Ryan Murphy’s long-running anthology show American Horror Story has been frightening TV audiences since its first season debuted on FX way back in 2011. But what you might not know is that many of the true-life tales that its plotlines and characters are based on are even more terrifying. From Hotel’s cast of serial killers and Asylum’s deranged doctors, to Coven’s wicked socialites and Roanoke’s spooky mysteries, here’s a look at 30 times that reality proved to be much, much scarier than fiction.
1. Gabourey Sidibe prayed to protect herself
You can’t blame Gabourey Sidibe for getting the heebie-jeebies while filming the third season, Coven. For one particular scene the actress had to summon a supernatural deity named Papa Legba via a Latin chant. And what happened away from the cameras soon after suggested that she may have summoned him for real. Yes, a whole host of strange things reportedly happened, including the sound of a trailer door being scratched, the shaking and crashing of a light fitting, and Sidibe briefly feeling paralyzed. Luckily, she had a spiritual friend to call upon and after reciting a particular prayer, all the creepy goings-on apparently stopped.
2. The Cecil Hotel’s ultimate mystery
The Hotel Cortez setting of American Horror Story’s fifth season is based on an establishment whose history is far spookier than anything Ryan Murphy could have come up with himself. Los Angeles’ Cecil Hotel has counted several well-known serial killers as guests, including Johan Unterweger and Richard ‘The Night Stalker’ Ramirez. And then there’s the strange case of Elisa Lam. The tourist had previously been caught on camera looking spooked in an elevator before her lifeless body was discovered in the water tank located on the hotel’s rooftop. This gruesome find was only made when patrons noticed that the Cecil’s tap water had a peculiar taste.
3. H.H. Holmes’ home was an even bigger deathtrap
Evan Peters has played his fair share of monsters during American Horror Story’s lengthy run. And one of the most heinous was James March in the fifth season, Hotel. The hotelier was actually based on a very real serial killer who built his own establishment to carry out his depraved fantasies. That’s right: H.H. Holmes set up various secret quarters, trap doors, and basement chutes to make his hotel the true stuff of nightmares. He even transformed some of its rooms into gas chambers! While Holmes only admitted to 28 killings, some put the true number at closer to the 200 mark!
4. The New Orleans axeman killed 12 in a year
Danny Huston’s character in third season Coven was nicknamed The Axeman, a nod to the very real serial killer who terrorized New Orleans in the late 1910s. The murderer’s spree only took place across the course of a single year. But he racked up 12 victims during this period, with a razor blade and, of course, an axe his main weapons of choice. Like his fictional counterpart, The Axeman was a jazz aficionado who also enjoyed penning letters. The majority of his victims were Italian-American, which has led to rumors that his crimes were linked to the Mafia. We’ll never know, as the identity of the killer has never been uncovered.