Warning: Spoilers Ahead
“Inspired by a true story” was one of the best movie taglines of all time. The implication that these stories could happen in real life has an exciting appeal that’s undeniable to the average audience member. This is especially true if you like to be scared. No other genre uses the tag more than horror but with the amount of movies slapping an “inspired by” label on their covers it's safe to assume these stories are more “inspired” than “true.”
We’re all familiar with series like The Conjuring or Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but even those stretch the facts a bit. The real Perron family from The Conjuring kicked the Warrens out when they made things worse; Texas Chainsaw was based more on the crime scene than the actual crimes of killer Ed Gein. Unlike Leatherface, Gein only hurt two people and acted alone, but stole many many corpses. What about the lesser known stories, the ones that are so strange or messed up that they didn’t need to tell you what happened was true in order to get you to watch them. Here are five scary movies based on a true story you may not have heard:
“They Came in Through the Bathroom Mirror.”
That was the headline that inspired writer/director Bernard Rose to change the setting of Clive Barker's The Forbidden from Liverpool to Chicago's Cabrini Green when adapting the story into a film. The tragic murder of Ruthie Mae McCoy is recited almost exactly in the movie with minor embellishments and the name "Ruthie Jean" used in place of her’s. On April 22, 1987 Ruthie’s neighbor and a few accomplices came through a bathroom mirror and killed her in a home invasion robbery.
Despite being on the phone with police while it was happening, dispatch did not believe her claims and sent police to investigate a minor domestic disturbance. Though they arrived on the scene within the hour, they left when no one answered the door. A second unit was later sent after a different neighbor reported gunshots coming from her apartment. They also left when no one answered. Her body was found days later only after the same neighbor called again and agreed to pay for damages if they broke in to do a welfare check.
The Candyman characters of Anne-Marie and Anthony McCoy are also named for her. The emphasis on mirrors came from her story as Clive Barker’s The Forbidden didn't include them.
Bonus Fun Fact: Candyman’s backstory as the victim of a horrific lynch mob murder was created by Tony Todd working with writer/director Bernard Rose.
The inspiration for Ringu came from two sources: A 1910 paranormal investigator and one of the most famous ghost stories in Japanese history.
In the film, a reporter and her ex-husband investigate a cursed tape and uncover a conspiracy involving a psychic researcher and the tragic death of two of his subjects. While his name was changed in the film, the researcher and his subjects were based on real people.
Tomokichi Fukurai was professor of psychology at Tokyo University who began pursuing parapsychology experiments as the spiritual movement rose in popularity throughout Japan. Two of his most prominent subjects, Chizuko Mifune and Ikuko Nagao, were direct inspirations for the characters of Sadako and Shizuko. Like in the film, each had their own unique abilities: Mifune, the gift of foresight and Naga, thoughtography - a type of telepathy where one's thoughts are psychically burned onto a target. During a demonstration in 1910, a skeptic declared the group charlatans and stormed the stage to attack them. Like in the film, Mifune never recovered from this incident, later taking her own life after returning to her family’s home. Naga died from the flu within the same month.
In Japanese folklore, an Onryo is a type of ghost created when one is killed in a fit of intense rage. The spirit returns solely to seek vengeance on the living. The one most famous in Japanese history is the legend of Okiku. Versions vary on the details but in short, Okiku was a beautiful servant hired to wash dishes for the lord of Himeji castle. When she turned down the advances of one of the lord’s samurai he got back at her by hiding one of the ten golden plates Okiku was charged with. Losing one was punishable by death, so the samurai offered to cover for her and possibly recover it under the condition she become his mistress. When Okiku still refused, he ordered her beaten and thrown in a nearby well. Her ghost was said to climb out of the well and appear to the samurai every night. Recounting the plates over and over again only to go berserk when she isn’t able to find the tenth. In some versions of the story the samurai was driven mad by this specter and killed himself by following her into the well. Supposedly the lord had Okiku’s spirit exorcized by presenting it a golden plate and declaring it the missing tenth. After being visibly relieved her ghost was never seen again.
Bonus Fun Fact: Sadako and Shizuko are actually named after two of Fukurai’s other test subjects. Though nothing particularly dramatic happened to them other than that. 3. Sweeny Todd
True crime has always dominated the market. In the early1800s, short form magazines were published containing violent and horrific stories of murder and mischief for an affordable price. These mini books were nicknamed Penny dreadfuls. Penny dreadfuls were “The weekly world news” of their day. While some of their stories were made up outright, many were fictionalized accounts of real news items. One of the most notorious was “The String of Pearls: A Domestic Romance”. Many claim to know the origin of Sweeney Todd, but the instance of a restaurant owner selling human meat to unsuspecting customers oddly happened quite a bit. However the only one we have documented records of that has the specific combination of barber with a pie making partner could be traced to a patisserie in 14th century France.
While it's possible it didn’t directly inspire the writer of The String of Pearls, at the time the story was widespread and famous through word of mouth and urban legend.
The story goes that a barber and his neighbor a butcher/patisserie worked out a deal where he would kill people and drop their bodies through a chute into an area they shared. The butcher would then process the bodies taking any valuables and reducing the meat into usable parts. Usually served on toast or as a meat tort. They would then split the profits. This went on for three years. Eventually they were caught when one of their victims brought a dog with him. The dog refused to leave for weeks after his owner went in but never came out. Authorities discovered the bodies while trying to lure the dog away and search the area for his owner. A statue of the dog was built on the corner to commemorate the victims that remained until the early 19th century where it was taken down for construction.
Bonus Fun Fact: Of all Stephen Sondheim’s works adapted into film including Westside Story and Into the Woods. Sweeny Todd was the only one he liked.
Stephen King is a prolific writer with over 70 novels and over 200 short stories. It's safe to say he needs to pull inspiration from somewhere.
This particular one comes from his home state of Maine. Nicknamed The Golden Eagle, the car was a 1964 Dodge 330 Limited Edition originally used as a cop car. The Eagle was sold off after 3 officers in a row who regularly used the car committed murder-suicide. Eventually the car found its way into the hands of a local family, the Allens. When a local church got word that the cursed Golden Eagle was brought into their area, their members began harassing the family, regularly vandalizing the car. This was the worst of everything that happened to the Allen’s directly. The same couldn’t be said for vandals over the years. They started keeping track after the third time it happened: one was run over by an 18 wheeler and decapitated, many others were killed in car accidents and one was even stuck by lightning all within hours of defacing the car. On at least two occasions kids were hit by other cars only to land on the Golden Eagle and die.
In 2010 a group claiming to be from the church stole the car and had it dismantled and distributed to different junkyards and chop shops around the area. The current owner, self proclaimed “sea-witch” Wendy Allen launched an internet campaign to reclaim all the parts and have the vehicle restored. Whatever the church did seems to have worked as there has not been any incidents recorded since it has been rebuilt other than the doors randomly opening while driving on the highway.
Bonus fun fact: In the original novel Christine is just haunted by the previous owner and not alive and sentient like in the film.
Genre favorite Bill Paxton made his directorial debut with a sleeper hit that has since amassed a cult following.Though despite its success many aren’t aware that the story was inspired by a real life killer and his 12-year-old accomplice.
Joseph Kallinger would regularly spend time in and out of mental institutions for amnesia, attempted suicide and committing arson. He was extremely abusive of his family, often repeating the violence he experienced as a child. He was arrested once in 1972 when one of his children went to the police. He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and recommended being supervised when around his children. This was dropped when the child recounted his story. One of his children was even found dead two weeks after Joseph took out an insurance policy on them.
In 1974 Kallinger and his 12-year-old son Michael went on a six week crime spree where they kidnapped, abused and robbed four families. They would normally pretend to be salesmen to gain entry but in the final incident they forced their way in with a knife and a pistol. They overpowered the 3 inside, and laid in wait to ambush the rest of the residents as they arrived. When the eightieth person who arrived, nurse Maria Fasching refused to obey they responded by stabbing her in the neck and back. During the commotion one of the other residents still bound fled from the house and alerted neighbors who called the police. Kallinger and his son were arrested on kidnapping and rape charges, Kallinger was eventually charged with three counts of murder including his son, Faschin and a neighborhood boy. He pleaded insanity claiming repeatedly that god made him do it.
Bonus Fun fact: Otis the ax was named after a homeless person Bill Paxton attempted to give money to. Refusing to accept charity, Paxton offered to buy his name for use in his next movie.