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14 True Stories Behind Stephen King's Novels

Updated June 14, 2021 20.5k votes 4.6k voters 461.2k views14 items

List RulesVote up the scariest real-life incidents behind Stephen King books.

Stephen King is a master of horror who has authored dozens of novels and stories exploring monsters both human and supernatural. Many of King's ideas are rooted in true stories, either historical in nature, like the assassination of President John F. Kennedy that serves as the foundation for time travel thriller 11/22/63, or embellishments of mundane everyday life. For King, a simple trip to the grocery store in a thunderstorm or a walk over a bridge to pick up his car from the mechanic can be the start of some creepy tale.

One of King's greatest works, The Shining, emerged from a dream he had in a snowy hotel in the mountains. A lesser-known piece was inspired by Dennis Rader, one of America's most notorious serial killers. To find out who inspired Misery's obsessive Annie Wilkes and which real St. Bernard led to Cujo, read on. 

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    'A Good Marriage' Was Based On A Real-Life Serial Killer

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    A Good Marriage is about a woman who has been married to her husband for nearly 30 years. They sell rare coins and everything is pretty okay. That is, until the woman discovers her husband is a notorious serial killer.

    King was inspired to write this story after reading about Dennis Rader, better known as the Bind Torture Kill (BTK) killer. Rader's modus operandi is well-explained by his moniker, but he would also mail his victims' ID cards to police. Rader's friends and neighbors never suspected anything, and he was well-liked by his community. Paula Rader had been his loving wife for 30 years and had no knowledge of her husband's heinous crimes. 

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    It, the story of a sewer-dwelling clown/spider/beast that terrorizes a group of children and then haunts them again as adults, cemented a lifelong fear of clowns in many kids who caught a peek of Tim Curry's portrayal of Pennywise the Clown in the film.

    King got part of the idea for the novel when his car broke down one summer day. He took the car to the shop, and when it was fixed, he walked three miles back to the mechanic to pick it up. King's route took him across an old wooden bridge, which caused him to remember an old fairytale about three goats encountering a troll who lived beneath a bridge. Somehow, this fairytale sparked in King the structural device of It.

    King was also inspired by the local sewer system of Bangor, ME, the town in which he was living.

    "Somebody told me apparently you can put a canoe down into the sewers just over across from here at the Westgate Mall and you can come out by the Mount Hope cemetery at the other end of town. This same guy told me that the Bangor sewer system was built during the WPA and they lost track of what they were building under there. They had money from the federal government for sewers, so they built like crazy. A lot of the blueprints have now been lost and it’s easy to get lost down there. I decided I wanted to put all that into a book and eventually I did. Bangor became Derry."

    The idea of an evil clown is also rooted in truth. Serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who murdered 30 young men and boys in the Chicago area in the '70s, performed at children's parties as Pogo the Clown. 

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    The Shining, arguably one of King's best works, concerns a family that agrees to be caretakers of a hotel in the Colorado mountains over the winter. They're snowed in, trapped in the gorgeous old building. Which is, of course, haunted.

    The Overlook Hotel of The Shining was inspired by the Stanley Hotel in Colorado. In 1974, King and his wife stayed in Room 217 of the Stanley, a room rumored to be haunted. As King slept, he dreamed of his young son being chased around the hotel by a fire-hose. 

    "I got up, lit a cigarette, sat in a chair looking out the window at the Rockies, and by the time the cigarette was done, I had the bones of the book firmly set in my mind."

    The Stanley Hotel embraces its immortal spookiness and is now home to an annual horror festival. 

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    In Misery, an author is kidnapped by deranged superfan Annie Wilkes who forces him to rewrite his novel the way she sees fit. King based Annie, masterfully portrayed by Kathy Bates in the subsequent film, on his own drug problems. "Annie was my drug problem, and she was my number-one fan. God, she never wanted to leave," he said.

    The novel was also inspired by the Evelyn Waugh story The Man Who Liked Dickens. In the Waugh's tale, a man holds another man captive and forces him to read Charles Dickens aloud. King said he pondered what it would be like if the man had managed to capture Dickens himself. 

    Annie Wilkes, nurse by trade, and is suspected of murdering several children under her care. This aspect of her origin story is based on Genene Jones, a former nurse who is believed to have killed as many as 60 children. She would poison them, then try to rescue them to receive praise. Her rescue efforts were not always successful. 

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