Is ‘Flowers in the Attic’ Based on a True Story?


The Big Picture

  • Flowers in the Attic
    is a guilty pleasure movie about kids locked in an attic because of a twisted inheritance scheme.
  • The scandalous incestuous romance between Cathy and Christopher is oddly endearing to readers.
  • V.C. Andrews’ legacy lives on through ghostwriters, Lifetime adaptations, and a dedicated fanbase.

In 1979, debut author V.C. Andrews struck gold with a Gothic horror paperback so maniacally over the top that teens and adults alike (but mostly teens) devoured its ludicrousness with delighted frenzy. Flowers in the Attic was an instant bestseller with a cultural impact comparable to the YA franchises of the mid-2000s. Generations of adolescents gossiped in excited whispers as they swapped copies well-loved enough to have creases down the spine. Adults were bemused but similarly absorbed. The story of the four beautiful Dollanganger children and their tortured, salacious existence sparked something in the public consciousness that’s never released its hold since. Flowers in the Attic sold over 40 million copies and has passionate fans as prominent as author Gillian Flynn of Gone Girl fame.

The concept — kids locked in an attic, so their mother can inherit the family fortune — is infamously lurid but an undeniable guilty pleasure. The overdramatic plot twists allowed readers no other recourse except to keep voraciously consuming page after page. Many wondered how Andrews conceived such an idea, spurring rumors that Flowers was inspired by a true story.

What Inspired ‘Flowers in the Attic’?

To do the opposite of burying the lead: no, Flowers in the Attic isn’t real. Andrews’ estate makes it clear there’s no evidence solid enough to support that assertion. It’s not autobiographical, for one; Andrews insisted her parents treated her well and that her childhood was so dull, that she invented outlandish stories to relieve her boredom. Born Cleo Virginia Andrews, the author had rheumatoid arthritis and lifelong complications from a severe fall. She used a wheelchair and lived with her mother, Lillian, who tended to her needs. Nothing concrete besides speculation and era-dated ableism indicates the two had a poor relationship.

Nonetheless, rumors might have sown the seeds behind Flowers’s nonsensical glory. In her pitch letter to literary agents, Andrews insinuated that Flowers has one foot in the door of truth. Then there are the claims of an anonymous relative about the novel’s factual authenticity, something Andrews’ estate shares with the public but can’t prove. “While she was [in the hospital], she developed a crush on her young doctor,” the anonymous source said. “He and his siblings had been locked away in the attic for over 6 years to preserve the family wealth.”

Flowers’s editor Ann Patty cites a similar circumstance: “[It] was based on a story [Andrews] heard when she was in the hospital for a spinal operation…so I’d guess that some aspects of it were true,” Patty says. “At least the aspect of kids being hidden away. Whether the twins were real, the sex, the time frame, probably not.”

What Is ‘Flowers in the Attic’ About?

If you don’t know what made Flowers in the Attic so bonkers, be in the dark no longer. The answer’s twofold. All four Dollanganger children — Christopher, Cathy, and the twins Carrie and Cory — were born from an incestuous marriage between their mother, Corrine, and her uncle, Chris. Corrine’s father (and Chris’s brother) was so enraged that he disinherited Corrine. The couple absconded from the family manor of Foxworth Hall, seemingly never to return.

As the loquacious novel opens, the family lives a “perfect” suburban life with their beloved children. Everyone is staggeringly beautiful and staggeringly blonde, and aside from the parents sharing a striking resemblance, they couldn’t be a more idyllic 1950s nuclear family. Following Chris’s death in a car accident, Corrine is penniless. She moves back to Foxworth Hall and begs her parents for forgiveness.

There’s one condition, however. Corrine’s mother, Olivia, a religious zealot obsessed with incest, insists that Corrine’s father can never know he has grandchildren. If he does, any attempt at reconciliation will go down the drain. The children hide in the dusty, dreary attic while Corrine earns back her father’s love and her inheritance. They aren’t even allowed to sneak outside for fresh air and human interaction. It’s undeniably weird for the kids, but Corrine promises they won’t be up there too long — Grandpa will die soon, don’t worry! Then days stretch into years and Corrine warps from a mother protecting her children into a greedy murderess.


How Did Lifetime Become the Home of V.C. Andrews Movies?

“I lay so still in the gloom I could hear the house breathe, and the boards of the floors whispered.”

Flowers is most notorious for the incestuous semi-romance between Cathy and Christopher. First, the two had Olivia accusing them of sinning with one another from day one, then they enter puberty while they’re isolated. And somehow, despite all reason and better judgment, readers rooted for their happy ending. Readers had empathy for these poor kids and initial empathy for Corrine until she’s corrupted by selfish greed. Flowers slots neatly into classic Gothic tradition: disturbing family secrets, helpless innocents, an ancient manor house, and a duplicitous mother and an abusive grandmother. Then there’s the forbidden attraction, the period setting, and the atmosphere of doom and gloom. There are even powdered donuts laced with arsenic. Flowers’ prologue cites Charles Dickens, and there’s definitely a Dickensian flair to the Dollanganger’s morbid situation combined with the best of the Brontë sisters‘ ominous leanings.

The Legacy of ‘Flowers in the Attic’

Grandmother (Louise Fletcher) looming behind Corrine (Victoria Tennant) in Flowers in the Attic

Flowers in the Attic was met with derision from critics upon its release, but that didn’t affect its sales one iota. A film adaptation followed in 1987, starring Louise Fletcher as the grandmother (the famed and feared Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’sNest!), Victoria Tennant as Corrine, and Kristy Swanson as Cathy. This was also universally panned by reviewers, but it became a camp classic — and not without its own controversies. Horror maestro Wes Craven was originally set to direct, but V.C. Andrews, who demanded final script approval, balked at his take. Then producers overruled and replaced him with director Jeffrey Bloom, removing the sibling incest even though scenes were already filmed. Cathy also indirectly kills Corrine, presumably to ensure the evil woman gets her just and required comeuppance. The result of those changes is a bland, dull slog. Having said that, we were gifted with the iconic “EAT SOME COOKIE!!” scene that everyone must see once in their lifetime.

The Lifetime network produced a more faithful version in 2014. It starred Kiernan Shipka, Ellen Burstyn, Mason Dye, and Heather Graham, with Obi-Wan Kenobi director Deborah Chow behind the camera. Rarely has a more perfect merging of creator and distributor existed than “V.C. Andrews” and “Lifetime.” As such, this Flowers in the Attic has all the requisite drama without producer interference. Ellen Burstyn received an Emmy Award nomination for her performance as the grandmother and Christopher and Cathy’s relationship “went there,” although Andrews’ very unfortunate decision to have Christopher rape Cathy (and then regret doing so) in the novel was turned into a consensual encounter.

V.C. Andrews’ Work Was Captivating and Fun

V.C. Andrews went on to pen six other novels, three of which continued the Dollanganger saga. The first sequel, Petals on the Wind, topped the New York Times Bestseller list upon release. She also began a separate series about the Casteel family and wrote the Victorian-era stand-alone My Sweet Audrina (another banger of a book) before she passed away in 1986. Always a talented writer with a creative mind, Andrews didn’t pursue publishing and find success until her 50s. She might have had to assume a gender-ambiguous pen name because that helped women authors sell more books, but she and her poisoned donuts had the last laugh. Andrews also refused to be defined by or reduced by her chronic health conditions, pushing back at ableist assumptions.

Since 1988, author Andrew Neiderman, who wrote the book that inspired the 1997 film The Devil’s Advocate, has ghostwritten dozens of books under Andrews’ name with the blessing of her estate. Yet nothing will top the veritable cultural firestorm that Andrews alone created. Her imagination, born out of authorial instinct and childhood boredom, spurned a legacy that’s still beloved: Lifetime continues to produce new adaptations, including 2022’s Flowers in the Attic: The Origin prequel miniseries. Gillian Flynn, the queen of fictional antiheroines, enthused in a foreword for the book’s 40th anniversary that because of Flowers, she’s “never shaken my addiction to wicked women.” Knowing that the story isn’t real but maybe, just maybe contains a grain of truth, just makes Flowers’ odd but undeniably lasting appeal more enjoyable.

The 1987 Flowers in the Attic is currently streaming on Prime Video in the U.S.

Stream on Prime Video


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