Even with true stories, everyone knows that Hollywood takes certain liberties to boost a particular film's dramatic value. After all, they are in the entertainment business, not the documentary business. Then there are those films that, for one reason or another, have some folks (often morons) convinced what they're watching what actually happened, either because of the skill of a particular director, the sincerity of a screenplay or a fiendishly clever marketing campaign.
An actual exorcism performed on an American boy in the late 1940s inspired author William Peter Blatty to write a novel, which became a bestseller and later adapted into what arguably became the quintessential horror film. But despite legions of readers and viewers who regularly mistake "inspired by" with "based on fact," there has never been a single documented account of an individual proven to be possessed by a demon. Still, a lot of folks bought into it back then, and even today you can find ill-informed write-ups on the Internet claiming The Exorcist is a true story.
THIS IS SPINAL TAP
The definitive mockumentary, so accurate in its depiction of the excesses, pitfalls and clichés of rock stardom that, upon its initial release, many mistook the film for an actual documentary about a real band. This actually worked against its box office success at the time. Simply too many people didn't realize it was a comedy.
THE AMITYVILLE HORROR
You gotta give the Lutz family credit... they fooled us all for awhile. Their story was infamously documented by author Jay Anson, who wasn't a particularly good writer, but the conceit that the story was true made his book a worldwide bestseller on par with The Exorcist. Hollywood came calling, of course, even though the subsequent film made so many wholesale changes to the narrative that we began to suspect even its producers didn't totally buy into the Lutz's story.
THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT
Though not the first of its ilk, The Blair Witch Project has the dubious distinction of popularizing the found footage genre (yeah, thanks a lot, guys). But the true genius of this film was its marketing campaign, which took full advantage of the Internet to convince millions of gullible surfers that the footage was real.
THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE
Director/co-writer Tobe Hooper was initially inspired by a real-life serial killer (Ed Gein). The story itself, however, is complete fiction. There has never been a chainsaw massacre by a family of cannibals in Texas or anywhere else. Still, it was promoted as a “true story,” which brought people out to the drive-ins in droves.
Introducing this as a true story, just for fun, is one of many reasons I love the Coen Brothers. A lot of folks didn't know it was a joke, which makes the ruse even cooler, and even inspired another wonderful film, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, about a woman’s quest to find the ransom money buried by Steve Buscemi’s character near the end of Fargo.
Yeah, their was once a great ship. Yeah, it sank on its first voyage. Yeah, it was tragic. But that’s the extent of the reality of James Cameron’s Titanic. And sure, most of us free-thinking adults already know this. But as a middle school teacher back when this film was a pop culture phenomenon, I can attest to the legions of awestruck teenage girls convinced the doomed love story of Jack and Rose was part of the ship's history. A few even became pissed when I tried to break the news that the pair never existed.
SAVING PRIVATE RYAN
Despite the hyper-realistic Normandy Invasion sequence - and what your delusional high school history teacher might have suggested when he justified showing this - there was no Private Ryan, nor any mission to rescue him after all of his brothers were killed. Robert Rodat was initially inspired to write the screenplay after learning of eight siblings who died during the Civil War.