“Real-life” doesn’t necessarily mean “true”, especially when the context is ghost stories, but spooky legends have a way of influencing pop culture, as in the upcoming Winchester starring Helen Mirren. The film is based on the life of a real person who believed spirits were guiding the construction of her mansion.
The ghost-plagued mansion in a scene from Winchester. Image: Ben King/CBS Films and Lionsgate
In honour of Sarah Winchester and her famously/allegedly haunt-filled home, here’s a list of ghost stories so fascinating and spine-tingling (and, it probably goes without saying, so ripe for cinematic embellishment) that they inspired 10 feature films of their own.
The Amityville Horror house as it looked in 2005, after its distinctive “eye windows” were sadly replaced with boring, un-scary square ones. Image: Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images
1) The Amityville Horror
Though the 1977 book that launched the Lutz family and their Dutch Colonial home into supernatural stardom was billed as “a true story”, it was later established that the slime-oozing walls, ghost pigs, and basement portals to Hell were kinda, sorta, totally made-up. Still, the place did have an authentically awful past; before the Lutz family moved in, 23-year-old Ronald DeFeo methodically gunned down his parents and four siblings. So whether or not demons dwell there, or just the remnants of a terrible family tragedy, is left to the imagination. And The Amityville Horror certainly captured a lot of imaginations, enough for nearly two dozen movies. It also made sure that anyone else who moved into the house on Ocean Avenue would indeed be cursed… by droves of curiosity-seekers.
2) The Conjuring
From 1971 to 1980, the Perron family (mum, dad and five daughters) lived in a ramshackle farmhouse in Rhode Island. In 1974, famous paranormal researchers Ed and Lorraine Warren – who were also on the Amityville case, as seen in the prologue to The Conjuring 2 – visited to investigate the family’s claims. Of course, there was never any solid proof, but in 2013 Andrea Perron, the oldest of the five sisters, told USA Today that though the film had “some moments of fiction”, she vividly remembered the presence of spirits, some of them “angry”, as well as witnessing a seance in which her mother became briefly possessed. Whether or not audiences believed the true-story hook doesn’t really matter – 2013’s The Conjuring was both genuinely scary and a massive hit.
The Conjuring 2. Image: Warner Bros.
3-4) The Conjuring 2 and Ghostwatch
In the late 1970s, just north of London in Enfield, England, a pair of tweenage sisters claimed to witness very strange happenings in the house they shared with their mum and two brothers – things such as sudden cold drafts, objects launching themselves through the air, chairs sliding across the floor, and unexplained knocks. On more than one occasion, the younger sister claimed to be communicating messages from an elderly man who died in the house. Naturally, a media frenzy was born, with sceptics and believers offering evidence both ways, and the case soon had a catchy name: The Enfield Poltergeist.
Though “the British Amityville” is now widely believed to have been a hoax, at the 2016 premiere of The Conjuring 2 – which was heavily inspired by the Enfield phenomenon – Margaret Nadeen, who was 12 at the time of the events, told People: “We didn’t understand what was happening. We went through periods where we just couldn’t believe what happened really. It’s frightening.” In addition to The Conjuring sequel, the Enfield Poltergeist also informed Ghostwatch, a 1992 BBC Halloween special that famously terrified viewers who fell for its faux-documentary set-up, believing it was totally real.
Annabelle, here to haunt your nightmares. Image: Warner Bros.
The popularity of The Conjuring didn’t stop with its sequel. Creepy doll Annabelle, first introduced as a fright-adjacent to the Perron family saga, got a spin-off and a prequel-sequel that traced its malevolent shenanigans prior to landing in Ed and Lorraine Warren’s museum of haunted objects. The stories explored in Annabelle and Annabelle: Creation were, of course, 99 per cent fictitious, but the doll is real – though in actuality, it’s a cloth Raggedy Ann rather than a pink-cheeked, perma-grinning porcelain ghoul. The story goes that the Warrens brought the doll into their collection in 1970 after it tried to strangle a friend of its owner. In 2017, when Creation was released, Lorraine Warren told USA Today that the doll (which really is kept in a special glass case, as seen in The Conjuring) is possessed with an “inhuman demonic spirit”, noting that “it’s not what the doll looks like that makes it scary; it is what has been infused within the doll: Evil.”
6) The Haunting in Connecticut
The spectre of the Warrens also lurks within The Haunting in Connecticut; though they don’t appear as characters in the movie, they were involved in the “true story” that inspired the film. In 1986, the Snedeker family moved to Southington, Connecticut to be closer to the hospital where their son was undergoing treatment for Hodgkin’s disease. To their chagrin, their new house had, at one time, been a mortuary… and the spirits of the dead were apparently still hanging on. The Warrens were called in and pronounced the house “possessed”, and though that diagnosis was later widely discredited, it was a freaky enough tale to inspire the first episode of the purportedly “true story” TV show A Haunting in 2002, and subsequently a feature film in 2009. As it happens, the second episode of A Haunting – about a little girl whose imaginary playmate is actually a mysterious ghost named “Mr Gordy” – was also made into a film, albeit with an exceedingly elaborated plot, and with perhaps the most geographically twisted movie title ever: The Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia.
7) The Changeling
In this 1980 chiller, a grief-stricken composer (George C. Scott) moves from New York to Seattle after losing his wife and child in a car accident. Too bad the ageing mansion he picks as his new home has the restless soul of a murdered child wafting through its vintage woodwork. The unearthly encounter that inspired The Changeling actually took place in Denver, circa 1969, when a man named Russell Hunter rented a place that soon revealed itself to be haunted. Even scarier, Hunter claimed to have discovered a hidden staircase tucked behind a closet, and to have learned during a seance that the wealthy family who once lived in the house had a sickly young son who died suddenly and was stealthily “replaced” with an adopted child. This is more or less what sparks the conflict in The Changeling, and while the facts of Hunter’s tale didn’t necessarily hold up to scrutiny, he turned the eerie story into a screenplay that became a horror classic.
8) The Entity
The 1982 film is based on a 1978 novel, but there’s an allegedly true tale of terror behind both. In 1974, a Culver City, California mother of four named Doris Bither asserted that she had been sexually assaulted by a trio of spirits dwelling in her house. She’d had a rough life even before getting to that point, and her story was initially dismissed as PTSD or a side effect of substance abuse, or both. But parapsychologists Barry Taff and Kerry Gaynor launched an investigation, eventually claiming to witness the manifestation of a spirit orb of some kind, and the traumatised Bither decided moving out would be her only recourse. The house is still standing today, though nobody who’s lived in it since Bither fled has ever reported anything unusual. The movie version of Bither’s ordeal – with the lead character’s name changed to Carla Moran – is greatly elevated by Barbara Hershey’s intense lead performance.
9) Lady in White
In this tale set in 1962, a little boy named Frankie (Lukas Haas) gets caught up in the search to find the gruesome serial killer who’s been picking off local children. He’s aided by the ghost of one of the fiend’s early victims – a little girl – and keeps running into the spooky title character, who turns out to be the girl’s ghostly mother. Though Lady in White is supposedly based on a ghost story specific to the city of Rochester, NY, near where the movie is set and was made, the “woman in white” ghost is incredibly common in folklore, with versions popping up around the globe, from Mexico to the Germany to Japan. No matter the culture, however, the spirit is almost always said to be searching for something – in the case of Lady in White, it’s a worried mother who just needs a little help reuniting with her daughter in the afterlife.
10) The Quiet Ones
A whole lot of dramatic licence is taken with this one, but the “scientists mucking around with the supernatural” angle is sort of real. Kinda. Very loosely. The movie follows a discredited Oxford professor (Jared Harris) and his students as they set out to prove that the supernatural isn’t real, mostly through questionable experiments on a young girl who may or may not be possessed by an ancient demon. All involved believe very strongly in the actual existence of evil spirits well before act three. The real-life 1972 event that inspired The Quiet Ones was far less dramatic. Dubbed “the Philip experiment”, it involved a cross-section of Toronto residents (including a former MENSA chairwoman) who invented an entity and then tried to contact it via a seance – aiming to prove that ghosts and their ilk are nothing more than creations of the human mind. Though the psychically determined group was somehow able to “conjure” things such as mysteriously-dimming lights and unexplainable rapping noises, they never achieved their ultimate goal of actually making a ghost appear. And they certainly never raised anything like the fiery horror that eventually makes itself known in The Quiet Ones.