Both on the surface and behind the scenes, True Terror is noticeably influenced by the classic TV show Unsolved Mysteries hosted by Robert Stack. “One of the producers was very influenced by that show,” Englund says. “He wanted to do a contemporary version of it, but even darker. We can get away with a little more now on cable. We can be a little darker.”
To find these tall tales, a research team rolled up their sleeves and dug into the past, combing newspapers for creepy legends and lore. They found fantastical tales about ghosts, strange beasts, serial killers, and everything in between.
“The idea was to find these strange, dark stories that were actually reported in newspapers in the past,” Englund tells Looper. “These days, Americans are less superstitious than we were 100 or 150 or even 50 years ago. We’re more sophisticated now. But at one point, we were more open to this kind of reporting, so these stories had a certain validity and credibility.” He adds, “And because they’re historical, you have some distance from them. You can look back and see what Americans believed at a certain time, and the kind of tabloid news that they liked 100 years ago.”
Still, some stories are steeped in truth, such as an unsettling segment about the smallpox epidemic that swept the United States in the 1800s. In it, a teenager from New Orleans was believed to have died from the disease, when in fact he was really still breathing when put in a coffin and buried alive.
“The fear of being buried alive is universal,” Englund says. “Along with suffocating, falling, drowning … these are all dreams that everybody has at some point in their life. I know about this not because I play Freddy Krueger, but because I once took a class at UCLA about dream analysis where they talked about how everybody shares certain primal fears. And, of course, we’ve seen it so many times in horror movies, the dirt hitting the coffin with somebody trapped inside alive. It has become somewhat of a staple in horror movies, because it’s so universal.”
Not only are many of the fears revealed on True Terror commonplace, some of them are also still relevant today. “It’s a dark coincidence that the ‘buried alive segment,’ as I call it, deals with a previous epidemic in the United States,” Englund says. “It’s close to what’s going on now [with the coronavirus pandemic]. It gives us a sense that we’ve been through this before, and we’ll get through it again.”