Nowadays any filmmaker can slap the following disclaimer onto any movie they make: This film is based on actual events. It’s all an obvious marketing ploy, studios hoping the allure of “real” terror will bring the masses out in flocks. But all too often, these films really aren’t based on any specific happening at all. Studios and filmmakers are happy to deceive viewers with promises of terror that feels so real it actually once was real.
Take for example Bryan Bertino and his brilliant home invasion piece, The Strangers. When you read that one little line – promising fact inside the fiction – appear on the screen, a sense of dread just washes over you. Why? Because the fate that befalls James Hoyt and Kristen McKay feels as though it could happen to you or I. Really, who’s never headed out of town and crashed in an isolated hotel, lodge or vacation home?
Most of us have. And that means that theoretically you, or I could have been James Hoyt. Tormented for no apparent reason, by a simple yet vile group of strangers.
That’s a legitimately paralyzing idea, knowing that there are individuals in this world that might find some sick pleasure in harming, after terrifying a total and random person. Just let it sink in for a minute and you’ll come to understand why Bertino’s film was so damn successful.
But what about that whole “true story” bit? Is there any truth in Bertino’s film? What actually inspired the story?
In the eight years to pass since the release of The Strangers fans have done some research and developed a few theories. We’re going to focus in on the two most popular ideas among fans.
Keddie Cabin Murders: This is an unsolved case that saw four individuals murdered in a remote cabin in Keddie, California. Apparently the group of four were ambushed before being slaughtered, beaten to death with claw hammers and stabbed to death with steak knives.
The killers were never found, and a motive was never determined. The attack was a seemingly spur-of-the-moment outburst that left a sizable chunk of one family erased from living existence.
It’s a mortifying tale, and given the rural area and the anonymity of the attack, many speculate that The Strangers is based on this very real story of strangers slaughtering for nothing other than thrills.
If you like to wear tin foil hats, or you’re a private investigator in the making, you’ve likely read and examined the gruesome details of this story. And for good reason: it sounds a lot like the events of The Strangers.
But there’s another big theory floating about, and this theory features a much higher profile case than the Keddie Cabin Murders.
Helter Skelter: For the unaware, Helter Skelter is a true crime novel written by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry. In the book, the “Manson Family” is thoroughly explored, from inception up to and beyond a fatal incident on August 8th, 1969 when four of Manson’s followers descended on the home of Roman Polanski and then-wife Sharon Tate.
Tate, along with three of her friends and a close friend of the property’s caretaker were surprised by the sudden intrusion before being slaughtered for no apparent reason. The following night a similar murder occurred in a similar area.
Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary were also ambushed in their home, as they lay unconscious. For this particular murder Manson would himself join a half dozen of his “family members.”
The LaBianca’s were bound and executed.
Either of these scenarios, directly related to Charles Manson and his cult of followers, seem like the proper inspiration for a story as bleak as The Strangers. But there was one clear difference in the cases. Neither Tate, not the LeBianca’s lived in isolated areas.
Did that mean much to Bertino, who was determined to do his best to leave viewers paralyzed? No, not really.
Initially Bertino went on record to explain his motivation for the film. Claiming the film’s inspiration stemmed from events he experienced as a boy in Crowley, Texas.
As a kid, I lived in a house on a street in the middle of nowhere. One night, while our parents were out, somebody knocked on the front door and my little sister answered it. At the door were some people asking for somebody who didn’t live there. We later found out that these people were knocking on doors on the area and, if no one was home, breaking into the houses.
That sounds like legit motivation. But, it doesn’t sound half as glamorized as theorists had made the story out to be. The Strangers was based on actual events right? Certainly a chilling encounter decades prior as a child could be spruced up to spawn more discussion of Bertino’s film. Perhaps the injection of the “Manson Family” provided all the sprucing needed to keep fans talking.
Eventually, Bertino would give the masses what they wanted, something meatier to chew on. Something more frightening, more… real, for lack of a better term.
Bertino would later go on to admit that the film was based on one of our original options, Helter Skelter, the book that recounts the inner workings of a lunatic like Charles Manson and his dedicated group of followers, or “Family.” More specifically, Bertino used the Tate case as a foundation for his picture.
Manson left the nation in fear, and he did so senselessly. He did so with nothing to gain but infamy. His random acts of aggression are still the inspiration for nightmares today, 47 years after the shocking incidents in Los Angeles. And apparently, by Bertino’s own admission those heinous acts are still inspiring jaw-dropping horror films.
So, while the connection between The Strangers, Bryan Bertino, Charles Manson and Helter Skelter are tenuous at best, the connection is still tangible enough to inspire a deep sense of terror in the casual moviegoer. Especially the casual moviegoer who’s got a knack for genre fare. Especially the casual moviegoer old enough to remember the manner in which the Tate murders ignited a media firestorm and instilled fear in a community not accustomed to the horrendous.
So, there you have it. Bryan Bertino’s film is indeed loosely based on actual events, and those actual events were well documented in Helter Skelter, a book that Bertino no doubt kept his face buried in while preparing to create this spine-tingling horror film. If I had to guess, I’d guess that Bertino’s own memories of those strange individuals who knocked on his door years ago as a child, in search of a stranger or an empty house, also played a serious factor in the film. Either way, they’re both factual events, and Bertino and his amazing film The Strangers passes the fact or fiction test.
Verdict: Fact – The Strangers is indeed based on actual events.