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Six Famous Horror Novels Based on True Stories

By Kristin Masters. Jan 7, 2020. 9:00 AM.

Topics: Horror, Movie Tie-Ins

On July 26, 1984, Edward Gein died in a state mental institution. Gein's case stole the headlines in November 1957, when police went to his farmhouse to investigate the disappearance of local hardware store clerk Bernice Worden. Gein had been the last customer at the store and had been seen loitering on the premises. Officers were horrified to find Worden's corpse hanging in the barn⁠—along with a collection of household items and a suit made out of human skin, and bowls made from human skulls. It seemed that Gein was responsible for the deaths of countless victims, not just that of Worden. 

In the end, however, Gein was connected to only two murders. He admitted to exhuming the bodies of women who reminded him of his mother. Initially Gein was found mentally unfit to stand trial, but in 1968 the court ruled that he was sufficiently sane for trial. Gein was found guilty by reason of insanity and sent to a state hospital in Wisconsin. 

Author Robert Bloch penned the novel Psycho in 1959. Its deranged, mother-obsessed protagonist, Norman Bates, is based on Gein. The novel was later turned into an eponymous movie by Alfred Hitchcock. And Thomas Harris again borrowed Gein's story for his classic thriller Silence of the Lambs, in which the serial killer Buffalo Bill kidnaps and murders women to make a suit out of human skin. (More on Silence of the Lambs>>)

Here's a look at six other famous horror tales based on true stories. 

1. The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty

Published in 1971, William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist is based on the story of Roland Doe (a pseudonym given by the Catholic Church) who was allegedly possessed by the devil. Born around 1936 to a German Lutheran family, Doe grew up in Cottage City, Maryland. An only child, he grew close to his Aunt Harriet. A spiritualist, Harriet introduced Doe to the Ouija board as a way to communicate with the dead. After Harriet passed away in 1949, it's presumed that Doe used the Ouija board to contact his beloved aunt, which is when many believe Doe became possessed. 

At first, there were noises in the Doe house. Furniture moved on its own and objects levitated. Then Doe started exhibiting signs of possession, such as sudden changes in personality and uncharacteristic vulgar language. Neither medical doctors nor psychiatrists could explain what was happening. After failed exorcisms by the Lutheran Church, the Catholic Church agreed to perform an exorcism provided that a diary of the proceedings was kept. Attending priest Father Raymond Bishop performed the rituals and documented the process. During several attempts, Doe physically injured the priest performing the rites, and on other occasions he physically harmed himself. In total, the ritual of exorcism was performed on Doe more than thirty times in several weeks. 

Though the veracity of Doe's exorcism story always raises doubt, nine priests and 39 other witnesses signed the final clerical papers that it was an actual possession. Blatty based his book on the diary of Father Bishop and the newspaper reports from an anonymous source (later determined to be the family's former pastor, Reverend Luther Miles Schulze). Thomas B. Allen later wrote a non-fictional account of the case in 1993, drawing from the same sources as Blatty, along with the eyewitness testimony of Father William Halloran, who assisted during the exorcisms. 

2. Dracula by Bram Stoker

Most of us are familiar with the antecedents of Bram Stoker's Dracula, the fifteenth-century Hungarian prince Vlad III. He was called Dracula because he was the son of Vlad II Dracul. But after Vlad's death, he acquired a much more grisly nickname: Vlad the Impaler. Born in the winter of 1431, Vlad was the son of the Wallachia governor and (probably) one of his mistresses. His father assumed the throne of Wallachia five years later. Vlad received an excellent education designed to prepare him for the throne.

Vlad did briefly assume the throne after his father and brothers were assassinated. But he soon went into hiding due to the Ottoman invasion. When Vlad returned to his realm, he found the kingdom in tatters. He vowed revenge and began the first round of executions--impalements, which would soon become his favorite form of capital punishment. Vlad's temper made him infamous; he would maim or kill anyone who offended him. 

Stoker was not the only author to take up Vlad the Impaler in his writing; numerous poets wrote of him, some even adopting him as a symbol of freedom and independence. But Stoker's depiction is certainly the most popular and resulted in a number of misconceptions about Vlad III. For instance, there's no evidence that Vlad ever drank his victims' blood, but this misconception persists thanks to Stoker's novel. More on the Real Frankenstein>>

3. Jaws by Peter Benchley 


On July 1, 1916, 25-year-old Charles Vansant was attacked by a shark off the coast of Beach Haven, New Jersey. Though lifeguards managed to pull him out of the water, Vansant died of blood loss on the beach. Then on July 6 in Spring Lake, about 45 miles north of Beach Haven, Charles Bruder was fatally attacked by a shark. Shark attacks were almost completely unheard of at the time, and the public was sent into a frenzy. A few days later, Captain Thomas Cottrell reported that he'd seen a ten-foot shark heading north toward Matawan Creek, an estuary that connects to Raritan Bay. People assumed that he was exaggerating about the shark's size because of the recent attacks. 

But on July 12, eleven-year-old Lester Stillwell was attacked and killed by a shark in Matawan Creek. Watson Fisher, who'd jumped in to save Stillwell, suffered the same fate. It was clear that Cottrell's report had been accurate. Only half a mile downstream and less than thirty minutes later, the shark attacked Joseph Dunn, who survived because quick-thinking friends immediately pulled him out of the water. 

When fishermen pulled a massive great white shark from the water on July 14, it measured ten feet long and weighed some 300 pounds. The crew claimed that when they cut the shark open, they found fifteen pounds of human flesh of bone in the shark's stomach. Peter Benchley embellished on the story in Jaws, making his fictional beast both larger and more man-hungry. The sensational story and the subsequent film both fascinated and terrified the public. 

4. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley conceived of Frankenstein during a "scary story" contest at the villa of legendary author Lord Byron. The nineteen-year-old had plenty of real-life inspiration; four different scientists of the era all contributed to the character of Shelley's own mad scientist, Dr. Victor Frankenstein. On Shelley's summer reading list that summer was the work of Italian physicist Luigi Galvini. Fascinated by the prospects of bioelectricity, Galvini conducted experiments where he sent electrical currents through the bodies of dead frogs and noted that it caused the frogs' muscles to twitch post-mortem.

Galvini's nephew Giovanni Aldini used the same process to reanimate human limbs. He conducted a famous experiment in 1803, reanimating the limbs of an executed criminal in front of an audience at the Royal College of Physicians in London. Though Shelley probably didn't attend the demonstration (she would have been about six years old, after all), Aldini's experiment was treated more like a public spectacle and remained a famous event for years after. 

Meanwhile Scottish surgeon Andrew Ure was conducting similar experiments on executed criminals. He went a step further than Galvini and Aldini, arguing that an electrical current to the phrenic nerve could actually reanimate a corpse following death by strangulation, drowning, or suffocation. Passages from Ure's journals could come directly from Frankenstein. 

But Johann Konrad Dippel most closely resembles Shelley's Frankenstein. An eighteenth-century alchemist, Dippel performed his experiments at Castle Frankenstein. In addition to searching for a way to turn other elements into gold, Dippel also stole bodies from the castle graveyard and tried to bring them back to life with his potions and concoctions. More on the Real Frankenstein>>

5. Audrey Rose by Frank De Felitta

Frank De Felitta published Audrey Rose in 1975. The novel recounts the tale of a man who loses his daughter in a fiery car crash. Eleven years later, he believes that the soul of his daughter has inhabited a young girl named Ivy. De Felitta said in an 1976 interview with People magazine that his novel was inspired by events that happened to De Felitta's own family.

One day De Felitta and his wife, Dorothy, were sitting on the front porch when they heard piano music coming from inside their home. They went in to find their six-year-old son sitting at the piano, playing perfectly. But the boy had never previously shown any musical aptitude or received piano instruction. In the following weeks, the De Felittas' son exhibited other signs of precocious or unexplained talent. 

De Felitta went to see Los Angeles occultist Barbara Ryan. She explained that the author's son was experiencing an "incarnation leak," that is, he was manifesting innate memories gained from previous lives. De Felitta began reading the works of American mystic Edgar Cayce, along with Hindu texts on reincarnation and the journals of a psychiatrist who was investigating the topic at the University of Virginia. From all these sources, Audrey Rose emerged. 

6. The Shining by Stephen King

Stephen_Kings_The_Shining_-_signed__dated_6_months_after_publication._(1)When Stanley Kubrik's "The Shining" made its debut, Stephen King had quite a lot to say about it--and none of it was good. Indeed, King vocally opposed the adaptation of book. In this terrifying tale, a family goes to a remote hotel, where the father, Jack Torrence, has accepted a position as winter caretaker. Isolated from outsiders, they experience a series of horrific experiences and Torrence begins to lose his mind. 

King and his wife, Tabitha, had found themselves at a similar hotel in Colorado, where they were the only guests as the hotel prepared to close for winter. One evening, the couple found themselves completely alone at dinner. That night King had a terrible nightmare, he "dreamed of [his] three-year-old son running through the corridors, looking back over his shoulder, eyes wide, screaming. He was being chased by a fire hose. [King] woke up with a tremendous jerk, sweating all over." He got out of bed, lit a cigarette, and began work on The Shining.

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Kristin Masters
Master Content Brain. You think it, she writes it, no good thought remains unposted. Sprinkles pixie dust on Google+, newsletters, blog, facebook, twitter and just about everything else.


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