And the practice shows no sign of abating. Last year, there were “Amityville: The Awakening” (“inspired by true events”), the 18th in the series, and the U.F.O. thriller “Phoenix Forgotten” (“based on shocking untold true events”); “Conjuring 3” is still to come. But these are horror films. Do we need them to be authentic as well?
“If you can establish that there’s a true story, or that there are factual elements being woven into the story, then you’ve taken a big step in inducing a creepy mood in your audience,” said Stephen Prince, a cinema studies professor at Virginia Tech and editor of “The Horror Film,” a collection of essays about the genre.
But how true to life can a horror film be, particularly ones, like “Winchester,” that are filled with spirits and apparitions? And who would believe these claims in the first place?
“The audience for horror films is a very self-selected audience, in a way that’s not true for a lot of other genres,” Mr. Prince said. “People who go to these films are ready to believe.”
Interestingly enough, the “true story” of Sarah Winchester, the one that keeps crowds flocking to the San Jose tourist attraction, was in doubt long before the Spierig brothers had their go at it. Sure, there was a real Sarah Winchester, and she did build a house in San Jose, but much of what people think they know about the woman and her house involves spook stories cooked up by journalists of her day, said the Winchester biographer Mary Jo Ignoffo, author of “Captive of the Labyrinth: Sarah L. Winchester, Heiress to the Rifle Fortune.”
The stairs to the ceiling and the doors that lead nowhere? The result of earthquake damage left unrepaired after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. All those rooms? A reflection of Ms. Winchester’s interest in architecture and interior design — she came from a long line of woodworkers — not her belief in spiritualists or the supernatural. Her supposed “gun guilt”?
“There’s no evidence for that,” Ms. Ignoffo said. “Nobody felt guilty about guns at the turn of the 20th century. Everybody used them and needed them.”
“The fundamental lie is that the building of the house went on 24/7,” Ms. Ignoffo continued. “She didn’t even live in the house for the last 15 years of her life.”
None of which will lessen a viewer’s enjoyment of the film — nor should it, particularly when it comes to horror movies. “I think with horror, ‘based on a true story’ is much more loosely applied,” said Jonathan Vankin, author of “Based on a True Story: Fact and Fantasy in 100 Favorite Movies.”
And with horror films about ghosts and paranormal sightings, you’re often getting what people say they saw, amplified by all the appropriate special effects. “So there are really two levels of reality there,” he said. “It becomes very meta. So yes, it’s a ‘true story,’ but maybe one with an unreliable narrator.”
Even so, the filmmakers read all they could about the house and its owner, consulted historical documents and period photographs, and visited the home five times. (While exterior shots were filmed in San Jose, much of the film was shot on a set in Australia, where the directors are based.) Among the completely true elements included in the film are the home’s weird switchback staircase and the very unspooky reason for it. Ms. Winchester had rheumatoid arthritis, and the low-stepped stairs functioned as something of a ramp.
While the film and the biography couldn’t be less alike, both reach similar conclusions about Ms. Winchester: She was considerably more heroic, and considerably less nuts, than she has sometimes been painted. In Ms. Ignoffo’s book, Ms. Winchester is a savvy businesswoman; a beloved employer; and a generous sister, aunt and philanthropist. In “Winchester,” she’s a tough heroine out to protect her family and home from evil spirits and greedy company executives alike.
If the film often strays from the truth for the sake of a good scare — there’s no record that Ms. Winchester was ever attacked by a boy possessed by the ghost of a murderous Confederate soldier, for example — that’s fine with its creators. “Ultimately you’re not making a documentary,” Michael Spierig said. “You’re making a piece of entertainment.”