American Horror Story: Real Life Events That Inspired the Show

american horror story real life

Is American Horror Story real, you may ask? You bet it is! Well, most of it, at least.

Did you know that there’s a real life haunted hotel like the Cortez? Or that there was an actual clown that slaughtered many like Twisty? Were you even aware that people did indeed disappear from Roanoke Island hundreds of years ago? What you’ve been watching for eleven seasons is very much real, ladies and gents.

20 Weird + Cool ‘American Horror Story’ Facts

Sorry to make all your nightmares a reality but American Horror Story is in fact based on several real events and historical figures. Much of the show’s plot-lines are not make-believe, as you assumed. Cue the nightmares and shivers, here are 37 creepy real life events that inspired American Horror Story

1. The Nurse Murders

Murder House

You’ll be surprised to know that season one of American Horror Story is based on true events. Remember the dead nurses who were stabbed and drowned by a random attacker in Murder House?

Well, in 1966 a man named Richard Speck broke into a Chicago student nurse dormitory and raped, tortured and killed eight of the poor nurses. Although he escaped, he was thankfully caught, sentenced to life and later died from a heart attack in prison.

2. The Black Dahlia

Murder House

Some of you may already have recognized the infamous Black Dahlia in Murder House. Elizabeth Short’s true story and death was explored on the show although some details were slightly changed.

Just as we saw in Murder House, Elizabeth was an actress in the 1940s looking for fame. She was later brutally murdered with her body being chopped in half and a permanent smile curved onto her face.

Black Dahlia real life
Santa Barbara police via Wikimedia Commons

3. Tate Langdon’s Mass Shooting

Murder House

As you may recall in Murder House, Tate committed a mass shooting at his high school in 1994 against those that bullied him.

Remember how he asked a student if she believes in God before killing her? Well, this mirrors a real-life high school shooting like the Columbine one where one of the shooters asked a victim if she too, believed in God before taking her life.

4. Dr. Arden


It’s difficult to forget the horrible Dr. Arden from American Horror Story. It’s hard to believe that his real-life counterpart was actually a lot more horrific!

Asylum’s deranged German doctor is based on SS officer Josef Mengele who worked as a physician at Auschwitz. There he would perform horrendous, deadly experiments on his prisoners, far worse than what we saw on AHS!

Dr Arden real life
Bernhard Walther or Ernst Hofmann or Karl-Friedrich Höcker via Wikimedia Commons

5. Lana Winters


Nellie Bly was a journalist who famously set up her own involuntary committal to the Women‘s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island in 1887. She later exposed the asylum for its terrible treatment of its patients.

Does this ring a bell? The story sounds very similar to Sarah Paulson’s journalist character, Lana Winters in season two when she willfully committed herself into Briarcliff in an effort to shed light on the asylum’s cruelty to patients.

Lana Winters real life
Miscellaneous Items in High Demand, PPOC, Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons

6. Dr. Thredson


There were some twisted individuals back in the day! Twisted to the point where they’d make home ornaments out of body parts!

This may remind you of Dr. Thredson in Asylum – the psychotic serial killer who decorated his home with skin and bones from his victims. There was once a notorious murderer who did the same. Ed Gein used to make lampshades out of human skin and bowls made of human skulls. EEK!

7. Madame LaLaurie’s Chamber of Horrors


Does Delphine LaLaurie‘s Chamber bring back a nightmare of horrors? We bet it does! You’ll never guess what – Madame LaLaurie was a real person in the 1800’s!

Kathy Bates’ terrifying character was based on a prominent New Orleans socialite who tortured and killed her slaves in her attic called – you guessed it – her “Chamber of Horrors”.

Madame LaLaurie real life
Hellogiggles via Wikimedia Commons {{PD-US}}

8. Papa Legba


Even Papa Legba is based on a “true” person – well, “true” if we’re talking legends. According to voodoo culture, this Coven character is apparently very real – and scary. People believe he is the intermediary between the living and the dead, just like he was in AHS!

9. The Voodoo Queen


Apparently, Marie Laveau was a Voodoo Queen between 1820s and 1860s. As in the show, she was a hairdresser by day and practiced black magic by night. In fact, she was so esteemed that when she died, people continued to visit her tomb in hopes of being healed from beyond the grave.

marie laveau real life
Smerdis of Tlön via Wikimedia Commons

10. The Axeman


Sorry to creep you out but the Axeman from Coven was once very much a real man – and murderer. Just like his “fictional” character, the Axeman was a murderous musician in New Orleans between 1918 and 1919. He used to break into houses with his axe and disfigure his victims.

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Remember how AHS’ Axeman typed up letters to the local newspapers? Well, the historical figure did exactly the same, threatening to kill those not playing jazz music on a particular night.

11. Twisty the Clown

Freak Show

The murderer who inspired Twisty the Clown did far worse than his fictional character on Freak Show. John Wayne Gacy was known as Pogo the Clown during his killing spree in the 1970s.

He would attend children’s parties and charity events and lure teenage boys to his home to rape and murder them. The twisted clown killer was eventually caught and sentenced to the lethal injection in 1994.

twisty the clown real life
Des Plaines Police Department via Wikimedia Commons

12. Jimmy Darling

Freak Show

Jimmy Darling was quite the heartthrob in Freak Show, but his real-life character was quite the opposite. Grady Stiles Jr was born with a congenital disorder called ectrodactyly which gave him claw-like hands. He too, was part of the circus and an alcoholic and a murderer! He was convicted of third degree murder for killing his eldest daughter’s fiancé!

13. Pepper

Freak Show

Had a soft spot for Pepper? There was someone very much like her back in the day. Schlitze Surtees, known as Schlitze the Pinhead was a sideshow performer in the early 1900s.

He too, had microcephaly, a neurodevelopmental disorder that causes an unusually small brain and skull. Like Pepper, Schlitze could only speak in single-syllable words. Bet he was just as sweet!

pepper ahs real life
Lazypalace via Wikimedia Commons {{PD-US}}

14. Dot and Bette

Freak Show

Conjoined twins Dot and Bette weren’t just a fictional pair that Ryan Murphy happened to think up of. They were most probably based on a real story of two sisters who became well-known in the 1920s.

Violet and Daisy Hilton were conjoined at the pelvis and performed in vaudeville shows alongside Charlie Chaplin at the time.

15. Edward Mordrake

Freak Show

The guy with two faces probably scarred you for life. For you, he was only fictional but in the 1800s, this person was real!

Edward Mordrake from Freak Show was very much a real-life person who according to books, had an unusual deformity – a small face at the back of his head. Unlike the killer on Freak Show, Edward committed suicide aged 23.

16. The Morbidity Museum

Freak Show

The Morbidity Museum in Freak Show may have been too morbid to be true, but in actual fact, it’s very real. Human curiosities like organs from conjoined twins, a mummified woman (“soap lady”) and pieces of Einstein’s brain are displayed in The Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. Care to take a visit?

17. The Countess


The Countess’ character is based on a frightening legend named Elizabeth Bathory. This 16th and 17th century Hungarian countess killed hundreds of girls and it’s even believed she bathed in their blood in an attempt to stay young.

She was hardly a vampire and probably not as hot as Lady Gaga’s character, but she sounds just as ghastly!

countess ahs real life
[1]; Copy of an old portrait via Wikimedia Commons {{PD-US}}

18. James March


It scares us to admit it, but James March was a very accurate portrayal of his real-life counterpart. Dr. H.H. Holmes was an infamous real-life serial killer of the 1890s.

Just like Mr. March, Holmes opened his hotel and inside it he trapped, murdered and disposed his female victims in hidden rooms and sound-proof vaults. It’s believed his kill count could be over 200!

james march real life
Weekendowo via Wikimedia Commons

19. The Hotel Cortez


Think the Cortez is all make-believe? Think again. The hotel in American Horror Story is real, guys! Well, kinda!

There is a haunted hotel in Los Angeles that once went by the name, Hotel Cecil. We doubt it’s infested with vampires or that they’re kidnapping children, but rumor has it that murders have taken place at this spooky hotel, including a young girl who was found in the hotel’s water tank. Not just that, several women who checked into the hotel later jumped to their deaths.

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Believe it or not, the Hotel Cecil is the last place where the Black Dahlia was seen alive. Shivers are running down your spine, we know.

20. Aileen Wuornos


Did the name Aileen Wuornos ring a bell? The creepy character that appeared in the episode, Devil’s Night in Hotel was in fact based on the infamous serial killer in the late 80s and early 90s. Aileen notoriously killed seven men and was later executed by lethal injection in 2002.

21. Jeffrey Dahmer


Another character that proves American Horror Story is based on true events is none other than Jeffrey Dahmer.

Aileen wasn’t the only famous serial killer who attended Devil’s Night in Hotel. You may have recognized Jeffrey Dahmer as one of the most famous murderers in American history. He killed at least 17 boys and men and was known as the Milwaukee Cannibal for raping, dismembering, and eating his victims.

jeffrey dahmer real life
Revere Senior High School via Wikimedia Commons

22. Roanoke Island


Is American Horror Story: Roanoke based on true events? Indeed! There is a place in North Caroline that has a haunted and peculiar history. In 1587, an English settlement was established on the island, but after three years, the colony of 117 people vanished without a trace.

Their houses were gone and the settlers were assumed dead. The only thing found was the word “Croatoan” carved onto a wooden post. The historical story still haunts and baffles Americans to this very day.

23. Kai Anderson


Much of American Horror Story: Cult was based on a true story. The season’s lead character, Kai Anderson was actually inspired by a variety of real life cult figures including Charles Manson, David Koresh, and Jim Jones Murphy.

As mentioned by Ryan Murphy, the theme for AHS: Cult came from “mixing the idea of the Manson cult of personality” with “somebody who rises like that within a disenfranchised community.”

Kai Anderson real life
San Quentin via Wikimedia Commons

24. Valerie Solanas


The episode, ‘Valerie Solanas Died for Your Sins: Scumbag’ in Cult gave us a small insight into the real-life events of 1968 when Valerie Solanas attempted to kill Andy Warhol.

Solanas, played by Lena Dunham was indeed a real person who was famously known for shooting Warhol and writing the controversial SCUM Manifesto which urged women to “eliminate the male sex”.

25. The Night Stalker


We hate to creep you out, but 1984’s Night Stalker is indeed based on a real person and true story, ladies and gents. Also known as Richard Ramirez, the Satanist was a real-life killer and rapist during 1984 and 1985.

In fact, his crimes go so far as 13 murders and 30 other felonies including sexual assault and burglary. Not only was this character based on a real-life serial killer, but he regularly visited the Hotel Cecil, too. Creepy, hey?

night stalker real life
San Quentin State Prison, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation via Wikimedia Commons

26. Harry Gardner

Double Feature

Season 10 was a clear homage to a famous serial killer in New England – Antone Charles ‘Tony’ Costa. Costa the handyman/cannabis farmer notoriously killed eight women in the town of Truro in the late ’60s. Harry Gardner openly referenced this real-life incident in the very first episode of Double Feature as he toured his new home in Provincetown.

Like Harry Gardner who becomes a vampiric creature, Costa took pills and LSD frequently and was also said to have bitten his victims, giving him the “Cape Cod Vampire” nickname.  

27. President Eisenhower

Double Feature

In the second segment of Double Feature, we saw President Eisenhower get pulled away from a golf vacation to meet with aliens and make a supernatural agreement. This mirrors a factual (to some degree) incident in the 1950s when President Eisenhower did indeed leave a golf vacation in the middle of the night for a “dental emergency”.

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Theories have always suggested that Eisenhower actually met with two aliens at the exact spot, but what went on with the extraterrestrials has remained unknown.

President Eisenhower
White House via Wikimedia Commons

28. Amelia Earhart

Double Feature  

AHS put a spin on the mystery surrounding the disappearance of real-life aviator, Amelia Earhart. Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan mysteriously disappeared whilst flying to Howland Island in 1937.

Earhart, Noonan, and their plane were never found, but as seen in Double Feature, she was found by President Eisenhower nearly two decades after her disappearance and is said to have been abducted and impregnated by aliens – alluding to a famous conspiracy theory surrounding the famed aviator.

29. Valiant Thor

Double Feature  

As crazy as it sounds, Death Valley‘s Valiant Thor is indeed related to the real world. How, you may ask? Well, according Frank Stranges’ book The Stranger at the Pentagon, Commander Thor was the one to “lead” the extraterrestrials to meet President Eisenhower on that day in the late 50s.

30. The 1969 Moon Landing

Double Feature  

The tenth season sure liked to toy with infamous American conspiracy theories! Everyone knows about NASA’s Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969, and some may be well-versed in its surrounding conspiracy theories – including one that claims the entire ordeal was staged.

In the same way that AHS depicted, NASA apparently used movie director Stanley Kubrick to fake the moon landing after being inspired by his work in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

31. JFK/Richard Nixon/Lyndon B. Johnson

Double Feature  

Many notable historical figures featured in the tenth season of AHS, including politicians President Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Lyndon B. Johnson.

Of course, their true stories are altered to fit the insane narrative of Double Feature, whereby Kennedy is assassinated for knowing too much about the alien shenanigans; Nixon is probed into silence, and Johnson learns about the alien experiments during his ascent to the presidency.

Richard Nixon ahs
Department of Defense. Department of the Army. Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations. U.S. Army Audiovisual Center. (ca. 1974 – 05/15/1984) via Wikimedia Commons

32. Marilyn Monroe

Double Feature  

We don’t have to give you a rundown of who Marilyn Monroe is – her character was pretty obvious in Death Valley. But other than adding this real-life historical figure into the show, AHS decided shake up the real cause of her infamous death in the 60s.

Inspired by a very famous (and bizarre) conspiracy theory, Monroe is shown to be murdered by government agents for knowing too much about the extraterrestrials, and staging her so-called death by suicide.

marilyn monroe ahs
RKO via Wikimedia Commons

33. Richard Rogers


Mr. Whitely from AHS: NYC is likely to be inspired by the Last Call Killer, a.k.a. Richard Rogers. This real-life serial killer was a gay man and surgical nurse at New York’s Mt. Sinai Hospital who preyed on gay men in the city during the 80s and 90s.

According to Elon Green’s Last Call: A True Story of Love, Lust, and Murder in Queer New York, Rogers used to pick up his victims at cruising spots (like piano bars) to later torture and dismember them at his apartment.

Mr. Whitely done similar things in NYC and even used hospital equipment (that belong to a surgeon) to torture his victims, like the infamous Last Call Killer himself. That’s not all. Rogers’ 1988 victim was also drugged and dumped, like Gino Barelli was on the show.

34. Arthur Bell


Yet another real-life figure weaved into American Horror Story in season eleven is historic activist and Village Voice journalist Arthur Bell. NYC’s reporter and gay rights journalist Gino Barelli has drawn direct inspiration from Bell and like the real-life reporter, Barelli is seen investigating the killings of gay men in New York. 

35. Theo Graves


Psychic and photographer, Theo Graves emulated a real-life legend known as Robert Mapplethorpe. Just like Graves, Mapplethorpe was a renowned photographer from the 60s and 70s, best-known for his controversial artwork that depicted New York’s gay male BDSM subculture.

36. Hannah Wells


Dr. Linda Laubenstein was one of the first physicians to recognize the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. This important scientific figure mirrors one of AHS: NYC’s characters, Dr. Hannah Wells, a biologist who researched a strange disease (a.k.a. AIDS) that overcame Fire Island.

37. Anna Victoria Alcott


American Horror Story: Delicate is partially based on a true story. The twelfth season of AHS has been adapted from the novel ‘Delicate Condition’ by Danielle Valentine, who based Anna Victoria Alcott’s story on some of her real-life experiences.

While the supernatural elements of the novel and series are indeed fictional, Valentine did reveal that her own pregnancy and miscarriage experiences inspired the basis of the thriller story.

ahs delicate real life

These are indeed real American horror stories – to some extent. We never thought such horrors existed! Can you think of other characters or plot-lines that happened in real life, too?

Let us know in the comments below…

This article was originally published in October, 2016.


Tale Teller

  • Angela Stephanou

    After completing her BA in Communication, Media and Film studies, Angela launched Tell Tales Online, and now writes and oversees the content and strategy across the site. As a pop culture junkie, she follows more celebs than real-life people, her guilty pleasure is watching The Kardashians, but she's also a fan of Marvel and Game of Thrones.

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3 months ago

Not positive but maybe the boy that was possessed in season 2, that killed the cow, maybe based off the legend from Fairfax VA about the Bunny Man.

Mya Boehm
2 years ago

In the Hotel season, when the countess is flashing back to the 1920s- she is friends with a girl named Margret Gibson who in a later episode she calls “Gibby”. This “character” was a real woman and aspiring actress in the 20s who murdered Hollywood’s golden boy James Taylor I believe, changed her name, then later confessed it on her deathbed.

bethany mcclellan
3 years ago

In the section about Richard Ramirez it is written as he was a santanist when it should of been Satanist.