Netflix’s hit suspense thriller Devil in Ohio is said to be inspired by a true story. However, it’s not clear which one.

Devil in Ohio is Netflix’s No. 1 TV series United States, surpassing such hits as Stranger Things Season 4 and The Sandman. The suspense thriller is adapted from showrunner Daria Polatin’s 2017 young-adult novel of the same, which is billed as “inspired by true events.” Polatin doubled down on that while promoting the Netflix series, yet remained cagey about the details. So, if Devil in Ohio is inspired by a true story, the question remains, which one.

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In the surprisingly successful miniseries, as in Polatin’s novel, a teenager named Mae escapes a satanic cult led by her father, and finds temporary safety in the home of hospital psychiatrist Suzanne Mathis (played by Emily Deschanel of Bones fame). Without giving away too much, Mae’s arrival leads to anything but safety for Dr. Mathis, her family or the girl herself.

There’s the pentagram carved into Mae’s back, her strange behavior toward Mathis daughter Jules, the drama at the harvest dance, and, of course, the cult members determined to bring Mae back.

What Devil in Ohio’s Author Said About Its True-Crime Influence

Madeleine Arthur as Mae and Keenan Tracey as Noah in Devil in Ohio (Photo: Netflix)
Madeleine Arthur as Mae and Keenan Tracey as Noah in Devil in Ohio (Photo: Netflix)

If you want to know what unfolds in Devil in Ohio, you can read the book, watch the Netflix adaptation, or both. If you’re more interested in the true-crime influence, you will need to dig for clues. That’s because Polatin remains tight-lipped about which real events inspired her thriller.

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“The bones of the story are true and happened,” Polatin explained to The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch before the Netflix release, “and I wanted to take that as a jumping-off point. It’s inspired by true events, but it’s not a documentary. That’s just a different kind of storytelling. For this, I felt that the best outlet would be to free it up creatively and fictionalize the details and let it take on a life of its own. [The real story did] take place in Ohio.”

Although the Dispatch was unable to pry further details from Polatin, others have dug into the state’s true-crime history to offer up some real events that may have influenced Devil in Ohio.

Jeffrey Lundgren and the Kirtland Cult Killings

The Avery family, murdered in 1989 by Jeffrey Lundgren and members of his cult

Kirtland, Ohio, east of Cleveland, has a dark past that, in the eyes of many, dates back to 1837. That’s when Joseph Smith, the controversial founder of Mormonism, fled the town he once viewed as Zion to avoid arrest. He is believed to have left behind a curse that has seemingly played out over the decades in grisly murders, and in stories of ghosts and strange creatures known as melon heads.

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However, the grimmest tale emerged from Kirtland in 1989, with the murders of a family of five by self-proclaimed prophet Jeffrey Lundgren and his paramilitary religious cult. The victims — Dennis and Cheryl Avery and their three daughters — were, like Lundgren, members of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints who had become disillusioned by the denomination’s embrace of liberal social policies.

Lundgren convinced his small group of followers that the only way to speed entry into Zion was for him to seize control of the Kirtland church through force. However, that would first require the culling of unwanted members of their cult.

By most accounts, the Averys were devoted to Lundgren, referred to as “Dad” by members of the group. They even signed over tens of thousands of dollars to help pay the cult’s expenses. But, as The New-Herald recounts, Lundgren began to suspect the Averys, and in particular Dennis, posed a threat to his leadership. They had kept some of their finances separate from the group’s, which he considered sinful. Therefore, the Averys had to be killed in what Lundgren referred to as “pruning the vineyard.”

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On April 17, 1989, Lundgren invited the Averys to the farmhouse he lived with other cult members. The pretense was a party to celebrate an impending wilderness trip tinged with religious meaning. However, the Averys walked into a trap. Within hours, the five family members — including 15-year-old Trina, 13-year-old Rebecca and 7-year-old Karen — was dead. Their bodied were dumped into a pit Lundgren ordered dug inside the barn seven days earlier.

It remains the largest mass murder in Lake County, Ohio, history.

Lundgren and 12 of his followers were indicted in 1990 in the executions of the Avery family. Charges ranged from kidnapping and aggravated murder to conspiracy and obstruction of justice. Lundgren was convicted in August 1990 of five counts of aggravated murder. He was executed on Oct. 26, 2006.

The All Saved Freak Band and the Fortney Road Cult

Members of the All Saved Freak Band, part of Larry Hill’s Church of the Risen Christ (Photo: Jeff Stevenson)

The Christian cult on Fortney Road in Windsor, Ohio, might not have seemed like the worst of the worst, at least from the outside. Indeed, its leader, Rev. Larry Hill — a fire-and-brimstone preacher and self-proclaimed prophet — was never suspected of murder. But he did ruin the lives of many followers. And, through his actions, people did die.

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Hill claimed in 1965 to have been struck by a vision of a war that would bring the end of days. That led him to gather followers around him in what he called the Church of the Risen Christ. Many of Hill’s adherents were musicians – some even classically trained and accomplished. Music, thus, informed much of the practices of the cult, which had its own band: the All Saved Freak Band.

On the Fortney Road farm, followers were subjected to little sleep, and intense exercise and training in preparation for the coming war. Hill whipped and struck anyone who disobeyed, and was accused of sexually abusing children. Three cult members, including Hill’s eldest son, died in a car accident attributed to sleep deprivation.

The cult endured until the early 1970s, when many members were finally shocked to their senses by Hill’s whipping of an 8-year-old girl. As members left, the FBI closed in. Hill fled, and hid out for years, only returning to Ohio after the statute of limitations had expired. As of 2015, Hill reportedly still lived on the Fortney Road farm.

Xenos Christian Fellowship

Another Ohio religious group that may have informed Devil in Ohio, the Xenos Christian Fellowship, still exists. However, it changed its name in 2020 to Dwell Community Church.

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Based in Columbus, Ohio, the church recruited young members — even minors — and then reportedly employed shame, intimidation and blackmail to ensure their complete devotion.

Young members were forced to live in close quarters, with sometimes as many as a dozen sharing a single room. Church leaders compelled them to share secrets and sexual details. Former members alleged the renamed Xenos continues to recruit minors.

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