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by Alex Hanton
Sure, horror movies can be scary, but ultimately they’re just fiction. In real life, there’s no closet monster or sewer clown or murderous STD curse. And they work pretty well as stories we can dangle over our kids’ heads before they go to sleep at night, because we need something to deter them from going out and digging up the dead cat.
The worst horror stories are the true ones, though, so here you go. You’re welcome, and Happy Halloween!
The Plague Was Spread By Ghost Ships
In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a mysterious ship runs aground in England. The entire crew is dead, but a shadowy animal is seen leaping to shore and running off. Unbeknownst to those poor souls in town, a deadly curse approaches them in the form of none other than Frankens- no, Count Chocula!
OK, so it was really Gary Oldman with a hairdo that would’ve made the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland jealous. But that sinister ghost ship, with its horribly dead crew and a terrible threat hidden inside, has become a staple of horror fiction ever since. Even Jurassic Park 2 gave it a go, despite how impractical it is that a Tyrannosaurus could find its way onto the tiny bridge of the ship to begin with, or why it would even want ... OK, we’re getting off track a bit.
Ghost ship! We’re good now.
Real ghost boats with death on board were an actual thing, like in 1349 when an English trading ship arrived in Bergen and everyone on board was either dead or dying from bubonic plague. The ship ended up sinking, still inhabited by the dead, but some of the trade goods had been unloaded first resulting in the plague sweeping throughout the region. An Icelandic account even references other ships “drifting widely around” the North Sea, basically serving as conveniently free but wildly erratic Ubers for the Black Death.
Bear in mind, the plague kills the rats first, then the fleeing ... fleas spread to humans. So from a medieval perspective, it looked like a mysterious ship just showed up for no reason, with a crew swollen in agonizing death, and then some mysterious force utterly decimates the entire community.
The Frankenstein Findings In Prehistoric Scotland
Ever since Dr. Frankenstein created his notorious monster by cobbling together scraps from “the dissecting room and the slaughter-house,” stitched-together humans have been all the rage in horror. And you’d be surprised how far back that goes. In real life -- not the movies.
After finding two skeletons on a Scottish island, archaeologists realized that some maniac was Frankensteining corpses together like crazy some 3,000+ years ago.
It all started when two mummified bodies were discovered on South Uist in the Outer Hebrides. Everyone was delighted, since archaeology is the one job where “we found two human skeletons at work today” is good news. But closer examination soon revealed that something was, uh, amiss.
For starters, the bodies had clearly spent time in a bog, an environment that had basically mummified them. But they were found buried under the ruins of an ancient house, and decidedly not in super close proximity to bog territory. The most likely explanation is that someone had deliberately preserved them, and then dug them up about six months later.
They were still dead, presumably.
The skeletons themselves seemed bizarre, with the jaws not matching the rest of the skull. Signs of arthritis not being consistent and teeth that didn’t exactly line up -- because one jaw had them and the other didn’t -- made the archeologists suspicious. Maybe these weren’t single bodies at all, but rather the remains of multiple people cobbled together into a single hybrid corpse.
Analysis would eventually reveal that the remains of at least six people had been used to build the two mummies. Even stranger, some of the people involved had died centuries apart. The completed Franken-mummies hadn’t been given their final burial until several hundred years after the remains had been preserved in the bog, so they weren’t just the passion project of some prehistoric Ed Gein raiding cemeteries. Generations of people were involved with these things.
That’s a lot to process, so here’s a summary: Some 3,000-year-old Scots suddenly IKEA-ed a couple of corpses together, stuck them in a swamp for six months, and then kept them around for hundreds of years. Archaeologists have no idea why anyone would do this, although we can’t rule out early versions of Mr. Potato Head. Come on -- those things were fun.
Hooded, Bloody Cults Absolutely Existed
Horror movies love evil cults more than American Horror Story. From Wicker Man to Red State to the bad Wicker Man, crazed groups seeking to atone for the sins of the world is kind of a thing. And obviously, there are lots of real-world equivalents, since a surprising number of people can’t resist some sweaty guy with a bowl cut and a Kool-Aid habit. But probably no weird cult outbreak has reached the sheer horror of the flagellant movement which swept 14th century Europe like the worst Beatlemania ever.
At the time, Europe was being absolutely wrecked by the plague, which as we’ve already explored, is really history’s greatest source of horror cliches come to life. Many people quite reasonably felt it was the end of the world, while the still-repeated claim that it killed a third of Europe is actually an estimate based on the Book of Revelation. Which ... maybe? We haven’t seen a seven-horned, seven-eyed lamb yet, so who knows?
The flagellants seemed to offer a solution at the time, albeit not a great one. It did try to encourage not dying of pus-related explosions, but the method involved whipping themselves to make good on the sins of humanity. Because really, nothing says curing yourself of horrible pain than by inflicting yourself with horrible pain.
“I will now free you of your pain. With this knife.”
They organized vast processions along the roads of Europe, flogging themselves with iron-tipped whips. They wore white hoods with holes for the eyes and long skirts, leaving their backs and chests bare so everyone had a pretty clear shot at what they were up to. And when they arrived in a town, they’d form a circle and just whip the hell out of themselves.
The flagellants also helped lead attacks on Jews, who were blamed for starting the plague—which doesn’t surprise us, considering who else wears white hoods. Fortunately, the Pope ordered the suppression of the the sect in 1349, when a growing suspicion that the processions were spreading the plague from town to town helped erode their popularity.
The Novelist Who Wrote About His Crimes
The murderer who describes their crimes in novel form has appeared in movies from Secret Window to Basic Instinct. Admittedly, Basic Instinct wasn’t really a horror movie, but the same thing happens in Basic Instinct 2, which definitely horrified everyone who paid money to see it.
Richard Klinkhamer was a Dutch novelist with a moderately successful career. He was also a violent alcoholic who regularly beat his wife. When she mysteriously disappeared in 1991, Klinkhamer was the prime suspect, but the cops couldn’t find any evidence and the case eventually fizzled out. A year later, Klinkhamer presented his publisher with a new book called Woensdag Gehaktdag, in which he actually described the murder of his wife.
Well, he wasn’t quite that dumb. The book actually described seven different ways he could have killed his spouse and got away with it. They were described in stomach-churning detail, including a scenario where he ground her body into mince and fed it to the local birds. Crap -- that pretty much ruins the peaceful image of some guy feeding pigeons at the park.
Klinkhamer’s publisher rejected the book for being gross, but details quickly leaked out and the macabre story of the slasher novel by an actual suspected slasher actually turned Klinkhamer into a minor Dutch celebrity. He made TV appearances and became a regular at literary cocktail parties. Remember the ending of Secret Window, where Johnny Depp gets away with killing his wife, but is ostracized by society? Yeah, it turns out that was just Stephen King being a cheerful optimist, as usual. In real life, that guy would have been sipping champagne with Jonathan Franzen, not gnawing on corn in the woods.
In 2000, the owners of Klinkhamer’s old house were doing some work in the garden and discovered a body, which the cops had missed, apparently because Klinkhamer had put a pile of compost on top of the fresh concrete. So after some excellent gardening and horrible sleuthing by the police, Klinkhamer was quickly arrested and charged with murder. But it wasn’t all bad news for him: After the story became a sensation, the publisher who had originally turned down the book changed his mind and expressed interest.
The Killer In The Middle Of Nowhere
Being trapped in BFE with a crazed killer is a primal fear that horror movies have repeatedly tapped. From The Hills Have Eyes to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, slasher movies love the idea of isolated killers holed up in their own little patch of hell, where nobody can escape their chainsaws or ... eyes, we guess.
The Palo Flechado is a rugged, lonely pass, winding up through the mountains of New Mexico. In the 19th century, a strange, violent man named Charles Kennedy built a cabin along the route. His ramshackle house came to serve as a kind of hotel, where travelers on their way to Taos could get a meal or stay the night. Some were never seen again.
Kennedy’s downfall came when his wife made a desperate hike to Elizabethtown and burst into a saloon, screaming that her husband had murdered their son. She added that Kennedy had also been preying on travelers along the road, killing over a dozen wanderers in the wilderness. A posse of townsfolk rode out to the cabin, where they found Kennedy dead drunk. They also unearthed sacks of bones, buried under the world’s first and worst Airbnb.
Quaint, with a nice rustic feel. Some Febreze would do well to combat the persistent odor. 3/5.
One story relates that Kennedy’s last victim was eating dinner when he asked if there were any Native Americans nearby. The couple’s son replied: “Can’t you smell the one Papa put under the floor?” Enraged, Kennedy murdered both the traveler and his son. Obviously, this was too much for his abused wife, so she escaped through the chimney and hauled ass to Elizabethtown.
The outraged locals refused to wait for a trial. Instead, they dragged Kennedy to death behind a horse, then beheaded his corpse. The severed head was apparently staked outside a local inn until it rotted. Brutal frontier justice was served—probably. Since there was no trial, the charges against Kennedy were never actually proven. A local doctor concluded that the bones found under his house were likely from animals, although two other doctors thought that one might be a human kneecap. But none of his victims were ever conclusively identified.
So ... yeah. People went missing, and Kennedy’s own wife reported him for being a serial killer. But this was before modern forensic science, so we can’t be certain. Maybe his wife was just pissed at his drunkenness and went all BS witch trial on him. Who knows?
Kennedy. Kennedy knows.
Like this article? Check out “6 Real Science Experiments That Sound Like Horror Movies” and “5 True Stories That Prove Horror Movies Are Real”.
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