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Based on a True Story PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by Jeff Wagg   

haunting_in_connecticutA Swift reader asked me to comment on the upcoming movie, The Haunting in Connecticut. It's the story of a family who moves into the perfect house, only to find it's haunted. And while I can't comment on a movie I haven't seen, I can use this opportunity to point out something that irks me about movies, and that's the tagline "Based on a True Story."

You'll see in the photo the large words at the top. And then below "Some things cannot be explained." Er, I'm not so sure about that, but again, I haven't seen the film so I can't comment.

There are many other "based on true story" films that are worthy of comment, however.

Jeff Kelly wrote this article on cracked.com that exposes seven movies with true stories that are significantly different from the Hollywood portrayal. It's a funny read, and well worth your time. He missed a few though, and I'm going to point them out here.

fairytaleFirst up is Fairy Tale: A True Story. This telling of the Cottingley Fairies, in which two girls experiment with an early camera and produce images of themselves frolicking with fairies, ruins a completely compelling story with unnecessary additions. Randi covered the facts of the case in detail in his book Flim Flam! He also wrote an article specifically about the movie, and here's an excerpt:

Need I tell you that the PC script writers have the fairies win this one? Harvey Keitel is the perfect Houdini, and the props and presentations used are authentic to the last link in the chain. (I was originally approached to serve as the technical consultant on this film, but was unable to spare the several weeks required. They retained TV magician Simon Drake for the job, and it could not have been better handled.) Peter O'Toole hardly resembles Arthur Conan Doyle in any way except for the tweed suits he wore. The girls were a bit old for their roles, but otherwise I was generally well impressed.

Then came the blow for which I should have been prepared. To my eye, it appeared as if the producer was trying to present the story in a logical, truthful, fashion, and then realized that his audience might rankle at too much truth. Two major scenes were dropped in. In one, the parents who in reality never saw or claimed to have seen, the fairies are startled when one flies right before their faces, and they look at one another in amazement. The other abuse of reality occurs when a newspaper reporter breaks into the Wright home and finds the original cut-outs used by the girls. Those were never found, not to anyone's surprise.

You'll note on the poster the emphatic "Believe" punctuated with a period as though it's the last word. It saddens me that a truly wonderful story was ruined by unnecessary elements, and though beautifully shot, I can't bear to watch it again.

I'd like to take time out here to make a point about ideas that are accompanied by the word "believe.' It seems to me that most things are self-evident. Things that aren't, like the Monty Hall Problem can be sussed out with evidence and critical thinking. The only things I ever see advertised or promoted with the word "believe," and I include religion in this, are things that are not worthy of belief. Think about that the next time you see that word.

Back to my hit list. Next up: Fargo. I loved it, it was a great movie, but it opens with the words "This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987." No, it's not. No, it doesn't. It turns out that Coen brothers were having a little joke at the expense of other movies purporting to be "true stories," and they added that tag to this completely fictional work. From a 2003 Guardian UK article:

Earnest journalists who went in search of the "real" woodchipper murders were outraged when, after months of wild goose chases and increasingly deadpan obfuscation by the film-makers, they finally admitted that the title card was actually an elaborate hoax - their way of "poking a hole in the true story balloon", according to William H Macy.

The article goes on to tell the story of a Japanese girl who took the "this is a true story" line too far and went to Minnesota to find the money portrayed in the film. She failed, and died in the attempt. And while I don't blame the Coen brothers for her death, my literal mind is irked by the lie at the beginning. Yes, I understand that it's art, and I understand that they have a particularly wry sense of humor, but I would have been more amused if it had said "This is not a true story."

campbellghostLastly, is the most famous not-true based-on-a-true-story movie ever, The Amityville Horror. This reported murder, haunting, and exorcism of a suburban New York home caused a worldwide stir. In its defense, the house and the murder are real. The Lutzs are real. The rest of it though, well, let's hear what Robert Todd Carroll of The Skeptic's Dictionary has to say:

While it is quite common for a Catholic priest to bless a house or perform what is called a "routine exorcism," it is not common to perform what is called a "real exorcism" on houses, despite what was depicted in the movie. In the case of Amityville, the real devils were George and Kathy Lutz, who concocted a preposterous story to help them out of a mortgage they couldn't afford and a marriage on the rocks (Schick & Vaughn 1998: 269-270). Their case was helped along by the media (New York television station Channel 5), self-proclaimed demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren, and Gene Campbell, who produced an infra red time-lapse photograph of a boy (?) with no eyes at the foot of a staircase. The photo was first shown on the Merv Griffin show, few years after it was allegedly taken at the Amityville house, to promote the first film of the alleged horror.

In the 70's, infrared photography was the purview of professional photographers. These days, an image like that is easily captured with an inexpensive camcorder set to "night" mode. The camera records infrared light reflected from an invisible beam shining from the front of the camera. That beam reflects off of eyes just like any beam does, but it looks spooky in infrared.  So nothing supernatural there, and most likely nothing supernatural with the rest of the story. As Ben Radford reports on snopes.com reports, the story is an admitted hoax.

There is one interesting thing, and that is the name Warren. Ed and Lorraine Warren to be precise. Coincidentally, they're the ones who investigated The Haunting in Connectucut (not far from NY at all), and co-wrote the book with Chip Coffey. The Warrens even lived in the house that's reported haunted in the upcoming movie to "observe" the phenomenon for themselves.

I have not seen the movie, but I do have some idea that I may have seen it all before.