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The best kind of scare is the one that’s real, or just might be. Here are 10 supernatural thrillers that draw upon intriguingly authentic historical facts and personas.
1. “Rosemary’s Baby,” written and directed by Roman Polanski (1968)
Okay, little old ladies trying to get you to wear tannis root around your neck are not (necessarily) drawing you into a maleficent witch cult — but a few aspects of Polanski’s classic about an urban woman impregnated by the devil hit the mark, most especially the coven’s use of “united mental force,” an inside-out variant of a practice used (mostly for good) within motivational philosophy. The best “real fact” of the movie is a fake one: In 1969, Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey (1930–1997) told a Wall Street Journal reporter the entirely plausible — and completely invented — story that he played the uncredited role of Satan in the film. The reporter took the bait and printed it as fact, and Anton’s claim now is repeated in the press to this day. LaVey was never anywhere near the set. Nor was he a technical adviser, as he had also claimed.
2. “Split,” written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan (2016)
The protagonist of this Hitchcock-worthy — yes, I mean it — thriller has 23 distinct personalities, with a super-eerie 24th unfolding. And he does not wish you well (unless you’re a certain kind of person). This is the first horror film based on positive-mind metaphysics: “We are what we believe we are,” the movie counsels — with sometimes terrifying results. Shyamalan’s film manages to be inspiring and skin-crawling at once. Watch it when you’re depressed or anxious. You’ll be both riveted and motivated. One of the filmmaker’s most brilliant and unclassifiable works.
3. “The Exorcist,” written by William Peter Blatty, directed by William Friedkin (1973)
Pea soup aside, the Vatican really does have a closely held exorcism rite — and demand for it has been growing. This horror classic highlights an episode based on events in the 1949 exorcism of a boy from College Park, Maryland. But it could’ve been a story from today: In the past decade, the number of church-approved exorcists in the United States has more than quadrupled, from 12 to 50. Why the sudden growth? Some clerics claim that demonic activity is on the rise due to the culture of alternative spirituality. Rather than play punch-the-crystal-gazers, I believe the change is more political and reflects a continued swing of the dial back to mysticism in the church after the era of Vatican II downplayed exorcisms and the supernatural. In any case, Captain Howdy is alive and unwell.
4. “The Bye Bye Man,” written by Jonathan Penner, directed by Stacy Title (2017)
Hollywood mover Harvey Weinstein originally intended this moderate-budget goosebumper to be the next great American horror flick. He discovered and developed the premise of a serial killer summoned through a Ouija board from a nonfiction journalistic story by historian Robert Damon Schneck called “The Bridge to Body Island.” Schneck’s original narrative told the real (and very creepy) campfire tale of a group of bored Wisconsin grad students who experimented with a Ouija board one winter in 1990 — and experienced terrifying results, including late-night knocks on their doors, incidents of stalking, and whistles in the night, which is supposed to be the sound of the Bye Bye Man approaching. Oh, and you must never think about the Bye Bye Man. If you do, it summons him. Sorry.
5. “Habit,” written and directed by Larry Fessenden (1997)
This underground classic is the best-kept secret in the vampire genre. I consider it one of the most vivid and deeply affecting vampire dramas ever made. The movie intelligently toys with the psychological question of what is a vampire and whether habits and addictions make all of us, in some ways, creatures of the night. Bracingly real insights about addiction combine with director-writer-star Fessenden’s vampire plot to create a tantalizing (and all-too-real) allegory of addiction, leaving you asking what’s real and what’s not. Fessenden is one of horror’s creepiest and most intelligent auteurs.
6. “Hereafter,” written by Peter Morgan, directed by Clint Eastwood (2010)
Matt Damon stars as a tormented psychic in this thriller-drama about the lives of people who have experienced near-death experiences (NDEs). With surprising depth and sensitivity, the film encapsulates many different aspects of NDE reports, which have become a growing facet of our medical and spiritual culture. I’m not always a fan of the afterlife narratives that have recently appeared on bestseller lists, but this movie movingly and intelligently captures why they appear. Best line from Damon: “I’m not gonna go into some stupid trance.”
7. “The Wicker Man,” written by Anthony Shaffer, directed by Robin Hardy (1973)
Set on a remote British island where a police sergeant has come to search for a missing girl, this early-1970s classic was both a fresh start for actor Christopher Lee (who wanted to get away from his more maudlin Hammer roles) and an immediate cult classic. Historian of the occult Gary Lachman calls it “probably the most authentic pagan film to date.” What is so haunting about the movie, as with Rosemary’s Baby, is that the pagan revivalist cult living on the island is composed of entirely ordinary, likable neighborhood folks — who have renounced Christendom in favor ancient Celtic rituals and rites. The very normalcy of the characters, and their witch-next-door appeal, accurately captures the demographic of those today who practice Wicca, druidism, and neopaganism.
8. “FairyTail,” written by Ernie Contreras, directed by Charles Sturridge (1997)
Based on the contentious real-life friendship between Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle and magician Harry Houdini, FairyTail has only Sesame Street–scale scares, but it tells the textured story of how two men — one a believer in the supernatural (Doyle) and the other a skeptic/debunker (Houdini) — unite in a search for the ineffable after the novelist believes he’s discovered proof of fairies in the English countryside in 1917. The film maturely addresses the question: How can anyone believe this stuff? It depicts the figure of Doyle and other Spiritualists of the era in a sympathetic and corrective light, revealing that many seance sitters were simply searching and surprisingly good-humored people, often coping with anguished loss in the wake of World War I. The film also winks and reminds us: Don’t be too quick to judge; life is, after all, very strange…
9. “The Conjuring,” written by Chad Hayes and Carey W. Hayes, directed by James Wan (2013)
I take the “real” events on which the film is based with a pinch of salt, but the significant nonfiction element of this well-crafted haunting tale appears in how the movie approvingly shows thoughtful Christian ethics overcoming demonic doings. The Conjuring is perhaps the first horror film since The Exorcist — which created a bump of young men applying for priesthood — to depict Christians not as maniacal witch-burners, debased hypocrites, or catechism-muttering weaklings, but rather, its heroes are everyday people possessed of a purposeful, road-tested sense of faith, which gives them the courage and ability to stare down evil. Like FairyTale, this movie is a realistic corrective to pop depictions of believers. (A good adjunct to the film is Gary Jansen’s Christian-supernatural memoir, Holy Ghosts.)
10. “Bedknobs and Broomsticks,” written by Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi, directed by Robert Stevenson (1971)
Okay, okay, it’s not a horror film at all. This kids’ classic depicts a good witch, lovingly played by Angela Lansbury, using spells to repel the Hogan’s Heroes–style invasion of a British coastal village during World War II — and it is a great way to teach kids about their aunt, uncle, or schoolteacher who may also happen to be a witch. The movie contains a particle of truth from the war era: English covens cast spells against Hitler and performed rituals to keep the island safe. (Which, along with Churchill’s army, apparently worked.) This is a great movie to watch with children to give them a positive view, and a leaf from history, about modern witches. And it won’t keep them up at night, either.