One of the greatest achievements of American Horror Story, the long-running FX horror anthology, is that it truly is an American horror story. Yes, it's real - at least part of it.
Ryan Murphy's titular series has a habit of weaving complex characters and their storylines throughout vastly different series. How do they all fit? Because American Horror Story characters are based on real people – real, awful people who have endured grotesque and terrible things. Sometimes these people are the victim (i.e. the Black Dahlia and her famous smile) and other times they're the evil mastermind (Madame LaLaurie did actually serve poop soup, sort of). Fans would by lying if they've never wondered whether or not they could truly stomach a session in Ryan Murphy's writers' room. Seriously, how insane is it in there?
The real-life horror stories behind AHS paint a undeniably terrifying picture of American History – from recreating the Columbine massacre with Even Peters's charming ghost protagonist (how could someone so handsome be so evil?) to recounting H.H. Holmes's real-life murder-trap hotel. Inspiration for AHS isn't just limited to real murders and national tragedies. It also encompasses creepy unsolved mysteries (Roanoke) and long-standing urban legends and conspiracy theories (the Smiley Face Murders) – all of the most terrifying corners of America's forgotten lore.
Here's a comprehensive list of every true story American Horror Story uses. Be warned: Reality is often both stranger and more horrifying than fiction.
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 murders 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 murder was never solved, and it was definitely front-page news.
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.
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 raped, tortured and killed eight residents.
Angela Bassett's mysterious, ancient voodoo queen was based on a real person renowned in New Orleans history. Marie Laveau was a hairdresser in the French Quarter between the 1820s and 1860s, but she also practiced black magic. Laveau was said to mix elements of Catholicism with voodoo and was known as a nurse and a healer. Today, people still visit her grave and draw three Xs on the side of it, hoping the voodoo priestess will grant them wishes.