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The Stories Behind 6 Classic Stephen Sondheim Songs

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Composer, lyricist, and Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim turns 85 today. Celebrate with a look back at a few of the many iconic songs he has written in his career.

1. “MARIA” // WEST SIDE STORY (1957)

Though Sondheim enjoys composing music much more than writing lyrics, he came on board Arthur Laurents’ Romeo and Juliet update to write lyrics for music composed by Leonard Bernstein. The song “Maria” happens when Maria and Tony—sister of the leader of a Puerto Rican gang called the Sharks and a former member of a rival gang called the Jets, respectively—meet at a school dance. There, they exchange a few words, dance, and fall in love.

“The problem here,” Sondheim writes in Finishing the Hat, “was how to write a love song for two people who have just met. They have exchanged exactly 10 lines, but they have encountered each other in a surreal, dreamlike dance sequence, so that the audience believes that they have an intimate, even mystical, connection. Nevertheless, when the gymnasium set dissolves into the street outside Maria’s house and Tony is back in reality, he has to sing something real.” The only things Tony knows about Maria at this point are her name, and that she’s Puerto Rican—so, says Sondheim, the only thing he could think to make him sing rapturously about was her name.  

There was another reason for “Maria,” too: Originally, Tony had been “a blond Polish Catholic, in order to contrast him as much as possible with the Puerto Ricans,” Sondheim writes. “This gave the name ‘Maria’ a religious resonance, which I pushed with the line ‘Say it soft and it’s almost like praying.’” The Polish-Catholic thing was eventually dropped, though, and Sondheim laments that now, the line “makes little sense and merely contributed a kind of overall wetness to the lyric—a wetness, I regret to say, which persists throughout all the romantic lyrics in the show, but which appealed to my collaborators and which may very well have contributed to the score’s popularity.”

2. “ROSE’S TURN” // GYPSY (1959)

Though he was worried that writing lyrics would pigeonhole him as a lyricist, Sondheim picked up his pen again to write the lyrics for the Ethel Merman vehicle Gypsy, with a book by Laurents and music by Jule Styne. Sondheim called the musical, which was loosely based on the memoirs of famous burlesque entertainer Gypsy Rose Lee (aka Louise) and focusing on her domineering stagemother, Rose, “the show where I came of age—lyrically, at any rate.”

Originally, the scene featuring Rose’s breakdown wasn’t going to be a song at all, but “a surreal ballet, in which Rose would be confronted by all the people in her life,” according to Sondheim. But a week into the rehearsals, choreographer Jerome Robbins said he wouldn’t have time to teach Merman a ballet. So it would have to be a song. Styne had a prior engagement that night, so Sondheim sat down with Robbins to discuss what the number should be. “I suggested to Jerry that since he wanted all the people in the story to collide in a ballet, perhaps if Rose’s breakdown were to be sung rather than danced it could comprise fragments of all the songs associated with her and the people in her life; the songs we’d heard all evening, colliding in an extended surreal medley consisting of fragments of the score.” As Sondheim improvised on the piano, Robbins danced across the stage, “like a stripper, but a clumsy one: like Rose doing a strip,” Sondheim writes. “That was the beginning of three exhilarating hours of musical and choreographic improvisation, as we shaped and constructed the number to be a summary of the score. I even improvised lyrics, something which was anathema to me.”

The next day, Sondheim and Styne filled out the number, then played it for Merman at rehearsal. She was unsure: “It’s sorta more an aria than a song,” she said, but Sondheim was able to assure her that “it was merely a collage of songs that she had either sung or heard during the course of the show. That seemed to calm her.”

During previews, “Rose’s Turn” ended on a much different note. “I had persuaded Jule to end the number on a high, dissonant chord of eerie violin harmonics: a woman having a nervous breakdown would not wind up on a triumphant tonic chord,” Sondheim writes. But when his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein, came to see the show, he suggested that the song end in a show-stopping climax. Otherwise, he argued, the audience would be waiting for the curtain call, when they could give Merman the ovation she deserved, instead of listening to the scene that followed the song, in which Rose and Louise reconciled and made the point that all children become their parents. “Gently chastened, I gave up and we affixed a big ending and a tonic chord to the song,” Sondheim writes. “Ethel got an enormous ovation and the audience listened to the last scene in rapt silence. Lesson learned.”

3. “LADIES WHO LUNCH” // COMPANY (1970)

Company’s Joanne—a cynical older woman who is friends with the show’s main character, Robert—was based on the legendary Elaine Stritch, “or at least on her acerbic delivery of self-assessment,” Sondheim writes in Finishing the Hat.

The song “Ladies Who Lunch” marked the third time (after Gypsy and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) that the lyricist/composer had to write music and lyrics for a specific personality playing a character. “The song fit her perfectly, the only problem occurring when, in all innocence, she asked me what kind of pastry ‘a piece of Mahler’s’ referred to.” Stritch would later recount how she thought Mahler’s was “a pastry shop on Broadway ... The ladies had lunch, they went to see a matinee, they saw a Pinter play, and then afterwards, they went around the corner and had a cup of tea and a piece of Mahler’s. Made perfect sense to me. When I brought it up to Stephen Sondheim, he said, ‘Elaine, I have to go to the bathroom.’” (Gustav Mahler was a Jewish composer.)

Sondheim had hoped that the number would be a showstopper, and the audience would actually stand up when Stritch said “Rise!” over and over and give the performer a standing ovation. “It was a showstopper, but not quite that big,” he wrote. “My hope was probably a holdover from my Hollywood fantasies in which one opening night's black-tied men and bejeweled women stood up at anything—much as they do nowadays, where standing ovations are a forgone conclusion, it being necessary for audiences to remind themselves that they’ve had a live experience by participating in it.”

4. “SEND IN THE CLOWNS” // A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC (1973)

A Little Night Music, with lyrics and music by Sondheim, was based on Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 film Smiles of a Summer Night. The song that appeared in this second act scene was supposed to belong to the male lead, Fredrick, a middle-aged lawyer in an unconsummated marriage with a much younger woman. He is tempted to reignite an affair with Desiree, an older actress, “since the action is his, the passive reaction being Desiree’s, and I started to write one,” Sondheim writes. But Desiree had only two songs in the first act, neither a solo, so director Hal Prince suggested that the scene might be the ideal place to give Desiree a solo, and that “he had directed it so that the thrust of the action came from her rather than from Fredrik. I went skeptically to see a rehearsal, and he had indeed accomplished what he had promised.”

Desiree was played by Glynis Johns, whose voice, Sondheim wrote, was “small but silvery, musically and smokily pure,” and whose biggest limitation was her inability to hold a note. “The solution was to write short breathy phrases for her, which suggested to me that they should be questions rather than statements,” Sondheim writes. “Once I’d reached that conclusion, the song wrote effortlessly … The song sat so well in Glynis’s voice that at the recording session, even though she’d been in a recording studio only once before (for the Disney movie of Mary Poppins), she did it perfectly in one take.”

“Send in the Clowns” was a huge hit for the composer/lyricist. “Why so many fine (and not so fine) singers have recorded ‘Send in the Clowns’ is a mystery to me,” he writes. “For two years after A Little Night Music opened, the only even faintly known vocalist who took an interest in it was Bobby Short, a singer and piano player who performed it in nightclubs, where it made no impression on even that tiny and dwindling audience. Then Judy Collins recorded it in England, where it incomprehensibly became a hit, after which Frank Sinatra’s recording made it an even bigger one, and soon enough virtually everybody in the pop field climbed on the bandwagon. … It even won a Grammy Award as Song of the Year in 1975, amid rock and pop contenders—a song from a musical, no less. (It’s the last one that did.)”

5. “ON THE STEPS OF THE PALACE” // INTO THE WOODS (1986)

After his first collaboration with book-writer James Lapine, Sunday in the Park with George, Sondheim suggested that they “write a quest musical along the lines of The Wizard of Oz, the one movie musical I loved in which the songs not only defined the characters and carried the story forward but were wonderful stand-alone songs as well.” Lapine combined all of the classic Grimm fairy tale characters and added a Baker and his Wife, who are unable to conceive, thanks to a curse put on his family by a Witch.

The story, of course, included Cinderella. “The story of Cinderella has always struck me as the most incomprehensible of all the moral fables known as fairy tales,” Sondheim writes in Look, I Made a Hat. “Here is a plain, depressed slave of a girl, beaten and maltreated by her [stepfamily who] … suddenly finds herself magically transformed into a radiant, opulently dressed beauty, sought after by the Prince of the Kingdom, who three times flees the palace where she is the belle of the ball to return to the hole in a corner of the house where she is a virtual prisoner. And she can’t decide which place to choose?”

Lapine came up with a twist that makes sense: The accident of leaving her slipper behind isn’t an accident at all; Cinderella chooses to leave it there. “She knows she’s an imposter and doesn’t want willingly to mislead the Prince (and the world),” Sondheim writes. “She figures that if the Prince really cares to see her again, he’ll follow the clue she has left.” Cinderella’s big song in Into the Woods, “On the Steps of the Palace,” shows the future princess coming to the decision to leave her shoe behind. Writes Sondheim, “No one, as far as I know, has ever made this observation, and if there were no other reason to write this book, the opportunity for me to point out James’s insight would be justification enough.”

6. “HOW I SAVED ROOSEVELT” // ASSASSINS (1990)

This musical—with a book by John Weidman, and based on an idea by Charles Gilbert, Jr.—featured all of the 13 people who have tried (or succeeded) to kill American Presidents. “How I Saved Roosevelt” is about a 1933 assassination attempt on Franklin D. Roosevelt, which occurred in Miami; instead of hitting the President-elect, unemployed brick layer Giuseppe Zangara, who fired six rounds, hit Chicago mayor Anton Cermak, who later died from his wounds.

Sondheim painstakingly researched to write the song. “There were in fact five bystanders who claimed to take the actions described in the song, although no one deflected Zangara by pushing his arm in the air,” Sondheim writes. “He had the misfortune to be only five feet tall and had arrived too late at the arena to get a seat close to the front. Roosevelt’s speech was unusually brief, and, as he started to sit down, Zangara was hastening to shoot when the entire audience rose to its feet in applause and blocked his view, forcing him to stand on his seat, which wobbled just enough to ruin his aim. Thus Roosevelt was indeed saved.”

There was also a song about the time Teddy Roosevelt was shot, but it was cut. “The bullet would have pierced Roosevelt’s heart were it not for the steel eyeglass case and the fifty-page speech lodged in the breast pocket of his jacket,” Sondheim writes. “So one Roosevelt was saved by being long-winded and the other by being terse, a ripe opportunity for a song if I ever heard one.”

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10 Creepy Candles to Get You in the Halloween Mood
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Candles are always a handy household accessory, but they're especially useful around Halloween, when they can be used to light jack-o'-lanterns, summon spirits, or simply brighten a long, dark night. These spooky lights are more suited for tabletops than pumpkins, or soirees than seances, but they'll still make your upcoming costume shindig extra festive (and fragrant, to boot).

1. KISA CANDLE

PyroPet’s cat-shaped Kisa candle looks like an ordinary wax feline. But as it melts, a hidden surprise reveals itself: a macabre metallic skeleton with charred bones and bared fangs.

The Kisa candle costs $34 and comes in three colors: pink, gray, and an ultra-spooky black. Not into cats? Additional PyroPet offerings include birds, bunnies, reindeer, owls, and dragons, all with the same silver framework.

2. BRAIN CANDLE

Brain candle by Creepy Candles
Creepy Candles

This specimen-inspired candle by Etsy seller Creepy Candles would look equally at place in a mad scientist’s laboratory as it would at a Halloween soiree. A wax brain is suspended in green-tinted gel that resembles formaldehyde, but the candle itself thankfully smells like grapefruit. The Brain Candle costs $25 and is handmade to order.

3. HUMAN SPINE CANDLES

Beeswax human spine candles, set of three, by Grave Digger Candles
Grave Digger Candles

Grow a spine this Halloween—or at least buy one. These notched beeswax pillar candles are inspired by the Victorian Era, a period in which physicians created detailed wax models of flayed corpses to teach medical students the literal ins and outs of anatomy. Etsy seller Grave Digger Candles sells them in sets of three for $76.

4. OUIJA BOARD CANDLE

LED battery-operated Ouija board candle by Twisted Nightmares
Twisted Nightmares

This Ouija board-inspired, LED battery-operated candle probably won’t summon spirits, but it’s still spine-tinglingly spooky. Sold by Etsy user Twisted Nightmares, it costs $20 and requires three AAA batteries, which aren’t included with purchase.

5. BLEEDING HEART CANDLE

Bleeding Heart Candle by Cozy Custom Candles
Cozy Custom Candles

Love guts, blood, and Gothic romance? Your heart might bleed for this candle, which turns into a gushing heart when lit. Sold by Etsy seller Cozy Custom Candles, the heart-shaped light source has a white outer shell made from a high-melt point paraffin wax, while its core is made of a red-colored wax blend with a low melting point. The candle hemorrhages vital fluids as it burns, making it the perfect accessory for a bloody good time.

The Bleeding Heart Candle costs $17 and comes in multiple autumnal scents, including caramel apple, pumpkin pie, and sweet cinnamon-pumpkin.

6. PICK YOUR POISON CANDLES

Pick Your Poison candle by Mr. Toad's House of Wax
Mr. Toad's House of Wax

The “Pick Your Poison” candles by Etsy seller Mr. Toad’s House of Wax appear to have been snatched from the shelf of a Victorian apothecarist. But while labeled “Poison Hemlock Oil” and “Tincture of Wolfsbane Poison,” they smell like fresh fallen leaves, pumpkin spice, and other autumnal scents when lit. Both candles cost $21, and are embellished with a sparkly jewel and black velvet ribbon.

7. CREEPY WOODS & GRAVEYARD DIRT CANDLE

Woods & Earth candle by Geeky Girl Scents
Geeky Girl Scents

There’s nothing quite like the aroma of trees and fresh graveyard dirt on a fall night. With hints of wood and earth, this candle by Etsy seller Geek Girl Scents will make your living room smell like a haunted cemetery. An eight-ounce jar costs $15, and a 16-ounce version is also available.

8. WITCH FARTS CANDLE

Witch Farts Scented Soy Wax Candle by The Candle Crate
The Candle Crate

If you’ve ever wondered what witch gas smells like (who hasn’t?), you can find out by purchasing The Candle Crate’s flaming ode to supernatural flatulence. The Etsy seller’s “Witch Farts” candle is more Glinda the Good Witch than Elphaba, with top notes of peach, apricot, and blackberries and middle notes of mandarin, cinnamon, and rose.

The soy wax candle costs $12, and is sold alongside other witchy, Harry Potter-inspired products like “Number 12 Grimmauld Place” and “The Leaky Cauldron.”

9. GHOST REPELLENT CANDLE

Ghost Repellent candle by Nola And Neighbors
Nola And Neighbors

Even if you ain’t afraid of no ghosts, you can still keep them at bay with this “Ghost Repellent” candle by Etsy sellers Nola And Neighbors. It smells like lavender and sage, and comes with an instruction label informing owners to light it “at dusk or dawn” for best results—although the ghost’s removal is “not guaranteed.” At $17, it’s still way cheaper than hiring the Ghostbusters.

10. ZOMBIE GOLDEN GIRLS PRAYER CANDLE SET

Zombie Golden Girls prayer candle set by The Eternal Flame
The Eternal Flame

Golden Girls devotees who’d follow the Fab Four to the grave and beyond can light up their lanais with these zombie prayer candles by Etsy shop The Eternal Flame. They come in sets of four (one for each Girl, naturally) and cost $40. Color choices include white, orange, and purple.

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40 Fascinating Facts About Your Favorite Horror Movies
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Now's the time when we pull out all of the scary movies in our collections and pile them up in preparation for a Halloween horror movie marathon. But before you grab the popcorn and dim the lights, bone up on your horror knowledge with these 40 facts about some of your favorite scary movies.

1. COUNT ORLOCK ONLY BLINKS ONCE IN NOSFERATU.

In the nine minutes of screen time Max Schreck has as Count Orlock in F.W. Murnau’s classic Nosferatu (1922), he blinks only one time (near the end of part one).

2. THE EXORCIST WAS THE FIRST HORROR FILM TO BE NOMINATED FOR A BEST PICTURE OSCAR.

The horror genre has never gotten much love from the Academy. Though there still seems to be a bias against scary movies during awards season, The Exorcist earned 10 Oscar nominations in 1974, including a Best Supporting Actress nod for Linda Blair, who was just 15 years old at the time.

3. ROBERT ENGLUND WAS NOT THE FIRST CHOICE TO PLAY FREDDY KRUEGER.

NEW LINE CINEMA

Wes Craven reportedly planned to have a stuntman play the seemingly immortal youth-hater known as Freddy Krueger, but (wisely) opted to go with an accomplished actor for the role instead. His first choice was the brilliant British character actor David Warner, who you'll no doubt recognize from Time Bandits, Titanic, and various incarnations of Star Trek. Warner had to pass on the project, which opened the door for the truly excellent Robert Englund.

4. PSYCHO IS THE FIRST AMERICAN FILM TO FEATURE A TOILET.

Psycho is the first American film to show a toilet on screen. It's also the first American film in which we hear a toilet being flushed. (That's just how repressed Americans were in the 1950s.)

5. STEPHEN KING WASN’T A FAN OF THE SHINING.

In 1983, Stephen King told Playboy, “I’d admired [Stanley] Kubrick for a long time and had great expectations for the project, but I was deeply disappointed in the end result. Parts of the film are chilling, charged with a relentlessly claustrophobic terror, but others fell flat.”

King didn’t like the casting of Jack Nicholson either, claiming, “Jack Nicholson, though a fine actor, was all wrong for the part. His last big role had been in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and between that and the manic grin, the audience automatically identified him as a loony from the first scene. But the book is about Jack Torrance’s gradual descent into madness through the malign influence of the Overlook—if the guy is nuts to begin with, then the entire tragedy of his downfall is wasted.”

6. JAWS DOESN’T FULLY APPEAR IN A SHOT UNTIL ONE HOUR AND 21 MINUTES INTO THE MOVIE.

While the lack of shark appearances works to heighten the tension in Jaws, the real reason the shark isn’t shown in full is because the mechanical shark that was built rarely worked during filming. Director Steven Spielberg had to create inventive ways (like Quint’s yellow barrels) to shoot around the non-functional movie shark. 

7. FAY WRAY THOUGHT SHE’D BE STARRING OPPOSITE CARY GRANT IN KING KONG.

WARNER HOME VIDEO

In his attempts to entice Fay Wray into starring in King Kong (1933), director Merian C. Cooper promised, “You're going to have the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood.” “While my thoughts were flying toward the hope that Cooper might be waiting for Cary's [Grant] arrival just as I was, Cooper went on to point at the giant ape and say, again, ‘The tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood,’” recalled Wray.

8. IT TOOK SEVEN YEARS TO GET ALIENS MADE.

Why did it take seven years to get a sequel made? Lawyers and money, of course. Talk of a sequel began shortly after the original Alien (1979) was a hit, but it was delayed because of a dispute between the film’s producers and 20th Century Fox over the distribution of the original movie’s profits. Fox, reluctant to make a sequel because it would be expensive, finally agreed to it as a way of settling the beef with the producers—basically, “We won’t give you any more of the first movie’s profits, but we’ll greenlight a sequel, and you can make money from that.” (Amusingly, the same producers plus James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd sued Fox again after Aliens, claiming the studio had used “creative accounting” techniques to avoid paying them.)

9. BRIAN DE PALMA DIDN’T SEE SISSY SPACEK AS CARRIE.

Though Brian De Palma was a fan of Sissy Spacek’s work, he was convinced that he had already found his Carrie in another actress. His decision to let Spacek audition at all was mostly out of courtesy to her husband, Jack Fisk, the film’s art director. "He told me that if I wanted to, I could try out for the part of Carrie White,” Spacek recounted to Rolling Stone. "There was another girl that he was set on and unless he was really surprised, she was the one. I hung up and decided to go for it."

Spacek showed up at her audition in an old dress she hadn’t worn since grade school and with her hair slicked back with Vaseline. When she was done, she waited in the parking lot while her husband reviewed her audition with the rest of the production team. After Fisk came out to tell her that the part was hers, “We sped off before anybody could change his mind,” Spacek said.

10. ROMAN POLANSKI AND JOHN CASSAVETES HAD DIFFERENT IDEAS FOR ROSEMARY’S BABY.

In her 1997 autobiography, What Falls Away, Mia Farrow recounted the tense relationship between Roman Polanski and her Rosemary’s Baby co-star, writing that in the film’s climactic scene, “John became openly critical of Roman, who yelled, ‘John, shut up!’ and they moved toward each other,” and nearly came to blows. Apparently, it was Ruth Gordon and her “consummate professionalism” that calmed the situation down.

11. IN 2015, GEORGE ROMERO FOUND NINE MINUTES OF LOST FOOTAGE FROM NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.

Still from 'Night of the Living Dead'
Janus Films

While in Maryland for Monster-Mania Con this year, George Romeo shared that he recently unearthed a 16mm work print of Night of the Living Dead, which features approximately nine minutes of previously thought-to-be-lost footage at the jump cut in the basement, including “the largest zombie scene in the film.”

12. SERIAL KILLER ED GEIN INSPIRED THREE MAJOR HORROR MOVIES.

You’ve likely heard of Ed Gein. His house of horrors made headlines for years after he was sent to a mental hospital for his actions. They were so memorable, in fact, that he inspired some of the most iconic thrillers of all time: Psycho, The Silence of the Lambs, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Among the items discovered at his Plainfield, Wisconsin farm were four noses, nine masks made of human skin, numerous decapitated heads, lampshades and bowls made of skin, lips being used as a pull on a window shade, and a belt made from nipples. Gein later admitted to only two murders and said most of the items had come from late-night cemetery raids.

13. THE HALLOWEEN SCRIPT DIDN'T CALL FOR A SPECIFIC KIND OF MASK.

The mask for Michael Myers was only described as having “the pale, neutral features of a man,” and for the movie the design was boiled down to two options—both were cheap latex masks painted white and bought for under $2 apiece at local toy stores by production designer Tommy Lee Wallace. One was a replica mask of a clown character called “Weary Willie” popularized by actor Emmett Kelly, and the other was a stretched out Captain Kirk mask from Star Trek. Carpenter chose the whitewashed Kirk mask because of its eerily blank stare that fit perfectly with the Myers character. 

14. THE BABADOOK SCARED THE HELL OUT OF WILLIAM FRIEDKIN.

IFC Films

On November 30, 2014, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook got a major publicity boost when The Exorcist director William Friedkin tweeted: “I've never seen a more terrifying film than The Babadook. It will scare the hell out of you as it did me.”

15. A DOUBLE AMPUTEE WAS USED TO CREATE THE THING’S QUINTESSENTIAL SPECIAL EFFECT.

One of the most memorable scenes in John Carpenter's The Thing (often referred to as the “chest chomp”) occurs when Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart) attempts to revive Norris (Charles Hallahan) with a defibrillator. As he presses the paddles to his patient’s skin, Norris’ chest opens up and Copper’s forearms disappear into the cavity, where they are severed below the elbow by a set of jaws inside Norris’ chest.

In order to pull this off, special makeup effects designer Rob Bottin (known for his work on RoboCop, Total Recall, Se7en, and Fight Club) found a man who had lost both of his arms below the elbow in an industrial accident. Bottin fit the man with two prosthetic forearms consisting of wax bones, rubber veins, and Jell-O. Then, for the wide-angle shot, he fit the man with a skin-like mask taken from a mold of Dysart’s face (à la Hannibal Lecter) and placed the ersatz arms into the chest cavity, where a set of mechanical jaws clamped down on them. As the actor pulled his arms away, the Jell-O arms severed below the elbows. The rest is practical effects history.

16. THE ORIGINAL ENDING OF FRIGHT NIGHT WAS MUCH DIFFERENT.

The film’s original ending saw Peter Vincent transform into a vampire—while hosting “Fright Night” in front of a live television audience.

17. THE STARS OF THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT USED GPS TRACKERS TO FIND THEIR INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE DAY.

Artisan Entertainment

Production programmed wait points in the GPS unit for the actors to locate milk crates with three little plastic canisters in them. Each plastic canister contained notes on where the story was going for each actor, who would not show the other two their paper. From that point they were free to improvise the dialogue, provided they followed the general instructions given to them.

18. PARANORMAL ACTIVITY IS THE MOST PROFITABLE FILM OF ALL TIME.

Often compared to The Blair Witch Project because of its low-budget nature and huge grosses, 10 years after The Blair Witch Project’s release, the original Paranormal Activity ousted the earlier horror film as the most profitable movie, based on return on investment (ROI). The Blair Witch Project cost about $60,000 to make whereas Paranormal Activity’s initial budget was just $15,000. Blair Witch grossed $248.6 million worldwide, which comes out to a 414,233 percent return on investment. After grossing $65 million, it was calculated that Paranormal Activity made a 433,900 percent ROI. Of course that doesn’t factor in its final worldwide gross of $193 million (which, if you do the math on that total, works out to a 1,286,566 percent ROI).

19. SCREAM WAS ORIGINALLY TITLED SCARY MOVIE.

The original title of the film was Scary Movie, but it was changed to Scream by the Weinstein brothers in the middle of production. They allegedly decided on the change because Harvey Weinstein was listening to the Michael Jackson song “Scream” in his car with his brother Bob. They both liked the title for a horror movie.

20. THE BLOB IS BASED ON A (SUPPOSEDLY) TRUE STORY.

On September 27, 1950, The Philadelphia Inquirer ran an article with the headline "Flying ‘Saucer’ Just Dissolves." The night before, police officers John Collins and Joe Keenen swore that they’d watched a mysterious object fall from the sky. Rushing towards the landing site, the men stumbled upon a purple, jelly-like mass. Collins and Keenen immediately summoned two of their colleagues, who arrived just in time to watch the material evaporate without a trace. The FBI was contacted, a press conference was held, and the whole mess became a national laughing stock.

Fast forward to 1957: That year, producer Jack H. Harris was looking to make a creature feature, but he couldn’t come up with a decent premise. So he asked his friend, Irvine H. Millgate, to try and devise one. "It’s gotta be a monster movie," explained Harris. "It’s gotta be in color instead of black and white. It can’t be a cheapy creepie, it’s gotta have some substance to it. It’s gotta have characters you can believe in. And there’s gotta be a unique monster—never been done before. And the method of killing the monster would have to be something that grandma could have cooked up on her stove." Millgate remembered the Philly incident and the rest is history.

21. JOEL COEN GOT HIS FIRST BREAK AS AN ASSISTANT EDITOR ON THE EVIL DEAD.

Before becoming the Oscar-winning filmmaking duo he and his brother Ethan are today, Joel Coen got his start as an assistant editor on The Evil Dead. Inspired by Raimi’s DIY filmmaking, Joel and his brother created a pitch trailer (much like Raimi’s Within the Woods) to raise money for their first feature, Blood Simple. While Dan Hedaya stars in the final film, Bruce Campbell plays the lead in the two-minute trailer.

22. TIM BURTON WAS IN CONTENTION TO DIRECT GREMLINS.

There was a lot of buzz surrounding Tim Burton after the success of his short film, Frankenweenie—so much so that Steven Spielberg considered him to direct Gremlins. But the fact that Burton had yet to direct a feature film worked against him, and the gig was given to Joe Dante. A year later, Burton released his first theatrical feature, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.

23. BOB CLARK’S IDEA FOR A BLACK CHRISTMAS SEQUEL SOUNDS AWFULLY FAMILIAR.

A Christmas Story (1983) will be a lasting part of Bob Clark’s legacy, but for horror fans, the work he did in the 1970s is just as important. Films like Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (1972) and Deathdream (1974) got him notice, but Black Christmas (1974), one of the first slasher films, became a cult classic and earned him a dedicated following.

Clark said in an interview that John Carpenter asked him if he had considered making a sequel to Black Christmas. “I was through with horror," Clark explained. "I didn't come into the business to do just horror.” Carpenter asked him what the sequel would be like if he did want to make one, and Clark gave him an idea that should sound very familiar to fans of the genre: “I said it would be the next year and the guy would have actually been caught, escape from a mental institution, go back to the house and they would start all over again. And I would call it Halloween."

24. GENE HACKMAN WAS SLATED TO STAR IN—AND DIRECT—THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.

Gene Hackman and Orion Pictures split the $500,000 needed for the movie rights to the book. But Hackman dropped out days after he watched clips of himself at the 1989 Oscars as FBI Agent Alan Parker in the violent Mississippi Burning, deciding not to follow up a dark role with an even more unlikeable character.

25. CHILD’S PLAY WAS INSPIRED BY A REAL EVENT. (YES, CHILD'S PLAY.)

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

In 1909, Key West painter and author Robert Eugene Otto claimed that one of his family's servants placed a voodoo curse on his childhood toy, Robert the Doll. Supposedly, the doll would mysteriously move from room to room, knock furniture over, and conduct conversations with Otto. Robert the Doll was left in the attic until Otto's death in 1974, when new owners moved into his Florida home. The new family also claimed mysterious activities would happen in the house connected to the doll. Today, Robert the Doll is on display at the Custom House and Old Post Office in Key West, Florida.

26. THE CONJURING’S ED AND LORRAINE WARREN ARE REAL-LIFE PARANORMAL INVESTIGATORS.

The Conjuring is based on real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren and their experience with the Perrons, a family who moved into a Rhode Island farmhouse and experienced ghostly and terrifying occurrences in 1971.

"When Insidious came out and was successful the story about the Warrens came to me and I was like, 'Oh, my gosh, this is really cool,'” director James Wan told Entertainment Weekly in 2013. "But I didn’t just want to make another ghost story or another supernatural film. One thing I had never explored was the chance to tell a story that’s based on real-life characters, real-life people. So those were the things that led me to The Conjuring."

The Warrens also had a possessed Raggedy Ann doll that was the inspiration for the spin-off film Annabelle. Allegedly, a demon spirit possessed the Raggedy Ann doll, which is currently on display and under lock and key at the Warrens' Occult Museum in Monroe, Connecticut.

27. DAMIEN ORIGINALLY HAD A DIFFERENT NAME IN THE OMEN.

Screenwriter David Seltzer planned to name his antichrist Domlin after the “total obnoxious brat” child of a friend, until his wife convinced him that it would be a horrible thing to do to the kid. (Not to mention friendship-ending.) He landed on Damien after Father Damien, who started the first leper colony in the Hawaiian islands.

28. THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON WAS MODELED AFTER THE OSCAR STATUETTE.

Universal managed to snag an up-and-coming filmmaker with a prestigious resume to direct Creature from the Black Lagoon: Jack Arnold, whose documentary With These Hands had received an Academy Award nomination. Though he didn’t get the Oscar, Arnold kept the souvenir certificate that the Academy always mailed to its nominees. The little card would go on to become an unexpected source of inspiration behind the scenes of Creature from the Black Lagoon.

As Arnold told Cinefantastique magazine in 1975, “There was a picture of the Oscar statuette on it. I said, ‘If we put a gilled head on [the figurine], plus fins and scales, that would look pretty much like the kind of creature we’re trying to get.’ So they made a mold out of rubber, and gradually the costume took shape.” At first, the creature had what leading lady Julie Adams (credited as Julia Adams) described as an “eel-like” physique. Slick and streamlined, the outfit didn’t come with much in the way of fins, ridges, or body armor. These were later enhanced to give the monster a more menacing appearance. 

29. BRUCE CAMPBELL MADE $93,000 FOR ARMY OF DARKNESS.

Scream Factory

To illustrate the plight of the working stiff actor, Bruce Campbell once provided a helpful breakdown of his salary for 1992’s second Evil Dead sequel, Army of Darkness. With a $500,000 salary nipped at by agents, managers, income taxes, and a now-ex wife, he figured he made roughly $93,000. But the film took two years to complete, meaning his net profit for portraying horror icon Ash in a major motion picture was less than $50,000 a year.

30. AN ACTUAL WITCH WAS HIRED TO HELP MAKE THE CRAFT MORE AUTHENTIC.

To make sure that the depiction of Wicca in The Craft was as close to real life as it could be, the filmmakers hired Pat Devin as a consultant. Devin is a member of one of the largest and oldest Wiccan religious organizations in United States, Covenant of the Goddess, and at the time she was the First Officer of the group’s Southern California Local Council. Devin played a big role in the production process and at times worked directly with the actresses. “A lot of my suggestions were acted upon and virtually all of my suggestions were given careful consideration,” Devin shared, “ even if they didn’t all end up in the final version of the film.”

31. THE NAME OF THE DEMON IN THE EXORCIST IS PAZUZU.

Though it’s never stated in the film, the demon that takes possession of Regan MacNeil has a name: Pazuzu, which is taken from the name of the king of the demons in Assyrian and Babylonian mythology. 

32. WES CRAVEN REGRETTED TEASING A SEQUEL IN A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET.

Craven was rather staunchly opposed to any sort of "sequel tease" finale, but the big boss (that'd be New Line's Bob Shaye) insisted on one. “Bob wanted a hook for a sequel,” Craven told Vulture. “I felt that the film should end when Nancy turns her back on Freddy and his violence—that’s the one thing that kills him. Bob wanted to have Freddy pick up the kids in a car and drive off, which reversed everything I was trying to say—it suddenly presented Freddy as triumphant. I came up with a compromise, which was to have the kids get in the convertible, and when the roof comes down, we’d have Freddy’s red and green stripes on it. Do I regret changing the ending? I do, because it’s the one part of the film that isn’t me.”

33. STANLEY KUBRICK ALLEGEDLY TYPED ALL OF THOSE “ALL WORK” PAGES IN THE SHINING.

Warner Home Video

No one is quite sure whether Kubrick typed 500 pages of “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Kubrick didn’t go to the prop department with this task, using his own typewriter to make the pages. It was a typewriter that had built-in memory, so it could have turned out the pages without an actual person. But the individual pages in the film contain different layouts and mistakes. Some claim that it would have been characteristic of the director to individually prepare each page. Alas, we’ll never know—Kubrick never addressed this question before he died.

34. THE ENDING OF PSYCHO WAS SPOILED MONTHS BEFORE THE FILM'S RELEASE.

Despite Hitchcock's fervent and admirable attempts at keeping the project a secret, both Variety and The Hollywood Reporter published very thorough spoilers regarding the Psycho plot months before the film actually came out.

35. STEVEN SPIELBERG THOUGHT HIS DVD COPY OF PARANORMAL ACTIVITY WAS HAUNTED.

As the urban legend goes, Spielberg, whose DreamWorks Studios was considering distributing Paranormal Activity, took a DVD of the movie home to watch, but then got freaked out when the door to his bedroom locked by itself. “So the whole story about how the doors to his bedroom got locked from the inside ... personally I believe it,” Peli told Moviefone. “It’s not something the marketing department just came up with before releasing the movie.” Spielberg famously carried the DVD to work in a trash bag because he thought it was haunted. Despite the shock, Spielberg loved the movie and suggested a new ending that was used in the theatrical release.

36. DREW BARRYMORE WAS SLATED TO STAR IN SCREAM.

Barrymore changed her mind about playing the lead five weeks before production was set to begin. Barrymore instead suggested she play Casey Becker, the teen terrorized by the killer in the opening scene, to cleverly subvert audience expectations that a star of her stature would survive the movie. Casting directors approached Alicia Witt, Brittany Murphy, and Reese Witherspoon to take over the Sidney Prescott role before eventually casting Neve Campbell.

37. JAMES CAMERON HAD TO QUASH A MUTINY ON THE SET OF ALIENS.

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Aliens was shot at England’s historic Pinewood Studios, which provided its own unionized crew members for productions using the facilities. Some of these workers resented the 14-hour days and, having no idea what James Cameron was capable of (The Terminator hadn’t opened yet), thought he was in over his head. In particular, the first assistant director thought he should be directing Aliens. He mocked Cameron, called him “guv’nor,” rolled his eyes at him ... and got himself fired for insubordination. The new first assistant director behaved respectfully, and things were better after that.

38. SISSY SPACEK WAS ADAMANT THAT HER OWN HAND APPEAR IN CARRIE’S FINAL SCENE.

Though Brian De Palma wanted to get a stunt person for the final scene, where Sue Snell visits Carrie’s grave, Spacek insisted that it needed to be her hand that was shown, which required her to be buried in the ground. “I laughed about that,” Spacek told NPR. "I do all my own foot and hand work, and always have."

39. BUFFALO BILL’S DANCE IN THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS WAS NOT IN THE SCRIPT.

But it was in the original book, and Ted Levine, the actor who played the serial killer Jame Gumb, insisted that the scene be included because it helped explain the demented character better.

40. JAWS ORIGINALLY ENDED JUST LIKE MOBY DICK.

The original ending in the script had the shark dying of harpoon injuries inflicted by Quint and Brody à la Moby Dick, but Spielberg thought the movie needed a crowd-pleasing finale and came up with the exploding tank as seen in the final film. The dialogue and foreshadowing of the tank were then dropped in as they shot the movie.

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