?Even now, at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, the public appetite for the supernatural seems insatiable. When one of the History’s Channel’s most popular shows is Ancient Aliens and series like Ghost Hunters draw in big ratings, it’s evident much of the world believes — or perhaps more accurately, wants to believe — that ghosts, monsters, and UFOs really exist.
And while there are many researchers who devote their lives to debunking these accounts, Hollywood is only too happy to use them not only as fodder for pseudo-scientific reality shows, but cinematic dramas as well. Heck, nothing sells tickets quite like a good “based on a true story” byline on a movie poster for some otherwise unremarkable horror or sci-fi flick. Here are 10 “true” stories of the supernatural, extraterrestrial and the paranormal, and the good, bad, and mediocre films which used them.
10) The Story of Doris Bither = The Entity
The 1983 film The Entity stars Barbara Hershey as a single mother who is sexually assaulted by a supernatural force. The film was based on the story of Doris Bither, a woman from Culver City, CA, who claimed she and her children were tormented by malevolent spirits for months. The Bither case is still one of the better-known hauntings in paranormal investigative circles today, though largely forgotten by the general public.
9) The Aurora Encounter = The Aurora Encounter
Long before Cowboys & Aliens, there was The Aurora Encounter.
This 1986 fantasy film was very…very…very loosely based on what may be the earliest recorded UFO sightings of (relatively) modern times. In the late 1890s, there was a spate of sightings of “mystery airships” in Texas. One such ship allegedly crashed in the town of Aurora, where the dead alien pilot was then given a proper Christian burial. The Aurora encounter was part of a larger phenomenon of airship sightings, a precursor to the UFO frenzy of the 1950s, although rather than aliens, such airships were often attributed to a genius inventor (supposedly Thomas Edison himself had to issue a denial that he was behind the sightings).
The film version of the story lets the alien pilot live for a while and interact with the town’s residents. On a side note, the small-but-elderly-looking alien was played by a teenager with progeria, an extremely rare disease where one shows signs of aging during childhood and the teenage years (like the Robin Williams movie Jack, except… not). Whether that represents the fulfillment of a child’s dream or a rather creepy act of exploitation is a topic for another time.
8) The 1942 Battle of Los Angeles = Battle: Los Angeles
On the night of February 24, 1942, during the height of World War II, air raid sirens began to blare in Los Angeles. Around three in the morning the sky lit up with anti-aircraft fire that lasted for an hour, with over a thousand shells launched into the air. Three civilians were killed by friendly fire and another three died from heart attacks, but within hours the Secretary of the Navy declared the whole thing a false alarm due to “war nerves.”
An hour’s worth of artillery fire? That’s one hell of a false alarm. Many news outlets suspected a cover-up, though they focused primarily on the idea of a secret Japanese invasion. Decades later, UFOlogists would latch on to the notion that the targets of the so-called Battle of Los Angeles were alien spacecraft. Somewhat amusingly, in 1983 the Air Force would fall back on the borderline-cliche explanation of weather balloons as having set off the air raid sirens.
The Battle of Los Angeles was supposedly one of the inspirations for Steven Spielberg’s 1941 (which depicted a Japanese “invasion” of L.A.) and directly inspired the 2011 action film Battle: Los Angeles.
7) The Travis Walton Abduction = Fire in the Sky
Travis Walton was a logger who claimed to have been abducted by aliens on November 5th, 1975. As soon as he disappeared in a blaze of light, his friends went to the authorities saying they had witnessed the abduction. In the five days Walton was missing, a media frenzy grew around the case, with reporters and ufologists arriving in the small town of Snowflake, Arizona. Police began to suspect the UFO story had been cooked up to cover up Walton’s death (accidental or otherwise), but a polygraph test of the witnesses suggested they were telling the truth.
Walton reappeared on November 10th at a gas station, believing it was only a few hours since he’d disappeared. His account of his time in the UFO and the subsequent investigation has been the subject of controversy ever since. Walton’s book on the encounter, The Walton Experience, was adapted into the 1993 film Fire in the Sky. The film is best remembered — if it’s remembered at all — for the scene where Walton is covered in what looks like a body condom.
6) The Mothman Prophecies = The Mothman Prophecies
Between 1966 and 1967 near Point Pleasant, West Virginia, there were a series of sightings of an insect-like creature that came to be known as the Mothman. Theories as to the nature of the creature have run from aliens to snowy owls, but author John Keel used the sightings to weave a heady mixture of paranormal theories in his 1975 book The Mothman Prophecies.
The book was loosely adapted into an arguably even weirder movie in 2002, starring Richard Gere. The film was more coy in its references to the supernatural, using them more as a backdrop for the character drama.
5) The Philadelphia Experiment = The Philadelphia Experiment
One of the strangest events of paranormal history was the so-called Philadelphia Experiment. There are a few different versions of the story, but the basic outline goes like this: in the early 1940s, the U.S. Navy was conducting a test of a “cloaking device” based on Einstein’s Unified Field Theory (which, according to proponents of the story, Einstein discovered but then suppressed because humanity was not ready for it). The experiment would, in theory, bend light around an object so as to render it invisible. The first test was (allegedly) conducted at the Philadelphia Naval Yard on July 22, 1943, and resulted in the ship being rendered invisible except for a “greenish fog,” though many of the soldiers became nauseous.
Next comes the even weirder part. The instruments used for the experiment were re-calibrated and the test was (again, allegedly) repeated on October 28. This time, the entire ship vanished from the area in a flash of light, reappearing 200 miles away in Norfolk, Virginia, where it was seen by several witnesses before vanishing again and returning to Philadelphia. Oh, and they went back ten seconds in time, too. Some versions describe side effects such as crew members being fused to bulkheads or simply vanishing entirely.
Even more than the other events on this list, the Philadelphia Experiment is understood to be an elaborately detailed hoax, but the bizarre details (i.e., Einstein’s Unified Field Theory, the greenish fog, crewmen fused to bulkheads, etc.) made it irresistible to Hollywood. The story was adapted into a 1984 film that added a new wrinkle: the only two survivors of the experiment are thrown forty years into the future. The story was also referenced in the X-Files episode “D?d Kalm” and may have partly inspired the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Pegasus.”
4) The Story of Clairvius Narcisse = The Serpent and the Rainbow
Clairvius Narcisse was a Haitian man who allegedly died and was buried in 1962, only to return to his home village in 1980. His case is explored in researcher Wade Davis’s nonfiction book The Serpent and the Rainbow; according to Davis, Narcisse was poisoned by a local witch doctor with a special mixture that caused the body to mimic death. After he was buried, the witch doctor or his associates dug up Narcisse and he was sent to work on a plantation, where he and his fellow workers were kept in a state of docility and incoherence through continual poisoning — i.e., maintained as zombies. Eventually the plantation owner died and Narcisse recovered, finally finding his way home nearly twenty years later.
The validity of Narcisse’s story remains controversial, but in 1988 Wes Craven very loosely adapted it into a horror film of the same name starring Bill Pullman.
3) The Amityville Horror = The Amityville Horror
While most people know of The Amityville Horror from the 1979 film (or perhaps the 2005 remake whose trailer is above[sorry, YouTube forced my hand there]), you may not know it was based on a 1977 book by Jay Anson that described the alleged real-life events that occurred to the Lutz family two years earlier.
The Lutzes moved into the Amityville house in 1975, thirteen months after Ronald DeFeo, Jr. shot and killed six memories of his family. Over the next twenty-eight days, the book claims, the Lutzes were tormented by all manner of supernatural phenomena.
Many aspects of the Lutzes’ story were at best called into question or at worse, entirely debunked (the whole thing may have been a hoax dreamed up at a drunken meeting between the Lutzes and DeFeo’s defense attorney). But that didn’t stop Hollywood from making ten films based on the case since 1979.
2) The Roswell Incident = Roswell
Everyone knows about this one: in summer 1947, a UFO allegedly crashed a few dozen miles from the New Mexico town of Roswell. Though there were a few press reports that mentioned “flying discs,” the Air Force quickly identified the debris as a weather balloon and the entire incident was forgotten until 1978, when the Army Air Field officer responsible for investigating the incident suggested there was something amiss about the debris, and that it may have been covered up by the military.
This led to an explosion of interest in the Roswell incident. The story grew as more and more witnesses came out of the woodwork. According to this version, the balloon story was a cover-up for an actual UFO crash.
Roswell has been the subject of the 1994 TV-movie Roswell (above) and the TV series Roswell (1999-2002). The Roswell incident also plays a role in the films Independence Day and Men in Black, as well as the classic Futurama episode “Roswell That Ends Well,” where Zoidberg turns out to be the alien the military attempts to vivisect.
1) The Story of Roland Doe = The Exorcist
In 1949, Father William S. Bowdern, a Jesuit priest, and assistant priest Walter Halloran were called to investigate the case of a thirteen-year-old boy around and within whom evil events seemed to manifest. After several previous attempts at exorcisms by others, Fathers Bowdern and Halloran began a marathon session of thirty rituals on the boy over several weeks. There were supposedly many supernatural events during this time, including the boy speaking Aramaic, words such as “hell” and “evil” appearing on the boy’s body, and bizarre aggressive outbreaks. Finally the boy returned to normal and went on to live a normal life
Author William Blatty learned of the story and turned it into the bestselling novel The Exorcist, which was in turn adapted into the film. Since then, many researchers have offered their own perspectives on what “really” happened, ranging from the idea the boy may have suffered from psychiatric problems such as Tourette’s Syndrome, been reacting to sexual molestation, or even just been a spoiled brat who was desperate for attention. Whatever the truth, there’s no question the case inspired one of the scariest films ever made.