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.

10 Unforgettable Facts About The Notebook On Its 15th Anniversary

Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams star in The Notebook (2004).
Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams star in The Notebook (2004).
New Line Cinema

In 1996, Nicholas Sparks published his first book, The Notebook. He would go on to write several more romance novels, many of which would be adapted into films. But 2004’s film adaption of The Notebook remains the highest-grossing Sparks adaptation, making $115 million worldwide against a $25 million budget. It was Rachel McAdams's breakout lead role (it was released just a few months after Mean Girls); it solidified Ryan Gosling as a “hey girl” heartthrob; and it swept all eight categories it was nominated for at the 2005 Teen Choice Awards, winning in categories like Choice Movie Love Scene and Choice Movie Liplock.

The book and movie follow a young couple named Noah (Gosling) and Allie (Adams) in 1940s North Carolina (the movie was filmed in South Carolina). Despite some obstacles, the couple fall in love, marry, and spend the next 60 years together. In present day, it’s revealed that Allie, now an old woman (played by Gena Rowlands), has Alzheimer’s, and her doting husband (James Garner, as an elderly Noah) helps her remember their storied past. In 2003, Sparks published a loose sequel called The Wedding, featuring the characters Allie and Noah. Here are 10 facts about the beloved romance, which arrived in theaters 15 years ago today.

1. It was based on a true story.

Nicholas Sparks’s book was based on his then-wife Cathy's grandparents, who spent more than 60 years together. Cathy was close to her grandparents, and visited them frequently. The grandparents were too ill to attend their wedding, in 1989, so the newly-married couple brought the wedding to them. They dressed up in their wedding clothes and surprised them at their house. Cathy's grandparents told the Sparks how they met and fell in love, decades ago.

“But though their story was wonderful, what I most remember from that day is the way they were treating each other,” Sparks wrote on his website. “The way his eyes shined when he looked at her, the way he held her hand, the way he got her tea and took care of her. I remember watching them together and thinking to myself that after 60 years of marriage, these two people were treating each other exactly the same as my wife and I were treating each other after 12 hours. What a wonderful gift they’d given us, I thought, to show us on our first day of marriage that true love can last forever.”

Unfortunately for Nicholas and Cathy, their love didn’t last forever—they divorced in 2015

2. Nicholas Sparks thinks the book was successful because it was relatable.


Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images

“It seems that nearly everyone I spoke with about the novel knew a ‘Noah and Allie’ in their own life,” Sparks wrote on his website. He also said the book was short enough (224 pages) for people to read it quickly. “I think that readers also appreciate that the novel didn’t include foul language and its love scene was tasteful and mild compared to what’s found in many other novels,” he said. “These factors made people feel comfortable about recommending it to others.”

3. The screenwriter had to work hard to make the characters seem real.

The Notebook screenwriter Jeremy Leven had the daunting task of adapting Sparks's book into a script. “The problem with the book is that it’s melodramatic and sweet, and you have to find a way to appeal to an audience that is apprehensive about yet another sweet movie,” Leven told The Harvard Crimson. “So you have to give it an edge, make it real, and make the choices the characters face real.” That “edge” probably includes the love scene in the rain.

4. Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling didn't get along—at first.


Melissa Moseley/New Line Cinema

Even though they played lovers in the movie and then began dating in real life, the couple clashed during production. Director Nick Cassavetes told MTV a story about an incident when Gosling and McAdams weren’t getting along on the set one day: “Ryan came to me, and there’s 150 people standing in this big scene, and he says, ‘Nick come here,’” Cassavetes shared. “And he’s doing a scene with Rachel and he says, ‘Would you take her out of here and bring in another actress to read off camera with me?’ I said, ‘What?’ We went into a room with a producer; they started screaming and yelling at each other ... The rest of the film wasn’t smooth sailing, but it was smoother sailing.”

5. McAdams and Gosling's on-screen chemistry probably wasn't real.

“[Our later relationship] certainly wasn’t something that either of us had expected would come out of that filmmaking experience,” McAdams said, “which goes to show you that you can engineer chemistry on-screen just by telling the audience that these two people love each other.” She said it was attributed to the acting. “As an actor you don’t have to feel it. You don’t have to feel anything. Just imagine it.”

6. Jessica Biel was bummed she didn't get to play Allie.


Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for NBC

Unlike Gosling, McAdams had to audition for the role of Allie, and so did Jessica Biel. “I was in the middle of shooting Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and I auditioned with Ryan Gosling in my trailer—covered in blood,” Biel told Elle. “That’s one that I wanted so badly. But there’s a million that get away. We’re gluttons for punishment. It’s just rejection.”

7. McAdams felt a lot of pressure to deliver a great performance.

The actress told Film Monthly she knew she had to be good in the movie, because she had to carry it. “At first I put way too much pressure on myself and realized that it wasn’t getting me anywhere,” she said. “I was just a ball of stress, and eventually the character kicked in where she’s sort of free-spirited, doesn’t care what people think, and chases down those things she wants.” She eventually found the right balance.

8. James Marsden thought the movie was going to be "schmaltzy."


Melissa Moseley/New Line Cinema

James Marsden played Allie’s fiancé—and Noah’s rival—Lon Hammond Jr. The actor told Out Magazine how he tries not to make a bad movie, but they sometimes turn out that way. “Then there are some movies that I’ve been in that I was sure people would laugh at, that have become huge,” he said. “I thought The Notebook was going to be a schmaltzy Movie of the Week–type thing, and here we are!”

9. Nick Cassavetes was the fourth choice to direct the movie.

New Line Cinema acquired the rights to Sparks's novel in 1995, before the book was even published. In 1998, Variety reported that Steven Spielberg wanted to direct the film. Jim Sheridan was also interested, but he decided to direct In America instead. In 2001, The Mask of Zorro and GoldenEye director Martin Campbel almost signed on, but in 2002 New Line brought Cassavetes aboard.

10. James Garner ruined his first take shooting with Gena Rowlands.


Melissa Moseley/New Line Cinema

Nick Cassavetes—son of legendary director John Cassavetes—cast his mother, the great Gena Rowlands, as the elderly Allie. Garner recalled the first day he and Gena filmed together. “She's going to come out and I’m sitting on the porch in a chair or something. And I hear Nick say, ‘Okay, mom. Action.’ Well, I ruined that take because I just broke up. That was so funny. That tickled me to death. But he showed his mother great respect. He was gentle with her and worked with her. What I loved about it is that she listened to him. Here’s a professional actress who’s one of the best ever, and she’s listening to her son tell her about things. I really admired that in both of them.”

This story has been updated for 2019.

Alexander Skarsgård Could Have Played Thor in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Larry Busacca, Getty Images
Larry Busacca, Getty Images

Marvel fans may have trouble imagining Thor played by anyone other than Chris Hemsworth, but apparently, Alexander Skarsgård was pretty darn close to getting the role. How close, you ask? He tried on the costume, held the hammer, and even filmed an audition in the garb.

In 2009—just a year after True Blood premiered—the actor told MTV that he met with Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige and Thor director Kenneth Branagh about the part. “Yeah, I met with Kevin [Feige] a few times and the director,” he said. “There was definitely some truth in that, yeah.”

When the MTV interviewer said he thought the actor had the perfect look to bring Thor to life, Skarsgård simply replied, “So did I.”

But before you start to feel too sorry for Skarsgård, let's not forget the number of impressive roles the True Blood alum has landed. At the moment, he’s playing Perry Wright in HBO’s Big Little Lies, for which he won both an Emmy and a Golden Globe.

As for the Thor role, Hemsworth went on to play the God of Thunder in multiple films, and although his future in the MCU is not certain after Avengers: Endgame, the Australian actor confirmed he’d love to keep playing the character.

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