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7 Real-Life Horror Stories Behind American Horror Story

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The new season of American Horror Story is one for Colonial history geeks. After tons of mysterious marketing, fans of the FX series have already become engrossed in the show's sixth season, which revolves around the lost colony of Roanoke. It's hardly the first time American Horror Story has drawn on real-life terrors for its bloody camp. Here are seven more historical murders, abductions, and other oddities that have found their way into the show's storyline in seasons past. (Considering co-creator Ryan Murphy’s love of callbacks, don't be surprised if one of these monsters returns for some Roanoke mayhem.)

1. RICHARD SPECK’S KILLING SPREE

The second episode of the series featured a flashback directly inspired by serial killer Richard Speck. The sequence showed a man conning his way into a house full of female roommates and then murdering a nurse and nursing student inside. In 1966, Speck broke into a Chicago townhouse where nine nursing students. He tied them all up with torn bed sheets, and then led eight of them into separate rooms in the house. One by one, he stabbed or strangled each of them to death. A ninth young woman, Corazon Amurao, only survived by hiding under a bed, and it was her testimony that ensnared Speck.

Amurao told police about a tattoo on the man’s arm reading, “Born to Raise Hell.” When Speck attempted suicide a few days after the attack, his doctor at the hospital recognized the tattoo from the news. He was subsequently arrested, convicted, and died in prison in 1991.

2. THE BLACK DAHLIA

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Also during season one, American Horror Story revealed that one of the past guests at the “Murder House” was Elizabeth Short, better known as The Black Dahlia. While AHS suggested a creepy dentist raped the aspiring actress and then let a ghost mutilate her, Short’s real-life killer remains a mystery. A mother and her child stumbled upon her body, which was sliced in half and drained of blood, on the morning of January 15, 1947. Her death became a media sensation, and newspapers quickly dubbed her “The Black Dahlia.” This was supposedly both a play on the 1946 film noir The Blue Dahlia and a reference to Short’s love of sheer black dresses.

Because the cuts on her body pointed to a murderer with surgical skills, the police began searching for doctors. They never identified the culprit, but people are still naming suspects to this day. In 2014, retired homicide detective Steve Hodel produced evidence that his own father was the killer.

3. THE ABDUCTIONS OF BARNEY AND BETTY HILL

American Horror Story executive producer Tim Minear traced the alien abduction plotline in season two back to the Barney and Betty Hill affair. The Hills were an interracial couple (much like AHS counterparts Kit and Alma Walker) who claimed they were abducted by aliens in 1961. According to the Hills, they were driving home to Portsmouth, New Hampshire after a vacation in Montreal when they saw lights appear in the sky. A large spacecraft landed in a nearby field, and the Hills could see humanoid aliens in the windows. Then, they say, everything went dark.

The Hills woke up two hours later with scraped shoes and torn clothing, unsure what had happened. The memories returned after both sought hypnosis therapy. Their bizarre tale became a book, The Interrupted Journey, as well as a 1975 TV movie, The UFO Incident, starring James Earl Jones and Estelle Parsons.

4. DELPHINE LALAURIE’S ATTIC OF HORRORS

By Reading Tom - Flickr: The LaLaurie Mansion, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Kathy Bates made her American Horror Story debut in season three as Delphine LaLaurie, a 19th century New Orleans socialite with a murderous streak. That was no invention on FX’s part: LaLaurie is a ghoulish figure who looms large in New Orleans folklore.

Although LaLaurie projected an image as a generous party host, she was a vicious mistress to her slaves behind closed doors. Many suspected her of starving them, but rumors of her cruelty were, for a time, just that. Things changed when LaLaurie chased a 12-year-old slave off the edge of the roof, seeking to whip her for improperly brushing LaLaurie’s hair. The girl died, and her mistress dumped her body down the well.

Despite the public outcry, nothing really happened to LaLaurie in the aftermath. But then, her cook set fire to her mansion. As the neighbors realized LaLaurie had no intention of letting the slaves escape the blaze alive, they broke into the attic to save them. There, they found several dead slaves chained to the walls. Others were alive, but mutilated or dismembered. Buckets of their organs and body parts were scattered across the floor. LaLaurie would have surely been killed by the angry mob that formed after this discovery, but she escaped the city in her carriage, leaving behind her house of unspeakable horrors.

5. THE AXEMAN OF NEW ORLEANS

Another NOLA murderer appeared in American Horror Story’s witchy third season. That would be the so-called Axeman of New Orleans. The anonymous killer terrorized the city between 1918 and 1919 by breaking into houses and slaying residents with an axe. In March of 1919, he reportedly wrote to The Times-Picayune, threatening a fresh attack but promising to spare any home that was playing jazz, his favorite music.

Jazz was blared across the city that night, so no one was killed. But sporadic attacks continued until October, when a grocer got the final blow. Although some speculated that the deaths were spurred by Mafia feuds, the Axeman’s motive and identity were never determined. He remains famous for his peculiar letter to the editor, which was recreated on American Horror Story.

6. JOHN WAYNE GACY, KILLER CLOWN

By The Orchid Club - Flickr, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

John Wayne Gacy’s crimes filled out two separate seasons of American Horror Story. In AHS: Freak Show, his spirit is channeled through Twisty the Clown, a disfigured children’s entertainer who kidnaps and kills. Later, in AHS: Hotel, the same actor who played Twisty (John Carroll Lynch) returned to play Gacy for "Devil's Night," a special Halloween episode featuring other notorious serial killers, including Aileen Wuornos and Jeffrey Dahmer.

It’s easy to see why AHS used Gacy twice, given his backstory. From 1972 through 1978, Gacy sexually assaulted and murdered at least 33 teenage boys. When he wasn’t luring those young men into his suburban home, he was dressing up as Pogo the Clown for kids’ birthday parties. After the police uncovered mass graves in his crawlspace and throughout his property, Gacy was put on trial and sentenced to die by lethal injection. He spent 14 years on death row before he was executed in 1994.

7. THE CECIL HOTEL

It might be called Hotel Cortez, but the inn at the center of American Hotel Story’s fifth season is Los Angeles's Cecil Hotel in all but name. Over its near-century history, the Cecil has acquired a less-than-stellar reputation—mainly because people who stay there keep dying, or killing others. Murphy said the inspiration for the fifth season came from “a surveillance video that went around two years ago that showed a girl getting into an elevator in a downtown hotel that was rumored to be haunted, and she was never seen again.” Journalists quickly connected this clue to Elisa Lam, a Canadian student who was found dead in the Cecil Hotel water tank. Bizarre footage of her on the elevator was later released.

The Cecil was also a favorite haunt of serial killers like Richard Ramirez (“The Night Stalker”), who appears on the show. Several women who checked into the hotel later jumped to their deaths. And in keeping with American Horror Story’s interconnected storylines, it was rumored to be one of the last places that the Black Dahlia was seen alive.

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Netflix's Most-Binged Shows of 2017, Ranked
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Netflix might know your TV habits better than you do. Recently, the entertainment company's normally tight-lipped number-crunchers looked at user data collected between November 1, 2016 and November 1, 2017 to see which series people were powering through and which ones they were digesting more slowly. By analyzing members’ average daily viewing habits, they were able to determine which programs were more likely to be “binged” (or watched for more than two hours per day) and which were more often “savored” (or watched for less than two hours per day) by viewers.

They found that the highest number of Netflix bingers glutted themselves on the true crime parody American Vandal, followed by the Brazilian sci-fi series 3%, and the drama-mystery 13 Reasons Why. Other shows that had viewers glued to the couch in 2017 included Anne with an E, the Canadian series based on L. M. Montgomery's 1908 novel Anne of Green Gables, and the live-action Archie comics-inspired Riverdale.

In contrast, TV shows that viewers enjoyed more slowly included the Emmy-winning drama The Crown, followed by Big Mouth, Neo Yokio, A Series of Unfortunate Events, GLOW, Friends from College, and Ozark.

There's a dark side to this data, though: While the company isn't around to judge your sweatpants and the chip crumbs stuck to your couch, Netflix is privy to even your most embarrassing viewing habits. The company recently used this info to publicly call out a small group of users who turned their binges into full-fledged benders:

Oh, and if you're the one person in Antarctica binging Shameless, the streaming giant just outed you, too.

Netflix broke down their full findings in the infographic below and, Big Brother vibes aside, the data is pretty fascinating. It even includes survey data on which shows prompted viewers to “Netflix cheat” on their significant others and which shows were enjoyed by the entire family.

Netflix infographic "The Year in Bingeing"
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14 Fascinating Facts About Saturday Night Fever
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Paramount Pictures

We can tell by the way you use your walk that you're a fan of Saturday Night Fever, the 1977 blockbuster that made John Travolta a mega-star and brought disco into the mainstream. (Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing is a matter of opinion.) To enhance your appreciation of what was the highest-grossing dance movie of all time until Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010) and Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike (2012) beat it, here's a groovy list of facts to celebrate the film's 40th birthday. Put on your boogie shoes and read! 

1. THERE WAS A PG-RATED VERSION OF IT, TOO.

Saturday Night Fever was an instant hit when it was released in December 1977, quickly becoming one of the highest-grossing movies of the year. What's especially impressive is that it did this despite being rated R and thus (theoretically) inaccessible to teenagers, the very audience that a disco movie would (theoretically) appeal to. And so in March 1979, the film was re-released in a PG version, with all the profanity, sex, and violence either deleted or downplayed. This version took in another $8.9 million (about $30 million at 2016 ticket prices), bringing the film's U.S. total to $94.2 million. Both versions were released on VHS and laserdisc, though the R-rated cut didn't become widely available on home video until the DVD upgrade. 

2. IT WAS BASED ON A MAGAZINE ARTICLE THAT TURNED OUT TO BE SEMI-FICTIONAL.

"Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night," a detailed look at the new generation of urban teenagers by British journalist Nik Cohn, was published in New York Magazine in June 1976. The central figure in the article was Vincent, "the very best dancer in Bay Ridge," whose name was changed to Tony Manero for the movie. But years later, Cohn confessed: "[Vincent] is completely made-up, a total fabrication." The styles and attitudes Cohn had described were real, but not the main character. Cohn said he'd only recently arrived in Brooklyn, didn't know the scene well, and based Vincent on a Mod he'd known in London in the '60s.

3. THE BEE GEES HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH IT.

Most of the film had already been shot when music producer-turned-movie producer Robert Stigwood commissioned the Bee Gees to write songs for it. The brothers, only modestly successful at that point and hard at work on their next album, didn't know what the movie was about but cranked out a few tunes in a weekend. They also repurposed several songs they'd been working on, including "Stayin' Alive," a demo version of which was prepared in time to be used in filming the opening "strut" sequence. (You'll notice Travolta struts in sync with the music.) So if the movie's signature songs didn't come until later, what were the cast members listening to when they shot the dance scenes? According to Travolta, it was Boz Scaggs and Stevie Wonder. 

4. THE SOUNDTRACK ALBUM BROKE ALL KINDS OF RECORDS.

With 15 million copies sold in the U.S. alone, Saturday Night Fever was the top-selling soundtrack album of all time before being supplanted by The Bodyguard some 15 years later. It's also the only disco record (so far) to win the Grammy for Album of the Year, and one of only three soundtracks (besides The Bodyguard and O Brother, Where Art Thou?) to win that category. It was the number one album on the Billboard charts for the entire first half of 1978, and stayed on the charts until March 1980, long after the supposed death of disco.

5. THE MOVIE EXTENDED DISCO'S LIFESPAN BY A FEW YEARS.

Disco had been popular enough in the mid-1970s to land multiple disco tunes on the Billboard charts, but by the end of 1977, when Saturday Night Fever came out, the backlash had started and the trend was on its way out. But thanks to the movie (and its soundtrack), not only did disco not die out, it achieved more widespread, mainstream, middle-America success than it ever had before.

6. IT HAS SOME ROCKY CONNECTIONS.


Paramount Pictures

First connection: It was supposed to be directed by John G. Avildsen, whose previous film was Rocky. Ultimately, that didn’t work out and Avildsen was replaced with John Badham a few weeks before shooting began. Second connection: Tony has a Rocky poster on his bedroom wall. Third connection: Saturday Night Fever’s 1983 sequel, Staying Alive, was directed by ... Sylvester Stallone.

7. TRAVOLTA WAS ALREADY SO FAMOUS THAT MAKING THE MOVIE WAS A HASSLE.

Saturday Night Fever made Travolta a movie star, but he was already a teen heartthrob because of the popular sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter, where he played a delinquent teenager with the hilarious and timeless catchphrase "Up your nose with a rubber hose." Still, nobody was prepared for how Travolta's fame would affect the movie, which was to be shot on the streets of Brooklyn. As soon as the neighborhood found out Travolta was there, the sidewalks were swarmed by thousands of onlookers, many of them squealing teenage girls. (Badham said there were also a lot of teenage boys holding signs expressing their hatred for Travolta for being more desirable than themselves.)

Co-star Donna Pescow said, "The fans—oh, my God, they were all over him. It was scary to watch." Badham said, "By noon of the first day, we had to shut down and go home." Since it was nearly impossible to keep the crowds away (or quiet), Badham and the crew resorted to filming in the middle of the night or at the crack of dawn. 

8. THE WHITE CASTLE EMPLOYEES WEREN'T ACTING WHEN THEY LOOKED SHOCKED. 


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In the brief scene where Tony, his boys, and Stephanie are loudly eating at White Castle, those were the real burger-flippers, not actors. Badham told them to just go about their business. He also told his actors to cut loose and surprise the White Castlers in whatever way they saw fit. The shot that's in the movie appears to be a reaction to Joey standing on the table and barking, but Badham said it was actually in response to something else: "Double J (actor Paul Pape) pulling his pants down and mooning the entire staff of the White Castle."

9. THE FEMALE LEAD GOT THE PART THANKS TO A SERENDIPITOUS CAB RIDE.

Casting the role of Tony's dance partner, Stephanie, proved difficult. Hundreds of women auditioned, but nobody seemed right. Meanwhile, 32-year-old Karen Lynn Gorney was looking for her big break into show business. As fate would have it, she shared a cab with a stranger who turned out to be producer Robert Stigwood's nephew. He mentioned that his uncle was working on a movie, and Gorney replied, "Oh, am I in it?"— her standard joke whenever she heard about a film being made. The nephew wound up submitting Gorney as a candidate, and the rest is history. 

10. TRAVOLTA’S GIRLFRIEND DIED DURING FILMING.

John Travolta stars in Saturday Night Fever (1977)
Paramount Pictures

Travolta met Diana Hyland on the set of the TV movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, in which she played his mother. (She was 18 years older than him.) They had been dating for six months when Hyland succumbed to breast cancer at the age of 41, after filming just four episodes of her new gig on Eight Is Enough. Travolta was able to leave Saturday Night Fever and fly to L.A. in time to be with her before she died, then had to return to work. 

11. THE COMPOSER HAD TO SCRAMBLE TO REPLACE A NIXED SONG.

For Tony and Stephanie's rehearsal scene about 30 minutes into the movie, Badham had used the song "Lowdown" by Boz Scaggs, going so far as to shoot the scene, including the dialogue, with the song actually playing in the background. (That's usually a no-no, for exactly the reasons you're about to read about.) According to Badham, no sooner had they wrapped the scene than Scaggs' people reached out to say they couldn't use the song after all, as Scaggs was thinking of pursuing a disco project of his own. Badham now had to have the actors re-dub the dialogue (since the version he'd recorded was tainted by "Lowdown"); what's more, he had to find a new song that would fit the choreography and tempo of the dancing. Composer David Shire rose to the occasion, writing a piece of instrumental music that met the specifications, and that’s what we hear in the movie. 

12. THEY MADE UP A DANCE BECAUSE THE CHOREOGRAPHER DIDN'T SHOW UP.

In another rehearsal scene 55 minutes into the movie, Tony and Stephanie do the "tango hustle," which looks like a combination of both of those dances. This was something Travolta and Gorney invented as a matter of necessity: the film's choreographer didn't realize he was supposed to be on the set that day, and the actors didn't have any steps prepared. The tango hustle, alas, never quite caught on.  

13. TONY’S ICONIC WHITE SUIT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE BLACK.

Travolta and Badham both assumed Tony's disco outfit would be black, as men's suits tended to be at the time. Costume designer Patrizia Von Brandenstein convinced them it should be white, partly to symbolize the character's journey to enlightenment but also for practical reasons: a dark suit doesn't photograph very well in a dark discotheque. 

14. TONY’S SUIT WAS LATER SOLD FOR $2000—THEN FOR $145,500.

Von Brandenstein took Travolta to a cheap men's clothing store in Brooklyn (swamped by teenage fans, of course) and bought the suit off the rack—three identical suits, actually, so they wouldn't have to stop filming when one became soaked with Travolta's sweat. Two of the suits disappeared after the movie was finished; the remaining one, inscribed by Travolta, was bought at a charity auction in 1979 by film critic Gene Siskel, who cited Saturday Night Fever as one of his favorite movies. He paid about $2000 for it. In 1995, he sold it for $145,500 to an anonymous bidder through Christie's auction house.

In 2012, after a lengthy search, curators at London's Victoria and Albert Museum found the owner (who still preferred to remain anonymous) and persuaded him to lend it for an exhibit of Hollywood costumes. It is now presumably back in that man's care, whoever he may be. (P.S. Badham says on the 2002 DVD commentary that the suit is on display at the Smithsonian, a tidbit repeated by NPR in 2006 and Vanity Fair in 2007. But they must be mistaken. The suit’s sale in 1995 and rediscovery for the 2012 museum exhibit are verified facts; the suit isn't in the Smithsonian's online catalogue; and finally, a 2007 Washington Post story about the Smithsonian lists the suit as one of the items the museum director wanted to get.)

Additional sources:
John Badham DVD commentary
DVD featurettes

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