The following is a guest blog from William Collins, a writer, paranormal researcher and humorist. You can follow him on Twitter at @Thor_2000.
For several years, both Hollywood and television executives have been aware that the viewing public likes a good ghost story. Movies about the paranormal usually do very well. They range from the sublime (“The Others”) to the mediocre (“House On Haunted Hill”) to the really horrendous (“Spirits”).
Is it no wonder that we have so many TV Series about paranormal research on TV? Arguably, the leading example is “Ghost Hunters” on the SyFy Channel, which has been followed up by several rival paranormal series on other networks: “Ghost Lab” on Discovery Channel and “Ghost Adventures” on Travel Channel, but even before these, there was “Sightings,” “Paranormal Borderline” and “Haunted Lives.”
“Unsolved Mysteries” in the Eighties and “That’s Incredible” of the Seventies also randomly featured haunted houses, but before the supernatural became a serious focus for reality series on television, the only open entertainment venue for ghosts was the made-for-TV movie.
The Ghost Of Flight 401 (1978) – Eastern Airlines – Miami, Florida
On December 29, 1972, an Eastern Airlines L-1011 Tri-Star Jumbo Jet crashed in the Florida Everglades with only seventy survivors of almost two hundred passengers and crew. According to accounts later published in a book by John G. Fuller, the ghost of pilot Don Repo lost in the crash would appear on planes fitted with spare parts from the crash site; his purpose was to make sure there would never be another crash of another Eastern Airlines flight. Although the airlines tried to cover up the accounts, the situation spawned a certain urban legend that was featured in a segment on the Learning Channel series “Mostly True Stories: Urban Legends Revealed,” but back in the Seventies, it inspired this TV movie. Starring Ernest Borgnine, Gary Lockwood and a young Kim Basinger, the movie isn’t done as a ghost story, but as a TV drama which sort of adds to its charm. Don Repo is renamed Dom Smoley, but the film runs almost faithful to the alleged account with several credible and believable performances about the public reaction and belief in the supernatural.
The Amityville Horror (1979) – The Old DeFeo House – Amityville, New York
It’s possibly the most famous haunted house of the Twentieth Century. Ronnie “Butch” DeFeo took a high-powered rifle and killed his parents and siblings, later supposedly claiming that voices claimed him to do it. It was this house that George and Kathy Lutz would move into, but it should be noted that it wasn’t until after their stories hit the media that it was claimed that voices made Ronnie kill his family. It should also be noted that the movie was not based on the Lutz’s experiences; it was instead based on the book by Jay Anson, which was very loosely based on the Lutz’s claims and obviously embellished. Even if we give the Lutz’s the benefit of the doubt, it’s very obvious that their tale sounds very much like a hoax. If ghosts haunted the Lutz Family at all, their true story has been lost and instead horribly exaggerated by Hollywood, creating a vast horror movie mythos that no longer has any foundation in reality or serious paranormal research.
The Haunted (1991) – The Smurl House – West Pittston, Pennsylvania
Jack and Janet Smurl purchased this duplex in 1973 with his parents living in the other half of the duplex. For twenty-five years, this devoutly Catholic family believed they were being haunted by ghosts and struggled to get the church to believe them. The case was handled by Ed and Lorraine Warren, who billed themselves as demonologists, the very same people who helped perpetuate “The Amityville Horror” legend. Noted paranormal researcher Hans Holzer called the Warrens “religious fanatics” and, indeed, the majority of their cases have been dismissed as hoaxes. The Warrens encouraged the Smurls to put their experiences into a book, which was written by James Curran and was turned into a Fox made-for-television movie starring Sally Kirkland in 1991. The film is not very scary; it was made for TV after all.
Grave Secrets (1992) – The Williams House – Crosby, Texas
In the previous two ghost movies, two Catholic families fought to get the church to save them from ghosts, but in this movie, Shag and Jean Williams fight with their developers. The story is that Black Hope was a cemetery set aside for slaves, but several years after it was forgotten, it was overlooked and bulldozed as a subdivision was built on top of it. It’s got a great cast. The Williams are played by Patty Duke and David Selby, a man who starred in a TV series called “Dark Shadows” full of ghosts and vampires. Comedian Blake Clark plays a neighbor; he himself testified about the ghosts at the Comedy Factory in Los Angelos for a segment on “Unsolved Mysteries.” David Soul from “Starsky and Hutch” and “Salem’s Lot” plays Sam Haney, the man who discovered the bodies under his house while digging for a swimming pool. The entire block was atop a forgotten cemetery, but instead of the over-blown special effects and the exaggerated paranormal events of “Poltergeist,” this mild, barely scary story stays character-driven and ends with an anti-climactic whimper.
The Uninvited (1996) – The Johnson House – Madison, Indiana
Originally introduced on “Sightings” and featured briefly on the short-lived “Paranormal Borderline” TV-Series, the story of the Johnson House was about the ghost of a child drowned in a bathtub and the murderer’s malevolent presence left behind. Speculation into the hauntings is that the ghosts might have been caused by the house at the center of three high intensity electrical towers. The case, however, was completely re-written and embellished into a movie starring Sharon Lawrence and Beau Bridges. It also moved the house to a new location in sunny California, but the barely scary story has many of the contrived ingredients that hamper most low-budget haunted house movies. Bridges is the disbelieving husband, there’s the eccentric neighborhood psychic who knows more than she should and the high-intensity finale that is more unbelievable than scary. For a closer depiction of the true story, one should check out the recreations depicted in the second episode of the “Haunted Lives” television series.
A Haunting In Connecticut (2009) – The Snedeker House – Southington, Connecticut
Why is it so hard to stay faithful to a true story made into a movie? Historical events are often made into movies with very little distortion of the facts and with very little artistic license, but this case of the Snedeker Family, based on a true story, deviates far from the true story – not as far as “The Uninvited” did with the Johnson haunting but maybe just as far as the movie “Poltergeist” in relation to the Williams case. The case is about the Snedeker family who moved into a former funeral home, a location where in addition to its legitimate function several clandestine and horrible events occurred, a case described in the book, “In A Dark Place” by Ray Garton, also encouraged by Ed and Lorraine Warren. The truth of the matter is that the original story is much more interesting to read about than the far-fetched movie fiction still referred to as “based on a true story.” If you want the real story, don’t watch the big budget movie but instead check out “A Haunting In Connecticut,” the pilot for the short-lived Discovery Channel series, “A Haunting.”