Home » Inspired by True Events: Four Times Truth was Scarier Than Fiction

Inspired by True Events: Four Times Truth was Scarier Than Fiction

Séance in based on true story horror movie Verónica

Real-life events have been an inspiration for many of the scariest horror films ever made. Most of the time, films that purport to be ‘inspired by true events’ exaggerate and escalate the truth to increase the scares. But maybe that’s not always necessary. Sometimes, the truth is far more unsettling; because it’s true. So, in this list, we’ll cover times horror films were less terrifying than the true story upon which they are based or by which they are inspired.   

A lot of terror — at least for me — comes from a story’s credibility and validity. When we believe a scary film or story to be truthful, we’re far easier to frighten. An apt example of this is The Blair Witch ProjectAs said by horror legend Stephen King in his non-fiction book, Danse Macabre: “One thing about Blair Witch: the damn thing looks real. Another thing about Blair Witch: the damn thing feels real. And because it does, it’s like the worst nightmare you ever had”. [1] 

So, let’s take a look at five frightening true stories that didn’t get the onscreen justice they deserved.

Also see: True Horror: Are Ed and Lorraine Warren Actually Frauds?

An American Haunting 

The director of An American HauntingCourtney Solomon, took inspiration from Brent Monahan’s bookThe Bell Witch: An American Haunting [2] a said-to-be-factual account of a haunting during the early 19th century.

According to The Bell Witch, the walls of the Bell family home started to bang. Soon, those bangs evolved into physical contact. The entity, known as Kate, began hitting and slapping particularly the Bell daughter, Betsy Bell. Eventually, Kate’s voice started to form. Originally a whisper, her voice became loud and human. She had a personality and her own opinions. Kate would even hold lengthy conversations and debate religion.

While Kate liked some people, she hated others — mainly John Bell, the father of the Bell family. Kate would berate and beat him, threatening to kill him. It said it wouldn’t leave until John was dead.

Courtney Solomon’s version of this creepy tale leaves out the voice of Kate. In An American Haunting, the entity only physically attacks people and doesn’t speak. In an interview for Chud, [3] Courtney Solomon explains that he chose to leave out this crucial detail simply because it didn’t fit into his screenplay. But maintains that he “stayed true to the basic things that happened that were consistent in all the stories.” 

An American Haunting does stick close to the legend. The year it’s set and the characters are the same. But instead of embellishing the story, as most films do, Courtney Solomon diluted it. And it’s a shame because, with a big budget and acting heavyweights Donald Sutherland and Sissy Spacek, Courtney Solomon had all the right ingredients to bring the Bell family’s ghostly tale to life. An American Haunting could have been a unique take on the paranormal film but instead chose to follow the expected tropes.

Poltergeist activity in horror film, An American Haunting


Verónica is a Spanish-language supernatural film ‘inspired by true events’ brought to us by REC director Paco Plaza. Popular with international audiences and receiving heaps of praise — an unusually impressive 90% on Rotten Tomatoes — Verónica follows the true story of a seance gone wrong. 

The story that inspired Verónica is known as the Vallecas case. Vallecas is a small town in Madrid where the events took place. It all started in the 90s after an 18-year-old woman named Estefania Gutierrez Lazaro mysteriously died following a seance.

According to ABC Madrid, [4] everything started when Estefania and her friends opted to use a ouija board at school. They were interrupted by one of their teachers, who broke the board. After this, Estefania started to change. She would hear terrifying voices and suffer from seizures and hallucinations. Her family brought her to doctors, but none of them could give a diagnosis. Her sudden behavior change had no explanation. Estefania eventually died under mysterious circumstances after being admitted into the hospital.

But the strange goings-on didn’t stop there. Estefania’s family claimed that something was terrorising them and finally decided to call the police, who went to the Lazaro home and filed a report.

Here’s a translated quote from the police report: “We were found amidst a rare and mysterious situation, that being seated in the company of all the family, we could hear and observe a perfectly closed cabinet door, something which we verified afterwards, open suddenly in a completely unnatural way. This started a series of suspicious events that were witnessed by the chief inspector and the three other police officers present.”

The police also described seeing doors open on their own and hearing a loud noise emanate from the empty terrace. They, additionally claimed to see a brown stain of slime appear on a tablecloth.

Verónica takes elements from the story of the Vallecas case. For example, the set-up is the same. Both stories start with a seance gone wrong and the tragic events that follow. However, Verónica ends after her death. In real life, the paranormal activity continued well after Estefania died — in fact, it seemed to heighten.

Unfortunately, Paco Plaza decided to cut this spine-tingling story short. While Verónica is a terrifying tale, it could have been even scarier.

Also see: The True Story Behind The Exorcism of Emily Rose

Demon attacks in horror film, Verónica


Probably the most famous film on our list, Poltergeist, directed by Tobe Hooper (under the watchful eye of producer Steven Spielberg) was inspired by an allegedly factual and terrifying ghost story. 

The not-so-famous story behind Poltergeist happened to the Herrmann family in 50s New York. According to an article in Life Magazine, [5] the strange happenings in the Herrmann home started on a cold February day. The Herrmann’s were in their living room when they heard a loud pop sound — sort of like the pop of a champagne cork — come from various parts of their house. Upon immediate investigation, they discovered bottles of liquid had become uncapped and spilt, including a bottle of shampoo and medicine in the bathroom, bleach in the basement, and a bottle of holy water in the bedroom.

Things escalated not long after when the father, James Herrmann, saw a medicine bottle and shampoo bottle move across the bathroom sink top in opposite directions. Not knowing what was happening, James called the police, who came over, and after witnessing the strange phenomena themselves, decided to start an investigation. Unfortunately, the police could neither prove nor disprove the Herrmann’s story, and the activity reportedly worsened. Objects flew across rooms, and at one point, a heavy bureau fell over by itself.

The Herrmanns received many theories, but nothing could be proven. An article from the NY Times [6] reported that “detectives, building inspectors, electricians, firemen, plumbers, television repairmen, water-diviners, reporters and so-called scientists” all visited the Herrmann home, witnessing the poltergeist-like activity, but finding nothing.

The film Poltergeist doesn’t take much from the Herrmann’s story. It does follow an average suburban family, just like the Herrmanns, who start experiencing furniture and objects moving around their home. However, that’s where the similarities end. Poltergeist takes a far more dramatic and risible approach with its not-so-scary special effects. But don’t get me wrong, Poltergeist is a top-quality, well-made, highly entertaining film.

However, the Herrmanns and their home is a more believable story, which is why it seems more disturbing. What happened at their family home could never be explained, leading many to suggest a poltergeist or telekinesis as a possible explanation. It could have been something beyond our understanding or just a hoax. Unfortunately, like most of these cases, we’ll never know. We know that it happened. The real question is why? 

Poltergeist activity in inspired by real-events film Poltergeist

The Sacrament 

Ti West’s found-footage film, The Sacramentdocuments the final days of a reclusive religious cult. The film takes its inspiration from the all-too-real cult, the Peoples Temple, made famous in 1978 when more than 900 of its members tragically killed themselves by drinking cyanide at their compound in Jonestown. [8] 

Produced by Eli Roth, The Sacrament follows a group of VICE reporters searching for their co-workers’ missing sister who has joined a religious community out in the middle of nowhere — only accessible by helicopter. The reporters reach the cult’s compound and even find the missing sister. But that’s when things start to go downhill.

When it comes to the big picture, The Sacrament and the true story of Jonestown’s end is very similar. The cult in The Sacrament, like the Peoples Temple, live in an isolated community. Their lives are controlled by a crazed leader who wears dark ’70s sunglasses and pontificates about God. 

The Sacrament isn’t, however, the story of the Jonestown massacre. The characters and details of the story are different. What happened at Jonestown was beyond human comprehension. Such a heavy and complex story would be difficult to summarize in ninety minutes. And while The Sacrament is frightening, it never conjures the level of terror that its real-life inspiration does. 

Also see: The True Story Behind The Town that Dreaded Sundown

Cult leader in inspired by true story movie The Sacrament

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[1] King, S. (1981). Danse Macabre (2010 ed.). Gallery Books.

[2] Monahan, B. (2000). The Bell Witch: An American Haunting. Macmillan

[3] Faraci, D. (2006). Interview: Courtney Solomon (An American haunting). Chud. https://chud.com/6592/interview-courtney-solomon-an-american-haunting/

[4] L., S. (2015, October 13). El Caso de la joven poseída en Vallecas: Los sucesos paranormales Que comprobó la Policía. ABC Madrid. https://www.abc.es/madrid/20151013/abci-posesion-vallecas-confirma-policia-201510121742.html

[5] Wallace, R. (1958, March 17). House of Flying Objects. LIFE Magazine.

[6]  The New York Times. (1958, August 10). L. I. ‘POLTERGEIST’ STUMPS DUKE MEN; Expert’s Report on Seaford Incidents Is Critical of Family Over Lie Test. The New York Times, p. 68.

[7] Holden, S. (2006, October 20). Kool-Aid, craziness and utopian yearning. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/20/movies/20temp.html

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