The tagline “based on real events” is often employed in horror movie promotion to get an extra goose out of anxious audiences. Sometimes it means the story is inspired by the tales of self-proclaimed mediums (The Conjuring) or survivors (Amityville Horror). Sometimes it means a creepy story of home invasion, haunted house, or mysterious disappearance has been beefed up with spooky costumes (The Strangers) a hideous prop (Annabelle), or much murderous speculation (Wolf Creek). Often these “real event” claims are more Hollywood hype than true horror. And yet there’s a story so strange, terrifying, and true that it’s shocking some rising horror auteur hasn’t plucked it from obscurity.
Warning: The following story is deeply disturbing.
This story begins with a major loss. In 1986 Pepperell, Massachusetts, teen sisters Annie and Jessica Andrews lost their beloved mother to cancer. Though their father Brian strives to be supportive in this tense time, he is now taxed with being the sole parent. So he’s stressed and frequently working nights. Still, the girls try to carry on. 15-year-old Annie begins dating, chatting with a charming boy named Danny on the phone. But once their first date proves a bust, Annie’s back home, missing her mom. So, the grieving sisters turn to a common teen tradition (and horror movie trope) in hopes of reconnecting with their late mother. They attempt a séance.
It’s easy to imagine this scene in a movie. The two wide-eyed girls, huddle over a Ouija board or flank a dangling crystal, either way surrounded by lit candles, pushing back the shadows of a dark room. Whatever happened that night, the sisters suspect they contacted their mother, or something from the other side. But as the days went on, they wonder if they’ve unleashed an evil on their home. Little things go missing around their home. Furniture seems to move once they’d left the room. They hear bumps in the night that stalk them through the house. But when the girls confront their father with this seemingly supernatural phenomena, he writes their stories off as their weird way of coping. After all, none of this nonsense happens when he’s around! But as things get worse, not even their skeptical dad can ignore something is very wrong in the Andrews home.
One night, the girls hear pipes banging loudly in the basement, clearly a taunt from a malicious force. Annie, the elder, grabs a knife from the kitchen, and with her little sister at her back, carefully treads down the basement stairs to investigate. There they find no ghost, but instead a chilling message on the wall, written in blood: “I’m in your room come find me.”
“Hell no!” the girls presumably say to each other, and bolt from the house. Their father calls the cops, but is pissed to learn that’s not blood on the walls but ketchup. At his wit’s end, he scolds his teen daughters for this bizarre form of attention-seeking. Imagine the cops shaking their heads at the shivering girls. Imagine their dad sternly warning them about the dangers of crying wolf. Imagine him breaking down into tears, saying he’s doing the best he can, but he needs some help. The fractured family huddles, hugs, and the girls promise to be better, all the while knowing it’s not them that’s seeking attention.
If this were a movie, this would be the calm before the final frightening act. In real life, it was the start of weeks of peace. No knocking. No taunts. No messages. But this calm wouldn’t last.
Once more, when the girls were alone at night, a knocking began upstairs. Fed up, Annie makes her way to the stairs with Jessica and her trusty kitchen knife. But they stop short when they see a new message: “I’m back find me if you can.” The girls decline the invitation, racing to a neighbor’s to call their dad home from work. More frustrated than frightened, Brian barges into his home, sees the strange writing, and stomps up to the bedrooms. But what he finds there is no ghost or childish prank. Walking into Annie’s room, he spots another message, written in “blood” that reads “Marry me.” Beside it looms a figure, draped in his dead wife’s wedding dress, face splashed with war paint, wielding a hatchet.
Brian sprints back out of his home, deftly ducking the swing of the hatchet. Whatever it is that lurks in his house, it doesn’t follow him out the front door. The cops are called again. Again they search the house. But this time, they notice a strange little door hidden partially behind a dresser. Inside is huddled a teen boy named Danny LaPlante, the same boy Annie went on one lame date with weeks before. Unable to accept Annie’s brush off, he’d snuck into the home’s crawl space, stole snacks, camped out, spied on the family, and generally made a hobby out of making Annie’s life hell.
Now, “boy in the walls” is a horror plot line we’ve seen twice in the past year with The Boy and Shut In. Yet neither employed this true and terrifying story, opting instead for weirdo rich folks and incestuous psycho son. As I watched this story unfold on the aptly named Investigation Discovery series Your Worst Nightmare, I marveled that I’d never seen a movie adaptation of it. There are so many great elements: A solid haunted house premise complete with spooky séance set piece. Two plucky teen girls to root for. A third-act twist that would have audiences screaming, and a resolution that ends with this sinister stalker locked away, and the family rattled, but reunited and safe! There’s even the option to critique toxic masculinity through this tale of a young man who felt so wildly entitled to Annie’s affections that he made himself her nightmare out of vengeance. “It’s all so perfect,” I thought, my heart racing. But I didn’t realize I was only partway through the episode and the heartbreaking havoc wrought by LaPlante.
Warning: things are about to get really fucking grim.
While the cops caught him without incident, LaPlante didn’t stay in jail. Though he had committed a litany of crimes including breaking and entering, stalking, malicious injury to a property, assault, and armed burglary, he was allowed to be bailed out by his mother in October. Thankfully, the Andrews were spared further threat from him. But regrettably, he found a new target for his dangerous obsession in 33-year-old pregnant mother of two, Priscilla Gustafson. Awaiting trial for his crimes against the Andrews, he broke into the Gustafson home, raped and murdered Priscilla, then drowned her five and seven-year-old children.
The crime was beyond hideous. A manhunt ensued. The 18-year-old killer was caught and convicted. He showed no remorse. He will die behind bars. It’s justice, I guess. But after he’s created so much pain and terror, life in prison doesn’t feel like movie justice. This punishment feels too faint and remote in connection with his crimes, too woefully real.
As I learned the full story of this boy in the walls, I realized how the perfect “true crime” horror movie premise wasn’t really. It’d be impossible—or at the very least improper—to tell the story of the survival of the Andrews and leave out the savagery that befell the Gustafsons at the hands of the same atrocious creep. Still, part of me wishes we could see this as an artful film adaptation, if only to get the satisfaction of a horror movie ending. There, the villain is never just tucked away in jail. Instead, he faces a justice more brutal and poetic. That’s all the repulsive LaPlante deserves.