A scary story is a rush of adrenalin. Fear is exciting, especially when we can experience it in the safety of a movie theater. It follows, then, that a film promising some sense of truth is even more scary — the “true story” angle helps us ignore those theater walls and become more deeply immersed in the horror. The best trick: this works even when the story isn’t true at all, as long as we believe it could be.
Like a jump scare or a cheap special effect, though, the “true story” claim can backfire. Even when a movie gives that terrifying experience of a great horror story, creating expectations of truth or reality elevates the expectations audiences carry into the theater. “Based on a true story” doesn’t always achieve its principal intention, and to the misfortune of the filmmakers, it can make an otherwise great horror film bite the dust.
"Truth" In James Wan's 'The Conjuring 2'
We turn our eyes to The Conjuring 2. The story continues the paranormal adventures of real-world figures Ed and Lorraine Warren, introduced in The Conjuring, as they investigate hauntings experienced by a London family.
A carefully-crafted thrill ride through the famous Enfield Poltergeist case, the movie observes as two young daughters of the Hodgson family claim to experience possession and other paranormal activity. The execution is undeniably great, with classic scares and well-crafted effects.
And yet, as terrifying as the film is, was that phrase at the beginning of the movie truly necessary? Does adding "based on a true story" to a movie of such horrific caliber help instill the fear Wan hoped us to have? Let’s take it a few steps back.
The effect of a horror movie is different for everybody, but one thing that’s generally equal is that we want to feel a rush of adrenaline. A long process of invisible preparation for the audience, a priming, sets this up. We expect to be scared, and even before buying a ticket, trailers and other factors prepare us for what’s to come. The power of suggestion is potent, and "based on a true story" is like an invocation. Maybe you bought a ticket because you liked The Conjuring, but that suggested phrase is now in the back your head.
You're primed, if unaware, ready to experience the movie. Then the phrase appears, like a hypnotic suggestion. How does it make you feel knowing that this horror movie you are about to experience is based on a true story?
When "Truth" Is Weak: The Effect Of False Stories
To some the priming might have little effect; for others it carries so much suggestive weight that it acts as the most important single piece of thread that’s holding on one end of a rope whether this movie is the best film you’ve ever seen, or a failed attempt at evoking truth; audience disappointment. But why is this significant? This is significant because it’s an essential part of the horror movie experience. It is something the audience desperately wants to believe in, an emotional risk they want to endure, because it’s that realistic aspect to a movie that adds that psychological tension that audience wish to immerse themselves in, one of the principal key aspects that makes a horror movie great: truth -- that it could happen to you. What happens when this doesn’t work?
Keeping to The Conjuring 2, false true stories tend to work when the theatrical portrayal carries high correlation with the real story, something that was not exactly true in James Wan’s movie. The real life phenomenon of the Enfield Poltergeist didn’t heavily feature the presence of the Warrens, and while it’s perfectly fine to build upon a myth, especially since it leaves ample room for creativity, in the case of The Conjuring 2, its false validity took the magic away. The movie is highly dependent on the audience’s values and beliefs, which for most people, it’s where some of their supernatural fears derive from. In The Conjuring 2 we encounter the mythological demon Valak in the form of a Roman Catholic nun.
This interpretation of the demon -- who was not documented in the real Enfield Poltergeist case -- adheres mostly to the attitudes and beliefs of audiences who describe themselves as Christians, and while many horror films explore and reiterate religious tales and ideas in their screenplays, like The Exorcist and The Rite, when this concept is put in direct confrontation with the truth, the desired appeal of the audience is less than expected. The Conjuring 2 was a fantastic movie, but its false true story approach was weak, because its form of the truth did not translate to the audience’s sense of reality. In contrast to The Conjuring 2, The Blair Witch Project is a perfect example of how a false true stories appeal to audiences, even when “based on a true story” is not explicitly mentioned.
When False Truth Captivates: 'The Blair Witch Project'
Found footage films may not be massively popular now, but over 15 years later The Blair Witch Project still continues to haunt audiences. The 1999 thriller made us believe what we were watching was true even though it was simply a movie, a well-produced story. Though this original film did not happen in real life, it was presented and sold -- we were suggested and primed -- with such sensational "realism" that events transpiring on screen seemed real.
While the movie received heavy marketing after it essentially went viral, in its initial independent release there was no form of priming because a film like this had never been done before. Religious myth could be found within the movie if we dig deep enough, but it was ultimately the movie’s perception of truth and your perception of reality that made The Blair Witch Project appeal to you to the extent that it successfully did. This psychological aspect, concurrently with the primordial aspect of truth, is what makes false true stories so great. While the desired effect of false true stories in horror films prolongs from this correlation between the real story and the movie, along with the audience’s psychological input, can this same audience appeal apply to false true stories outside of the horror genre, and what can we learn that can ultimately be applied to a movie like The Conjuring 2?
'The Wolf Of Wall Street' And Its False True Story Effect
Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street showed us the life of former stockbroker Jordan Belfort. Through the rise and demise of Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of Belfort, we experienced a version of the truth, capitalized by classic Scorsese finesse. What’s different here compared to The Conjuring 2 and to the horror genre in general is that basically, The Wolf of Wall Street is not a scary movie. Nonetheless, the link exists.
The exaggerated and ultra sophisticated lavish lifestyle of the wealthy upper class is something audiences already have a certain belief and understanding of. What the addition of “based on a true story” exert on Scorsese’s film is, unlike in The Conjuring 2, a form of crucial reminder to audiences that “hey, this could happen to you” or “look, this is happening now.” And this is where the false true story fails in The Conjuring 2. What we can learn from a false true story like The Wolf of Wall Street, a black comedy crime film, is that what makes a beautiful lie great is when the truth is ultimately better than the lie. What we saw in The Wolf of Wall Street was mesmerizing, but unless you know Jordan Belfort or you are the man himself, the original story would probably blow your mind away.
We Want To Believe
Horror films keep us up at night. They make us jump out of our seats, and give us a chance to embrace fear. But we also love horror because fear is so immediate that it can bridge the gap between true and false. The appeal is a dependent variable, one manipulated by the correlation between the truth and creativity, our psychology and our experience. The Conjuring 2 was a phenomenal movie, but in the end we couldn’t believe what was initially presented to us: that what we were seeing was true.
When you are able to tell a magnificent lie to reveal an unspectacular truth, a false "true story" holds ground, a feat that was achieved by The Wolf of Wall Street. When you let the audience enter a realm of their own and decipher a movie to find out if its actually true, is when a false true story holds ground, a feat that was achieved by The Blair Witch Project. We appeal to what we want to believe. In the end, a false true story is an experiment of suggestion, while you and the rest of the audience are the lucky volunteers.