The Real Crimes And Tragedies That Led To Beliefs In Famous Hauntings

There's nothing like a good ghost story, but many people don't know the tragic backstories and dark secrets behind many of the US's most famous hauntings. Folklore tends to link real-life horrors with eerie paranormal occurrences, but it's easy to forget that these events happened to actual people. Whether it's a cold-blooded murder, a terrible fire, or a tragic death that features in these horrific stories behind ghosts and hauntings, they're all said to leave behind some spiritual mark. Even if you don't believe in the paranormal, these stories may just send a chill down your spine.

Do you know the real-life events that inspired The Amityville Horror? Did you ever look into the true story of Delphine LaLaurie after watching American Horror Story? Read on to discover the forgotten backstories behind some of the most notorious (alleged) hauntings in US history.

  • Ronald 'Butch' DeFeo Killed His Entire Family In Amityville
    Photo: BrownieCharles99 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Ronald 'Butch' DeFeo Killed His Entire Family In Amityville

    Immortalized in the bestselling book The Amityville Horror and its film adaptations, the iconic Dutch Colonial home in Amityville, NY, supposedly hosts frightening specters. Still standing on Ocean Avenue, this home was the site of the infamous mass murder of the DeFeo family.

    On November 13, 1974, Ronald "Butch" DeFeo, in an alleged state of demonic possession, killed his parents (Ron and Louise), sisters (Dawn and Allison), and brothers (Marc and John Matthew) with a shotgun as they slept.

    In 1976, George and Kathy Lutz, along with their three children, moved into the house but fled only 28 days later. The Lutzes claimed that they encountered hordes of flies in the home, green slime oozing from the walls, and crucifixes turning upside down on their own. A Catholic priest was brought in to cleanse the house, but he was told by a disembodied voice to "Get out!"

    While the house's hauntings have largely been debunked over the last 45 years, the stories of the lives lost are very much true. Butch DeFeo died in prison at age 69 on March 12, 2021.

  • Delphine LaLaurie Committed Unspeakable Acts Of Torture In Her Home
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Delphine LaLaurie Committed Unspeakable Acts Of Torture In Her Home

    The LaLaurie Mansion, located at 1140 Royal Street in New Orleans, was home to Madame Marie Delphine LaLaurie, a prominent member of New Orleans high society. The story goes that LaLaurie's home caught fire in 1834, revealing in its destruction her atrocious crimes.

    Local folklore says that the home's attic contained slaves held in small cages and other forms of bondage. The attic was also the site of grotesque medical experiments allegedly performed with the help of LaLaurie's physician husband, as well as unspeakable acts of torture and degradation.

    Considering the horrible acts that took place in the LaLaurie Mansion, it's no wonder the building is considered to be one of the most haunted places in the region. Throughout its history of various owners and uses (which includes a girls' school), occupants and visitors have reported hearing anguished screams bouncing off the walls, as well as seeing apparitions of the enslaved walking the balconies and yards.

  • The Lizzie Borden House Was The Site Of Two Horrific Ax Murders
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Lizzie Borden House Was The Site Of Two Horrific Ax Murders

    On August 4, 1892, Lizzie Borden informed her maid, Bridget, of a grisly discovery: Her father, Andrew Borden, had been bludgeoned and mutilated by hatchet while napping on the sofa. Her stepmother, Abby, was found bludgeoned by an ax in an upstairs bedroom.

    Since Lizzie and Bridget were the only people home during the murders - and Lizzie reportedly had a rocky relationship with her father and stepmother - she was immediately a suspect in the case. Evidence, however, proved scant and Borden was ultimately acquitted. No one else was ever charged. 

    The Borden House stands today as a bed and breakfast where guests can stay in the same bedrooms where the Bordens slept over a century ago. In terms of spirits still roaming the house, visitors have reported hearing creaking floors, unexplained shadows, strange smells, and even full-body apparitions.

  • Waverly Hills Sanatorium Holds A Dark History

    Built as a tuberculosis hospital in 1910, the Waverly Hills Sanatorium in Louisville, KY, saw thousands of deaths during its years of operation. With fresh air thought to be an effective remedy, patients were often left out in the elements regardless of the season, or else placed in "sun rooms" where their lungs would be exposed to ultraviolet light.

    Other treatments included muscles and ribs being removed to allow the lungs to expand, or having balloons surgically implanted to expand the lungs by force, which often resulted in fatalities. At the height of the tuberculosis epidemic, the hospital saw an estimated one death per hour. As deaths increased, Waverly Hills constructed a tunnel to carry the deceased to a nearby railway, out of sight of the living.

    This "death tunnel," along with the rest of the hospital, is said to be a hotspot for paranormal activity. Over the years, visitors have reported hearing footsteps and disembodied voices, seeing strange shadows, and even encountering a young ghost named "Timmy," who is said to roll a ball around on the building's upper floors.

  • The Black Dahlia Might Have Been Killed In The John Sowden House
    Photo: Santa Barbara Police / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Black Dahlia Might Have Been Killed In The John Sowden House

    In the Los Angeles neighborhood of Los Feliz looms a hulking, Mayan-inspired building created by the legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Commissioned and built in the 1920s by retired artist John Sowden, the house was purchased by Dr. George Hodel in 1945.

    Hodel was an acclaimed physician in the field of venereal disease, and his practice catered to many of Hollywood's elite. The doctor was also rumored to host "hedonistic parties and orgies" in the labyrinthine home, and he was said to beat his children in the basement. In the early 2000s, Hodel's son Steve claimed that his father was the culprit been behind the infamous Black Dahlia murder - the unsolved death and mutilation of Elizabeth Short - and that it took place in the basement of the John Sowden House. 

    While under investigation for Short's murder, George Hodel fled the US and spent his remaining days in Asia. Subsequent residents of the Sowden House have reported eerie occurrences in the home, including the sounds of chains rattling, disembodied voices, and apparitions that appear to be Mr. Hodel himself.

  • The Ghost Of A Hanged Woman Is Said To Appear In Sauer Castle

    Overlooking the Kansas River, Sauer Castle invokes the image of a classic haunted house and is said to be one of Kansas's most haunted locations. Built by New York businessman Anton Sauer, the castle was home to his wife and 12 children, one of whom died in infancy and was buried on the property. Sauer died only a month later at the castle from tuberculosis and was buried at a nearby cemetery; his daughter's body was also moved to the cemetery to be with him.

    Local rumors, however, suggest the entire Sauer family was buried on the property - and that's just one of many bizarre tales attached to the home. Some have also claimed that a woman hanged herself in the castle's tower, and that the home holds buried bodies in a secret tunnel leading to the river. 

    With a long, dark history, it's no wonder that neighbors of Sauer Castle report strange lights and voices coming from the home. But perhaps the eeriest story of all is the local legend that every Halloween, a man and woman can be seen dancing in the tower.