As any lover of popular culture can tell you, beneath the glamorous and carefully cultivated veneer of Hollywood lies a dark, beating heart filled with spooky secrets. Something about all the glitz allows for people’s worst compulsions to hide in plain sight. And in a business that often encourages the more unsavory traits of human nature – greed, narcissism, megalomania – it is no wonder that some of the most chilling stories in the pop horror lexicon have emerged from the tinsel town’s underbelly.
The following are some of the most horrifying and mysterious cases of Hollywood-based myths and legends…some real, some not. But read on for a scare more visceral than anything you’ll see on film.
1. Munchkin Suicide
One of the most enduring myths in Hollywood lore originated on the set of the classic 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz. The movie’s magical world contains imagery both beautiful and frightful, giving birth to a number of legends that have continued to affect its legacy.
Perhaps the most bizarre story that has endured and planted itself firmly within the clutches of urban legend is that of the munchkin who committed suicide, his visage evident in the film’s background. As the story goes, if one looks closely at the trees when Dorothy, the Scarecrow, and Tin Man begin singing and skipping to “We’re Off to See the Wizard,” the swinging body of a hanging munchkin can be seen draping from a branch.
Apparently, the munchkin killed himself onset because he had lost his true love, although other rumors attribute the body to a stagehand who accidently hanged himself while working. As outlandish as the story may seem, the production of The Wizard of Oz was so massive – even by modern standards, with four directors at the helm – that it might be rather difficult to ascertain whether a suicide or accidental death case had indeed occurred. In recent years, amateur sleuths have zoomed in on the image and conducted their own “studies,” coming to the conclusion that the image in question might be that of a crane, or a frail bird, and not a distraught munchkin. Although, the truth is still up for grabs.
2. The Black Dahlia Murder
Perhaps one of the most infamous and brutal murders of the 1940s, the shocking discovery of Elizabeth Short’s mutilated body in a vacant lot sent shivers throughout Hollywood’s gilded gates. The sad demise of the beautiful girl who wanted nothing more than to be an actress was made all the more gruesome because of the way in which the murderer defaced her loveliness: she was stabbed repeatedly, drained of blood, posing, and sliced in half at the waist. Her tormentor also left her with what is commonly referred to as a “Glasgow smile,” – her cheeks were cut open from her lips to her ears.
The case has only continued to gain notoriety in the decades that followed, as it remains unsolved, and there is a running roster of some 25 men who are suspected of having committed the murder, including some of the city’s most powerful individuals. The case of the Black Dahlia has enthralled many true crime fans, because of its toxic brew of sex, murder, power, and a bright starlet who suffered for following her dreams.
3. The Curse of the Poltergeist
Perhaps no other film franchise in Hollywood history has attracted more bad luck than that of Poltergeist, which first premiered in 1982. Several actors have met very strange and tragic fates, casting a pall over the Poltergeist’s legacy in some ways more haunting than the film itself.
For starters, one of the film’s most memorable scenes features the main character, Diane, falling into the family pool, which is filled with skeletons. Unfortunately, those skeletons were real, and the actors initially had no awareness of this creepy fact. The crew, apparently in an effort to save money, had used real skeletons instead of replicating hundreds utilizing materials such as rubber.
Perhaps this set in motion some of the more tragic elements of the Poltergeist’s backstory. 22-year old Dominique Dunne, one of the film’s stars, was found brutally murdered shortly after the film’s release by her abusive ex-boyfriend. Then, two more cast members died within a couple of years of the film’s sequel. Julian Beck, who starred as Kane in Poltergeist II: The Other Side, died of stomach cancer at the age of 60. In June 1987, Will Sampson, the actor who performed the exorcism onset – to help battle the nefarious souls of the skeletons being used in the film – died of malnutrition and postoperative kidney failure at age 53.
Finally, perhaps the saddest death connected to the film is that of child star Heather O’Rourke. Famous for her eerie line “They’re heeeere,” she died at the vulnerable age of 12 from cardiac arrest. Her passing coincided with the third installment of the film’s franchise, which premiered in 1988.
4. The Manson Murders
The infamous murders of 1969 is seen as the end of the flower and love-laden hippie era, and the culture’s tenuous move into a far darker and more uncertain realm.
The Manson family, led by the crazed preacher and wannabe singer Charles Manson, initiated the insanely grotesque murders of a pregnant Sharon Tate in her home, along with a few of her friends.
On a sweltering and hauntingly suffocating August evening, Susan Atkins, Linda Kasabian, and a few others of the Manson clan drove up to the Tate home in a bid for revenge, as a prominent Hollywood producer had snubbed Manson’s bid for fame. An incredibly twisted and mysterious story that held the country in its thrall, and left much of Hollywood plagued with fear, the murder tragically ended the life of screen siren Sharon Tate and her unborn baby, an eighteen-year-old boy, and three other guests who were staying at the Polanski-Tate residence. As details regarding the group’s outrageous motives and modus operandi – they had initially meant to pin the murders on the Black Panthers – slowly emerged, the public began to understand the disturbing ways in which fame, celebrity hunters, power hungry cult leaders, messed-up sexual politics, and easy access to drugs led much of the flower-power generation on a highway to hell.
Claims are made to this day that the spirits of those who died are still haunting the place of the murders, with reports of full body apparitions and other ghostly phenomena occurring there on a regular basis.
5. The Haunted Hollywood Sign
The most emblematic symbol of the pain and darkness lying within the heart of Hollywood has to be the Hollywood sign itself. Glamorous and iconic from afar, but dingy and out of sorts up close, the structure was meant to be a confident welcome to out-of-towners, letting them know that they were about to enter the land of movie magic and make believe. Unfortunately, the sign has been haunted for well over a decade, with the sad ghosts of stars past roaming the grounds, startling numerous passersby.
The sign’s most well-known ghost is that of Peg Entwistle, a renowned stage actress who was just about to make headway in Hollywood when, in complete despair, climbed the sign and threw herself from its height. Her body was found the next day by a hiker, mutilated from the excruciating fall. Many have said that they have seen her ghost roaming the grounds of the sign since, as distraught as she was on the night she killed herself.
Wonderful Discoveries, Tragic Endings
Perhaps all the poisonous promise held within the Hollywood dream is what leads people to various forms of madness. A noxious cloud of fame-hungry sycophants, starry-eyed dreamers, and all too powerful men hangs over the beloved town, birthing terrible stories of tortured wonder and bone-chilling secrets.