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Hollywood Horror - How far can the truth be stretched before it's unacceptable

Darren Murray

Being a big fan of horror movies in general, I understand that to fully enjoy them there has to be a suspension of disbelief. Most of the times with the genre this isn’t a problem, but what if the horror movie you are watching comes with those dreaded words attached “Based on a True Story”. The cynic in me tells me that pretty much all the story will be bullshit, with only a modicum of truth. Most of the times this doesn’t bother me, but how far can the true story be changed and stretched before it becomes a bare faced lie.

My favourite film of all time is still William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973). Although I am pretty much an atheist, the films atmosphere, storytelling and performances can’t be faulted, and is still considered to be on the best horror films ever made. Based on the novel by William Peter Blatty, the film is a faithful adaptation, and still has the ability to shock the viewer 43 years later.

The Exorcist is also famously based on a real life exorcism that reportedly took place in Georgetown in 1949. In this case it was a young boy and not a girl that was reported to be possessed by the Devil. The true name of the boy this supposedly happened to has never been published, apparently to protect him. When the case was written about he was alternatively called Roland Doe or Robbie Manheim.

Inspired by this story, William Peter Blatty went on to write his famous novel, but by changing a lot of the facts of the reported case it is a heavily fictionalised telling of the story. This isn’t a problem as Blatty has stated on a number of occasions that he only took the real life case as an inspiration and a basis for his novel.

Years later, author Thomas B Allen came to write his novel Possessed, published in 1993. The novel accounts the real life case of the possession of “Roland Doe”. His book was picked up and made into a Showtime Original Movie. Possessed (2000) stars Timothy Dalton as Father William Bowdern, a haunted man who has seen and been victim to atrocities in the Second World War. Having seen photo’s of the real Bowdern, and read a few interviews, he is quite removed from the sexy priest that Timothy Dalton plays in the movie. A priest, who swears like a trooper, beats up cops and reads comic books.

Author Allen had commented that the consensus regarding “Roland Doe” was that he could have just been a deeply disturbed boy, with nothing supernatural about him. In the movie, there is no doubt that there is demonic possession involved, with their being the usual chairs being thrown about the room, levitating beds, vomiting children, Ouija boards and the rest. Although the film is good for a made for cable movie, there are a number of inaccuracies, not only to Thomas B Allen’s book, but to the real life case.

Some of the facts that appear in the movie Possessed have been proven to be inaccurate. This may be down to being taken from the novel it is based. Author Mark Opsasnick has since questioned a lot of the facts that were included in Allen’s novel, which could account for some of the questionable content, but a lot of the more sensationalist parts come from the scriptwriter and director. Throughout the film, the family only ever contact the Church instead of having him psychologically assessed. In reality the boy had visited a number of psychiatrists who have since stated that “Roland Doe” suffered from mental illness. When Opsasnick tracked people down that knew the real “Roland Doe”, they overall conclusion Opsasnick got was that the boy was a trickster and this wasn’t the first time he had done something like this.

Opsasnick had went on to state a number of facts that the book that the author had gotten wrong. One of these was the location of the exorcism. The others were where the boy lived, who was involved in the actual cases and the level of information that is actually documented. There isn’t even any evidence or statements about the alleged possession. Father Walter Halloran is one of the last surviving witnesses to the real life exorcism, who wouldn’t even go on record on if the boy was actually possessed, stating he wasn’t qualified to make that assessment. Although his character is included in the movie, he doesn’t play a large part in the main story. Perhaps using him would contradict the horror story the producers wanted to tell. Saying this, I would still advise people to watch Possessed as it does work as a horror story, just not as a document of the truth.

Due to the popularity of films like the Exorcist and the Omen (1976), Hollywood was looking for the next big thing in horror, which they were given with the DeFeo murders in 1974 and the subsequent Amityville haunting case. Made in 1979, The Amityville Haunting, receiving mainly poor reviews, went on to become a financial success becoming the second highest grossing film in the country of that year. It also went on to spawn a number of spinoffs and sequels, each one poorer than the last.

Probably one of the most well known and documented haunted house stories, the Amityville Horror has also been heavily criticised by investigators. The film, taking a lot of its plot from the novel by Jay Anson, but also taking dramatic licence when required, includes a number of scenes that have since been proven to be false. The part of George Lutz, as played in the movie by James Brolin, is shown as the film goes on, to be “Falling Apart”. This means him acting angry and sullen. His real life counterpart was apparently so upset with his portrayal in the film he took the producers to court, something he would do again with the remake.

Throughout the novel and the movie, there are a number of incidents that take place that have since been challenged. The plague of flies could be down to something as simple as there being six people killed in the house before, and the house being sealed. The sudden opening of windows was also explained, as the counter weights in the room weren’t set right and when you stood on a particular floorboard it would cause the window to open. The Lutzes’ also speak of their daughter speaking to Jodie the demonic pig. The simple answer to this, she was five at the time, and most children make things up such as imaginary friends or even demonic pigs. When just looking at the novel, there are a number of changes between the original hardback print and the paperback edition, due to the amount of information that had been challenged. This meant that a number of facts were changed to fit the narrative that they wished to create. From this, the information was further changed to make the film be more of a traditional horror movie.

The character of Father Delaney, played by Rod Steiger is also a fictional character, lessening again the plausibility of the supposed true story. Delaney loosely based on the real life Father Pecoraro who was documented to be heavily involved in the case. Perhaps the reason for a change to a fictional character was that Percoraro has been very inconsistent throughout the years with his story. At time he said a voice told him to get out, which proceeded to slap him. This scene is recreated quite well in the film. Percoraro has also stated that he had only spoken with the Lutzes’ once concerning the haunting, and this was over the telephone, contradicting his other claims.

Lawyer William Weber has in later years stated that he had concocted the story of the haunting along with the Lutzes’ over a number of bottles of wine. The Lutzes’ took him to court over this. The case was eventually thrown out; as the judge commented that he saw the book as largely a work of fiction.

For other information on the Amityville Haunting I would recommend the excellent documentary My Amityville Horror (2013), which focuses on Daniel Lutz, one of the children that lived through the haunting. It is interesting to see how this event has changed his life, and not exactly for the better. It is definitely more revealing than any of the movies made from the events.

I recently went to see The Conjuring 2 (2016), directed by James Wan. An extremely well made film with excellent performances; it is probably one of the better horror films I have seen in recent years, although still guilty of some clichés of the genre.

Like the first film, the Conjuring 2 is based on a supposedly true story. The first film dealt with a reported haunting that took place in Rhode Island in the 1971. During the movie, Ed and Lorraine Warren, played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are contacted by the Perron family due to the unexplained happening in their home. The second movie is based on the well documented Enfield Poltergeist case, which took place in the latter half of the 1970’s. Again the Warrens are contacted to assist with exorcising these demons.

In both movies, the Warrens are shown to be Holy Saviours, working on behalf of the Church to rid these areas of supernatural activity. Anyone that reads into these cases in more depth will begin to realise the heavily fictionalised accounts of not only the events based around the hauntings, but the people that were involved. It has since been proven that both the Perron family haunting and the Enfield Haunting, which forms the basis of the Conjuring 2 were largely sensationalised, and went on to make most of the people involved a decent sum of money.

In the Conjuring (2013), the movie opens with a short prologue about a haunted doll called Annabelle. From the start of the movie, the Director has begun to bend the truth. The doll of Annabelle as used in the film is very creepy, with staring eyes and a cracked face. The real Annabelle unfortunately couldn’t be any further from this, being an old traditional Raggedy Ann doll. I am also pretty sure that it isn’t possessed by an ancient spirit, although I can’t confirm this. I understand why the production would change this part, as they are more concerned with the horror aspects of the story than the actual truth.

After the prologue, we are introduced to the Perron family, who move to a new home in Harrisville, Rhode Island. Within days of moving in they are being terrorised by strange phenomena. They seek out the Warren’s for help. This again is highly fictionalised, in order to portray the leads as heroic. In reality, the Perron family did not seek out the Warren’s. The Warren’s heard about this supposed haunting through the news, then just showed up at the Perron’s door. Apparently Roger Perron was not happy about this situation, which culminated in him punching Ed Warren in the mouth. Of course none of this is included in the film, but would have made for some good dramatic scenes, and made the Conjuring a different type of horror movie. In the movie Roger and Ed become friends and the issue of Roger Perron’s distrust of the Warrens never arises.

Dr Joe Nickell has stated on a number of occasions that the Warrens would usually visit a supposed haunted place, write a book about it then release it in time for the Halloween season.

Throughout the movie, there are a number of jump scares and creepy scenes, which are all well done. Chairs are thrown about the house, and children levitate. Most of the events in the film are not documented in original reports or even the books that have been written by Andrea Perron.

Towards the end of the movie, an exorcism has to be performed on Carolyn Perron, played by Lili Taylor. Taylor is excellent in the part, but I can’t say how well she captured the character of Carolyn Perron, as I doubt Perron was ever possessed by a demon. In the end the Warren’s save the day and everything is good in the world.

In reality there has never been any concrete proof of a haunting, other than recollections of Andrea Perron in her books. Even though she was 12 at the time, she does state that everything she remembers is exactly how it happened. Perhaps being a sceptic I find this extremely hard to believe, and the fact that she was 12 at the time but wrote the book nearly 40 years later doesn’t make it any easier.

In the Conjuring 2, covering the already mentioned Enfield Haunting case, The Warrens are once again back in action. The prologue of this movie takes place in the famous house from the Amityville Haunting, another famous case the Warrens would have you believe they solved. In truth, the Warrens came in at the tail-end of the Amityville Haunting case, hence why Jay Anson, and not the Warrens wrote the book of the case.

During this prologue, Lorraine has a vision of a Demonic Nun, who she witnesses killing her husband. The nun recurs throughout the movie and is used to good effect, resembling Marilyn Manson in drag. Wan gave interviews before the release of the film, stating that he had filmed reshoots, as he had the idea of the nun figure and thought it was more effective than the demon figure he had originally used. When basing a film on truth, you theoretically shouldn’t be able to go in after the fact and change a character to something else entirely, even if it does make for more effective scares.

Later on, Ed and Lorraine are shown to be taking part in a talk show alongside paranormal investigator Stephen Kaplan. During this scene Ed and Kaplan get into an argument, with Kaplan being made in the film to look like an idiot. My main issue with this is that I have seen the real version of this interview. Unlike the movie, the interview did not include Stephen Kaplan, but Dr Joe Nickell, a renowned sceptic. A lot of the dialogue they exchanged is used in the movie, but attributed to Kaplan instead of Nickell. Their reasoning for this must be that unlike Nickell, Kaplan can be ridiculed as whilst he was alive he advertised himself as a vampirologist. Kaplan can be viewed with scorn if anyone took it upon themselves to look him up. If they were to look up Nickell they would find he is an educated man with legitimate reasoning for his comments.

The film then moves on to London and follows the Hodgson family, who live in a run-down Council house. Like most haunted house films, the haunting begins with the usual noises in the attic etc. It then escalates from there. The Warrens are then called to London to assist in the case.

It is surprising that James Wan decided to base the second Conjuring movie on the Enfield case, as it has been heavily debunked in the ensuing years, and it was proven that the girls who lived in the house had staged incidents. Wan includes scenes in the movie for dramatic effect, when it shows one of the girls setting up such an incident to make the investigators think that they have faked everything, only for it to be revealed that this is the demons plan. In truth, it is more likely that they did stage these events. One of the famous photographs, which are used in the movie, is of the girl levitating off her bed. Looking at the photograph, it is quite laughable how people would base a theory of the existence of the supernatural on what is clearly a photograph of a child jumping off a bed.

Also roughly a year before the Conjuring 2, Sky Television produced a mini-series based on the same case. The Enfield Haunting (2015), is not as effective as The Conjuring 2, but seems to stick more closely to the facts than its Hollywood counterpart. Still highly fictionalised, it does at least include the original investigators that worked on the investigation, Maurice Grosse and Guy Playfair played by Timothy Spall and Matthew McFadden. Surprisingly Playfair is absent from the Conjuring 2, not even being name checked. A lot of the activities that he was involved in during the investigation are attributed to Ed Warren in the film, such as the recording of Playfair having a conversation with “Bill” who was apparently speaking through Janet Hodgson.

It has also been documented that only Ed visited the house in England, with no appearance at all from Lorraine. When Ed couldn’t convince Playfair to hand over the investigation to them, he ended up leaving. The Conjuring 2 would have you believe that Ed and Lorraine solved the whole case with a little assistance, but not much, from Maurice Gross. Now I am not saying that Playfair’s claims are any more truthful than the Warrens, but it is strange that he is totally omitted from one of his most famous cases, considering he was one of the lead investigators and has written a book describing the investigation. Having not read Playfair’s book, I am unsure how much, if any, made it into the movie, or even the min-series.

Unfortunately due to the success of these movies, this is a trend that will continue. I may sound that I don’t enjoy these movies, but I do. It’s just a problem when you know something to be false and you have to continually switch off so that it doesn’t spoil the movie. Would it be so hard to say “inspired by a true story”, that way a viewer knows there will be changes to the known story.

In addition it is not only horror movies that this happens, as I can’t count the number of recent films that I have seen stamped with the statement “A True Story”, only to wonder where huge chucks of the original story went. The only solution I can potentially see for this is for me to stop reading the news, looking at TV or going on the internet. That way I can go in with a clean slate.

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AmityvilleHollywoodHorrorJames WanPossessionThe ConjuringThe Exorcist

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