8 Spooky Movies Inspired by Real Ghost Stories
From The Innkeepers to Poltergeist, the paranormal encounters behind these scary movies were destined for the silver screen.By DeAnna Janes
Be it Japanese myth or ancient German fables, inspiration for phantom flicks can come from anywhere. But the following supernatural films didn’t turn to folk tales and urban legends to source their scares—they pulled from real-life experiences with the paranormal.
Read on for eight ghost stories so freaky they were destined for the big screen.
While filming The House of the Devil, director Ti West and his crew called the Yankee Pedlar Inn home. And though they were filming a satanic tale about 25 miles away, the truly creepy stuff was happening after they left the set—at their not-so-charming New England inn. West told Indiewire of lights flickering, doors closing by themselves, TVs turning on and off, and the entire crew having vivid dreams on the regular. All of which made for a supremely spooky watch in the “autobiographical” Innkeepers.
It’s no secret Guillermo del Toro loves him some monsters. But in an interview with The Criterion Collection, he said he actually befriends them. As a kid, he’d make nice with the apparitions sharing his pillow, so as to overcome his night terrors. An example: One night when he was 11, he heard his dead uncle sighing, and rather than freak out, he filed the memory away and used it for Santi’s ghost in The Devil’s Backbone, a tale about a 12-year-old boy living in a haunted orphanage.
This lost gem from 1980 is based on the alleged freaky phenomena that happened to one Russell Hunter. In his Denver home circa 1969, he says he heard crashing and banging every morning at 6 a.m. and fought with fussy faucets, vibrating walls, and imploding glass doors. You know, the norm—if your house is haunted by a little boy whose parents discarded his dead body and adopted a doppelgänger all just to secure a hefty inheritance.
5. The Entity
In the early ‘70s, a woman in Southern California was dealing with more pressing matters than a water crisis—she was being repeatedly raped by menacing spirits. Though the alleged “spectral rapes” (fancy technical term there) were just that, Doris Bither made believers out of a couple of parapsychologists: Dr. Barry Taff and Kerry Gaynor. And her story got the attention of Hollywood in this freaky film, with Barbara Hershey taking the lead.
Ever heard of the Philip Experiment? In 1972, a group of researchers set out to prove that the paranormal is a manifestation of what already exists in our own minds. In other words: Ghosts are real, but they’re spawned from our imagination. So they dreamed up the spirit of Philip, a lovely old chap, who indeed paid them a few visits. The freaky séances went on to inspire The Quiet Ones, a film about a group of researchers determined to prove poltergeists are manifestations of the human psyche.
So the likelihood of a spectral realm in which ghosts and goblins play hide-and-seek is a bit of a stretch, but writer Leigh Whannell and director James Wan got the idea for Insidious from ghost stories their friends and family told them. Whannell tells Movie Fan Fare of one such story: “I remember a friend of mine telling me he woke up in the middle of the night, and he felt like someone was grabbing his neck, and he heard this voice say, ‘Don’t you dare.’ When you have a friend tell you this, you trust them, and it just gets under your skin.” Um, yeah, we know the feeling.
Sometimes it’s not so much a ghostly encounter that inspires a story, but rather a ghostly feeling. In an interview with The Guardian, Susan Hill describes the eerie seaside locale that set the scene for her novel, The Woman in Black: “The sea on shingle is quite noisy, but when you dropped down off the path, there was a wall, and once you got on to the marshes, the sound of the sea went, and it was quiet except for the slight moan of the wind and reed beds that make a dry rattling sound…” Jane Goldman, the screenwriter who adapted Hill’s tale for the silver screen, made sure her script reflected that spooky atmosphere.
We all know about the curse surrounding this classic, but did you know its conception quite possibly came from an “oh-hell-no” night spent in a famously haunted hotel? In Ghosts in the Graveyard: Texas Cemetery Tales, author Olyve Abbott writes about Steven Spielberg’s stay at The Excelsior House: He swore “his room was haunted. He made everyone in his party get up in the wee hours and drive 20 miles to a motel several miles down the highway.” So just what happened? Rumor has it his briefcase flew off a chair, and a little ghost boy woke him up for breakfast. He fled, then wrote Poltergeist.
Still from "The Woman in Black" via Cross Creek Pictures; Still from "The Innkeepers" via Dark Sky Films; Still from "The Quiet Ones" via Exclusive Media Group ; Still from "Poltergeist" via MGM