7 Real-Life Horror Stories Behind American Horror Story
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
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
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
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.