Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Horror Lexicon #10: Based on a True Story

From: The Last House on the Left (1972)

I wrote in some detail about the Savage Cinema last week, and the way that this particular genre sub-type positions horror situations not in foreign locales and other time periods, but right here and now, where we live and breathe.  In this fashion, horror films somehow seem more related to our modern lives, and play as more realistic...and thus more emotionally and viscerally immediate.  

Another long-standing trick of the trade designed to enhance further a horror film's sense of urgency and "closeness" to the audience is to suggest on-screen -- usually before the opening credits -- that the film is actually "based on a true story."  

From: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Of course, a whole lot of territory is covered in those words "based on," right?  The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) is very loosely based on the story of serial killer Ed Gein, but the details of the narrative and the incredible presentation both arise from Tobe Hooper, Kim Henkel and DP Daniel Pearl, among others, not from accurate historical details.

Even though as intelligent viewers we absolutely realize that the claim of being "based on a true story" is often total bunk, it works on our psyches anyway.  It gives us pause. It creates uncertainty.  It also makes us sympathize, and consider what it might be like to drive to rural Texas and run out of gas, or to accidentally pick up a gang of four criminals, etc. 

Do we fall for this "based on a true story" trick because we're all just suckers at heart?  Or is it because we have all heard atrocious but mesmerizing true stories that expose the dark side of human nature? The horror movies that employ the on-screen "based on a true story" card deliberately play on this fact; the fact that the darkness inside us is very real, and present in reality.

From: The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Sometimes, just a screen card's positioning at the front of the film suggests to us we're about to see a true story.  The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), for instance, both provide details about a story...but neither film actually out-and-out declares the story is true.  In this way, I suppose, the filmmakers' avoid an outright lie.  We just think the films are claiming a truthful basis because that's what we are conditioned to expect.

In the horror movie, claims of veracity hook us, render us unsettled, and prepare us for what is to come.  All the while, in the back of  our traumatized minds, we wonder: did this really happen?  Could this even happen at all? 

Or even better: I'm sure as hell glad this didn't happen to me...


From: Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

From: Return of the Living Dead (1985)

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