Eric Bana and Chris Coy in ‘Deliver Us from Evil’/Image © Sony Pictures
Horror movies have always played with the notion of "this could totally happen." Arguably, it's because the next logical step is "this could totally happen to you," which adds to the audience's feelings of suspense and fear. Mix in the fact that many horror classics were inspired by actual events - Wes Craven got the idea for "Nightmare on Elm Street" from an article about people dying while having nightmares, "Jaws" can trace its original inspiration to stories of shark attacks off the coast of New Jersey, and more - and you realize that the relative believability of a scary movie is one of its greatest strengths. If a film that's meant to frighten can't sustain viewers' suspension of disbelief, it probably won't scare them.
Sometimes this means horror filmmakers will use the "found footage" technique, which originated as a horror sub-genre, to create a fictional film narrative pretending to be real. Other times, the movie will be "based on a true story."
The upcoming Sony Pictures release, "Deliver Us from Evil," fits into the latter. It's adapted from the 2001 memoir Beware the Night by Ralph Sarchie, a devout catholic and now retired NYPD officer, who is also a self-proclaimed demonologist and paranormal investigator. In fact, while he was still making a living patrolling for criminals in the South Bronx, Sarchie was apparently spending his time off patrolling for demons and evil spirits. Beware the Night details Sarchie's accounts of his various off-duty investigations of hauntings and exorcisms. The film version, which stars Eric Bana as Sarchie and hits theaters on July 2, is being billed as a demonic possession thriller along the lines of "The Exorcist."
But making a horror movie that uses a nonfiction source is nothing new. In fact, the genre is littered with films based on books that detail creepy events that supposedly really happened. Here are seven examples.
"The Amityville Horror" (1979)
A classic horror film and prime example of the genre's phase of paranormal haunting/possession films of the late seventies and early eighties, the story of "The Amityville Horror" began in late 1975 when the Lutz family moved into their new home in Amityville on New York's Long Island. Less than thirty days later, they moved out, claiming to have been terrorized by a paranormal presence that had also played a part in the massacre of the home's previous family. The related book by Jay Anson, 1977's The Amityville Horror: A True Story, would go one to become a bestseller and spawn a film franchise with eleven entries, the most recent of which ("The Amityville Asylum") was released just last year. Of course, in the nearly forty years since the Lutzes first made their claims, many have accused them of fabricating the whole thing, partly because the house has had a number of owners since who have never reported a problem.
"Dead Ringers" (1988)
Although it's unlikely to meet most people's definition of a horror film, David Cronenberg's "Dead Ringers" is a psychological thriller that still manages to disturb and captivate. Jeremey Irons plays identical twin brothers and New York gynecologists, who both descend into madness and addiction. It's based on the true story of Stewart and Cyril Marcus, who were found dead due to complications from barbiturate addiction in their Manhattan apartment in 1975. Cronenberg used a fictional account of the two brothers, the bestselling novel Twins by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland, as the basis for the film, as well additional source material on the infamous case.
"The Serpent and the Rainbow" (1988)
At first glance, the citation that Wes Craven's voodoo chiller starring Bill Pullman as an American scientist researching zombies in Haiti is based on a "book of the same name" would probably lead most to imagine a science versus magic paperback thriller; they'd be wrong. The 1985 book The Serpent and the Rainbow is actually a nonfictional examination by ethnobotanist Wade Davis of the Haitian tradition of making zombies, which in this case refers to turning people into mindless servants and not undead eaters of the living. Davis actually profiles a modern-day zombie named Clairvius Narcisse, and makes the case that the practice is less magic and more a combination of superstition, the power of suggestion, and hallucinogenic toxins.
"The Mothman Prophecies" (2002)
This pretty forgettable Richard Gere vehicle is more frightening in that it was actually made and not in the story it tells. Gere plays a journalist who finds himself lost in a West Virginia town as it's being plagued by a series of odd events. The events somehow relate to his wife's death from a brain tumor two years before and involves a giant being that looks like a man with moth wings who can predict disasters - honestly, it's really weird. But it's all based on the 1975 book of the same name by UFOlogist John Keel, in which Keel argued the connection of the Mothman myth (a popular West Virginia legend from the mid-1960s), UFOs, and the 1967 collapse of the Silver Bridge into the Ohio River.
The most famous American serial killer that was never caught, the Zodiac killed five people and wounded two others in North California in the late 1960s. He gained fame due to his panache for writing to the press, specifically to brag, boast, and demand the publication of coded messages that he claimed would reveal his real identity (they never did). Zodiac stopped writing letters in the mid 1970s and the case went cold, but writer Robert Graysmith, who was a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle at the time of the killings, never forgot. His 1986 book Zodiac was a detailed chronicle of the case that featured exhaustive research and even assistance from various law enforcement sources. Graysmith eventually published a sequel, Zodiac Unmasked, in 2002, in which he publically named his main suspect for the murders. Director David Fincher would make use of both books for his 2007 film about the case and the ensuing investigation and manhunt. The film is a haunting and surreal tale of murder and an entire city under siege at the mercy of a maniac. It's also probably one of the scariest entries on this list.
"The Exorcism of Emily Rose" (2005)
Additional parts courtroom drama and religious affirmation, "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" is a unique, still chilling exorcism/possession story. The movie utilizes the storyline of a priest, whose treatment of a young woman for demonic possession just prior to her death, as a framing story. Flashback via witness testimony, including the titular exorcism, serve as the primary horror element in "Emily Rose." The film is based on a German case from the 1970s, in which a priest and parents were found guilty of murder by neglect of a young woman who suffered from mental illness, a woman they believed was possessed. Felicitas D. Goodman's 1981 book about the case The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel, which detailed the trial and the events that led up to it but also sided with the belief that the woman was possessed, served as the basis for the film.
"The Haunting in Connecticut" (2009)
Part of the recent revival of haunting horror movies based on real accounts, "The Haunting in Connecticut" is based on the experience of the Snedeker family. In the mid-1980s, they discovered that their new house in the Constitution State had once been a funeral home; before long, they began experiencing the wrath of some unhappy spirits (although the film only uses those claims as a starting point for its plot). The Snedekers, along with famed ghost hunters/paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (who were depicted in 2013's "The Conjuring") and writer Ray Garton, wrote a book about the house, 1992's In a Dark Place: The Story of a True Haunting. The film was a commercial success, which the producers would go on to try and capitalize into a franchise, creating one of the oddest movie titles ever: "The Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia."