The ideas and inspirations that writers come up with have to originate from some place. I believe that all your popular legends have some true, historical basis. I suppose you all know that the von Trapp Family featured in The Sound of Music are real, but do you know that these story characters—Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, Hannibal Lector, James Bond, Robinson Crusoe, among others—were inspired or based on real people?
Late screenwriter/director Wes Craven got the idea of his A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) from a news article he had read concerning a group of Laotian refugees who had experienced a series of common nightmares, some so frightening that it even caused the death of some of them. Also, The Exorcist, Moby Dick, Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were based on true events.
There have been film documentaries that have convincingly confirmed the existence of King Arthur and the Amazon warrior women, for example. There has also been located a real, live “Indiana Jones.” He’s an archaeology professor who travels around the world stealing ancient, coveted artifacts. Sound familiar?
The original Dracula was a ruling prince of Walachia, which is part of Transylvania in Romania. His real name was Vlad Tepes [1431-1476], and he was cruel, sadistic and quite demented, earning him the epithet “Dracula” or “son of the Devil.” Vlad spent much of his time devising all kinds of tortures, both physical and mental, and his favorite way of imposing death was to mount his victims’ bodies on tall, wooden, ground stakes. This earned him his other nickname, “Vlad the Impaler.” He then would set up a table in front of his impaled victims and enjoyed eating his meals while watching them scream and writhe in pain and agony. Is that sick, or what?!
The legend of vampires also has its origin of reality. The most notorious was a 16th-century Hungarian countess by the name of Elizabeth Bathory [1560-1614], who got the idea in her head that human blood was conducive for maintaining youthful-looking skin. She started killing her servant girls and other young women whom she would lure to her castle, draining them of their blood to go into a large vat and then actually bathing in it! She got away with her literal blood baths for ten years but was eventually found out and sentenced to life imprisonment inside her own castle.
The countess was walled up in her bedchamber with no windows or doors and only a small hole through which to pass her food. She remained there until she died four years later. It is uncertain how many young women she had killed or she killed herself. Her nurse and accomplice testified that about 40 girls had been tortured and killed, but when the authorities came to the castle to investigate, they found several still in captivity and another 50 girls buried below the castle.
Too, there really was a “Dr. Frankenstein.” His real name was Johann Konrad Dippel [1673-1734], and he was a German scientist who was born in the actual Castle Frankenstein. There are unsubstantiated rumors that this guy experimented with corpses to find an elixir for immortality, and that Mary Shelley visited the castle in 1814. She undoubtedly heard stories from the locals about Dippel, the castle and the alleged goings-on there. So you see, she didn’t come up with that idea of her famous book just out of the blue.
Did you know that there was once a real, live Kong, a giant gorilla called Gigantopithecus? Its descendants have since evolved into the creatures we now know as Sasquatch or Bigfoot.
I learned that playwright Edward Albee based his bickering George and Martha characters from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on a real married couple whose acquaintance he had made. And Roald Dahl, the author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, knew a man named Willy Wonka.
Pamela (P.L.) Travers’ Mary Poppins series of children’s books is semi-autobiographical. She did have a nanny as a child, so she could be Jane Banks. And the film Saving Mr. Banks (2013) explains that not only did Mary Poppins come to the Banks household to tend to the two children, she was really there to help the troubled Mr. Banks, who was in actuality Ms. Travers’ father.
It appears that the inspiration for Peter Pan is also autobiographical. James M. Barrie had an older brother who died when he was still a young boy himself, and his mother did not handle her son’s death very well. It helped her to think that her dead son, David, being her favorite, would always be her little boy in her mind, never to grow up. Then so that young James might receive the same affection from his mother that his brother got from her, he tried to be like David, even to the point of deciding that he would not grow up either, so as always to remain his mother’s little boy. Amazingly, Barrie’s full-grown height did not exceed 5’3″. So, Barrie himself was “Peter Pan, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up.” He wrote the story, however, in honor of a young friend of his, as Alice Pleasance Liddell was the little girl for which Lewis Carroll wrote his Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.
In the early ‘80s a young man named David Hampton conned his way into rich, white suburban homes, claiming to be the son of Sidney Poitier. The people that he conned apparently were more impressed by Poitier’s name and reputation rather than knowing anything about his personal life. None of them were aware of the fact that Sidney does not have any sons, therefore this guy must be an imposter. The actor has six daughters! John Guare based his play Six Degrees of Separation on this Hampton guy, which subsequently was made into a movie starring Will Smith as the con man.
Dr. Joseph Bell [1837-1911], a Scottish lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, was the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes. Dr. Bell had such a keen ability for observation and deductive reasoning and could diagnose patients before he even examined them. He became an important pioneer of forensic science as it‘s used in criminal investigations even today. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle met Bell in 1877 when he served as his clerk at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary and went on to write a series of popular stories featuring Sherlock Holmes, whom Doyle admitted was loosely based on Bell and his observant ways.
The crippled beggar, Porgy, from the novel then subsequent folk opera derived from it, Porgy and Bess, was based on a real person. His name was Sammy Smalls, and writer Dubose Hayward must have met him and decided to exploit him. Smalls became sort of a local celebrity when the book came out about him. My friend Lloyd, who grew up in Charleston, where the story takes place (Catfish Row is even a real locale), told me that he used to see Mr. Smalls, by then an old man, who was still living there at the time.
The original “Uncle Tom” is based on a former slave named Josiah Henson, whom Harriet Beecher Stowe happened to meet while she was doing research and interviewing slaves and former slaves to get background on the book she was writing. After having escaped from slavery, Josiah fled to Canada and became a preacher and lecturer. He must have impressed Ms. Stowe enough to become the inspiration for the title character in her novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Many of the other characters in the book, as well, were people that she knew or experiences that she personally witnessed. It turns out that Josiah Henson may be related to me! I don’t have absolute proof yet, but I learned that he could be the uncle of my great-grandfather Syrus B. Henson.
So might we reason that if certain myths and legends have now proven to have some basis of truth, maybe many of the others, if not all, might be factually-based as well? Legends aren’t invented. They are just the retelling of prior incidents or even local gossip in some cases, and there is always a basis. It has even been suggested that the classic fairy/folk tales, like Cinderella and Snow White and the rest, are based on real people and events. As with any story, details are bound to change and differ, depending on who’s telling it. We may embellish to make the story more interesting, more romantic or more fantastic, perhaps. In one version of Little Red Riding Hood, for example, the Wolf gobbles her up dead, but in another version, she is rescued by a woodsman. And they can’t agree on what material was Cinderella’s slippers–glass, fur, or what?
It even happens with a simple thing as the telling of a joke. If it is a long and drawn out one, we don’t always remember the whole thing verbatim, but if we remember the punchline, we can revise it to our own liking and still arrive at the same conclusion. Authors tend to write about what they know. Even if it’s a work of fiction or fantasy, there has to be some factual elements to it.
The Wolf: “Hey there, little girl, I am going to eat you!”
Little Red Riding Hood: “Oh, eat, eat, eat! Doesn’t anybody like to fuck anymore?!”