The Real-Life Inspirations Behind Horror Movies

horror movies feature

Truth is Stranger Than Fiction

Horror movies are one of the most popular genres of film today – people love to be scared, it seems, and have been since the golden age of horror began in the late 60s. But there’s only so much creative license that can be taken, and the truth is always stranger than fiction. Horror movies based on true stories are not rare, but the number of alterations made to make a story scarier or more believable varies from film to film. 

Please note that this article contains spoilers for the films within.

Psycho (1960)

Exploring the blackness of the unconscious man!

Considering that it’s one of the most iconic horror films ever made, you’re all probably pretty familiar with Psycho. The film follows Marion Crane (played by Janet Leigh), who decides to stay at the remote Bates Motel after stealing a large sum of money from her employer. She has dinner with the owner of the hotel, Norman Bates (played by Anthony Perkins), who confides in her about how his overbearing mother controls his life and refuses to allow him to interact with women. That night, while Marion is in the shower, someone stabs her to death. As the film progresses, Lila, Marion’s sister (played by Vera Miles) discovers that Mrs. Bates has been dead for ten years, having been murdered by her lover in a presumed murder-suicide. 

Horrifically, Lila discovers that Norman had stolen his mother’s body and had been keeping her in the house, treating her as though she was still alive. Norman attempted to kill her while wearing a wig and his mother’s clothing as though he was attempting to be her. A psychiatrist explains at the end that Norman was really the one who killed his mother and her lover, and the guilt caused him to crack, recreating his mother as a second personality that murders any woman that Norman feels attracted to.

This film was based on a book by the same name by Robert Bloch, which was published in 1959. Bloch was inspired by the crimes of Ed Gein, a murderer who was caught in Wisconsin in 1957. Gein’s crimes were mostly necrophilia-related – he would dig up the corpses of women who resembled his overbearing mother and dismember them, making macabre household objects from their body parts. The most grotesque of his projects was a “woman suit” – a skin suit made from several different corpses that he intended to wear so that he could become his mother. Gein was eventually arrested after he was caught with the corpse of a woman he had murdered, a local woman named Bernice Worden. He was found mentally incompetent to stand trial in November 1957 and spent the rest of his life in a mental institution, dying of lung cancer in July of 1984.

Notably, Bloch decided to omit a lot of the more grisly details of the crimes, and instead focused on Gein’s pathological obsession with his mother, who died before his crimes began. Norman’s similarities to Gein are mostly psychological – like her real-life counterpart, Mrs. Bates was extremely domineering over her son, and her death devastated him. Both killers kept shrines to their mothers in their houses (though Norman is the only one who actually kept the intact corpse) and both were known to dress in women’s clothing in an attempt to become their mothers. However, Norman doesn’t seem to have the same fascination with body parts as Gein did.

Psycho isn’t the only film that Ed Gein inspired – his case would also be the catalyst behind The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Deranged (1974) – each film focuses on a different aspect of the case, though Deranged shares a lot of psychological qualities with Psycho. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre opted to include a lot more of the gruesome products of Gein’s insanity, most notably the flesh “masks” that Leatherface makes from his victims.

Watch Psycho 

Deviant: The Shocking True Story of Ed Gein, the Original Psycho by Harold Schecter (1998)

The Ed Gein File: A Psycho’s Confession and Case Documents by John Borowski (2016)

Watch The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 

Watch Deranged 

The Exorcist (1973)

Somewhere between science and superstition, there is another world. The world of darkness.

Arguably the most iconic supernatural film ever made, The Exorcist made its mark on the American psyche in 1973. The film, based on the novel by William Peter Blatty, chronicles the exorcism of 12-year-old Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair), who has been possessed by an ancient demon named Pazuzu (voiced by Mercedes McCambridge) after using a Ouija board to attempt to contact her imaginary friend. The events surrounding Regan are truly bizarre – she begins using obscene language, threatening guests, and exhibiting abnormal strength, all while poltergeist activity rages around her. After Regan murders a man who was babysitting her, her mother, Chris (Ellen Burstyn), eventually arranges a meeting with Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), a Jesuit priest who has been struggling with his faith due to the recent passing of his mother. Nonetheless, he agreed to meet with Regan, and upon seeing her, he immediately knew that she needed an exorcism.

The rest of the film chronicles a gruelling exorcism performed by Karras and a Catholic priest named Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow). The film eventually ends with Karras inviting the demon to possess him and committing suicide to defeat it.

Despite an obvious supernatural plotline, The Exorcist does have roots in a real-life occurrence. In 1949, an exorcism was performed on a young boy who is only known by a pseudonym – typically, he’s called “Roland Doe” or “Robbie Mannheim.” The boy’s family became concerned after he started exhibiting aggressive, odd behaviour and consulted a number of Catholic priests, who determined that he was possessed. The rite was performed by multiple priests, led by Father William S. Bowden, who had also taught at St. Louis University. This exorcism was one of only three that had been sanctioned by the Catholic Church in the US at the time, and the story attracted a lot of media attention, allowing Blatty to read about it and write his book.

Nowadays, analysis of the Roland Doe narrative has led many to believe that his behaviour was the result of mental illness and Doe acting out – evidence such as words carved in his skin could have been faked. Blatty changed several details, including the victim’s gender and age, for his narrative. 

Later, the film’s director, William Friedkin, admitted that he was reluctant to talk about the film’s factual basis, even though every event that could be verified by witnesses from the Roland Doe account was depicted in The Exorcist. This includes the absolutely terrifying “head-spinning” scene, which Friedkin believes didn’t actually happen, even though it appears in the diaries of priests, doctors, and nurses who were present at the 1949 exorcism.

Watch The Exorcist 

Confrontation with Evil: An In-Depth Review of the 1949 Possession That Inspired The Exorcist by Steven A. LaChance (2017)

Wondery Presents “Inside the Exorcist” (podcast)

The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

A nice American family. They didn’t want to kill. But they didn’t want to die.

This deeply disturbing, brutal film begins with a normal, suburban family on vacation. Bob (Russ Grieve) and Ethel Carter (Virginia Vincent) are travelling to LA from Ohio with their three children, Lynne (Dee Wallace), Bobby (Robert Houston) and Brenda (Susan Lanier), as well as Lynne’s husband Doug (Martin Speer) and infant daughter Katy (Brenda Marinoff). After a strange encounter with a gas station owner named Fred (John Steadman), the Carters suffer a car accident on a remote desert road and find themselves stranded. What happens next is straight out of nightmares – it turns out that this region of remote Nevada desert is occupied by a family of degenerate cannibals, headed by Fred’s son, Jupiter (James Whitworth). The family is sadistic and brutal, putting the Carters through unimaginable torture until the Carters manage to kill all except their daughter, Ruby (Janus Blythe). 

You would hope that this film wasn’t based on anything that actually happened, but unfortunately, you’d be wrong. Director Wes Craven was looking for a new movie to make when he went to the New York Public Library and looked up “terrible things.” He eventually came upon the Scottish legend of Alexander “Sawney” Bean, the head of a clan of 48 people who allegedly murdered and cannibalized over 1000 victims. According to the legends, Bean was the son of a ditch-digger who ran off with a woman named Black Agnes Douglas, who was an accused witch. The couple was already robbing and cannibalizing victims when they decided to make their home in a coastal cave at Bennane Head, between Girvan and Ballantrae. This cave was 182 meters deep and the entrance would have been blocked by water during high tide, making it the perfect place to hide. 

Sawney and Agnes had eight sons and six daughters; eventually, incestuous relationships between these children produced 32 grandchildren. The Bean clan’s only way of getting supplies was ambushing travellers, robbing them and killing them before cannibalizing their corpses. They even occasionally pickled their victims in barrels for later. In a bizarre twist, they would discard some parts into the sea so that they would wash up on beaches nearby, fooling nearby villages into thinking that animals and accidents were the cause of all the missing travellers. According to the legends, the Bean clan was so clandestinely hidden that all of the nearby villages had no idea that they even existed. As the disappearances mounted, several innocent men were lynched for the crimes, but search parties were also dispatched to attempt to find the culprits.

One night, the Bean clan ambushed a married couple riding from a fair on one horse, but the husband was able to fend them off with a sword and pistol. However, the Beans fatally mauled the wife after she fell off the horse. They were scared off by another large group of travellers, and these witnesses informed the local magistrate of the attack. The King (usually cited as King James VI of Scotland) decided to send out a search party of 400 men with bloodhounds to find the clan, and their hidden cave was finally discovered. In most narratives, the clan was arrested and executed without trial. However, some narratives state that the search party simply blew up the entrance of the cave with gunpowder, sealing the clan inside and suffocating them. It should be noted that, though this legend is very common in Scotland and many believe it as truth, it is difficult to verify if it really happened.

According to Craven, the most fascinating detail that drew him to the Bean legend was that after they were arrested, they were all executed via medieval torture methods of being quartered, burned, and hanged. He saw this treatment of the clan by the supposedly “civilized” authorities as a parallel to the clan’s own savagery and sought to echo this parallel in the film. He also took inspiration from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, linking the film to Ed Gein by association.

Watch The Hills Have Eyes 

Sawney Bean: Dissecting the Legend of the Scottish Cannibal by Blaine L. Pardoe (2014)

The Amityville Horror (1979)

Houses don’t have memories.

The Amityville Horror began as a book by Jay Anson, published in 1977. The film follows George (James Brolin) and Kathy Lutz (Margot Kidder), who move into a house in Amityville, New York with Kathy’s three children, Greg (K.C. Martel), Matt (Meeno Peluce) and Amy (Natasha Ryan). Little do they know, a mass murder had occurred in the home just one year before they moved in, and this event apparently invited something terrible into the home. The Lutz family begins experiencing horrifying phenomena – everything from unexplained illnesses to disembodied voices to a floating pig-like figure outside their daughter’s second-story window.

Upon investigating, the family discovers that Ronald DeFeo Jr. had murdered his entire family just the year before in the house, and additional research leads them to discover that the house is just the perfect storm of the paranormal – it’s built on a spot that was previously a burial ground for the Shinnecock reservation, and it was additionally the previous home of Jack Ketchum, a known worshiper of Satan. On a stormy night, the events come to a head with George Lutz attempting to kill the children with an axe while in a strange trance that Kathy just barely manages to snap him out of. The family drives away from the house and never returns.

As far as “based on a true story” horror films go, The Amityville Horror doesn’t deviate too far from its source material. The Lutz family as they appear in the film did exist – George and Kathy moved into 112 Ocean Avenue, a Dutch Colonial house situated in suburban Amityville in Long Island, New York in December 1975. They only stayed in the house for a total of 28 days before fleeing, claiming to have been terrorized by the paranormal while living there. They later discovered that the house had indeed been the site of mass murder just the year before they moved in.

On November 13, 1974, 23-year-old Ronald Joseph DeFeo Jr. ran into a bar called “Henry’s Bar” in Amityville at about 6:30 PM. He yelled “You got to help me! I think my mother and father are shot!” When a group of people followed DeFeo back to 112 Ocean Avenue, they discovered that his parents had indeed been shot, and were dead inside the house. Authorities later discovered that six members of the family were dead: Ronald Jr.’s parents, Ronald DeFeo Sr. and Louise DeFeo, and all four of his siblings – 18-year-old Dawn, 13-year-old Allison, 12-year-old Marc, and 9-year-old John Matthew. All of the victims had been shot with a .35 calibre rifle approximately 3 hours before Ronald Jr. ran to Henry’s Bar for help. Originally, Ronald Jr. was kept in police custody because he insinuated to police officers that his family had been murdered by a hitman for the local mob named Louis Falini. However, his interviews revealed a lot of inconsistent information within his stories, and he eventually confessed to killing his family. He said, “Once I started, I just couldn’t stop. It went so fast.” He was found guilty of six counts of second-degree murder on November 21, 1975 – just weeks before the Lutz family would move into his old family home. DeFeo is still alive and is held at the Sullivan Correctional Facility in Fallsburg, New York as of November 2020.

The Lutz family’s story quickly overshadowed the DeFeo case, and it was their narrative of paranormal terror that attracted the mass media attention that has led to the Amityville Horror film dynasty. Over the years, a lot of the claims presented in the original book by Jay Anson, as well as subsequent films and books, have been rejected or debunked by a variety of communities. Details such as the involvement of Father Pecoraro, physical damage to the house’s locks and doors, the “concealed” red room, and the house being built on top of a Shinnecock burial ground have been debunked by reputable sources and can be presumed false. However, George and Kathy Lutz maintain that the bulk of the tale is true, and they passed a polygraph test in June 1979. Notably, no subsequent owners of the house have reported any paranormal activity or strange happenings whatsoever.

Watch The Amityville Horror 

The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson (1978)

Debunking the Amityville Horror

The Entity

There is no escape from something you cannot see…

While this film is more obscure than some of the others on our list, it should not be missed. The film, originally a book published by Frank De Felitta in 1978, follows a single mother named Carla Moran (Barbara Hershey). While asleep in her home, an invisible entity rapes her violently, setting into motion a flurry of poltergeist-like activity in her home. Carla continues to undergo disturbing attacks at the hands of this presence, but the host of doctors and friends that she attempts to reach out to for help constantly dismiss her claims as symptoms of PTSD brought on by her childhood sexual and physical trauma. As the entity tears Carla’s life apart, she finally agrees to an elaborate experiment conducted by a pair of parapsychologists. The parapsychologists mock-up Carla’s home and trap the set with liquid helium jets, which they intend to use on the entity to freeze it and reveal its existence. This experiment eventually works, and the doctors who have been working with Carla are finally convinced that she’s been telling the truth. 

This film and Frank De Felitta’s origins book are based on the case of Doris Bither, also known as The Entity Haunting. The haunting occurred in Culver City, California in 1974, when Doris alleged that the ghosts of three men had been raping her. She eventually sought the help of two parapsychologists, Barry Taff and Kerry Gaynor. At the time, Barry Taff was working in the now-defunct parapsychology lab run by Thelma Moss. Their interviews with Doris revealed that she had a long history of physical abuse, substance abuse issues, and childhood trauma. They also noted that she had a rocky relationship with her four sons and that their home was in severe disrepair and had been condemned twice. Bither detailed two attacks – she said that the first time, she was raped by only one entity and that the second attack was by three entities. Taff photographed a number of luminous anomalies while he investigated Doris’ claims, and stated that the frequency of her attacks lessened with time. Doris Bither died in 1999 of pulmonary arrest, and the validity of her claims remains shrouded in mystery.

Watch The Entity

The Entity by Frank De Felitta (1979)

Based on a True Crime Podcast “The Entity & Doris Bither”

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Whatever you do, don’t fall asleep…

This member of horror film royalty begins with a nightmare – Tina Gray (Amanda Wyss) wakes up from a nightmare where she’s attacked by a man with burn scars who wears a glove that has four blades for fingers. As the film progresses, Tina’s best friend Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) is plagued by nightmares where she battles the man, who reveals himself as Freddy (Robert Englund). She eventually learns that Freddy Krueger was a psychopathic child killer who escaped jail on a technicality, but was later burned alive by vigilante parents. He’s now a vengeful ghost who operates in dreams to kill. The film ends with Freddy still on the loose, leaving the franchise to continue with nine total films, a TV series, and multiple novels and comic books. 

Wes Craven has stated that a lot of the film’s elements were taken from his childhood, but the big inspiration was several newspaper articles that were published in the LA Times in the 70s. The articles detailed a strange phenomenon that was occurring amongst Hmong refugees that had fled to the US from Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Victims of this strange affliction were plagued with nightmares and eventually refused to sleep; some would die in their sleep soon after the nightmares began. The medical field referred to the phenomenon as “Asian Death Syndrome”, and was known to occur in men between the ages of 19 and 57 within this specific refugee community. Contemporary doctors believed that the cases were either sudden unexplained death syndrome or Brugada syndrome, which is an anomaly of the heart rhythm that can often result in sudden death.

“It was a series of articles in the LA Times; three small articles about men from South East Asia, who were from immigrant families and had died in the middle of nightmares – and the paper never correlated them, never said, “Hey, we’ve had another story like this.” – Wes Craven on the news stories that inspired A Nightmare on Elm Street

Watch A Nightmare on Elm Street

“How a Terrifying Wave of Unexplained Deaths Led to ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street'” History.com article

Dead Ringers (1988)

Two bodies. Two minds. One soul…

Dead Ringers follows a pair of twin gynecologists, Elliot and Beverly Mantle (both portrayed by Jeremy Irons). They operate a very successful practice that specializes in fertility issues, but they use this practice to lure women in. Elliot is more confident and eternally more cynical, and he usually seduces women. When he gets tired of them, he simply lets Beverly sleep with them in his place, keeping the women in the dark that anything is amiss. While this situation is horrifying in its own way, it only gets darker from here.

Elliot eventually seduces an actress named Claire Niveau (Genevieve Bujold) and urges Beverly to begin sleeping with her as well. Beverly becomes attached to Claire and begins abusing prescription drugs with her. When Claire leaves town to work on a film, Beverly spirals into depression and deepens his abuse of prescription drugs, eventually resulting in paranoid delusions about “mutant women” with abnormal genitalia. He commissions a set of bizarre “gynecological instruments” to use on these “mutant women” and an incident in the operating room causes both brothers to lose their medical licenses. Eventually, the film ends with Beverly killing Elliot in the clinic, dying shortly after in his brother’s arms.

This film is mostly based on the deaths of Stewart and Cyril Marcus, who were real twin gynecologists that practiced together in New York City. Though little is known about their lives, and there’s no substantiation for the sexual switching that occurs in Dead Ringers, their deaths caused a lot of speculation. On July 17, 1975, both brothers were found dead in separate rooms of Cyril’s apartment in Manhattan. The apartment was filthy, and many suspected that mental illness played a role in their deaths, with the possibility of a suicide pact. Originally, it was assumed that both brothers died due to the symptoms of barbiturate withdrawal, but the final autopsy report excluded this as the cause of death. Stewart most likely died first, between July 10 and July 14; his cause of death was determined to be a barbiturate overdose. Cyril was last seen on July 14, and his time of death is presumed to be anywhere between then and July 17. Cyril’s cause of death remains unknown.

Watch Dead Ringers

Doubly Disturbing: The Marcus Twins’ Mysterious Suicide (The Lineup, 2015)

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

To enter the mind of a killer, she must challenge the mind of a madman.

Yet another entry from the annals of horror movie history, Silence of the Lambs chronicles Clarice Starling’s (Jodie Foster) battle of wits with cannibalistic serial killer and psychiatrist, Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). Starling is asked by Jack Crawford (Scott Glen), an agent for the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, to interview Lecter in relation to a series of gruesome murders by a killer they’ve dubbed “Buffalo Bill”, whose trademark is skinning his victims. Throughout the course of the film, Starling puts together the twisted trail of clues that Lecter is leaving her and eventually tracks down Buffalo Bill, a man named Jame Gumb (Ted Levine), killing him in self-defence. During his series of prison transfers in exchange for information, Hannibal Lecter escapes prison and is on the loose at the end of the film.

The Silence of the Lambs is unique in that it didn’t take inspiration from one crime or legend – rather, the film takes inspiration from multiple serial killers and real FBI agents. The relationship between Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter is based on the real-life meetings between criminology professor Robert Keppel and Ted Bundy. Buffalo Bill is a mixture between Ed Gein and Gary Heidnik – his quest to create a “woman suit” from the skin of his victims is essentially word-for-word what Gein was doing with the corpses he dug up from cemeteries. Bill’s penchant for keeping his victims in a dried-up well in his basement echoes the methods of Gary Heidnik, who held six women in a pit in his basement in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania between 1986 and 1987 for the purpose of raping and torturing them.

Watch The Silence of the Lambs

Terrible Secrets: Ted Bundy on Serial Murder by Robert D. Keppel (2011)

Cellar of Horror: The Story of Gary Heidnik by Ken Englade

Candyman (1992)

We dare you to say his name five times.

Candyman is the quintessential Chicago urban legend – according to schoolyard lore, if you say “Candyman” five times while looking in a mirror, you can summon this spectre, who will kill you with the hook attached to the stump of his right arm. Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) is skeptical about this legend, even when cleaning ladies from the notorious Cabrini-Green housing project tell her that the Candyman (Tony Todd) killed a resident there, a woman named Ruthie Jean. Helen begins writing her semiotics thesis about how the Candyman legend helps the residents of Cabrini-Green deal with the trauma and hardship of their lives, but things aren’t what they seem.

When Helen consults Professor Philip Purcell (Michael Culkin) about the subject, he tells her that the Candyman was the son of a slave that became wealthy by mass-producing shoes after the American Civil War. He was educated in high society and began to pursue his dreams of being an artist, painting portraits of wealthy landowners and their families. However, he fell in love with a white woman and fathered a child with her, enraging his lover’s father. The father hired a lynch mob to go after him – the mob cut off his right hand with a rusty saw before smearing him with honey that they’d stolen from a local apiary. The honey attracted a swarm of bees that stung him to death. Afterwards, the mob burned his body on a pyre and scattered the ashes – conveniently, these ashes were scattered on the very land where the Cabrini-Green housing project was later built.

Armed with the lore, Helen visits Cabrini-Green again, only to be attacked by a gang leader who uses a hook and has adopted the moniker of “Candyman.” She gets away and reports the attacker to the police, believing that this gang leader is the real killer and that the legend is false. What follows is a brutal string of slashings by the real Candyman, who frames Helen for the crimes before he decides to change his tune and offer her immortality, ostensibly because Helen looks exactly like his lover whose father set the lynch mob on him. In the end, the Candyman attempts to burn Helen and a kidnapped baby alive in a bonfire but destroys himself in it instead. Helen saves the baby but dies herself, and the end of the film features her as the new spectre in the mirror.

While the schoolyard legend of the Candyman and his twisted, terrifying backstory was entirely invented by Hollywood, there are a lot of elements of this film that was influenced by a real crime that occurred in a Chicago housing project in 1987. It didn’t occur in the notorious Cabrini-Green, but instead in the Grace Abbott Homes. 

57-year-old Ruth “Ruthie” May McCoy called 911 at 8:45 pm on April 22, 1987, pleading for help because someone was attempting to enter her apartment. Bizarrely, the intruder wasn’t banging on the door or prying open a window – instead, Ruth told the dispatcher that someone was attempting to enter her apartment through her bathroom mirror. The operator mostly disregarded her panicked pleas, noting the call down as a “disturbance with a neighbour.” However, two more calls came in shortly after, between 8:50 pm and 9:04 pm. Multiple neighbours of Ruth’s apartment had heard screams and gunshots coming from her unit. Police were dispatched and arrived fairly quickly, but bizarrely, they simply knocked on the door. When they received no answer, they opted not to knock the door down and instead asked the operator to call Ruth’s apartment again to try and get ahold of her while the building’s maintenance man went to find a spare key. When they couldn’t reach Ruth and found that the key they had didn’t work, they made a baffling decision – they just left, without checking to see if Ruth was OK on the other side of the door. 

This sort of police neglect occurred again the next day when yet another concerned neighbour contacted police because she hadn’t seen or heard from Ruth since April 22, and this neighbour requested a welfare check. The police attended the apartment again, this time with security guards from the Chicago Housing Authority, which owned the project. They again knocked on the door and called out for Ruth, but there was no answer. The police officers on this call were more proactive and suggested breaking the door down, but infuriatingly, the CHA security guards cautioned them against this action because there was a possibility that Ruth could sue them for breaking the door if they did so. The next day, April 24, someone competent finally showed up to check on Ruth – an official from the CHA arrived with a carpenter, who drilled the lock off of Ruth’s door and allowed them to enter the apartment. Horrifically, Ruth had been lying on her bedroom floor since the night of April 22. She had been shot four times. 

When authorities searched the apartment for clues, they discovered that Ruth’s new TV and rocking chair were missing. And bizarrely, Ruth’s bathroom mirror and the cabinet that it was mounted on were found smashed on the floor of the bathroom. Behind it, there was a hole that led into a crawl space that ran between the apartments. Police entered the vacant apartment next door to Ruth’s and pulled the bathroom mirror off the wall to reveal an identical hole, through which you could see right into Ruth’s bathroom. The intruder really had come through Ruth’s bathroom mirror. According to other Cabrini-Green residents, this was a well-known structural issue with the building, and many residents had been begging the CHA to secure the space, to no avail. In the face of intruders and thieves coming in through their mirrors, many people would barricade their bathrooms at night or when they left the house. 

Eventually, two people were arrested for Ruth May McCoy’s murder – 18-year-old Edward Turner and 21-year-old John Hondras were allegedly seen carrying Ruth’s TV and chair through the building on the night of her murder, and they were known to occasionally hang out in the vacant apartment next door to her unit, which would have given them access to the crawlspace behind the bathroom mirror. However, the police’s inaction on the day of the crime and in the days following had allowed whoever killed Ruth to clean up the crime scene, and there was no physical evidence recovered from her apartment. The charges against Turner and Hondras were eventually dropped, and the murder of Ruth May McCoy remains unsolved to this day.

But what does Ruth have to do with the Candyman? According to the film’s director, the main inspiration for the film was Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden”, but there were no mirrors or any Bloody Mary-type urban lore included in that story. It’s thought that director Bernard Rose’s decision to move the story from Clive Barker’s original Liverpool setting to Chicago and to use the film to illustrate class and race issues in Chicago’s projects that spurred him to draw further inspiration from Ruth May McCoy’s murder, especially the detail of the intruder entering through the bathroom mirror. McCoy is also honoured in the names of the film’s first victim, Ruthie Jean, and the mother of the abducted baby, Anne-Marie McCoy.

Watch Candyman

That’s Spooky Episode 126 – Deep Dishin’ (podcast episode)

Fire in the Sky

Alien Abduction

November 5, 1975

5:49 PM

White Mountains, Northeastern Arizona

OK, technically this one is a sci-fi film, but we dare you to watch it without being traumatized. Fire in the Sky chronicles the alien abduction of Travis Walton, a logger working in Snowflake, Arizona. When he sees a UFO while driving home from work with his coworkers, he exits the truck to investigate and is immediately struck by a beam of light. His coworkers flee and report the incident to the local sheriff, who instead believes that foul play might have occurred instead. Five days later, Walton turns up, naked, dehydrated, and almost incoherent at a gas station in Heber, Arizona. Walton suffers flashbacks recounting a horrifying experience aboard an extraterrestrial ship, in which he wakes up in a gelatinous cocoon and discovers that an adjacent cocoon contains a decomposing human corpse. He attempts to escape the ship but is caught by the aliens and subjected to horrifying experiments before waking up back on Earth. The film leaves the truth of these claims shadowed in mystery – while Walton and his coworkers pass polygraph tests and appear to be truthful, the sheriff believes that Walton is simply trying to profit from a sensational story.

This absolutely horrific recounting of alien abduction is based on a real account – Travis Walton is a real person, and he originally published a book called The Walton Experience in 1978. His case is one of the most widely-publicized UFO abduction stories, though many skeptics believe it to be a hoax. You’ll be glad to hear that the abduction scenes depicted in Fire in the Sky bear absolutely no resemblance to Walton’s own recollections – the film’s director dubbed his story “boring” and insisted on changing it to make it more sensational.

In Walton’s recollection, there are no slimy cocoons, decomposing corpses, or torturous experiments. Instead, he says that he woke up in a room that reminded him of a hospital, being observed by three short, bald creatures. He claims that he fought with these creatures until a human wearing a helmet entered the room and led him away to another room, where three other humans put a mask over his face to anesthetize him. Five days after his disappearance, he found himself walking along a highway.

Watch Fire in the Sky

Travis – The True Story of Travis Walton (2016)

Fire in the Sky: The Walton Experience by Travis Walton (1978)

Scream (1996)

Someone has taken their love of scary movies one step too far. Solving this mystery is going to be murder.

Wes Craven is at it again with yet another entry in the upper echelons of horror movie history. The film is meant to subvert various horror movie tropes, and it begins with a teenage girl named Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore). Casey is home alone when she receives a phone call – initially, the voice on the other end is flirty, but they soon turn dark, threatening her life and telling her that they have her boyfriend Steve (Kevin Patrick Walls) hostage. The voice on the other end tells Casey that if she doesn’t answer questions about horror films correctly, he will kill Steve. Casey eventually gets one wrong, and the kidnapper murders Steve – when Casey refuses to keep playing the game, a masked man comes to her house and kills her, hanging her corpse from a tree.

The film then goes on to chronicle the ordeal of a group of teens who are targeted by the same masked killer who taunts them with phone calls, attacks them in their homes, and occasionally frames them for the murders he commits. The main protagonist, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), navigates a twisted web of attacks and suspicion, eventually finding out that her boyfriend Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich) has been the killer all along. Billy reveals himself as a psychopath who has been killing for much longer than the events of the film, and that he’s responsible for Sidney’s mother’s murder. After this revelation, Sidney murders Billy.

Scream started as a script called Scary Movie by Kevin Williamson. Willamson states that he was originally inspired by a news story about the Gainesville Ripper, AKA Danny Rolling. Rolling was on a killing spree in August 1990, killing five college students in Gainesville, Florida over a period of four days. It began on August 24 when Rolling broke into an apartment that was occupied by Sonja Larson and Christina Powell, two 17-year-old freshmen at the University of Florida. He walked past Powell, who was sleeping on the couch and went upstairs to find Sonja Larson sleeping in bed. Rolling taped her mouth shut and stabbed her to death. He then returned to Powell, taped her mouth shut, bound her, and raped her before stabbing her five times in the back. He posed their bodies in provocative positions and left the apartment.

On August 25, Rolling committed the murder that would be burned into the minds of the nation. He pried open a sliding glass door and slipped into the apartment of 18-year-old Christa Hoyt. She wasn’t home at the time, so horrifically, Rolling laid in wait for her to return. When she entered her apartment at 11 am that day, Rolling surprised her from behind, put tape over her mouth, and bound her. He took her into her bedroom, cut her clothes off, and raped her before stabbing her in the back, rupturing her heart and killing her almost instantly. In a sick twist, he decapitated her and left her head on a shelf, staring down at her body.

By this time, students in Gainesville were terrified, and they had every right to be. Three college students had been brutally murdered and mutilated in a span of two days – many were taking precautions to ensure that they wouldn’t be next. A lot of students even withdrew from their colleges and returned home. It wasn’t enough for Tracy Paules and Manny Taboada, though. On August 27, just two days after killing Christa Hoyt, Rolling broke into their apartment in the same manner, via their sliding glass door. Like most cowardly serial killers, Rolling dealt with Taboada first, ambushing him in his sleep. The young man struggled, but Rolling eventually got the upper hand and killed him. Tracy came to check on the source of the commotion and saw Rolling – she tried to run away from him and barricade herself in her bedroom, but Rolling broke through the door and subjected Tracy to the same fate that all of his other victims suffered – he bound her, raped her, stabbed her to death, and posed her body provocatively before leaving the apartment.

Danny Rolling remained at large for another two weeks before he was arrested in Ocala, Florida on September 7, 1990. He was wanted on a burglary charge, but police discovered that the tools he used to commit that crime also matched the tools that the Gainesville Ripper had used to enter his victims’ homes. Police searched the small camp he’d been living in and discovered a bizarre series of audio diaries that he had been keeping, alluding to all of his crimes. He was officially charged with murder in November 1991 and was brought to trial in 1994. He claimed that he wanted to become a “superstar” like Ted Bundy, but he unexpectedly plead guilty to all counts before his trial could begin, so there were few opportunities to truly delve into his depravity. He was sentenced to death on April 20, 1994. 

Louisiana police would later alert Florida police to an eerily similar triple murder that had occurred in Shreveport in 1989. The Grissom family, consisting of 55-year-old William Grissom, his 24-year-old daughter Julie, and Julie’s eight-year-old son Sean, had been murdered in their home while they were preparing dinner. Julie Grissom’s body was mutilated and posed post-mortem. Rolling would confess to this crime shortly before he was executed via lethal injection on October 25, 2006.

Watch Scream 

The Gainesville Ripper by Mary S. Ryzuk (1994)

The Dentist (1996)

It’s been six months, time for your check-up!

This violent play on everyone’s fear of the dentist was released in 1996, but it’s remained in relative obscurity since then. It follows Dr. Alan Feinstone (Corbin Bernsen), who is a perfectly normal, successful dentist until he discovers that his wife Brooke (Linda Hoffman) has been cheating on him with their pool boy, Matt (Michael Stadvec). Alan almost immediately starts to deteriorate psychologically and become violent – his hallucinations lead him to attempt to kill multiple patients, believing that they are Brooke. When he finally does get his hands on Brooke, he pulls all of her teeth and cuts her tongue out. He kills her lover when he discovers her, mutilated but alive. Alan embarks on a spree of torture and various dental mutilations until he is finally captured and institutionalized in a mental hospital.

While the film is kitschy and over-the-top, it is inspired by a real case. Dr. Glennon Engleman was a dentist in St. Louis, Missouri – in his spare time, he was a hitman and was known to have committed at least 7 murders for financial gain over a 30 year period. While his methods were not nearly as sadistic or teeth-related as they were in the film, Engleman was a complete sociopath who admitted that he enjoyed the planning and the act of killing. He committed his first murder in conjunction with his ex-wife, Ruth. Ruth had married another man, 27 -year-old James Stanley Bullock, and had raised his life insurance, giving her and Engleman motive to kill him in 1958. 

This pattern would continue for years – Engleman manipulated ex-wives, lovers, and even his dental assistant into helping him execute his elaborate schemes. His methods for killing changed as the murders went on – he would shoot them, bludgeon them with a sledgehammer, or occasionally employ explosives in his crimes. He even murdered the elderly parents of one of his lover’s husbands so that she was guaranteed his life insurance in 1977.

Even though he committed his first murder in 1958, Engleman wouldn’t even be suspected of his murders until 1980, when he killed a woman named Sophie Marie Barrera with a car bomb. Engleman owed her over $14 000, and he was quickly arrested for her murder. He was convicted on September 25, 1980, and spent the rest of his life in prison. He died in March 1999 at the Jefferson City Correctional Center at the age of 72.

Watch The Dentist

Appointment for Murder: The Story of the Killing Dentist by Susan Crain Bakos (1989)

Ravenous (1999)

You are who you eat.

This black comedy revolves around Second Lieutenant John Boyd who is fighting on the side of the US Army in the Mexican-American War. After a cowardly act that leads to him capturing a Mexican headquarters, he is posted at a remote military outpost called Fort Spencer, which is located high in the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. Shortly after Boyd arrives, a frostbitten stranger named Colqhoun stumbles into the camp and describes a scene right out of a horror movie – his wagon train was lost in the mountains for three months, forcing them to resort to starvation and murder. A rescue party is assembled, but their Native American scout is hesitant – he tells the group of the Algonquin Wendigo myth, in which anyone who crosses the line and consumes human flesh will transform into a demon that hungers for more. What transpires is the soldiers fighting for their lives against Colqhoun, who reveals himself to be the very Wendigo that murdered his companions.

This film is based on two infamous instances of cannibalism in California in the 1840s. Colqhoun’s tale of a wagon train trapped in the Sierra Nevadas over a winter echoes the plight of the Donner Party, a large group of pioneers who attempted to make it to California from the Midwest using the Oregon Trail. Their 1846 expedition was doomed from the start because they left much later than it was recommended to make the journey. Their second mistake was their decision to take a less-established route called the Hastings Cutoff, which had been developed by a cartographer that had never actually been to the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The party was trapped by snowfall at Truckee Lake, high up in the mountains. They attempted to survive the winter with the supplies that they had brought with them, but they were eventually forced to eat the bodies of members that had already died from accidents, exposure, and starvation. Of the 87 people that were in the Donner Party, only 48 survived.

The second inspiration for Ravenous is the case of Alferd Packer, AKA “The Colorado Cannibal.” Packer was a prospector who attempted to travel through the San Juan Mountains in Colorado during a harsh winter with five other men – Shannon Wilson Bell, James Humphrey, Frank “Butcher” Miller, George “California” Noon, and Israel Swan. Only Packer made it back to civilization. His stories changed as people asked him what had happened – initially, he said that he had been abandoned by the men he was with. However, he later admitted that they had been forced to cannibalize dead members to stay alive. Later, he recanted that story and admitted instead that he alone had lived off the flesh of his companions, but that he hadn’t killed them. He said that another member of the group, Shannon Bell, had killed the other four men and that Packer had shot him in self-defence. He then lived off of cannibalism almost exclusively on his journey out of the mountains – he was eating human flesh for approximately two and a half months.

Authorities didn’t entirely believe Packer’s version of events and arrested him for killing his travelling companions. He managed to escape from prison before his trial and was on the run for nine years before the law caught up with him. He was originally convicted of premeditated murder and sentenced to death, but he eventually won a retrial and was reconvicted, though this time for voluntary manslaughter, and was sentenced to 40 years in prison.

Watch Ravenous

The Indifferent Stars Above The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride by Daniel James Brown (2009)

Man-Eater: The Life and Legend of an American Cannibal by Harold Schechter (2015)

Jeepers Creepers (2001)

What’s Eating You?

Jeepers Creepers is the tale of Trish and Darry Jenner (Gina Philips and Justin Long), twins trying to come home on spring break from college. While driving through rural Florida, they witness a rusty truck parked next to an abandoned church. A man appears to be disposing of bodies in a large pipe – when he sees them, he runs them off the road. As the twins attempt to alert the authorities of what they’ve seen, they find themselves up against a demon called The Creeper (Jonathan Breck) – an ancient entity that awakens every 23 years to feast on humans before going back into hibernation. The film progresses like many slashers before it, and it ends with the creature choosing Darry as its final victim, leaving Trish with the trauma of the ordeal.

Besides the obvious echoes of Stephen King’s It, Jeepers Creepers took inspiration from a real-life crime. The scene where the twins stumble upon the creature dumping bodies down the pipe is based on the experience of Ray and Marie Thornton, siblings who came upon Dennis DePue dumping his wife’s body behind an abandoned schoolhouse in Michigan. DePue and his wife Marilynn had gotten divorced in 1989, and tensions ran high between him and his two children. When he came to pick them up on April 15, 1990, both refused to go with him. DePue flew into a rage and pushed Marilynn down the stairs before beating her severely. Their oldest daughter ran to the neighbours to call the police, while DePue carried Marilynn back up the stairs, claiming that he was going to take her to the hospital. They never arrived, and police began searching for them immediately.

Later that day, Ray and Marie Thornton were out driving when a van that was speeding passed them. They didn’t think anything of it until they saw the same van a few minutes later, parked next to an abandoned school. They saw DePue, carrying something wrapped in a bloody sheet behind the building. They kept driving, and minutes later, the van pulled back out onto the highway and tailgated them for several miles. Ray eventually pulled off the highway, and they noticed the driver of the van pull off the road to switch license plates. By then, the siblings knew that something was very wrong, and they decided to return to the abandoned school to see what the driver of the van had dumped. They found a bloody sheet in the den of the animal and called the police.

Police identified tire tracks at the school as matching DePue’s van, and the blood on the sheet was discovered to be Marilynn’s. The evidence pointed to the terrible idea that Dennis had killed Marilynn, and unfortunately, that theory would be proven true the next day. Highway workers discovered Marilynn’s body near a deserted road; alongside her injuries from the initial attack, she had been shot in the back of the head.

As for DePue, he went on the run. In the days after Marilynn’s body was discovered, he sent a series of bizarre letters to his friends and family attempting to justify her murder. These letters were postmarked from Virginia, Iowa, and Oklahoma, pointing to the path that he might have used to flee. He remained at large until March 1991, when the case was featured on an episode of Unsolved Mysteries. DePue had been living under the name “Hank Queen” with a woman named Mary in Dallas, Texas. After the broadcast, he abruptly left home. Mary later learned that “Hank” was really Dennis DePue, and she believed that he had fled because he watched the broadcast. He was spotted by State Troopers in Louisiana, and they attempted to pull him over. Not ready to give up without a fight, he led them on a high-speed chase for fifteen miles, crossing the border into Mississippi. Eventually, the troopers shot out his back tires, causing him to stop his vehicle. He exchanged fire with the police for a few minutes before committing suicide.

Watch Jeepers Creepers

Watch the Unsolved Mysteries broadcast about the case

“Dennis DePue inspired the movie Jeepers Creepers?” –  Slaughter Sisters podcast (2020)

Wolf Creek (2005)

How can you be found when no one knows you’re missing?

Backpacking in the Australian outback sounds like the perfect adventure for young, athletic people, but it has its perils. British tourists Liz Hunter (Cassandra Magrath) and Kristy Earl (Kestie Morassi) are making a trip from Broome, Western Australia to Cairns, Queensland with their Australian friend, Ben Mitchell (Nathan Phillips). The three stop in Wolf Creek National Park, only to discover that their watches stop and their car refuses to start. When dark falls, the group is relieved to meet a man named Mick Taylor (John Jarratt), who offers to tow their car to his camp to repair it. He takes them to an abandoned mine a few hours south, and everything seems to be fine until he gives them drugged water that causes them to fall unconscious.

What follows is a brutal fight for their lives against a psychopathic serial killer who seems to know the outback better than he knows himself. The group is subjected to torture, rape, and terror as they attempt to escape his clutches. In the end, only Ben survives. Liz and Kristy’s bodies are never found.

According to writer and director Greg McLean, the original screenplay for Wolf Creek was nothing more than a straightforward slasher, and he was displeased with it. It wasn’t until he watched the case of Ivan Milat, the Backpacker Killer, unfold that he was inspired to rewrite it. Ivan Milat was operating in New South Wales, Australia between 1989 and 1993, killing young backpackers in the Belangelo State Forest. The murders remained undiscovered until September 1992, when two runners discovered the bodies of Milat’s last victims, 21-year-old Caroline Clark and 22-year-old Joanne Walters, buried in the Belangelo State Forest. 

The pair were British tourists who had last been seen in Kings Cross on April 18, 1992. Autopsies revealed that Walters had been stabbed 14 times in the chest, neck, and back – some of these stab wounds would have paralyzed her, much like the wounds inflicted on Liz in the film. Clarke, on the other hand, had been shot in the head 10 times; police believe that Milat had used her for target practice.

More victims were discovered a year later, in October 1993. A man gathering firewood found bones in a remote section of the Belangelo State Forest. Through dental records, these were identified as two people: Deborah Everist and James Gibson, two 19-year-old Australian backpackers who had last been seen in Sydney on December 30, 1989. James Gibson, who was found first, was curled into the fetal position – he had been stabbed eight times, and the killer had severed his upper spine to cause paralysis. Deborah Everist had been beaten so savagely that her skull was fractured and her jaw had been broken. There were knife marks in her forehead, and she had been stabbed once in the back.

If the police had hoped that these were the only bodies waiting for them in the Belangelo State Forest, then their hopes were dashed just a month later, on November 1, 1993. A police sweep uncovered yet another body, that of Simone Schmidl, a 21-year-old German backpacker that was last seen in Sydney in January 1991. Like the victims discovered before her, she had been stabbed and her spinal cord had been severed. Three days later, the last two bodies were found. Police uncovered the bodies of German backpackers Gabor Neugebauer and Anja Habschied – the couple had disappeared from Kings Cross on December 26, 1991. Neugebauer had been shot in the head six times, while Anja had been decapitated – police were never able to find her head.

By this time, the New South Wales Police knew that they had a monster on their hands, and they assembled a task force labelled Task Force Air in October 1993. By the time the last bodies were discovered, they were offering a $500 000 reward for information on the case. Officials were publishing warnings for international backpackers, urging them to avoid hitchhiking along the Hume Highway. They were working with a profile of the killer, and curating information from various sources to find suspects. However, there were few leads until they were contacted by a 24-year-old man from the UK named Paul Onions. He had been backpacking through Australia in January 1990 when he accepted a ride from a man who called himself “Bill.” Less than 1 KM from the Belangelo State Forest, Bill pulled over and pointed a revolver at Paul, stating that he intended to rob him. Paul managed to flee the car and flag down a passing motorist, while Bill chased him and shot at him. This would later be proven to be Ivan Milat, whose girlfriend had called in a tip to police about him shortly before Onions called them. When he flew to Australia to help with the investigation, Onions positively identified Ivan Milat as his attacker from a photo lineup. 

In May 1994, Milat was arrested on robbery and weapons charges related to his attack on Paul Onions. When his house was searched, police found camping equipment and cameras that belonged to multiple victims. He was charged with the murders of the seven backpackers on May 31 and was eventually found guilty and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole on July 27, 1996. He died of advanced esophageal cancer on October 27, 2019, at the Long Bay Correctional Complex in Sydney.

Watch Wolf Creek 

Watch Catching Milat (2015)

Milat: Inside Australia’s Biggest Manhunt: A Detective’s Story by Clive Small and Tom Gilling (2014)

The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)

What happened to Emily?

You would hope that a film about exorcism wouldn’t have any basis in real life, but if you’ve learned anything from this list, you know you’d be wrong. The Exorcism of Emily Rose actually begins after the death of the titular character – instead, you follow Erin Bruner, a defence lawyer tasked with defending Father Richard Moore, who has been charged with negligent homicide after Emily Rose died during an exorcism. Flashbacks throughout show off the horrible events that led to Emily’s exorcism, while court testimony represents a battle between faith and science. Father Moore is eventually found guilty but sentenced to time served.

Unfortunately, this scenario has played out in real life – Anneliese Michel was a German woman in her 20s who underwent no less than 67 separate exorcisms during the year before her death. Medical professionals had diagnosed her with epileptic psychosis, and she had previously been treated in psychiatric institutions and with medication. However, both Anneliese and her parents believed that she was possessed, and appealed to the Catholic Church for an exorcism. In 1975, they finally got permission for a rite, and as a result, they stopped consulting doctors completely. These sessions were conducted by a priest named Arnold Renz, though he had been ordered to operate in total secrecy while doing this. Anneliese underwent exorcisms once or twice a week for ten months, each lasting up to four hours. She ate very little or not at all during this time; malnutrition and dehydration were the cause of her death on July 1, 1976. According to the autopsy report, she weighed only 68 pounds when she died, and her knees were broken because of her almost constant genuflecting to pray. 

Anneliese’s horrific death did not go unnoticed, and the authorities eventually charged her parents and the priests who had performed the exorcisms with negligent homicide in 1976. Medical professionals determined that Anneliese’s death could have been prevented if someone had intervened even the week before her death. The state found them guilty, but neither her parents nor the priests served jail time – instead, the priests were fined, and the prosecution concluded that her parents had “suffered enough”, which is a criterion under German penal law.

Watch The Exorcism of Emily Rose

Anneliese Michel: A True Story of a Case of Demonic Possession by Lawrence LeBlanc (2012)

“Case 11- Anneliese Michel” Casefile podcast 

“Episode 76: The Devil and Anneliese Michel – Exorcism on Trial” The Astonishing Legends podcast (2017)

The Girl Next Door (2007)

In this town, murder became the neighbourhood game.

This film is told entirely in flashback – the narrator, 50-year-old stock trader David Moran (William Atherton) reflects on the summer of 1958 when he made friends with two young girls who lived next door, Megan and Susan Loughlin (Blythe Auffarth and Madeline Taylor). The girls had moved in with Ruth Chandler (Blanche Baker), who is known as the neighbourhood “cool parent” because she allows the kids to drink and talks to the boys in a sexual manner. It soon unfolds that Ruth has been abusing Megan and Susan – this abuse escalates until she ties Megan to the rafters in the basement by her wrists, naked and blindfolded. Ruth leads the neighbourhood kids in torturing Megan while David attempts to stop them. Eventually, he manages to save Susan, but Megan dies.

This horrific film is based on the murder of Sylvia Likens. In 1965, Sylvia was tortured to death by Gertrude Baniszewski, her caregiver, along with Baniszewski’s children and many of their friends. Sylvia was only 16 years old at the time that she went to live with Baniszewski after her mother was arrested for shoplifting. Sylvia’s father had agreed to pay Baniszewski for Sylvia and her sister Jenny’s upkeep, but these payments started to come in late or not at all. Baniszewski decided to take out her frustrations on the girls for this, beating them for small infractions or sometimes, no reason at all. Eventually, Baniszewski started focusing her abuse on Sylvia alone, likely because she was jealous of the young girl’s beauty and potential. 

It started with beatings and withholding food, but it quickly escalated to humiliation, force-feeding, lacerations, cigarette burns, and genital mutilation. At one point, Baniszewski forced Sylvia to strip naked and insert a Pepsi bottle into her vagina in front of her and all of her teenage accomplices for their amusement. In the end, Gertrude Baniszewski kept Sylvia tied up in her basement, keeping her naked and barely feeding her. Like Megan, Sylvia was often tied to rafters or railings so that her feet were barely touching the floor. By the time she died in October 1965, Sylvia had been mutilated, humiliated, and tortured for months on end by kids from the entire neighbourhood along with Baniszewski and her children.

Upon Sylvia’s death, Baniszewski attempted to tell police that someone else had done this to Sylvia after she ran away from the residence and that she had found her on the doorstep in that state. However, Sylvia’s sister Jenny told police everything about her sister’s ordeal, prompting the arrest of Baniszewski and three of her children, alongside two local teenage boys who often perpetrated abuse on Sylvia. Five other neighbourhood kids were arrested a week later. Gertrude Baniszewski pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. She was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. Her oldest daughter Paula was found guilty of second-degree murder, and various other defendants were found guilty of manslaughter. Horrifically, Baniszewski was paroled in December 1985, despite her refusal to take any responsibility for Sylvia’s death. She died of lung cancer on June 16, 1990.

Watch The Girl Next Door 

House of Evil: The Indiana Torture Slaying by John Dean (2008)

Sylvia: The Likens Trial by Forrest B. Bowman (2014)

Borderland (2007)

The Devil’s playground is just around the corner…

If you’re a horror movie buff, then you should know one thing by now – spring break is bad news. College students Phil (Rider Strong), Ed (Brian Presley), and Henry (Jake Muxworthy) have recently graduated, and they decided to cross the Texas border into Mexico for a week to party it up. After he’s separated from his friends, Phil is kidnapped by a pair of men that pick him up while hitchhiking. He disappears, and Ed and Henry are left to look for their friend. They team up with a cop named Ulises (Damian Alcazar), who had had a run-in with a violent cult the year before that murdered his partner in front of him.

As the trio investigates Phil’s disappearance, they discover that the townsfolk in the area are petrified of the cult and that the cult is planning a human sacrifice according to the traditions of Palo Myombe, a voodoo-like Mexican religion. They want the sacrifice to give them the power to avoid US Border Patrol as they smuggle drugs. At the end of the film, the cult remains at large, and only Ed and his girlfriend Valeria have survived their run-in with the cult.

This terrifying cult actually existed – they are only known by the name that the media gave them, the Narcosatanists, and they were led by Adolfo de Jesus Constanzo. Constanzo and his partner, Sara Aldrete, led the cult in drug trafficking and a slew of ritualistic killings on a remote ranch in Matamoros in the Tamaulipas region of Mexico. The cult was eventually discovered after they kidnapped and murdered Mark Kilroy, an American college student, in 1989. Kilroy, the inspiration for Phil, had been in Mexico on spring break when he was abducted and murdered for a Palo Mayombe ritual – according to later confessions, the cult took him because he was a pre-med student and they needed a “good brain” for the ritual. When Mexican police raided the ranch, they found fifteen other corpses that had been mutilated in various ways, as well as a cauldron that contained the corpse of a black cat and Mark Kilroy’s brain.

Rather than risk being charged with 16 murders, Constanzo fled to Mexico City with four followers. They were discovered when police were called to their apartment building for an unrelated disturbance. Cornered, Constanzo handed a machine gun to a follower named Alvaro de Leon, asking him to shoot him and another follower, Martin Quintana. By the time police entered the apartment, the men were dead. Police arrested De Leon and Sara Aldrete, who were also staying there. A total of 14 members of the Narcosatanists were charged with crimes ranging from drug trafficking to murder. 

Watch Borderland

“The Cult with No Name” Redhanded Podcast (2018)

The Afflicted (2011)

A mother’s love has its limits.

This film depicts horrifying abuse perpetrated by “Mother Maggie” (Leslie Easterbrook) on her children, fueled by her psychotic tendencies and twisted interpretations of scripture. Her reign of terror begins with the murder of her husband, Hank (Kane Hodder) after he attempts to leave her in the middle of the night and threatens to take their four children away from her. Maggie beats him to death with a baseball bat and hides his body before entering a spiral of alcoholism and religious mania fuelled by a televangelist called “the Cowboy Prophet”. 

Without Hank around to stop her, Maggie starts abusing the kids – she makes her son, Billy (Cody Allen) become a day labourer to earn money and starts pimping her daughter Carla (Katie Holland) out to a local pedophile named Randy (Daniel Jones). Meanwhile, Maggie takes out her own self-images issues on Cathy (Michele Grey); at one point, she forces the girl to eat canned goods mixed with lard. When Cathy tries to stand up to her mother, Maggie shoots her in the shoulder and leaves her shackled in the bathtub. After Maggie attempts to remove the bullet from Cathy’s shoulder, the girl dies. Carla attempts an escape shortly after Cathy’s death and stumbles upon the remains of her father before being caught. Maggie makes Grace (Randi Jones) and Billy bludgeon Carla with a paddle before locking her in a cupboard to die. Maggie allows Randy to rape Grace in place of Carla, but afterwards, Grace shoots her other with her own gun before fatally stabbing Billy and shooting herself in the head.

This terrifying tale of a dysfunctional family is based on the crimes of Theresa Knorr, a sinister mother who was convicted of torturing and murdering two of her daughters while manipulating her other four children into covering it up. She was well-known to be physically, verbally, and mentally abusive to all of the children, and this only got worse after she divorced her fourth husband. Their apartment was filthy, and neighbours noticed that she never let the kids outside; when they did see them, they seemed fearful and high-strung. Inside her house of horrors, Theresa would beat the kids, force-feed them, burn them with cigarettes, and throw knives at them. When she was abusing one child, she made the others hold them down. The most ire was reserved for her two oldest daughters, Suesan and Sheila. In an interview, her younger daughter Terry stated that Theresa was jealous of Suesan and Sheila because they were blossoming into beautiful women while she deteriorated with age and alcohol abuse.

In 1982, Knorr became convinced that Suesan, who she believed was a witch, was casting spells on her to make her fat. In retaliation, she made Terry shoot Suesan in the stomach with a .22 calibre pistol. The bullet became lodged in her back, but Suesan survived, and Knorr began to nurse her back to health. She eventually recovered, but Knorr stabbed Suesan in the back with a pair of scissors in July 1984. Fed up, Suesan decided that she wanted to move to Alaska, and oddly, Knorr agreed. There was a catch, though – she wanted to remove the bullet from Suesan’s back so that it couldn’t be used against her in court later. Suesan agreed, but the botched surgery caused a sepsis infection that Knorr attempted to treat with nothing but ibuprofen and antibiotics. When she didn’t improve, Knorr tied her up, duct-taped her mouth and ordered her sons William and Robert to put her in the car. They took her out to Squaw Valley and set her on fire while she was still alive. She died of her injuries and remained Jane Doe #4873/84 until her mother was caught.

With Suesan gone, Knorr needed a new target and zeroed in on Sheila. In 1985, she forced Sheila into prostitution to support the family. Initially, Knorr was pleased with this arrangement and eased up on the abuse; however, after a few weeks, she became convinced that she’d caught an STD from Sheila via the toilet seat. Sheila denied these accusations, so Theresa beat her severely before hog-tying her and locking her in a poorly ventilated closet. Knorr forbade the other children from opening the closet door or giving any food or water to their sister – Sheila died three days later, on June 21, 1985. Knorr left her body in the closet for another three days before opening it to find that she was dead. She had her sons put Sheila’s body into a box and leave her at the airport in Truckee, California. She was also not identified until her mother was caught, and was classified as Jane Doe #6607-85.

Shortly after Sheila’s murder, Terry managed to escape her mother by using Sheila’s ID to pass herself off as an adult, despite being only 16. She attempted to report her mother to the police at the time, but they brushed her off. It wasn’t until she contacted America’s Most Wanted in 1993 that anyone took her seriously. Detectives in Placer County, California connected the two Jane Does that had been found in 1984 and 1985 and identified them as Sheila and Suesan. On November 10, 1993, Theresa Knorr was arrested in Salt Lake City, Utah where she was living using her maiden name. She was charged with two counts of murder and two counts of conspiracy to commit murder five days later, as well as the special circumstances charges of multiple murder and murder by torture. She initially pleaded not guilty but was forced to make a deal after she learned that her son Robert had agreed to testify against her. She was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences on October 17, 1995, and is currently incarcerated at the California Institution for Women in Chino, California. She is eligible for parole in 2027.

Watch The Afflicted

Mother’s Day: The Shocking True Story of a Mother Who Murdered Her Two Daughters with the Help of her Own Sons by Dennis McDougal (1995)

Whatever Mother Says…: A True Story of a Mother, Madness, and Murder by Wensley Clarkson (1995)

The Conjuring (2013)

Evil loves innocence.

This iconic film franchise started with The Conjuring in 2013, which follows the tale of Carolyn and Roger Perron, who start experiencing nightmarish paranormal activity after moving into a rundown house in Rhode Island. The next year, Annabelle was released, following John and Mia Form’s battle with a demonic porcelain doll. The sequel, The Conjuring 2, was released in 2016 and tells of Peggy Hodgson, who is battling a poltergeist in her London home. In the same year, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It was released, followed by Annabelle: Creation in 2017 and Annabelle Comes Home in 2019.

The throughline for this whole series? Ed and Lorraine Warren, a pair of incredibly famous paranormal investigators. The Warrens have been operating since the 1950s – Ed was a self-proclaimed demonologist, while Lorraine claimed that she was a clairvoyant and a light trance medium. The pair claimed to have investigated over 10 000 cases of paranormal happenings in their career, and have been involved in such investigations as The Amityville Horror, the Enfield Poltergeist, the Snedeker house, and Annabelle. Wherever the Warrens went, sensation seemed to follow. They also founded The Warrens’ Occult Museum in the back of their house in Monroe, Connecticut, featuring many artifacts from their cases, including Annabelle the haunted doll herself.

The Conjuring films are all based on the Warrens’ exploits – The Conjuring 2 is based on the Enfield Poltergeist investigation, and of course, the Annabelle films are based on Annabelle. However, all of these stories should be taken with a grain of salt – the Warrens were notorious for blowing claims of hauntings way out of proportion for publicity’s sake, and a lot of their investigations have little to no evidence supporting them.

Watch The Conjuring (2013)

Watch Annabelle (2014)

Watch The Conjuring 2 (2016)

Watch Annabelle Creation (2017)

Watch Annabelle Comes Home (2019)

The Demonologist: The Extraordinary Career of Ed and Lorraine Warren by Gerald Brittle (2013)

Graveyard: True Hauntings from an Old New England Cemetery by Ed Warren (1992)

 

Deliver Us From Evil (2014)

You haven’t seen true evil.

Ralph Sarchie is a detective in New York in 2013, and he’s used to gruelling cases. However, a series of inexplicable violent crimes puzzles him, and he starts to suspect that there’s something more at play. He teams up with a priest, and through investigation, discovers that a man named Santino has been painting strange inscriptions in places that cause people to go crazy and commit violent acts. They engage in a game of cat and mouse with the man, who appears to be possessed by some sort of demon. They eventually manage to exorcise him.

Ralph Sarchie is a real person; he’s a retired NYPD sergeant and now works as a traditionalist Catholic demonologist.  His accounts from his book, Beware the Night, are the inspiration for Deliver Us From Evil. The book recounts his paranormal investigations and cases of demonic possession that he has encountered.

Watch Deliver Us From Evil 

Deliver Us From Evil: A New York City Cop Investigates the Supernatural by Ralph Sarchie (2014)

Winchester (2018)

Terror is building…

Sarah Winchester (Dame Helen Mirren) is a strange woman, and she’s built one of the strangest houses in the world. The heiress to the fortune generated by the Winchester repeating rifle, Sarah has commissioned the construction of an endless, maze-like, seven-story mansion that she never seems to stop adding to. Most people think she’s just insane, but her niece Marion (Sarah Snook) will find out that that might not be the case. Sarah explains that she has built the house as a sort of prison for the hundreds of ghosts that are haunting her – everyone who has ever been killed by a Winchester repeating rifle. The Winchester company has also hired Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke) to go the house and assess Sarah, believing her to be unfit to remain in charge of the company. Marion is staying there with her son, Henry (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey), who is possessed by a vengeful spirit at night. As the film progresses, Henry continuously tries to harm himself or other members of the Winchester family. Eventually, they identify the ghost that has been possessing him as Benjamin Block, a Confederate soldier who lost two brothers to Winchester rifles in the American Civil War and subsequently shot up a Winchester office before being killed by police. Eventually, the family is able to vanquish Ben, but Sarah decides to continue building rooms in the house to trap spirits.

Sarah Winchester really did exist, and so does the so-called Winchester Mystery House. According to some accounts, the construction on the house was around the clock with no interruptions until Sarah’s death in 1922. However, her biographer has stated that this is untrue. What we do know about the house is that after her husband, William Wirt Winchester, died of tuberculosis in 1881, Sarah inherited over $20.5 million dollars (about $543 million in today’s dollars) and was receiving $1000 per day from her ownership of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company (equivalent to a $26 000 a day salary today). She used all of this money to fund the construction of the house. 

But why was Sarah building the house in the first place? After her infant daughter died of marasmus, Sarah went to a medium in Boston, who told her that she needed to continuously build a house for herself and the spirits of everyone who had died as the result of a Winchester rifle.

Construction began in 1884 when she purchased an unfinished farmhouse in the Santa Clara Valley in California. Notably, she did not use an architect, leading to the house’s haphazard style. The house includes doors and staircases that lead nowhere, windows that overlook other rooms instead of the outside, and odd-sized risers on the stairs. Many believe that these oddities were intentional and stemmed from Sarah’s unwavering belief in ghosts; environmental psychologists, however, believe that its haphazard construction is actually what makes the house feel haunted, not the other way around.

Originally, the house was seven stories high, but it was reduced to four stories after a devastating earthquake in 1906. The house’s floating foundation style is believed to be the reason it didn’t collapse completely. There are roughly 161 rooms in at the moment – 40 bedrooms, 2 ballrooms (one of which remains unfinished), two basement levels, and three elevators. There are over 17 chimneys and evidence of two others. Oddly, there is only one working toilet in the entire house – some people think that the other restrooms were “decoys to confuse spirits”. 

Just because it’s built haphazardly and with no sense involved does not mean that Sarah skimped on any of the luxuries, though. The house is filled with conveniences that were incredibly rare at the time – steam and forced-air heating, modern indoor toilets, gas lighting, and a hot shower with indoor plumbing. The home is filled with stained glass windows, including one designed by Tiffany himself that would cast a rainbow across the room when sunlight struck it. In a move characteristic of the house’s oddities, that particular window was installed in an interior wall so that no sunlight has ever hit it.

When Sarah Winchester died in 1922, she bequeathed all of her possessions to her niece and personal secretary – except the house, which she makes absolutely no mention of in her will. Appraisers initially considered the house worthless, considering its many unfinished elements, completely impractical design, and damage caused by the 1906 earthquake. It was eventually auctioned off and sold to an unnamed local investor for around $135 000 – this investor granted a 10-year lease to John and Mayme Brown, who opened it up to the public in 1923. 

Nowadays, you can tour the Winchester Mystery House from the comfort of your own home for the price of just $8.99 USD. They currently offer a 360-degree virtual tour even though live tours of the house are currently closed.

Watch Winchester

The Video Access Tour of the Winchester Mystery House

Sarah Winchester: Beyond the Mystery by Bennett Jacobstein (2019)

Captive of the Labyrinth: Sarah L. Winchester, Heiress to the Rifle Fortune by Mary Jo Ignoffo (2012)

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