Horror movies get a lot of mileage from claiming to be based on, or at least inspired by, true stories. The Conjuring Universe is big on claiming they’re telling true tales of terror, and it was recently revealed that the writers of the first Conjuring and the director of Spiral: From the Book of Saw were teaming up to launch a horror franchise based on the true story of the allegedly haunted LaLaurie Mansion.
But why stop there? There are a ton of allegedly real haunted places out there, waiting for Hollywood to come along. With that in mind, here are five real haunted places that would make killer horror movies.
Lizzie Borden House
Location: Fall River, MA
You’ve probably heard the rhyme before: Lizzie Borden took an ax, And gave her mother forty whacks; When she saw what she had done, She gave her father forty-one. It’s catchy, and it’s also inaccurate. For one thing, it wasn’t Lizzie’s mother killed – it was her stepmother. For another thing, there is a serious discrepancy re: whacks. Lizzie’s stepmother Abby Borden was struck with 19 ax blows, while Lizzie’s father, Andrew Borden, was hit with either 10 or 11 blows. And finally, in the eyes of the law, Lizzie Borden was innocent, since she was acquitted of the crime.
But of course, most people firmly believe that Lizzie was the killer. And while I guess we’ll never know 100% for sure, it seems very likely that Lizzie was the ax murderer who killed Andrew and Abby Borden on August 4, 1892, in the Borden house in Fall River, Massachusetts. Any house that’s the scene of a double ax murder is bound to be infamous, and rumors abound that the house is haunted by the ghosts of Andrew and Abby. That sort of stuff is good for tourism, and sure enough, these days the Lizzie Borden House is a Bed and Breakfast. You can even sleep in the bedroom where Abby was killed (Andrew was killed in the living room). There are also tours through the house, including a ghost tour.
While there are more than a few movies about the Lizzie Borden murders (recently there was Lizzie, with Chloë Sevigny and Kristen Stewart), the alleged haunting of the house remains mostly untouched by Hollywood – although there was an episode of the long-running show Supernatural focused on the house, so there’s that.
Eastern State Penitentiary
Location: Philadelphia, PA
Located in my hometown of Philadelphia, Eastern State Penitentiary is a historical landmark that’s served as a location for several movies, including 12 Monkeys and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. But these films merely use Eastern State as a set and aren’t actually about the prison itself. First opened in 1829, the prison was one of the first in the country to stress reform rather than punishment for its prisoners. But of course, a prison is a prison, and there are numerous reports of unquiet ghosts lurking around the crumbling halls and still occupying the ruined cells.
The prison shut down in 1979. These days, you can tour the prison grounds year-round. When Halloween rolls around, a portion of the prison is converted into a haunted attraction called “Terror Behind the Walls.” I’ve done both a tour and experienced Terror Behind the Walls, and while I’ve never seen a real ghost on the grounds, the prison’s rotting, the castle-like facade is gothic and gorgeous enough to serve as a great spot for some sort of fright flick. Make it happen, Hollywood! And invite me to the set since I live nearby.
The Island of Dolls
Location: Xochimico, Mexico
Dolls! They’re scary! If they weren’t, there wouldn’t be numerous movies about that very subject. There’s Chucky. There’s Annabelle. There are low-rent knock-offs like Dolly Dearest. In short, audiences love a scary doll movie, and what could be scarier than an entire island of dolls? If you find yourself in a boat near the canals of Xochimico, just south of Mexico City, you might see Isla de las Muñecas, AKA The Island of the Dolls. The island has become the home to hundreds of creepy-looking baby dolls hanging from trees.
The official story goes that one day, the caretaker of the island, Don Julian Santana Barrera, found “a little girl drowned [under] mysterious circumstances [and] he was not able to save her life.” The caretaker also found the dead girl’s doll floating in the water, and hung it from a tree “as a way of showing respect and support [for] the spirit of the girl.”
While Barrera was clearly trying to help, this plan apparently backfired, and he was (allegedly) haunted by the dead girl, who demand he hang up even more dolls. And if that’s not scary enough for you, how about this: after 50 years of watching over the island and hanging dolls from trees, Barrera was found dead – floating in the same spot where he found the dead girl all those years ago. Cue the spooky music.
The dolls are still there, and the story goes that the dolls are often seen to “move their heads and arms and even opened their eyes,” and even “whisper to each other.” You’re creeped out just reading this, aren’t you?
Villisca Axe Murder House
Location: Villisca, IA
In 1912 in Villisca, Iowa, the six members of the Moore family and two of their house guests were found brutally murdered. All eight victims had their skulls split open by an ax, and one victim was so badly bludgeoned that “his eyes were missing.” That’s disturbing enough on its own, but wait, there’s more. The investigation turned up the discovery of two used cigarettes in the attic, which lead the police to theorize that the killer had been waiting patiently in the attic for the household to go to sleep. Once everyone was in bed, the killer crept down, and the murders began.
The case remains unsolved, although there were several suspects. Now, all these years later, the house has become a macabre tourist attraction. And, as you no doubt guessed, there are reports of paranormal activity. Per the house’s official website, “Visits by paranormal investigators have provided audio, video and photographic proof of paranormal activity. Tours have been cut short by children’s voices, falling lamps, moving ladders and flying objects. Psychics have confirmed the presence of spirits dwelling in the home and many have actually communicated with them, and skeptics have left believers.”
The podcast Lore covered this story, as did the Amazon series based on the podcast. But so far there are no movies that touch on this subject even though it seems ripe for a horror movie with BASED ON THE HORRIFYING TRUE STORY emblazoned across the poster.
Tower of London
Location: London, United Kingdom
The Tower of London is nearly 1,000 years old, which means it would probably be a prime spot for hauntings even if it didn’t have a notorious history. But then you factor in the fact that the Tower of London is known as a place of torture and death (although only six executions were actually carried out there, with the majority of executions actually being held at the nearby Tower Hill).
Years and years of all that history have resulted in more than a few ghost stories. Anne Boleyn, one of Henry VIII’s executed wives, has been spotted roaming the grounds with her severed head in her hands. And she’s not alone – all sorts of specters and floating mysteries have been spotted and reported by the staff of the Tower over the years. My personal favorite ghost story about the Tower involves the ghost of a bear. In 1816, a guard reported seeing the “apparition of a bear advancing towards him.” This guard was so freaked out by the ghost bear that he died of fright. Or so the story goes.
While the Tower’s bloody history has been the subject of films – there’s even a 1962 Roger Corman movie called Tower of London starring Vincent Price – the ghost stories remain a source of untapped potential. Hell, give me the movie about the ghost bear scaring a guard to death, please.