their experiences to themselves, but after the events continued John Bell invited a family friend to spend some time with them and verify the haunting. After he experienced the spirit for himself, others in the community and beyond began visiting the farm to see if they too would see signs of a ghost. The spirit obliged and eventually was able to speak, having conversations with visitors and able to answer questions no normal person would have been able to know.
The spirit became known as a witch after she referred to herself as, “Kate Batt’s witch,” and had a particular hatred for John Bell, whom she frequently threatened to kill. She also opposed his daughter’s Betsy’s engagement but was happy enough when she married elsewhere. Eventually, John Bell died, apparently poisoned by the witch and she celebrated throughout his funeral. After Betsy’s engagement fell through she departed promising to return in 1828, a promise she honoured before departing again. She was supposed to return in 1935, but many believe she hadn’t actually left at all.