Horror + Real Life Tragedies? Tacky or Art?


I’ve never been silent about my disdain for films, horror or otherwise, that supposedly draw their inspirations from real world tragedies. Though I’m often open to artistic interpretation and well told true-crime dramas, like The SacramentBoys Don’t Cry, and Monster, I’ve never been able to appreciate a filmmaker who mentions a true crime case when asked about their ideas and inspirations. I find it unoriginal, tacky, and trivializing.

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Most recently, this happened when news about the plot and background for the latest American Horror Story season, Hotel, began sweeping social media outlets. In articles, Ryan Murphy was credited with citing the strange and sad tale of “a girl” (clearly meaning Elisa Lam) for inspiring at least some aspect of the upcoming show’s overall plot. For those who don’t know, Elisa Lam was a young woman who was caught on a hotel’s elevator surveillance camera behaving erratically and whose body was later discovered inside the hotel’s water tank. Besides evidence linking Lam to having probable mental health issues and evidence supporting she could have in fact made her own way into the tank, the internet began spreading rumors about possession, murder, and the supernatural.

This season of AHS will also be featuring a Halloween episode that portrays not just one, but at least 4 different real like serial killers… Gag.

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This bugs me. Elisa Lam was a person whose life ended terribly and yet Hollywood (a feature film also citing the case as inspiration is currently in the works as well) name drops the poor girl like she’s an icon to be credited instead of a victim of her own mental health. To use her and her story, which has been skewed into a modern urban legend, in order to draw attention to a film project is, to me, simply poor form.

And this is not the only time I’ve felt this way. Though I’ve stopped watching the TV series Salem, one of my very first concerns about it was that it was actually portraying real life historical figures who lived in fairly miserable, fearful, and maddening times. They were people accused by their neighbors, imprisoned, convicted, and sometimes executed as witches and heretics. But here we are today, making light of their lives by turning them into overly sexualized demon-slaves; historic persons made fictional, literally being robbed of their lives.


Another example is the “horror” film Baby Blues, which follows a mother with postpartum depression killing her young children in the same way Jason hacks up slutty teens at Crystal Lake. Had Baby Blues been a saddening Andrea Yates biopic, I might not have mentioned it here, but it was literally nothing more than a tacky slasher flick about a mother slaughtering her children.

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Outside of horror, I’ve refused to watch the comedy 30 Minutes of Less, for making light of a man who had a bomb strapped to his chest and was forced to rob a bank before it was finally detonated on live video, killing him. (Disclosure, it’s never been proven completely if the pizza man was actually part of the robbery plots or not, so his innocence is questionable.)

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I know not everyone feels this way towards the world of film, and that’s fine. But as for me, I take into account taste-level when viewing something, especially if it’s supposed to be based on or inspired by a real life tragedy. I believe you either need to be sensitive, truthful, and respectful of the incident, or go completely as far away from the truth as you can from it, like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Psycho did after relating themselves to the “true story” of Ed Gein.


So what if AHS: Hotel winds up opening with a needless, exploitative reenactment of Elisa Lam’s tragic death? I honestly don’t know. That’s something I’ll have to wait for and then take into account how it made me feel. But I know enough of my personal outlook on such things that tuning out of the show would not be an unexpected response.


And what do you all think? What’s that make or break point for you when it comes to films based on true crimes and actual events? Is the art world exempt from any set boundaries or do you expect (and respect) when such events are used in tasteful, more palatable ways?


3 thoughts on “Horror + Real Life Tragedies? Tacky or Art?

  1. I agree. It’s on this very premise that I refuse to watch Breaking Bad. I lived in Albuquerque for 12 years. I am friends with many cops there. The fact that Hollywood capitalism seized on a VERY real issue and proceeded to profit from it, while bringing in tourists to Albuquerque and “glamorizing” meth, sickens me to this day. We couldn’t leave NM fast enough… when our son was in 3rd grade coming home telling us that kids were bringing in meth “candy” and talking about smoking spice, I knew it was time to bounce.


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