Horror movies are already scary enough, but watching a scary movie based on a true story ups the creepiness volume up very, very loudly.
For the purposes of this article, it’s necessary to explain the difference between a movie based on a true story and one inspired by a true story. If it’s based on a true story, you can expect it to faithfully follow the details of what happened. But as you might notice, several of the movies below were inspired by real life elements.
Either way, these horror films are all the more horrifying because in some way they are based on reality, not just the imagination. So here it is for you horror fans, all the best scary movies based on true stories, and the story behind the story.
One of the most successful horror movies of all time, and one that could reasonably be cited as one of the reasons for the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s, was inspired by the real-life tale of a boy from Maryland who was named “Roland Doe” to protect his real identity.
Extremely odd things started happening as Roland reached adolescence in the late 1940s: scratching sounds in the basement, beds suddenly shaking, the sudden smell of excrement filling the room, etc. A student who shared a class with Roland recalls one incident:
“The desk was shaking and vibrating extremely fast and I remember the teacher yelling at him to stop and I remember he kind of yelled back ‘I’m not doing it!”
Just as in The Exorcist, things escalated from there. Roland’s parents gave up hope that his condition was medical and instead turned to the Catholic Church for an exorcism. He went through dozens of exorcisms and finally died of malnutrition. Several priests were charged and convicted of manslaughter.
Years later, notes where found in the St. Louis institution where the exorcisms were performed, graphically detailing the events as they happened. Author William Peter Blatty became privy to the notes. He changed the main character from a boy to a girl, wrote a novel called The Exorcist, and the rest is history.
Texarkana is a city in Bowie County, Texas where in the 1940s a serial killer stalked and murdered people without ever getting caught. Within a 10-week time span, the killer assaulted eight people, murdering five of them. The media referred to these killings as the “The Texarkana Moonlight Murders,” and Charles B. Pierce’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown retells the story on the silver screen. It still stands out today as a good movie, all the more scarier because it’s based on something that actually happened. The movie also has a series of strange moments of comic relief.
It’s impossible to call this classic film “real.” It’s a work of fiction more or less through and through. That said, the inspiration from the movie comes a real-life murderer/body snatcher, Ed Gein, also known as the Butcher of Plainfield or the Plainfield Ghoul.
The film’s main killer, “Leatherface,” was fictional, but in real life, Ed Gein made masks out of the faces of his victims. But director Tobe Hooper also says his film was inspired by Texas killers Elmer Wayne Henley and Dean Corll, who lured and slaughtered multiple boys near Houston in the early 1970s.
This movie is inspired by the 1974 case of Doris Bither, a woman who alleged that the ghosts of three men were sexually assaulting her. Bither was studied by doctoral students in parapsychology at University of California, Los Angeles. The movie takes many liberties and is a generally well-received horror/thriller movie from the 80s. On closer inspection, despite the sexual violence, it is also a rather feminist tale with an incredibly powerful female lead played by Barbara Hershey.
This cult classic is based on a real story. It is based on James Herrmann and Lucille Hermann of Long Island, New York and how their family experienced real poltergeist activity when they moved to a new house. When Lucille was asked if she had watched The Poltergeist movie, she had a chilling response: “I never saw Poltergeist. I felt I had my own nightmare.” It’s one thing to watch a scary movie; it’s a whole different thing when your actual life is one.
This made-for-television movie is based on a true story where a father convinces his two sons to help break him out of prison. They do. Yet things spiral completely out of control, and the prison-break story turns into even more crime, including a killing spree. The real name of the father that started all of this is Gary Tison, and the local Arizona newspaper has an in-depth explanation of his life and crimes.
For casual horror fans, it might come as surprise that this 80s horror-thriller from Wes Craven was inspired by an actual event and particularly disturbing moment in world history in Southeast Asia after the Vietnam War. After the end of the Cambodian Civil War in the 1970s, the Communist Party of Kampuchea took control of the country and killed over a million people under the rule of Pol Pot. This Cambodian genocide where this was done are “The Killing Fields” — and Craven was inspired by a family that escaped them to the United States, but one of their children ended up still having horrible dreams about being murdered.
Wes Craven explains in his own words in a 1999 interview with Robert J. Emery:
The history of A Nightmare on Elm Street is kind of interesting. I read a newspaper article in the LA Times about an immigrant, a recent immigrant, to the United States. A young man who had complained to his parents about severe nightmares. I think they were from Cambodia, and he was assured that nightmares were not that unusual, he shouldn’t be so afraid. He started staying up and refusing to sleep. The family became very concerned, and they sought the help of a doctor. The doctor prescribed sleeping pills. The young man apparently took them, and in the end it turned out he did not—he was taking them and putting them aside. He had a coffee pot in his room after a while to stay awake, and nobody knew quite what to do. At one point, he was downstairs watching television in the middle of the night and he fell asleep. And his family noticed, finally, that he was asleep, and they brought him up to his bed. The whole family went to bed themselves, thinking, “Thank God, finally he’s sleeping.” Then they heard screams an hour later, ran into his room, and he is thrashing in his bed. By the time they got to him, he was dead…
What makes this true story even creepier, and unbearably morbid, is that many of the young men that fled Cambodia during the genocide also experienced the same psychological terror, which was later classified as Sudden Unexplained Nocturnal Death Syndrome (SUNDS). This is likely the newspaper clipping that Craven read in the early 80s.
Remember that evil — but also kind of comical — killer doll Chucky? That little guy was inspired by a real-life voodoo doll, Robert the Doll. In the 1900s a young boy, Eugene Robert Otto, was given a doll. Just like Chucky, the doll ended up terrorizing the child and other children that would inherit it. Now it’s in a museum and advertised as a doll suffering from demonic possession. The staff where the doll is held in Key West report strange things around it.
Staff members report that Robert’s facial expression changes, hearing demonic giggling and have even seen Robert put his hand up to the glass.
As you can see, Robert the Doll does not really look like Chucky, but this is the doll where that whole horror franchise started.
This creepy David Cronenberg film is based on two real people: Stewart and Cyril Marcus, identical twin gynecologists who practiced together in New York City. In Cronenberg’s version of the story, the two twins share women, trade places during surgery, and exhibit other creepy behavior. Think of this movie as American Psycho (2001) meets the television Show Nip/Tuck, but with twins. Cronenberg’s version is fictionalized, however: The strange ending where the twins isolate more and more from society and die through what seems to be a drug overdose or barbiturate withdrawal is based on reality. That said, Stewart and Cyril Marcus in real life were bizarre people, and some who knew them say the truth about these twins might be stranger than Cronenberg’s fiction.
Here is how one woman describes her experience with the twins in real life.
In the summer of 1975, a pair of forty-five-year-old twins, their bodies gaunt and already partially decomposed, were found dead at a fashionable Manhattan address in an apartment littered with decaying chicken parts, rotten fruit, and empty pill bottles. The bodies were those of Cyril and Stewart Marcus, doctors who had apparently died, more or less simultaneously, as the result of a suicide pact.
Like many people, I was shocked by the information. Two things contributed to my astonishment. One was the men’s twinship, the doubleness that had given them a mutual birth date and now a mutual death date as well. Another was the men’s prominence; they had been among New York City’s most well-known obstetrician-gynecologists.
The film’s primary villain—Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb—was inspired by not only Ed Gein, but also Philadelphia serial killer Gary Heidnik, who lured people in his van, brought them home to murder them, and kept their body parts in his refrigerator. It was also loosely based on Ted Bundy. Buffalo Bill made clothes out of human skin just like Gein, kept sex slaves in his basement like Heidnik, and lured them using fake plaster casts just like Ted Bunny.
This is based on, not inspired by, a story in Arizona from the mid-1970s that sounds unbelievable but was corroborated by several sources. It’s based on a book by Travis Walton that explains his encounter with a UFO in 1975. He and about a half-dozen other members of a road crew were dazzled by a yellow light in the sky that upon further examination was a UFO. When the object struck Travis with a light beam and appeared to kill him, the other members fled.
Instead of being killed, though, Travis was discovered five days later—naked, shaking, and a dozen pounds lighter. He claims to have been taken aboard the spaceship.
Disturbingly, all the other members of the road crew—who were initially suspected of murdering Travis and concocting this story to save themselves—passed polygraph tests.
The marketing for The Mothman Prophecies heavily emphasized that the film was based on true events. How real was it, though? Particularly given this is a movie about ghosts that make phone calls and predicting things? The director admits that it the film was really more inspired by true events than actual historical things that happened, and you can read more about the actual event in Point Pleasant, West Virginia that inspired it here. So is the Mothman real? Hardly, but it’s still a good movie!
This story of an exorcism is inspired by real events that happened to Anneliese Michel, a German woman who was born in the 1950s that had a priest perform Catholic exorcism rites on her, and she died a year later. Chasingthefrog.com has a very detailed analysis of what the actual events were and what was fictionalized in the movie here.
Anneliese was born in Germany in 1952 into a devoutly Catholic household. In her mid-teens she was diagnosed with epilepsy. Then she started seeing “devil faces” and hearing voices telling her she’d rot in hell. She claimed to be possessed by Lucifer, Cain, Judas, Nero, and Hitler.
Finally, after 67 exorcisms, she was found dead of dehydration in 1976 at the age of 24.
This is based on the true story of an allegedly haunted house in Amityville, NY. In 1974, Ronnie DeFeo murdered his parents and four siblings as they slept.
A year later, a family named the Lutzes bought the house. They left 28 days later after seeing glowing red eyes, experiencing sudden levitation, and seeing objects suddenly move. Mr. Lutz kept waking up at 3:15AM—the exact time the murders happened in 1974.
After decades of silence, Ronnie Lutz—who was in his teens when the family lived there—came forth with a documentary called My Amityville Horror and insisted it had all happened: “I was possessed by a spirit I couldn’t get rid of on my own. I just wanted somebody to believe me. It has been in my dreams my whole life.”
This movie depicts an atrocious true story of child abuse and murder. Here is the real backstory explained:
The murder of Sylvia Likens was a child murder which occurred in Indianapolis, Indiana in October 1965. Likens, aged 16, was held captive and subjected to increasing levels of child abuse and torture—committed over a period of almost three months—by her caregiver, Gertrude Baniszewski, many of Baniszewski’s children, and several other neighborhood children, before ultimately succumbing to her injuries on October 26. The torture and murder of Sylvia Likens is widely regarded by Indiana citizens as the worst crime ever committed in their state and has been described by a senior investigator in the Indianapolis Police Department as the “most sadistic” case he had ever investigated in the 35 years he served with the Indianapolis police.’
The movie itself is somewhat accurate portrayal of what happened and is very difficult to watch, though of course highly dramatized. For more information on what happened here after you watch the movie, consider reading John Dean’s nonfiction book House of Evil: The Indiana Torture Slaying, which goes into more detail about this case of true crime.
Here is a creature feature based on a real-life animal attack in Australia. Through suspenseful storytelling, set in the mangrove swamps of northern Australia, the movie gives a dramatic retelling of a crocodile attack. A British newspaper describes the actual event the movie is based on thusly: “It began as a fun day out quad-biking in the Australian outback. But it ended in disaster – with one young man killed by a crocodile and his two friends perched all night in a tree while the predator circled below.” Creepy stuff, aye?
Shark movies are a dime a dozen, but Open Water is a unique shark-attack movie because it is based on a real story and two real people, Thomas Joseph Lonergan and Eileen Cassidy Lonergan. The married couple were on a scuba-diving excursion off Cairns in Australia. The tour company made a mistake, though, and left without them, leaving the couple to fend for themselves in the open water. The couple was never found and their cause of death is still mysterious, but it very well could have been a shark attack, which is how this horror film sees it.
Speaking of real things, all the sharks used in Open Water were real and the actors interacted with real sharks in all scenes. As National Geographic noted, while we have a shark fear frenzy in the media, there really aren’t that many actual shark events. There is a sequel Open Water 2: Adrift that claims to be inspired by real events, but it’s not; it was based on the short story “Adrift” by Japanese author Koji Suzuki.
Ed and Lorraine Warren were a pair of paranormal investigators who did extensive research on the Amityville Horror case. They also attached themselves to this real-life case that involved an allegedly haunted old farmhouse in Rhode Island that was occupied by the Perron family. To this day, Lorraine Warren insists the haunting was real:
The things that went on there were just so incredibly frightening. It still affects me to talk about it today.
Andrea Perron, the oldest of five girls, later came forth to state that The Conjuring took some liberties with what actually happened but that she had personally encountered a demon called Bathsheba:
Whoever the spirit was, she perceived herself to be mistress of the house and she resented the competition my mother posed for that position.
As it turns out, a woman named Bathsheba Sherman had lived in the house in the mid-1800s. What are the odds?
This odd autobiographical film is based on a 2012 graphic novel by a cartoonist named John Backderf who knew Jeffrey Dahmer in high school and goaded him to perform a series of pranks that were half-done in friendship and half-done as bullying. It details how Jeffrey’s mind fell apart and he lapsed into severe alcoholism after his parents got divorced. And it ends with Jeffrey picking up a hitchhiker and asked him if he wanted to drink a few beers—this wound up being his first real-life murder victim.
This Netflix Original tells the story of one of America’s most horrific serial killers, Ted Bundy. The film, which was written by Michael Werwie, uses the memoir of Ted Bundy’s girlfriend, Elizabeth Kendall, as its primary source material. That book is called The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy, and you can buy it on Amazon to give the film more texture on what is dramatized and what is real. The movie is quite disturbing and does a good job of showing what it would be like to be a young woman involved with Ted Bundy.
More Horror Movies Based on Real Events
- Psycho (1960) the famous Hitchcock movie was inspired by Wisconsin murderer Ed Gein.
- The Honeymoon Killers (1969) is based on the story of Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez, the “Lonely Hearts Killers” who preyed on women who advertised for husbands in magazines.
- Vengeance Is Mine (1979) a Japanese thriller that tells the story of a murder rampage by Akira Nishiguchi, a Japanese serial killer and fraudster.
- Deranged (1974) is also inspired by Wisconsin murderer Ed Gein.
- Communion (1989) is based on author Whitley Streiber’s real-life experiences with alien communication.
- Scream (1996) is partially based on the story of Florida serial killer Danny Rolling, AKA the “Gainesville Ripper.”
- Ravenous (1999) is loosely based on the story of 1847’s “Donner Party” and how they resorted to cannibalism.
- Curse Of The Zodiac (2007) is inspired by the unsolved mystery of California’s Zodiac Killer.
- The Strangers (2008) is partially based on an event that director Bryan Bertino experienced as a child.
- The Haunting In Connecticut (2009) was said to be inspired by the real-life experiences of Al and Carmen Snedeker, who claimed to live in a haunted home in Connecticut.
- The Rite (2011) is based on a book by Matt Baglio about a real-life exorcism.
- The Sacrament (2013) is inspired by 1978’s Jonestown Massacre in Guyana.
- Annabelle (2014) is partially inspired by the Manson Family murders.
- Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (2016) was inspired by real-life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas.
- Veronica (2018) this movie streaming on Netflix takes place in Madrid, Spain and is based on a real police report that purports a young women conduced a séance and then was terrorized by a demon with several months of seizures and hallucinations.