Once again, I find myself looking into the stories that inspired various horror films as part of my increasingly bad decisions to read weird and unexplainable stuff before trying to sleep. The term ‘based on a true story’ or ‘inspired by true events’ can cover a pretty wide base. It doesn’t necessarily mean the film is an accurate retelling of those events. Sometimes the link is tenuous at best. This time, I’ve found some films that tell stories that have more basis in history than most that carry the ‘this happened, honest’ tagline.
Spoiler Warning: Contains plot synopses for the films tagged.
The Vanishing (2018)
The Film: Three Lighthouse keepers Donald, Thomas, and James tend the Flannan Isles Lighthouse when a storm blows a boat featuring seemingly lifeless man and mysterious chest onto one of their landings. As the keepers do their thing, seemingly lifeless man becomes actually lifeless man after regaining consciousness, attacking Donald who bashes his head in for his trouble. They discover that the chest is filled with solid gold and decide to hide it and split it between them, even after the dead man’s crewmates come looking for it. Ultimately, only Thomas survives, sailing off into the distance with the gold.
The True Story: The Flannan Isle Lighthouse Keepers
The Flannan Isle Lighthouse is based at the island of Eilean Mòr off the West Coast of Scotland. On the 15th December 1990, a steamer that had made its way through the bad weather to the mainland reported that the light at the lighthouse wasn’t lit. It was not until the 26th December that the weather calmed enough for the relief keeper, Joseph Moore, to make his way over to the island.
When he arrived none of the three keepers (Donald, Thomas, and James) were there to greet him. The captain of the boat that had taken him over attempted to summon them with flares and whistles but to no avail. Moore went up and found no sign of the keepers within the lighthouse either. Nor did he find any sign as to what might have happened to them. Inside the lighthouse, one set of oilskins had been left behind suggesting that if one of the men had left his post, he’d done so without his coat which was unusual in itself given the winter storms. While waiting for an investigator, Moore and a couple of volunteers scoured the island and the lighthouse but no sign of the three men or what might have happened to them were found.
Speculation grew after the discovery of unusual log entries referring to almost supernatural storms though these were later revealed to be fictional. In the end, it was concluded that two of the keepers had been attempting to secure equipment and the third had seen an approaching wave from the lighthouse. Leaving in just the clothes he was wearing, he ran to warn them, only for all three to perish in the bad weather. However, no bodies were ever discovered one way or another, the weather wasn’t considered to have been bad enough to warrant such an accident, and as all three were experienced lighthouse keepers, it would have been an unusual sequence of events that could catch all of them unaware.
It has been over a hundred years since the keepers vanished and there’s still no satisfactory explanation as to what happened to them. The island itself is considered haunted by the locals, who would take their sheep to graze there but refuse to stay the night. As he ascended to the lighthouse, Moore recalled that he was struck with a deep sense of foreboding. Subsequent keepers who have maintained the lighthouse have spoken of hearing voices, calling out the names of the missing men in the night.
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (2021)
The Film: In 1981, demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren witness the exorcism of eight year old David Glatzel. During the exorcism, the demon possessing David leaves and enters the body of his sister’s boyfriend, Arne Johnson. Under the influence of the demon, Johnson goes on to murder his landlord. When arrested, with the assistance of the Warrens, he lodges a plea of not guilty by dint of being possessed by a demon.
The Warrens go on to investigate David’s original possession which leads them to a demonic cult and a cursed totem being passed around. They end the curse, banishing the demons, and Arne serves five years in prison for manslaughter.
The True Story: The Trial of Arne Johnson
On February 16th 1981 Arne Johnson and a group of friends, including his landlord, Alan Bono, went out for a lunch which featured copious amounts of alcohol. Later in the day, an altercation began between Johnson and Bono which resulted in Johnson stabbing Bobo several times with a pocketknife. The Police Chief in charge of investigating said at the time; “It was not an unusual crime. Somebody got angry, an argument resulted.”
The day after the stabbing, Lorraine Warren called the police department and told them that Johnson hadn’t been responsible for the attack. She claimed he’d been possessed seven months earlier and it had been the demon that had killed Bono, not Johnson. The authorities were hesitant to accept such a plea. Aside from the issue of claiming that a demon had committed murder, the Warrens had also been promised extensive media deals for their story of the initial possession and the subsequent murder which created something of a conflict of interest.
According to the Warrens, they’d been involved with the exorcism of eleven year old David Glatzel. The Warrens claimed to have been invited by the Glatzel family to assist with diagnosing their son David, who they felt was possessed. After moving into a new rental home, the Glatzels began to experience paranormal phenomena centred around David who claimed to see an old man around the place. David began having nightmares based on the old man and exhibiting inexplicable scratches and injuries. David’s sister, Debbie, was in a relationship with Johnson and the two of them claimed that David could speak in several voices in languages that he couldn’t have known. Lorraine Warren said that she’d seen David levitate on one occasion and that he’d foretold the murder that Johnson would eventually commit.
The Warrens diagnosed David as being possessed by forty-three demons and attempted to exorcise him. Lorraine asserted that they did so with the full support of the Catholic Church who witnessed the same occurrences as they did. A representative of the Catholic Church denied these claims however, saying that the Glatzels hadn’t allowed David to be professionally assessed, and no exorcisms had been performed. The Warrens and Johnson referred to an exorcism where Johnson had challenged the demon to possess him instead. Apparently, the demon had accepted and Johnson had shown similar behaviour to David, though David’s ordeal hadn’t ended.
The authorities refused to accept the plea of demonic possession given that it couldn’t be empirically proven one way or another. As a result, the notion of possession wasn’t admitted into court and the jury heard how Johnson had acted in self-defence for which Johnson served five years. He, Debbie, and the Warrens maintained their story of demonic possession, however other family members claimed that the Warrens had exploited David’s untreated psychosis to sell their story of possession.
The Film: Sarah Winchester’s late husband leaves her a fortune and the majority share in his company, the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. Knowing herself to be haunted by the sprits of those killed by her husband’s weapons, Sarah uses the money to fund an extensive housing project. The house is re-constructed and expanded so as to trap and confuse the spirits that follow her. Her niece Marion and Marion’s son live with her but one of the ghosts possesses him nightly.
A doctor arrives to assess Sarah’s ability to retain control of the company given her increasing preoccupation with spirits. The doctor expects to find her insane but instead witnesses proof of the hauntings. Sarah reveals that by expanding the house she can trap and secure the spirits, and the doctor declares her sane after assisting her in dealing with the particularly vicious spirit possessing Marion’s son.
The True Story: The Winchester Mystery House
Sarah Winchester did indeed inherit a fortune and shares in the Winchester company from her late husband which left her one of the wealthiest women in America. Her husband was the last in a string of losses she suffered. Shortly before losing her husband she’d lost her mother and father in law. Many years earlier, her daughter had died at just a month old. Shortly after losing her husband, she was contacted by a medium who assured her she was communing with his spirit. She told Sarah that she was haunted by the spirits of those who had died because of her husband’s weapons and encouraged her to build a house that would confuse them and thus protect her.
Whether or not Sarah actually believed herself to be haunted, she moved to California where she began renovating a farmhouse into what is now known as the Winchester Mystery House. The house was never completed and still being added to at the time of Sarah’s death. Rather than hire an architect to oversee the construction of the house, she had rooms expanded and added in an ad hoc fashion which resulted in an unusual layout and several routes that lead nowhere. There were false toilets to confuse the spirits and Sarah slept in a different room every night. While the house showcases a number of supernatural elements it’s also interesting architecturally and can still be visited today.
The Film: A schoolgirl called Veronica loses her father and decides that she wants to contact him via an Ouija board. With some friends she conducts a séance during an eclipse. The board responds but the glass they’re using as a planchette becomes too hot to touch. It eventually smashes from the heat, cutting Veronica in the process. From that point on Veronica is haunted by the demon they summoned. Alienated from her friends, Veronica seeks advice from the school’s resident blind nun, Sister Death.
The nun warns her to protect her siblings but the demon thwarts Veronica in all her attempts. Eventually, she comes to realize that she’s been possessed by the demon the whole time and that it was her hurting her siblings. Veronica and her siblings perform another séance which goes as wrong as her first one. With the demon running amok in her home, Veronica calls the police who arrive in time to witness all manner of paranormal activity. Veronica and her siblings are taken to the hospital while the police attempt to make sense of what they’ve seen. As a photograph of Veronica catches fire, the lead detective is informed that she has died.
The True Story: The Vallecas Case
The story of Veronica is based on an actual case involving Estefania Gutierraz. When I wrote part 1 of movies ‘based on a true story…’ I said that dramatizing horror stories usually ended up more marketable and less terrifying than what actually happened and this is definitely one of those cases. In the spring of 1990 Estefania and her friends decided to use an Ouija board to hold a séance while at school. A teacher came across them and ended the séance by breaking the board in half. The friends and the teacher claimed to have seen smoke come from the broken board which Estefania inhaled.
From that point on, Estefania was the victim of increasingly bizarre and unexplained events. She seemed to suffer from insomnia, seizures and hallucinations centred on shadows calling to her. Soon, the rest of the family began to hear things and see things they couldn’t explain though Estefania remained the focus of the attention. Her parents took her to several doctors who found no sign of anything wrong even though by this point the seizures had become quite intense.
Estefania also became increasingly violent and was known to attack her siblings. After a particularly vicious attack on her sister in July 1991, Estefania had a seizure from which she didn’t recover. Admitted to hospital in a coma, she died in the night with the cause of death noted as sudden, suspicious, and unexplained.
The strange activity didn’t cease with Estefania’s death though. The family continued to suffer in the years that followed. They were assailed with constant banging on the walls and the sound of Estefania screaming in the apartment. Objects were thrown around the room and broken. Estefania’s siblings were attacked by unseen forces while they slept, and on one occasion a photograph of Estefania spontaneously combusted burning away everything but the image of her face.
In November 1992, the family were finally driven from their home by the strange occurrences and called the police. Five officers and a detective arrived to find the family waiting for them outside in the rain, rather than remain indoors. In what remains the only instance of the paranormal being documented in an official police report, the police actually corroborated what the family described. Unable to offer any explanation for what they experienced, the police officers and the detective all claimed to have witnessed strange and bizarre events. Locked doors were swung open without warning. One of the officers was assaulted. They all clearly heard screaming and banging but could find no cause of it. Four of the officers decided they were done and left the house leaving just one with the detective. They found a crucifix that they had seen just a moment ago bolted to the wall, lying on the floor with claw marks gouging at the wall where it had stood. The temperature dropped significantly as they investigated and they heard whispering with no source. Ultimately, they submitted a report saying they couldn’t explain what was happening but that something was happening.
Eventually, the family moved away and the strange activity didn’t follow them. Nor did it stick around to trouble the new tenants of the family’s apartment.