There’s nothing scarier than a true horror story.
That’s something Hollywood knows well, which is why there are so many classic and contemporary horror films that are based on true events.
Some of these films stray far from the bounds of reality, while others stick true to their non-fiction source material. Either way, they’re all terrifying in their own rights.
How many have you seen? Let us know in the comments below.
The Blob (1958)
The fiction: An alien blob terrorizes a small town in Pennsylvania, growing larger and more aggressive as it devours people whole.
The fact: The Blob was inspired by a 1950 incident involving a handful of Philadelphia police officers who witnessed a mysterious, gelatinous alien mass fall from the sky. It allegedly dissolved before long, and thankfully didn’t eat anyone. (source)
The fiction: A young woman is murdered by a motel manager who occasionally cosplays as his dead mother, who’s still decomposing in his house.
The fact: Psycho‘s story, adapted from a 1959 book of the same name, is based loosely on the real world murderer Ed Gein, whose fixation on his mother and other qualities are mirrored in the character Norman Bates. (source)
The Exorcist (1973)
The fiction: Two priests and a mother attempt to save a 12-year-old girl from demonic possession.
The fact: The Exorcist was adapted from the 1971 novel of the same name. The book was based at least partially on the story of an unidentified 13-year-old boy who exhibited signs of possession in Cottage City, MD in 1949. (source)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
The fiction: A group of friends are terrorized by an isolated family of rural cannibals, including the now-iconic Leatherface.
The fact: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was marketed as “based on a true story,” which isn’t entirely accurate–although Leatherface was inspired by real life killer Ed Gein, who also wore human skin over his own. (source)
The fiction: A deranged man becomes obsessed with corpses, eventually resorting to creating new ones. The film was subtitled “The Confessions of a Necrophile” in the US.
The fact: Like so many other horror films of the era, Deranged killer Ezra Cobb was based on the murderer Ed Gein. (source)
The fiction: An enormous shark terrorizes beachgoers off the coast of the fictional New England town of Amity Island.
The fact: Jaws was inspired by the 1916 deaths in New Jersey of five victims at the teeth of one ferocious rogue shark. (source)
The Hills Have Eyes (1976)
The fiction: A family is terrorized by savages in the Nevada desert who turn out to all be part of one big, cannibalistic clan.
The fact: The Hills Have Eyes and its 2006 remake are modern retellings of the story of Sawney Bean, who legend has it led a clan of dozens of cannibals in killing over 1,000 people in Scotland around the 16th century. (source)
The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)
The fiction: A “Phantom” killer in a simple mask terrorizes the small town of Texarkana, Texas.
The fact: The Town That Dreaded Sundown was based on similar murders that took place in Texarkana between February and May of 1946. It was even shot there, with several locals cast as extras. (source)
Eaten Alive (1977)
The fiction: The proprietor of a rural Texas hotel attacks victims and feed them to his pet crocodile.
The fact: The events of Eaten Alive, which also went by the alternate titles Death Trap, Horror Hotel, and Starlight Slaughter, were based on the real life “alligator killer,” Joe Ball. Ball murdered at least two women in the 1930s, and rumor is he disposed of the bodies by feeding them to the pet alligators he kept at his Elmendorf, Texas bar. (source)
Audrey Rose (1977)
The fiction: In one of his earliest roles, Anthony Hopkins plays Elliot Hoover, who becomes convinced that a 10-year-old girl is the reincarnation of his dead daughter.
The fact: Audrey Rose was adapted from a novel of the same title by Frank De Felitta, who was inspired to explore reincarnation in his writing after his 6-year-old son allegedly began spontaneously playing ragtime piano. (source)
The Amityville Horror (1979)
The fiction: A young couple find their new home already inhabited by unfriendly spirits.
The fact: Based on Jay Anson’s book of the same name, The Amityville Horror is a well known retelling of Ronald J. DeFeo Jr.’s real life murder of his parents and four siblings, and the subsequent events experienced by the house’s later owners. (source)
The Entity (1982)
The fiction: A woman is attacked by a paranormal, invisible attacker.
The fact: The Entity was adapted from the novel of the same name by Frank De Felitta (also the author of Audrey Rose). It was based on the story of a Culver City, Calif. woman who believed she was being raped by ghosts. (source)
A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984)
The fiction: The infamous Freedy Krueger stalks and kills a group of teenagers in their dreams.
The fact: Wes Craven was inspired by reports of Asian men throughout the ’70s and ’80s dying in their sleep, a phenomenon that at the time was labeled “Asian Death Syndrome.” (source)
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
The fiction: The Walking Dead‘s Michael Rooker plays Henry, a serial killer on a crime spree.
The fact: The movie tells a fictionalized version of the real life of killer Henry Lee Lucas. (source)
The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)
The fiction: An ethnobotanist–a scientist who studies how native cultures use plants for medicine and other purposes–investigates a drug that allegedly creates Voodoo zombies.
The fact: It was based on the nonfiction book of the same name by real world ethnobotanist Wade Davis, who investigated the story of alleged zombie Clairvius Narcisse. (source)
Child’s Play (1988)
The fiction: A child’s doll is possessed by the soul of a serial killer.
The fact: Chucky’s story was inspired by Robert, a haunted doll that allegedly talked and inspired fits of rage in its young owner. Robert is still on display in the Florida Key West Martello Museum. (source)
Fire in the Sky (1993)
The fiction: A group of men are investigated for murder after a friend was apparently abducted by aliens.
The fact: In 1975 Travis Walton claimed to have been abducted by a UFO, although he was never able to prove it. (source)
The Dentist (1996)
The fiction: Amid various hallucinations, a sadistic dentist gets revenge on his cheating wife.
The fact: It’s been speculated that The Dentist was based on the true story of Dr. Glennon Edward Engleman, a Missouri dentist who, over decades, convinced multiple women to marry other men, who he would then murder. They’d split the insurance checks. (source)
The fiction: A US soldier during the Mexican-American War is assigned to a remote mountain fort, where he encounters a stranger who turns out to be a murderous cannibal.
The fact: Ravenous was inspired both by the Donner Party, the infamous group of pioneers who were forced to resort to cannibalism after becoming stranded in the Sierra Nevada mountains, and by Alfred Packer, who apparently ate his companions on a gold-prospecting expedition when they became stranded in the Rockies. (source)
From Hell (2001)
The fiction: Scotland Yard investigates the murders committed by the infamous Jack the Ripper, uncovering conspiracies along the way.
The fact: From Hell, based on a graphic novel by Alan Moore, speculates on the real murderer Jack the Ripper, who was never definitively identified. (source)
The fiction: A recluse in Wisconsin captures, murders, and does really unspeakable things to a total of 17 male victims.
The fact: It’s about Jeffrey Dahmer. Do you really need a source for that? By the way, yes, that’s Hawkeye.
The Mothman Prophecies (2002)
The fiction: A man investigates the Mothman, a strange red-eyed creature that appears to signify impending disasters.
The fact: Real world journalist John Keel wrote the book The Mothman Prophecies after investigating hundreds of reports of sightings and other strange phenomena in Point Pleasant, West Virginia during the late 1960s. (source)
Open Water (2003)
The fiction: A scuba-diving couple find themselves stranded in shark-infested Caribbean waters.
The fact: The true story involves Tom and Eileen Lonergan, who were left behind while scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef because their tour guides failed to take a head count. Their bodies were never found. (source)
The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)
The fiction: An attorney defends a priest accused of negligent homicide after an exorcism.
The fact: In real life a German woman named Anneliese Michel died after being subjected to an exorcism. She was found to have been malnourished and dehydrated, and her parents and the responsible priests were charged with negligent homicide and sentenced to three years’ probation. Her epilepsy was likely the real culprit. (source)
Wolf Creek (2005)
The fiction: Three backpackers are hunted by a madman through the Australian outback.
The fact: Writer and director Greg McLean said Wolf Creek was based on three separate real life Australian serial killers: Ivan Milat, AKA The Backpacker Killer, who murdered backpackers in the ’90s; Bradley Murdoch, who allegedly tried to kidnap a woman after murdering her boyfriend; and the Snowtown Murders, a series of 11 grisly murders carried out by four men and one woman in the small town of Snowtown in South Australia. (source)
The fiction: A couple are attacked in their home by a group of sadistic children and teenagers.
The fact: Them is reportedly based on the story of an Austrian couple murdered at their home in the Czech Republic. That said, the details on those alleged real events are hard to come by, so take this one with a grain of salt. (source)
The Girl Next Door (2007)
The fiction: A young woman is tortured and killed in suburban America.
The fact: Real life Sylvia Likens was tortured, humiliated, and sexually abused for months by her caretakers, the Baniszewski family, and various neighborhood youths, leading to her death. It’s really soul-wrenching stuff; do yourself a favor and don’t look into it any further. (source)
The fiction: A group of college students discover a cult that practices human sacrifice in Mexico.
The fact: The real story is of Adolfo Constanzo, a “witch doctor” who ingratiated himself with cartels in Mexico as he racked up a crazy body count as a serial killer. He used human remains to perform “spells” and attracted an impressive following of cult members and accomplices. He wasn’t caught until he murdered an American college student in 1989. (source)
The fiction: Investigators hunt the Zodiac Killer, who was active in the San Francisco Bay area during the ’60s and ’70s.
The fact: David Fincher’s film was based on James Vanderbilt’s 1986 nonfiction book of the same name. The Zodiac Killer was a real serial killer directly linked to at least five murders in the late ’60s. He was never positively identified. (source)
The fiction: A team of American journalists travel to the African country Burundi to hunt a giant crocodile.
The fact: The real crocodile is named Gustave, and he’s reportedly 20 feet long and over 60 years old. They say he’s claimed more than 300 victims, and he may still be at large today. (source)
The Strangers (2008)
The fiction: A couple is harassed in their home by a group of masked intruders.
The fact: This beloved slasher was inspired by three separate sources: a personal experience of writer/director Bryan Bertino’s in which strangers knocked on his door while his parents were away, and he later found out they’d been responsible for break-ins in the area; the Manson Family murders, in which followers of infamous killer Charles Manson murdered five people in a home invasion, including actress Sharon Tate; and the Keddie Cabin Murders, which involved a woman and her children staying at a remote resort in California. (source)
The Haunting in Connecticut (2009)
The fiction: A family moves into a haunted house that used to be a mortuary.
The fact: The Reed family experienced strange events, including apparitions of a man with long black hair, after moving into a former funeral home in the ’80s. The house was allegedly rid of the unfriendly ghost(s) after a three-hour exorcism, although the Catholic church denies having performed it. (source)
The Rite (2011)
The fiction: An American seminary student travels to Italy to take a course on exorcism, and he eventually witnesses real supernatural events.
The fact: The Rite is based loosely on the life of a real priest, father Gary Thomas, who is one of the few to complete a 40-hour Vatican course on exorcism. Journalist Matt Baglio wrote about him in his book The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist, which served as the film’s inspiration. (source)
Silent House (2011)
The fiction: A young woman is terrorized in her family vacation home.
The fact: Silent House is a remake of a 2010 Uruguyan film called La Casa Muda (“The Silent House”), which was based on an incident that allegedly occurred in a village in Uruguay in the 1940s. (source)
The Possession (2012)
The fiction: A young girl inadvertently purchases a haunted box at a yard sale. Scary stuff ensues.
The fact: The Possession was originally titled “The Dibbuk Box,” after the story of a haunted box that supposedly terrorized multiple owners. (source)
The Conjuring (2013)
The fiction: A pair of paranormal investigators attempt to rid a family of their home’s irate spirits.
The fact: The Conjuring was famously based on just one of the many historical incidents involving real life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. (source)
The Sacrament (2013)
The fiction: Journalists accompany a co-worker and document their attempt to rescue a relative from an abusive cult.
The fact: The cult was inspired by the Peoples Temple settlement Jonestown in Guyana, which made the phrase “drink the Kool-Aid” famous after its nearly 1,000 members died from drinking poisoned Flavor Aid in a mass suicide (although, it’s been reported, some gulped it down less willingly than others. (source)
The fiction: A couple is harassed by the soul of a cultist murderer that’s trapped inside a creepy doll.
The fact: The doll Annabelle originated in The Conjuring, but it wasn’t until the 2014 film Annabelle that she got her own backstory. The doll itself is based on a real life alleged haunted doll, also named Annabelle, investigated by the paranormal experts Ed and Lorrain Warren. (source)
Deliver Us From Evil (2014)
The fiction: A veteran NYPD officer and a renegade priest wrestle with real evil.
The fact: The movie was based on Ralph Sarchie’s book Beware the Night, which documents his work as a demonologist. The plot of the movie is entirely fictional, but it allegedly is true to the character of the writer himself. (source)
The Conjuring 2 (2016)
The fiction: Paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren reluctantly help a family haunted by demons in England.
The fact: Like the other movies in the extended Conjuring universe, The Conjuring 2 is based on a real case the Warrens investigated: the Enfield Poltergeist, one of England’s most infamous hauntings. (source)