ekm’s 31 NIGHTS OF HORROR: EVENING 16 – “BASED ON A TRUE STORY”
BASED ON A TRUE STORY. Have any words so tantalizing proven more disappointing for Horror fans?*
Once, long ago, there was a young boy named Erik, who was as adorably precocious as he was irritating as fuck. His fascination with Horror films, coupled with the very strong possibility that his home was actually quite haunted, led him to the local library in search of “real” ghost stories. It also led him to hang a crucifix over his bed. This was back in the early-80s, when the Speculation boom of the previous decade had slowed to a trickle that nonetheless included IN SEARCH OF…reruns and a swollen catalogue of Daniel Cohen books, prime for younger (and older) readers. In other words, the world might have been in the process of moving on from the possible validity of alleged underwater photographs of the Loch Ness Monster, all in favor of “Where’s the Beef?” and MTV; but there were still topical corpses to pick for creepy little information scavengers like myself. You just had to know where to look, and look I did.
This fertile period of discovery, during which I learned as much about the Patterson-Gimlin film as I did the works of Terrence Fisher, led my mother to make a mistake she’d later regret. She told me about a film called THE EXORCIST, which she claimed was a “true story” about a little girl who had been possessed by a demon. Even better, both the film and the actual case were both set in nearby Georgetown — right down I-270. As she recounted it, a priest had been either 1) thrown from a window down a flight of stone steps by the demon he had been sent to exterminate, or 2) had jumped of his own free will to vanquish the offending spirit; she and many other viewers of the era had difficulty discerning which was the correct conclusion to reach, much to author William Peter Blatty’s great consternation. Regardless, it had all actually happened, and she could take me to see the spot for myself. I don’t think she had any idea exactly how big that can of worms was, as she effortlessly popped the top and then spent the next next decade trying to force it back into place – and surely, she never anticipated that I would someday become an unofficial tour guide for friends and fellow fans of the first and third entries in the series, all of whom occasionally want to visit all of the filming locations.
The problem is, THE EXORCIST was not “based on a true story” so much as it was inspired by one, and that’s putting aside the mountain of evidence that’s since accumulated against such claims of factualism. The Me Generation would perpetuate similar fantastical urban legends long past their sell-by dates, and it took the modern era of skeptical inquiry to reduce many such legends to the mere nuts and bolts that collectively held a whole lot of Nothing together. No one wanted to consider that THE EXORCIST might have been based on the PTSD of a teenage boy who is rumored to have been sexually abused by a family member, or that he would then find himself subjected to medieval rituals by a mother simultaneously too devout in her Faith, and too deep in denial, to recognize the actual truth – because, really, what's so scary about that…?** GIVE ME DEMONS, HOLLYWOOD!
We all love ghost stories, especially when they’ve happened to a friend of a friend – someone the teller heard about from the guy he met at the gas station, who had a babysitter with a brother who passed the encounter along. The idea that our civilized, technologically-advanced world still has pockets of darkness is necessary for our archetype-obsessed psyches; it's why people believe in alien abductions, Bigfoot, Mothman, and angels. The smaller our universe becomes, the less mystery there is to ponder, and our existence is thus absent of greater meaning.
So that's why it was so fantastic to think that THE AMITYVILLE HORROR actually happened. It was a real house on a real street in a real neighborhood -- not some gloomy castle in Transylvania. The Smurl family from THE HAUNTED lived right outside Scranton, and holy shit, the Dad got raped by a succubus??? The Kevin Bacon character in THE DEMON MURDER CASE got himself possessed and then killed a guy at a dog kennel. Of course it was true: Arne "Cheyenne" Johnson's plea of "not guilty by reason of Beelzebub" made national news, and I distinctly remember it (if not the laughter that followed such an outrageous plea). Never mind that all of these cases were investigated by Ed and Lorraine Warren, the notorious huckster "demonologists" who dominated the fringe-obsessed alternative media of the late 70s and early 80s; and never mind that each of the cases they promoted on THE SALLY JESSY RAPHAEL SHOW were later debunked as either misinterpretation, or outright fraud. Things like “facts” could be overlooked, because the allegations of authenticity made the subsequent books and film adaptations even scarier because It Could Happen To You.***
I mean, come on: the truth about Ed Gein was pretty horrifying, but a big part of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE’s appeal was the idea that a dude – wearing the faces of other dudes! – was out there, right now maybe, running around with an instrument best known for violently killing trees…and he was an actual person. Never mind the fact that PSYCHO was based on the same guy, and involved cross-dressing, split personality disorder, and sexual role-play. And let’s not forget DERANGED, which is also based on Gein. What do these films all have in common? BASED ON A TRUE STORY! What do they all have in common with one another? Absolutely nothing!
Well, that’s not entirely true (though it’s a statement that’s based on something true). Hollywood – and this includes the grungiest fringe corners of that shining metropolis of art and culture – is legendary in its narrative embroidery. BRAVEHEART is a wonderful film, but as a history lesson, it’s a fucking travesty; best to treat it as a re-enactment of oral tradition than a dramatization of the life and death of William Wallace.**** There are plenty of factually-incorrect films to place alongside Gibson’s biopic, and there’s certainly an argument that if Beowulf is the earliest example of both that previously-mentioned oral tradition of storytelling, and an example of an urban legend that grew considerably more embellished in the re-telling, then aren’t movies simply the modern version of conventional folklore? It’s an interesting premise, and one certainly worthy of further exploration, so long as it doesn’t involve any apologies for Ed and Lorraine Warren. Hell simply can’t be hot enough for those two.
Then again, everything is based on something. You can find “truth” just about any place you look. The prophecy of THE OMEN is derived from The Book of Revelation; the prophecy of THE PROPHECY is derived from THE OMEN. Technically, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET is “based” on a rash of fatal night terrors Wes Craven read about in his daily newspaper; The Shining was constructed around a real product of physical construction. That’s not even touching on the True Crime subgenre, with films like THE GIRL NEXT DOOR feeling like fiction, even if they (sorta) aren’t. Found Footage has even discovered ways to present “the truth” by way of a format generally associated with showing just that, and then using that framework against the viewer; CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST and THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT are the best examples. Perhaps Truth is malleable?
The fact is, nothing sells a Horror movie better than the BASED ON A TRUE STORY disclaimer, and nothing dulls its edges more than reading up on the actual truth of the case in question. Even as recently as this decade, the exploits of the Warrens were hauled out again for THE CONJURING, which was remembered primarily for the admittedly creepy possessed doll Annabelle – that is, until you did a Google search and discovered that instead of the stylized Hollywood prop designed for maximum effect, the “real” Annabelle was just a boring old Raggedy Ann doll that never hurt anyone. It's hard to believe at this point how many people fail to notice that "based on" is simply an abbreviated version of the three minutes of side effect warnings that accompany commercials for Viagra and anti-depressants. But then again, the "true story" bit is what causes erections and euphoria, at which point all the blood leaves the brain.
*The answer is yes, whenever we hear that the latest sequel is FROM THE CREATOR OF THE ORIGINAL “___________________,” or MASTER OF HORROR, ______________, RETURNS WITH A TERRIFYING NEW TALE!
**Other than “everything.”
***For more on the fascinating career of Ed and Lorraine Warren – and most relevant to this article, their involvement in cases that inspired THE CONJURING, THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, THE DEMON MURDER CASE, THE HAUNTED, and too many others to count – I would submit a fascinating two-part episode of the SQUARING THE STRANGE podcast, hosted by Benjamin Radford of Skeptical Inquirer fame. The notorious couple’s most noxious antics are summarily dissected for review; I was fortunate enough to be invited to participate in the post-mortem. Parts 1 and 2 can be heard here and here, respectively.
****The finest satirical demolition of the Biopic was “The Bob Lamonta Story,” a fake movie starring David Cross and Bob Odenkirk on MR. SHOW’s second season episode “Eggs, Peanut Butter and Dice.” My shoes hurt, too, Dad. My shoes hurt, too.
Erik Kristopher Myers (aka ekm)