In the 2004 film Anchorman there is a disclaimer that appears on screen just briefly before we are introduced to the titular Ron Burgundy. It reads “the following is based on actual events, only the names, places, and events have been changed.” As facetious as that quotation is (along with the entirety of film) it is not something that should be shrugged off and dismissed as mere nonsense because in today’s cinema world such half-truths are evident and prevalent. Like a magician pulling a quarter out of an astonished eight year old’s ear, the “based on true story” promotional tactic is nothing more than a cheap parlor trick to generate film popularity. This ploy comes at the price of misinformation and feeds on gullibility.

There has been a recent influx of theatrical releases that Hollywood types are trying to market as true or based on fact. The “based on a true story or based on actual events” strategy is certainly nothing new, but the volume at which it is being used has become startlingly high, leading us as movie goers into a state of confusion. Where we must decide what is actually true and what is fabricated for the sake of entertainment and box office gross. Steeped within this question are several other questions among them; who dictates what is real and what is not? Is authenticity more important that fictionalized entertainment? Lastly, if all the possessions and exorcisms are actually taking place then shouldn’t we all be far more concerned?

The genre most guilty of this treason is horror. In the past five years we have seen films, such as The Possession, An American Haunting, The Strangers, and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre released with disclaimers protruding from the screen claiming “what you are about to see is based on actual events.” Horror is the most obvious area of film to attempt such a tactic as it is the one where the plots are the hardest to swallow and the content is the least believable.


A young girl purchases a box at a yard sale only to find out that it houses an ancient demon with the intent of destroying her family (The Possession).

 A family moves into a former mortuary, renovated as living quarters that are better situated for taking care of their cancer-stricken son. Paranormal forces subsequently attack the family (A Haunting in Connecticut).


When a film like The Possession (released in August of 2012) where a possessed box wreaks havoc on an entire family claims that “parts” are true, it puts audiences in a difficult position. Most (ALL!) have never encountered a box with a sinister agenda. A Haunting in Connecticut, like most films of its type, takes an old wives’ tale that has been told for several generations and gives it a 21st century face lift without considering its origins and doing any fact-checking.


The debate of authenticity versus entertainment value is an interesting one. While both are certainly possible (Lincoln, Argo, and The Social Network to a degree) do audiences suddenly require that what they are seeing be the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and if so when was this established as a priority? Is it essential that everything that we experience be approachable? On the opposite end of the spectrum one could argue that the success of Harry Potter and The Avengers would debunk any such idea that theorizes the popularity of factual films over those where wizards hold wants and Robert Downey Jr. flies in robotic suit. However, if one takes the time to think about the most heralded films of the past five years then it is quickly evident that there is a certain critical importance and acclaim attached to these films ‘based on truth.” The Kings Speech, The Social Network, 127 Hours, and The Fighter were all films up for best picture in 2011 and all were based on actual events.


How true is true and how far can truth be stretched while still holding onto some legitimacy? Consider this: a major studio seeks to make a film about a 34 year old man named Mark that worked in the produce section of the grocery store and lived with his mother in Cleveland, Ohio (Sounds like a real crowd pleaser doesn’t it!?). If the producers, directors, and writers wanted to say that it was based off a true story could they not conceivably scour the countryside looking for someone who fits the mold? Perhaps they settle on an 18 year old boy named Matt who does, indeed, live with his mom (because he is 18) and is from Trenton, New Jersey. Could they not claim that their film (it would be titled “Clean Up On Isle: Life” or something similar) is “based” on some truth? Obviously the name is different and the age and the place, but the core is the same, right? I concede that this a silly argument, but in the cases of many films it seems as though conversations like the aforementioned one might have taken place. The point being that if you delve deep enough and search long enough almost every movie released could claim that it was based on true occurrences.

We are completely saturated in half-truth, or in the sense of the horror genre, quarter truths, but to movie goers this does not seem to truly matter. Fabrication is rampant throughout the industry and there seems to be no way to decipher what is authentic and true and what is fictionalized. With wide-scale entertainment as the primary objective, or in some cases critical acclaim, we may never know just how true our true stories are.

It isn’t necessarily the being lied to that is bothersome, but that filmmakers think audiences are going to believe that all it took was a few wins for the T.C. Williams team in Remember the Titans to completely forget about the 200 years of racial turmoil or that in the 1970′s nearly every city had a young girl in need of an exorcism. Such blatant misuse of the public trust should not be allowed as it fills peoples’ heads with inaccuracies and partial truths which leads us to an uninformed society. Enough ignorance exists out there without studio types trying to make historical fiction sexier (which hardly seems possible) and frighten people with stories of crazed back woods murderers

By no means should these films be boycotted, as that solves nothing and deprives audiences of quality cinema. Take warning, however, because if  you sip the “based on a true story” Kool-Aid and buy into these half truths then you might choke.

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  • Warren Miller

    I have had 15 exorcisms

    -Miller out

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