American Horror Story, the long-running FX horror anthology, is known for its intricate storytelling. How does the series weave together complex characters and storylines throughout its seasons? Because often, American Horror Story characters are based on real people. Sometimes these people are the victim, other times they're the evil mastermind, and still other times they're regular people with an outlandish story to tell.
The real-life horror stories behind AHS paint an undeniably terrifying picture of American history - from recreating Columbine to recounting H.H. Holmes's real-life murder-trap hotel. Inspiration for AHS isn't just limited to real tragedies, however; it also encompasses creepy unsolved mysteries (such as Roanoke) and long-standing urban legends.
Here are the true stories American Horror Story has drawn from to tell its horrifying tales.
Briarcliff seems like far too horrible place to be based in any sort of reality, but the story of Staten Island's Willowbrook State School is the stuff of real nightmares. The institution housed thousands of patients over the years, often well over capacity, providing horrific living conditions for the mentally challenged patients. People were sexually abused by the terrifying staff, awful medical experiments were performed on patients, and patients regularly died from neglect and starvation.
There were no evil nuns, but until Geraldo Rivera did a news exposé in 1972 that effectively got the institution shut down, there was basically no God who was of any help to the poor victims stuck there.
Mena Suvari only nabbed a small role in Season 1 of American Horror Story, but it was a historically juicy one. She played the victim of one of the most famous unsolved homicides in American History – the Black Dahlia Murder.
In real life, Elizabeth Short was a 22-year-old actress who was found brutally murdered in 1947. Her body was chopped in half, but the defining mark of her murderer was the smile carved across her face - also known as a Glasgow smile. The case was never solved, and it was definitely front-page news.
In Murder House, Rosa Salazar and Celia Finkelstein guest starred as two ghostly nurses who were murdered. According to AHS mastermind Ryan Murphy, their murders were inspired by the Richard Speck massacre – a very real, terrifying incident that occurred in 1966. It's one of the only instances depicted in American Horror Story that may have actually been played down rather than disturbingly embellished.
In 1966, Richard Speck broke into a nursing dorm in Chicago, where he sexually assaulted, tortured and killed eight residents.
Dr. Arden (James Cromwell) is the doctor you'd never want to get in a hospital. In the show he performs cruel and unusual surgeries to the poor patients at Briarcliff. His real-life counterpart, Josef Mengele, was equally as awful. Nicknamed The Angel of Death, Mengele worked in the Nazi concentration camps and was obsessed with physical abnormalities.
He would take blood and perform experiments on those who piqued his medical interest. He's also known to have kept body parts in general.