American Horror Story has it all, from moments that keep us in petrified suspense to thrilling and gruesome scenes that we simply can’t tear our eyes away from. Thought it couldn’t get any scarier? Think again. The truth is that many of its characters and scenes were based on actual people and events. Read on, if you dare, to learn the hair-raising secrets behind this show.
American Horror Story: Hotel‘s immaculately dressed James March, serial killer and designer of Hotel Cortez, was actually based on Dr. Henry H. Holmes, a trained doctor turned serial killer. His desire for murder led him to build a 3-story hotel room, later known as the “Murder Castle,” in late 19th century Chicago. The castle had been built with numerous creepy features such as trap doors, peep holes, chutes leading to the basement, and stairways that simply led nowhere.
So secretive was his castle that by the time Holmes was caught, it was believed that he had killed 27 people. That number quickly rose to 130 and today is believed to be over 200. Seems like the writers of the show didn’t have to get too inventive in order to create this psychopath.
The glamorous yet deadly owner of Hotel Cortez, Countess Bathory, played by Lady Gaga, was based on the real-life Countess Elizabeth Báthory. In the 1600s, the real Báthory’s wealthy family owned land in what is now Hungary, Romania and Slovakia. Báthory was displeased with her arranged marriage, and (by coincidence?) her husband died only a few years after the ceremony. It was around this time that rumors of her cruelty began.
As the story goes, young peasant girls were lured to Báthory’s estate with promises of high paying jobs and were never seen again. Upon investigation, it was discovered that these girls were being tortured by the Countess and her staff. Supposedly, Countess Báthory would keep her victims’ blood for strange purposes leading to additional rumors of her secretly being a vampire.
Much like the third season character played by Angela Bassett, the real-life Marie Laveau was known for holding mysterious ceremonies for her clients. She was also known as the “Widow Paris,” after her husband mysteriously disappeared and was eventually found dead. But it was her ceremonies that truly became the stuff of legends.
Marie Laveau was known to combine elements of voodoo with Catholic traditions in order to make voodoo more acceptable to the aristocracy of New Orleans. She had a sea of informants working in the houses of her wealthy patrons and her knowledge of their secrets made her the unofficial “Queen of voodoo.” While it’s hard to differentiate the myths from facts, her presence in New Orleans was so significant that to this day tourists come to her grave to leave her tributes and gifts.
Elizabeth Short, who appeared briefly towards the end of the season one, was based on the unsolved murder of the real Elizabeth Short, aka the “Black Dahlia.” The story of the real Short occurred on the morning of January 15, 1947 when a mother and her child went for a walk and discovered an unusual sight. Lying on the ground, there appeared what seemed to be a clothing mannequin broken in half and discarded. But the truth proved to be far more horrifying.
The “mannequin” turned out to be none other than Short herself. 22 years old, the young woman had moved from Boston to L.A. with hopes of being an actress. The murder sparked sensationalist reporting, and the myth of “The Black Dhalia” was born. The posthumous nickname was reference to the film noir The Blue Dahlia, released just months before Short’s death.
Appearing in season three, Kathy Bates stars as the wealthy and powerful Madame Delphine LaLaurie, a slave-owning New Orleans socialite. Much like the character in the show, the real Madame LaLaurie was seen as being very warm and friendly towards the African-American community in New Orleans. But in her house was held a dark secret.
During a fire in April 1834, it was discovered that Madame LaLaurie had been torturing and murdering many of her slaves. The fire itself had been started by a female slave fearing whatever punishment Madame LaLaurie had devised for her. Upon this discovery, Madame LaLaurie fled to Paris where she later died following a boar hunting accident.
Grace Bertrand is committed to an asylum after murdering her abusive parents in season two of American Horror Story. She was based on a woman named Lizzie Borden, who was born on July 19, 1860 in Fall River, Massachusetts. Borden lived with her father Andrew, stepmother Abby, and her older sister, Emma. One day, when she was 22, something awful happened in Lizzie Borden’s home.
On the night of August 4, 1892, Lizzie’s father and stepmother were brutally murdered. Lizzie, the primary suspect, was arrested and tried for the heinous crime, but was later acquitted due to lack of evidence. She remained in Fall River, and although she remained the prime suspect in the murder, the case remains unsolved to this day.
The creepy smiley face left behind by the killer clowns in American Horror Story: Cult was based on an actual murderous mystery. In the 1990s and later in the 2010s, a string of alleged killings took place in the Midwestern United States. A number of young, college-aged males were found dead, and they all fit the profile of being popular, good-looking, and white. All reported to be on their way to parties, or to get drinks, they were never seen alive again.
What made things even more eerie was a graffiti of a smiley face that was discovered by the police near the locations of these deaths. To date, no law enforcement organization has considered these deaths to be murders. However, based on their similar characteristics, many believe these deaths were the result of a group of serial killers communicating across the dark web.
Played by Evan Peters, Tate Langdon’s mentally and emotionally disturbed character in American Horror Story is actually based on two real-life people. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, who met each other in seventh grade and, eventually, carried out the worst mass shooting in U.S. history at that time.
In the show, Langdon’s shooting occurs in 1994 and results in the deaths of 15 students before he is killed by a SWAT team. In reality, the Columbine shooting happened in 1999 claiming the lives of 12 students and one teacher, leaving 21 others wounded. The shooting ended only after Klebold and Harris committed suicide in their school’s library.
The mysterious, revenge seeking character of season five, played by Wes Bentley, was based on a well-known folktale of the 1920s. According to legend, Edward Mordrake lived in complete seclusion and carried on the back of his head a second face, Quirrell/Voldemort style. Like the Harry Potter character, Mordrake’s second face was both horrible and incredibly evil.
The face, supposedly “lovely as a dream, hideous as a devil,” would whisper to Mordrake at night, preventing him from ever sleeping. The face would encourage him to do horrible things and smile whenever Mordrake cried. In the end, Mordrake killed himself to prevent the face from taking control of his body.
It seems like the writers of American Horror Story based this character almost exactly on his historical counterpart. Dr. Arden, played by James Cromwell, is a Nazi war criminal responsible for conducting horrible experiments on his prisoners. The actual Dr. Arden was just as terrible.
Dr. Arden was based on Josef Mengele, a physician at Auschwitz who would select incoming prisoners to be brought to his lab. There, they would be subject to brutal medical experiments. Mengele fled to Brazil after World War II ended, where he evaded capture by Israel and West Germany. In 1979 he suffered a heart attack while swimming causing him to drown.
The jazz musician turned serial killer in American Horror Story’s season three, played by Danny Huston, actually did prowl the streets of New Orleans in the early 1900s. His victims usually consisted of entire families of Italian-American immigrants. One night however, the Axeman of New Orleans made a very strange threat.
Writing to a local newspaper anonymously, he threatened to attack again but would spare any household that was playing jazz music. That night, all the dance halls and bars of New Orleans were packed to capacity along with anyone who could play an instrument playing only jazz. There were no murders that night and the Axeman was never caught.
The sixth season of American Horror Story is based on an actual unsolved mystery. In August 1587, a group of 115 English settlers arrived on Roanoke Island off the coast of North Caroline. Later that same year, governor John White sailed back to England for supplies. He wasn’t able to return for 3 years due to war with the Spanish, and upon his return, he was likely shocked at what he found.
The entire colony of Roanoke, and all the colonists, had entirely disappeared. Only one clue was left, the word ‘Croatoan,’ found carved into a tree. The word has appeared several times in circumstances involving mysterious deaths or disappearances throughout American history. To this day Roanoke, and the fate of the colonists who inhabited it, remains a mystery.
From Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs, to Bloody Face in season two of American Horror Story, everyone got their origins from one man. The deranged killer, Ed Gein, grew up on a farm with a verbally abusive mother who he nevertheless idolized. His older brother, who confronted his mother often, was found dead, presumably from a fire. Although Gein was able to lead investigators directly to the body, and suspicious signs were found by the police, Gein was never accused.
When he was caught later in life, Gein confessed to the murders of two women. Like AHS‘s Bloody Face, Gein had similar wardrobe habits and a hobby involving what we can only describe as anatomically correct furniture pieces. He was found unfit to stand trial by reason of insanity, and died in a mental institution.
American Horror Story: Hotel’s faithful Miss Evers was inspired by a real woman by the name of Christine Collins. Collins received nationwide media attention at the time of the infamous Wineville Chicken Coop murders in the late 1920s. Collins’ son, Walter, was returned to her after he miraculously survived Gordon Stewart Northcott’s murder spree. What ensued after that was one of the strangest American mysteries ever.
Collins went to the police claiming the boy was not actually hers. The police, believing her to be a “troublemaker,” sent her to a psychiatric ward. Eventually the boy pretending to be Walter confessed to not being Collins’ actual son, and a manhunt for the real boy ensued after Northcott claimed to never have killed him. Sadly, Collins spent the rest of her life searching, and never found her real son.
The cold, dispassionate character of Papa Legba is actually based on a character popular in voodoo culture. Unlike the American Horror Story character, Papa Legba is typically depicted as an old man, walking hunched over with a cane and a straw hat. While appearing weak, he is actually one of the most powerful of all voodoo gods.
Papa Legba stands at the spiritual crossroads and grants permission to those who wish to speak to the dead. While he is depicted as a villain in the show, he is actually considered to be a benevolent god, requiring very little to appease him.
Aileen Wuornos is famously the only woman to attend the serial killer’s banquet on American Horror Story: Hotel. The actual Aileen Wuornos grew up in Florida and, after enduring a horrible childhood, found herself on the street in her teenage years. Eventually she was forced to become a prostitute to support herself. But one night in 1989, something awful happened.
While working on the side of a highway, Wuornos was picked up by a man who she later claimed tried to abuse her. After killing him, Wuornos went on to kill several other men over the upcoming months: a total of six. She was later tried, and sentenced to death by lethal injection. Just before her execution, Wuornos promised to return after death, likely to continue what she started.
The disgraced clown with his creepy one line reminder, “I’m a good clown,” was based on a real clown terror. Known popularly in history as “Killer Clown” for his penchant to dress up in clown costumes, John Wayne Gacy terrorized Cook County, Illinois during the 1970s. While American Horror Story’s Twisty the Clown left viewers shocked, the actual crimes of John Wayne Gacy left Americans petrified.
When Gacy was eventually caught in 1978, the bodies of 33 young men were found underneath his house and in a nearby river. Due to their condition, eight of bodies could not be identified. In spite of the high number of victims discovered, there have been lingering concerns that there were many other murders committed by Gacy.
Mr. March, played by Evan Peters in season five, holds a banquet in his hotel for deceased serial killers who actually existed outside the show. One of whom, Jeffery Dahmer, was known for having prowled the streets of Milwaukee looking for his victims between 1978 and 1991. Dahmer was known for selecting men who lived on the fringes of society and whose disappearances wouldn’t be noticed. Both sadistic and clever, he haunted the streets unnoticed.
Dahmer sought out men at gay bars, malls, and bus stops and would invite them to his house for a drink, which would be laced with drugs. Once the victim was unconscious, Dahmer would have his way with them. He was eventually convicted for the murders of 17 boys and men.
Jimmy Darling’s character from season four’s Freak Show was based on Grady Franklin Stiles Jr., born in 1937. Better known by his stage name, “Lobster Boy,” Stiles was a freak show performer with the genetic deformity known as ectrodactyly, or split hand. Due to his condition, Stiles was confined to a wheelchair and developed a strong upper body. That strength, combined with his short temper, made him a danger to those around him.
On the night before his oldest daughter’s wedding, Stiles, in an apparent rage, shot and killed her fiancé. Since there wasn’t a prison equipped to handle Stiles’ condition, he was sentenced to house arrest where his temper and drinking only worsened. Eventually Stiles’s wife hired a hitman, another sideshow performer, to kill him.
Arguably one of the most lovable characters in the series, featured in both season two and four, Pepper is based on the actual Schlitze Surtees, who was born with an unusual combination of medical deformities. Originally born a boy in 1901, he stood at only four feet tall, with an unusually small skull and brain. He only spoke in monosyllabic words and basic phrases. But Surtees never let that get him down.
Surtees was described throughout his life as being affectionate and affable. A social person who loved being in the spotlight and performing for anyone who would watch. Surtees also loved wearing dresses and bows and spent his life traveling the world, even finding international fame starring in the 1932 movie, Freaks. In spite of his many medical problems, Surtees lived to the age of 70, and became a popular cultural icon.
In American Horror Story season two, Dot and Bette, both played by Sarah Paulson, were two conjoined twins sharing a body. Dot and Bette were based on Violet and Daisy Hilton, who were born in 1908 and were connected at the hip. The Hilton twins were one of the first pair of conjoined twins to survive past a few weeks. The two were given away by their mother and later became sideshow performers. Abused by their caretakers, the twins’ fortunes eventually changed.
At age 23, the sisters sued their managers for abuse and won $100,000 in damages. They went on to perform in burlesque shows and even managed to have boyfriends. Like many others on this list, the sisters made their on-screen debut in the 1932 film Freaks. Their last public appearance took place in 1961, and they passed away in 1969, four days apart.
Just like Kit and Alma Walker from season two of American Horror Story, the people the characters were based on, Barney and Betty Hill, were a mixed race couple. The couple claimed to have been abducted by aliens in a back-country road in New Hampshire in 1961. While many think the story is dubious, there are some inexplicable details that aren’t so easily ignored.
After the alleged abduction, both were interviewed and later hypnotized. While the stories the couple told under hypnosis didn’t completely line up, they were similar, with Betty offering the most compelling piece of evidence. She drew a star map from memory, claiming to have witnessed it while on board the alien ship. The stars showed a neighboring star cluster, that according to some, was simply too accurate to have been a stroke of luck.
Scáthach, the blood thirsty witch played by Lady Gaga in season 6, has her basis in legend. According to mythology, Scáthach, Gaelic for “The Shadowy One,” was a female warrior and an instructor for Ireland’s best warriors. To be considered worthy, the warriors first had to reach her on the Isle of Skye. The seas surrounding the isle were choppy and fierce, and the fortress was impregnable. Only after surmounting these obstacles could they begin training.
Training was intense, and many who tried didn’t make it were simply considered unworthy. Scáthach taught the warriors underwater fighting and pole vaulting over high walls. Not only did she teach men to fight, she was also the goddess of the dead, and any man who could beat her in combat was rewarded with entrance to the Land of Eternal Youth.
The serial killer who strutted into the Hotel Cortez wearing stylish black sunglasses to join Mr. March’s devious banquet was based on one of the West Coast’s most terrifying killers. Real-life Richard Ramirez was a heavy drug user who later became obsessed with Satanism. This became a staple of his killings and later transformed into something else entirely.
He was responsible for killing at least 14 people and torturing dozens more. Since his murders didn’t have a pattern and occurred at night, he was referred to as the “Night Stalker” by the press. During his trial, Ramirez wore his signature black clothes and glasses. A cult-like following soon erupted with many supporters dressing like him and declaring loyalty to Satan. He was sentenced to death row, but died of cancer in 2013.
It seems the writers in season one’s Murder House, may have actually tried to tone this one down. The event that inspired the second episode occurred during the summer of 1966 which shocked and horrified the United States. Eight young women, nursing students living in a dormitory in Chicago, had been found dead. Corazon Amurao, a young woman who survived the gruesome event, described an attack unlike any that had ever been heard of.
On July 13, 1966, Richard Speck had broken into Amurao’s dorm and killed the eight girls one by one. Amurao had survived the brutal assault by hiding under the bed and later calling for help. What apparently happened is that Speck simply lost count of the number of girls in the dorm, which is how she was able to survive.
The “Lethal Lovers,” from season six, were an actual serial killer couple who worked as nurses in a senior-citizen care center. There, the two would carry out the killings of their patients, disguising them to make sure it looked as if they died of natural causes.
According to testimony given by Cathy Wood, Gwendolyn Graham’s at-the-time girlfriend, Wood would stand lookout while Graham would perform the act itself. The two even played sick games, looking to kill patients based on the first letter of their name, trying to do so in an order that would spell out the word, MURDER. Graham was eventually found guilty of causing the deaths of five patients and is currently serving a life sentence.
Some of the first killings in season six are performed by a pair of mysterious nurses. In real life, Gwendolyn Graham and Cathy Wood were a couple who would work together to kill nursing home patients. Testimony from Wood suggested that Graham was the brains behind the operation and Wood was just a lookout, but recent discoveries suggest otherwise.
According to Lowell Cauffiel, an award-winning journalist who wrote the book Forever and Five Days, interviews with friends and family of the two suggested that Wood was lying. According to Cauffiel’s documents, Wood was highly intelligent and manipulative while Graham was meek and suffered from mental disorders. Wood’s testimony earned her a plea bargain however, and she is due to be released from prison in 2021.
Lena Dunham stars in the seventh episode of the seventh season of American Horror Stories in an episode titled “Valerie Solanas Died For Your Sins: Scumbag.” In the episode, Solanas is shorted five dollars out of a ten dollar business arrangement. She then takes the money and enters a store, asking how many bullets five dollars will get her. The reason – to kill Andy Warhol.
The real-life Solanas also tried to kill Andy Warhol, after she feared that he would try and steal her work. She failed, and after turning herself in to the police, she served a three year prison sentence. After Solanas was released, she promoted her most famous piece, the SCUM Manifesto, a self-published paper which argued that women had a moral imperative to rid the world of men.
Hotel Cortez was the elaborate building where most of season five took place, and was reportedly inspired by the actual Cecil Hotel. The two share quite a bit in common, both are located in Los Angeles, both have an arguably similar look to them, and both hotels were the sites of creepy and mysterious deaths.
The actual Cecil Hotel was nicknamed “The Suicide,” due to the high rates of suicides and other deaths that took place there. In fact, after so many check-ins followed by much fewer check-outs, rumors took hold that the Cecil was haunted. In 2013 the Cecil Hotel found itself making headlines again after videos leaked of a woman behaving erratically in the hotel elevator. Shortly after, that same woman’s body was found in the hotel’s water tank.
In season two, Asylum, victims of tuberculosis are brought to Briarcliff Manor to die. The actual place, Willowbrook State School, was also a notorious institution and served as the real-life basis for Briarcliff Manor. Willowbrook was initially designed to be a school for children suffering from mental illness, but by the early 1970s it had become a notorious crime scene.
Willowbrook State School was designed to accommodate up to 4,000 children. By 1965 over 6,000 children were living within its walls. When Robert Kennedy came to visit he described it as being less clean and comfortable than a zoo. By 1972, investigative reporters had uncovered a chilling series of abuses taking place, and by 1987 Willowbrook was shut down for good.
The Zodiak Killer makes sparing appearances throughout the series; once during “Devil’s Night” and again during “Valerie Solanas Died For Your Sins: Scumbag.” In real life, the Zodiak Killer is the pseudonym of an unknown serial killer who, according to letters and phone calls supposedly sent to police by the killer himself, killed 37 people.
Much like in American Horror Stories, the Zodiak Killer wore an executioner’s hood for at least one of his killings, with the circle and cross symbol on his chest. Since the killer’s identity was never discovered many rumors have given rise that the Zodiak Killer might have been more than one person or the possibility that it could, in fact, be a woman.
Anne Frank was a young girl who died during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. While hiding from the Nazi’s, Anne and her family hid behind a bookcase where she wrote frequently in her diary. That diary was eventually published as The Diary of a Young Girl. Nobody knows exactly when Anne Frank perished, but it is believed she died in early 1945.
American Horror Stories offers a different ending to Anne Frank’s story. According to them, Anne Frank never died, but was actually freed by the allies and too sick to tell anyone who she was. She lived homeless and destitute in the streets of Germany until she married an American G.I. Eventually she is brought to season two’s Briarcliff Manor where she meets Dr. Arden, whom she recognizes from her time in the concentration camps.
Season two’s Lana Winters is a journalist who tries to expose the abuses taking place in Briarcliff Manor and is eventually committed under false pretenses. The real Lana Winters was a woman named Nellie Bly who, like her character in American Horror Story, also went undercover in a mental asylum.
After ten days in the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island, Nellie Bly was released at the behest of the newspaper she worked for. Her piece on the abuses that regularly took place there became a nationwide sensation and earned her lasting fame. Her work launched a new kind of undercover, investigative journalism, which has unearthed arguably some of the most important news stories ever since.
In season four we get a peek inside of the American Morbidity Museum, a museum dedicated to preserving the body parts of those born with strange deformities. The actual morbidity museum, known as the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, is not too far a stretch from the one portrayed in the show.
Much like the American Morbidity Museum in American Horror Story, the Mutter Museum has numerous skeletons and tissues on display. These include a malignant tumor removed from President Grover Cleveland, preserved skin tissue taken from assassin John Wilkes Booth, and even the actual brain of none other than Albert Einstein.
Evan Peters may have outdone himself in his role as the angry and manipulative Kai Anderson, an online troll who discovers he has an incredible ability to persuade other people. Kai Anderson was meant to represent many of the most famous American cult leaders including Jim Jones, Marshall Applewhite, and David Koresh. But his ability to control others arguably puts him closest to Charles Manson.
Active in Los Angeles primarily during the late 1960’s, Manson and his followers carried out murders in preparation, for what they believed, to be an upcoming and inevitable race war. Apparently this was inspired by Manson’s interpretation of the song “Helter Skelter” a popular song by The Beatles.
Sources: Encyclopedia Britannica, Biography.com, Crime Museum, Ranker