From absurd notions to verified facts, we explore some true crime urban legends in popular media that weren’t entirely true… but sort of were.
By Josh Lami
Say it with me: “Artists Are Liars”
In 2019, the “real vs. imaginary” conversation needs regular maintenance, even into adulthood. Misinformation is abundant and seemingly impossible to escape on the internet. Forums and social media perpetuate it, false news sites exist to fan flames, and I don’t know how to fix any of that. With that in mind, let’s try and take something superfluous out of the misinformation equation and address something we already know, but sometimes seem to forget.
Movies and television shows have the defining characteristic of seeming real while not actually being real. Numerous elements are used to bring a filmmaker’s imagination to life, like writing, editing, and special effects. This isn’t unique to cinema. Novels are exaggerated and embellished. Song lyrics are hyperbolic. Stand-up comedians make up stories. Artists are liars.
Every movie or television series you have ever seen, tells a lie. Granted, the extent varies from one work to another, but even the most integral of documentaries exhibits some dishonesty. At best, a documentary takes months to complete. Usually they take years or even decades. After filming, they’re edited to be seamless, to exclude heavy legwork and boring parts are removed. Information is packaged and delivered to viewers in as easily digestible a manner as possible. No one can include years and years’ worth of findings in a 90-minute documentary, or even a ten-part docuseries. Decisions are made about what to keep and what to cut. You’re not seeing the entire picture and you never will. Music and lighting are added to stir a mood or emotion where the camera alone may be insufficient. Documentaries vary in terms of reliability, many are even fine sources of information, but all are dishonest to some degree. That’s artistry.
It’s dishonest, even when it leads to some kind of greater truth in the end. Cameras don’t pick up everything, and worse, they play tricks. Check out episode one of the Netflix true crime series, Exhibit A. Imperfect as it is, it does discuss the endless faults of video cameras when used as evidence in criminal trials. Sometimes, cameras lie, even without manipulation. It goes without saying that when a filmmaker actively tries to use clever camerawork or editing in conjuring images or ideas, you’re essentially at their mercy.
Using dishonesty to keep an audience entertained, and simultaneously allow for creativity, doesn’t make an artist a bad, or even insensitive person. Factual-only storytelling is supposed to be for people like news reporters, scientists, detectives, lawyers, or teachers. In theory, they convey unobscured facts about history or current events and we learn something new. Sometimes they do their job well, other times not so much. Either way, it is not, nor has it ever been, the duty of an artist to report facts. The role of artist seems to have been confused with that of a courtroom transcriptionist, as artists constantly catch opposition for making up stories when it’s their job to do exactly that.
Part of the confusion lies with the fact that art has no rules. You can paint something ugly and people might love it. Writers can assert for hundreds or even thousands of pages that they are The Devil, and it’s not called mental illness, it’s called first person point of view. People can say anything they want for the sake of art or entertainment; it’s easy to forget, try not to.
True crime stories are becoming harder and harder to discern. Sometimes true crime media is clinically factual, other times it’s total artistic expression, and often, it’s a mix of both… I do both. We at Obscura don’t falsify information, but we love narrative storytelling. I think we make it clear, there’s a level of theater, but also a dedication to dignity and truth. Even still, it’s never a bad idea to check anyone’s sources and decide for yourself. When people suspect a truth may be present in a work of art, but don’t check sources, they run the risk of needlessly perpetuating misinformation. This often becomes something called an urban legend.
Let’s look at a few examples of famous urban legends stemming from works of art, particularly those involving true crime.
Claim: The movie Fargo is a true story. It depicts a lost briefcase full of money. That briefcase is still out there. Also, a woman once died while searching for that briefcase.
Status: No part of this is true, but one part of it is rooted in some semblance of a kind of truth-like thing.
Elaborate: The Coen Brothers have a weird sense of humor. Their movie, Fargo, claims in the opening, that it is a true story. It wasn’t. Some people didn’t understand the idea that, in a work of fiction, someone can say something is true, even if it isn’t. The movie involves misplaced ransom money. Some people reportedly thought the money might really be out there, still buried in the snow. Some may have even made the journey to North Dakota, in search.
Elaborate more, please: There are two urban legends to consider in this story.
First, the 1996 movie Fargo—written and directed by the Coen Brothers—claims to be based on true events, which is, of course, entirely false. The Coens have expressed this repeatedly. The idea of calling it a true story was about making a fictitious movie within a genre of older films that were based on true events. That’s kind of cool, actually, and makes a lot of sense if you consider the Coens’ dry sense of humor, present in all their work to date. Joel Coen once stated to The New York Times, the film is devoid of any historical accuracy.
The opening credits say that the film is “a true story” and that the events “took place in Minnesota in 1987.”
“This, however, is not the case,” Joel Coen said in an interview on Friday. “It’s completely made up. Or, as we like to say, the only thing true about it is that it’s a story.”
Statements like this didn’t stop movie audiences from believing something contrary to it. Rumors abounded that, not only was the story true, but the briefcase full of money depicted in the movie is still sitting somewhere near a fence in Fargo, North Dakota. It not only wasn’t still sitting there, it was never there in the first place. I’m not sure anyone even actually believed in the existence of this briefcase, or if they just believed people believed it, and perpetuated the notion.
Regardless, the myth of Fargo’s veracity led to yet-another urban legend.
Apparently, people were going out to Fargo in sub-zero temperatures and dying of exposure while looking for this non-existent briefcase. Unfortunately, there was actually some veracity to this, albeit slight. The most relayed of these stories goes something to the tune of:
“A woman from Japan came out to Fargo in search of the briefcase she’d seen in the movie. She went to a local police station, with a crudely drawn map, and asked where she might find the depicted location. No one spoke Japanese, she spoke no English, there was a tragic miscommunication, and sometime later, her body was found in the snow. She was dead after freezing to death while searching for imaginary money.”
Parts of this story are true. A woman from Japan did come out to Fargo in November of 2001; her name was Takoko Kanishi. Kanishi did visit local police. She did bring a map and there here was a tragic miscommunication. It even had a little bit to do with the movie Fargo. The irony here is that local police—not Takoko Kanishi—are the ones who pulled a Coen Brothers movie into the situation. Exasperated by a woman with which they could not communicate, someone in the station suggested she was there in search of the fabled money in Fargo.
That is not why she was there.
Officer Jesse Hellman was one of the officers trying to assist Kanishi with her decidedly vague map.
…they communicated with each other the best they could, one word at a time with a little pocket translator she had brought with her from home. "That didn't help at all. Confused me even more," he recalled, shaking his head gravely.
He spoke to Takako for four hours after she had been dropped off at the police station by a concerned citizen, a trucker, who had seen her wandering around. Jesse did his best to help her, but he felt guilty now. "I didn't think I had helped her at all, but I didn't know what else I could do. I felt really bad for her," he said…
Jesse told me about Takako's map, a white piece of paper, on which she had drawn a road and a tree. "That's where she wanted to go, she kept pointing at it. She kept saying something over and over, like 'Fargo' or some word like that. Like that's where she wanted to go. I remember that real clearly. But in North Dakota, practically everywhere you look, there's a road and a tree. So that didn't really help much."
"I had never seen the film Fargo, but another officer in the station had seen it and he told me that there was money buried in this movie. And then we started to think that she had this false impression that the money buried by a road by a tree was real in the movie. That's where she wanted to go. We thought that was really odd, but suddenly it all began to make sense."
Jesse remembered how he and the other officer tried to explain to Takako that Fargo was just a movie, that it was all make-believe. There was no treasure buried anywhere really, they kept trying to make her understand.
Takoko Kanishi was later found dead in the snow, but it was determined not to be related at all to the movie Fargo. Rather, Kanishi was there with the intent to commit suicide. She’d mailed a suicide note to her parents back home and, according to unverified rumors, had recently met an American business man from Fargo, North Dakota. Things had gone sour between them. Emotionally destroyed by this, she went out to Fargo, drank a couple of bottles of champagne, sat down in the snow, and let nature do the rest of the work.
Director David Zellner made a movie about the whole thing called Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.
It’s not so ear-catching a story as the idea of life imitating Oscar-winning art, at least not on the surface, but somewhere, buried in Takoko Kanishi’s final chronicle, is perhaps a story all-the-more intruiguining, and certainly more tragic. Fargo did play a role in this story, just not the role anyone initially thought. We’d never know Takoko Kanishi’s story, had it not been for a very specific chain of events and miscommunications.
That in and of itself, sounds like something the Coen Brothers would write.
Claim: Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails recorded The Downward Spiral at the home of Sharon Tate, where the Manson Family committed one of America’s most notorious murders. It was an effort to give the album a kind of morbid authenticity.
Status: Completely true that the album was recorded there, but on the surface, it may paint an inaccurate portrait of Trent Reznor, and of the situation as a whole.
Elaborate: Trent Reznor bought the house in which the Manson family murdered Sharon Tate. He recorded an album there. He was likely unaware that it was Tate’s home before buying it. Even when he certainly knew, it was never a source of boasting on Reznor’s part. In fact, he seemed to dislike talking about it in the press. The story was probably far more controversial than it should have been.
Elaborate more, please: Interesting thing about this myth, it’s perpetuated not by any particular work of art, but by music journalists in general. It seems to me like it was done in an effort to sensationalize something that isn’t particularly sensational.
If you’re thinking, “that’s called a ‘spin,’ you’re correct.
See, when something like a big album or movie comes out, it has a kind of lifespan. As a news writer, you might be covering every piece of news on it for that lifespan. It can get monotonous. You’ll cover the hype leading up to the release, the press tour prior to release, the release itself, the critical response to the release, the fan response to the release, the release’s commercial performance. You might analyze the release yourself, you’ll cover the tour in support of the release, you’ll cover all the controversy associated with the release, you’ll find you’re running out of shit to say about the release, but eventually, the release will fade away and become old news. You’ll be thankful you no longer have to cover it.
If you’re a news writer covering a Nine Inch Nails album called The Downward Spiral, and today, Trent Reznor announces, say, a tour in support of that album, you may have to draft an article. Maybe you don’t have anything in particular to say about it—other than listing the opening acts and tour dates—because you’ve already reported on this album to death, but that doesn’t matter. The article is due and it has to be a minimum of six-hundred words. It also has to be interesting. If possible, you’ll want to throw a tidbit of controversial information into this relatively meaningless story. It will probably be a reach, but if you’re good at writing, you can make it seamless. This helps with word count and piquing a reader’s interest. For most news articles, there’s somewhere between one and three sentences of actual news, then a bunch of irrelevant information or maybe an attempt at analysis.
Simply put, this fact started as a “Did I really just read that?” headline, which might be a fun little tidbit to know about an album you love, but it quickly descended into filler information for countless news articles.
If you’ve ever listened to Nine Inch Nails’ 1994 smash hit, The Downward Spiral, you’re probably curious as to how such a dark, raw album managed to be a major pop hit. Answer: It was the ‘90s. It’s chock full of raw, visceral, intense music, ranging from abrasive heavy metal, to subdued and quiet piano-laden tracks. Lyrically, it gets downright uncomfortable at times, even twenty-five years later. One of the more shocking aspects of this album lies, not in the music, but with the location where it was recorded.. It was indeed recorded in the same home where Sharon Tate was brutally murdered by people under the instruction of Charles Manson. Trent Reznor—Nine Inch Nails’ driving creative force at the time—must have sought out a really dark corner of American history to record such a dark album. That makes sense, right?
Well, yes, it does make sense when you say it like that, but it’s not what happened, at least not according to Reznor. In an interview with Rolling Stone, he states it was a coincidence:
…recording Nine Inch Nails' second full album in a studio he's fitted into the white-walled living room where Tate was killed.
Given the brutal nature of Reznor's music, the house seems fitting. But sitting in a dimly lit corner of the studio, swiveling in an office chair and biting his fingers, he explains that setting this site was the result of serendipity, not willful perversity or conscious image mongering.
"It's a coincidence," says Reznor, who is twenty-seven, swearing that he decided to rent the house before knowing of its notorious past. "When I found out what it was, it was even cooler. But it's a cool house anyway and on top of that has a very interesting story behind it. "The whole thing of living out here, I didn't even think of it," Reznor says. "I didn't go on a press campaign saying 'I live in Sharon Tate's house, and I'm really spooky'."
The album was recorded in private, with no mention of the location as a selling point to drum up controversy. In fact, Reznor also mentions that most of the album’s lyrics were written prior to his acquirement of the home. Interesting coincidence, considering the word “pig” is something of a motif within the album. Song-titles like “Piggy” and “March of the Pigs” immediately jump out to anyone knowing their Manson history. Naturally, most assumed these were references to the word ‘Pig’ having been written in blood on the front door of that home by members of the Manson Family. Not according to Reznor. He did directly reference the coincidence by later naming this home studio, ‘Le Pig,’ but even that little nod ended up being something he regretted.
While I was working on Downward Spiral, I was living in the house where Sharon Tate was killed. Then one day I met her sister. It was a random thing, just a brief encounter. And she said: "Are you exploiting my sister's death by living in her house?" For the first time the whole thing kind of slapped me in the face. I said, "No, it's just sort of my own interest in American folklore. I'm in this place where a weird part of history occurred." I guess it never really struck me before, but it did then. She lost her sister from a senseless, ignorant situation that I don't want to support. When she was talking to me, I realized for the first time, "What if it was my sister?" I thought, "Fuck Charlie Manson." I don't want to be looked at as a guy who supports serial-killer bullshit." I went home and cried that night. It made me see there's another side to things, you know? It's one thing to go around with your dick swinging in the wind, acting like it doesn't matter. But when you understand the repercussions that are felt ... that's what sobered me up: realizing that what balances out the appeal of the lawlessness and the lack of morality and that whole thing is the other end of it, the victims who don't deserve that”
Upon completion of recording The Downward Spiral, Reznor sold the house and went back to his Garden District home in New Orleans, Louisiana. He did take the Tate home’s front door, however, as a souvenir. That door remained as the main entrance to his New Orleans studio, Nothing Studios, until Trent departed New Orleans for good in the early ‘00s.
Claim: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Is A True Story.
Status: Not true, the story is entirely fictional, but it was inspired by something true. As is the case with virtually every horror movie.
Elaborate: It’s inspired by a real killer, but so what? Wes Craven’s real childhood bully inspired Freddy Krueger. A Nightmare on Elm Street is still very much a work of fiction. Likewise, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a fictional horror film from start to finish. Like Fargo, it claims to be a true story, but it isn’t. The same killer inspired Psycho and Silence of the Lambs, but they’re all vastly different films. Somewhere, someone is making up a story. Could it be… all of them?
Elaborate more, please: When I first saw The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I believed it was a true story. Bear in mind it was more than twenty years after the movie’s release, but also bear in mind I was a kid and probably not thinking critically. Online information wasn’t at my disposal like it is today. Part of the reason people think this movie is a true story is because the goddamn thing feels so real. It’s shot less like a movie and more like a documentary. To further exacerbate matters, stories about the production of this movie are a horror movie all their own. Director Tobe Hooper used a lot of props in the movie that… well, weren’t props. They used a real human skeleton, because it was cheaper than a prop skeleton, and real animal parts were used all throughout.
“The remains of "eight cows, three goats, one chicken, two deer, and an armadillo" were also incorporated into the set, to create an authentic slaughterhouse atmosphere.”
Actors were miserable while shooting, so they don’t just look upset, they’re actually undergoing psychological torture. People were injured, it was boiling hot, and success wasn’t guaranteed. This movie is just a hoot. How true is the actual story?
It isn’t. There is no Leatherface, nor has there ever been. There was no decaying farmhouse with a family of cannibals dwelling within—at least not related to this story, and, thank Christ, there was no Franklin.
So what was there?
That’s it, just Ed Gein. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre featured a madman wearing other people’s faces over his own, and an apron fashioned from stitched-together human flesh. Ed Gein was know for similar behavior and he had his home decorated with human remains. He’s inspired a number of movies, including the aforementioned Psycho and Silence of the Lambs. Ed Gein was an interesting cat. Evil, sure, but it would seem his horrible ways are matched only by his ability to inspire. He got the gears turning in, not just Tobe Hooper’s mind, but in that of Robert Bloch, Alfred Hitchcock, and Thomas Harris as well. His atrocities yielded inspiration for three movies considered extremely relevant pieces of American cinema.
Thing is, if someone told the true story of Ed Gein, front to back with no embellishment, no added narrative, no sense of artistry, it probably wouldn’t make for a critically lauded movie. It would be horrifying, yes, but clinical, futile, unpleasant, the violence would become redundant after a while, and few people would want to see that. Horror is probably my personal favorite genre, but it’s the most likely to try and fool viewers into thinking a story is true, when in fact, it’s very much not.
Here’s an abbreviated list of horror films I’m referring to:
The Blair Witch Project – Not true, not even a little bit.
Cannibal Holocaust – A work of fiction with actors, special effects, the whole nine yards. That said, the animal killings on screen were quite real and quite graphic. In fact, a monkey was killed onscreen and the film’s director didn’t get the shot he needed, so another monkey was then brought in and killed for filming purposes.
Poltergeist – Not true. Loosely based on a family in New York. I mean, if an entire house had been sucked into a portal at some point in American history, we’d know about that, wouldn’t we? That said, there were a number of untimely deaths among the cast, following the film’s release. This has often been referred to as a “curse” of sorts. The untimely deaths are true, curses in general remain unverified.
The Conjuring – There are people in real life who claim it’s true. It’s based on the claims of Ed and Lorraine Warren, two paranormal investigators. There’s a lot of criticism against them. They never produced scientific evidence of their claims. Whether you believe them or not, the movie itself is still considered a work of fiction.
The Amityville Horror – Like The Conjuring, varying reports of factual accuracy abound, but it’s decidedly a work of fiction.
The Shining – Inspired by The Stanley Hotel, which spooked Stephen King, and is reportedly haunted. The Shining, however, is not at all a factual story about a man who went insane and chased after his wife and child with an axe.
We could keep going, but the point is, as a rule, horror movies are usually inspired by some level of truth, and almost never tell a true story. That’s the case with just about any work of fiction, really. Most this is widely known information, it can be found online or in DVD commentary tracks easily. Even so, people regularly hear or read claims about movies and then repeat them as fact. Hopefully, this can serve as a kind of reminder to always check sources for any claim, especially when it seems difficult to believe. Furthermore, I hope it reminds people to never take works of fiction as anything other than what they are. Lastly, I hope no one ever allows the truth to get in their way of enjoying a great story. I’ve referenced a number of lying-ass movies today, admittedly, but many of them are still great films.
That’s it for this issue of the Obsucra True Crime Blog. Always feel free to point out any inaccuracies I may be perpetuating, and especially feel free to point out any in this post. Thanks for reading, and as always, keep the fire burning.