If there’s one thing more abundant in horror films than elaborate death scenes and nudity, it would be clichés. Don’t have sex; never wander off alone; don’t stand up to the guy in the mask. The one cliché that tops them all in terms of ridiculousness, however, is the simple tagline “Based on True Events.” The number of horror films with this line plastered across the poster is astounding. It’s not that a film portraying real events is offensive; it’s the fact that these four simple words have been stretched so thin that they are unrecognizable. It’s gotten to the point that Hollywood could get away with saying that because there were once dinosaurs, Jurassic Park is based on true events.
Sound ridiculous? Let’s take a closer look at the horror films that have been passed off as “true stories” recently. How about Texas Chainsaw Massacre? The “true events” it is based on are those surrounding the life of Ed Gein. In the early 1900’s, Ed Gein, who lived in Plainville, Wisconsin, lost his mother who he had been incredibly close to. He didn’t take her death very well, and shortly after her funeral, went to the cemetery and dug up her body. Apparently, the idea of hanging out with cadavers became more appealing, and Gein started making frequent trips to the graveyard to dig up the recently deceased. He would skin some of them, perform his own kind of autopsies on others, and make lampshades and jackets out of their skins.
Ed Gein was eventually convicted of only two murders; one elderly woman who supposedly caught on to what he was up to, and a middle-aged woman that he confessed to shooting (although the confession would never be admissible today, considering the questioning officers beat the crap out of him until he said he did it.) So one murder, no chainsaw, no teenagers, a thousand miles from Texas, no mask of skinned faces…If it were actually a true story, the movie would have sucked. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre sounds way scarier than The Wisconsin Cadaver Exhumer. (As a note, Silence of the Lambs and Psycho also took inspiration from Mr. Gein, but neither of them claimed to be “true.”)
Another example is The Exorcist. Phenomenal movie, even better novel, but a true story? Yeah, no. William Peter Blatty, the author of the novel, read an article some 20 years earlier about a little boy who’s parents were convinced was possessed. A Catholic priest performed an exorcism on the boy. The end. No Captain Howdy; no Ouija board; no pea soup.
And how about The Strangers? To say the filmmakers took a little creative liberty is putting it mildly. This is one that there’s a lot of questions as to what event is it based on. The Manson murders? The same inspiration as the superior French film “Them?” Turns out the writer/director of the film had a very distinct memory from his childhood: It was late one night, and the doorbell rang. When his father answered the door, a man was standing there, and asked if this random person was home. His father said that he must have the wrong house, that nobody lived there by that name, and the man left. Cue the scary music. Props to writer/director Bryan Bertino for the active imagination, and for coming up with a creepy premise based on the seemingly docile event, but “based on true events?” Debatable at best.
And I’m not going to even start with movies like A Haunting in Connecticut, which, along with Amityville Horror, is a whole other level of shady– “Based on supposedly but probably not True Events that have since pretty much been proven to be made up”? Are you being serious?
The truth of the matter is that the phrase “Based on true events” has become nothing but a marketing tool. If they really wanted to, and based on the above examples, studios could make a case that nearly every movie ever produced is based on true events. Has anyone ever heard a weird noise when home alone? Then Poltergeist is based on true events. Has anyone ever owned a creepy doll? Child’s Play must be based on a true story. Has a guy wearing a mask ever killed anybody? Well then every slasher ever made must be based on true events. So this is why I cringe every time I see those four words on a poster. It’s as if they’re saying, “Well, this actually happened, and we made a movie about it, so you know it’s gotta be worth seeing, right?” Well, based on your track record, Mr. Hollywood…probably not.