The Best Horror Movies Inspired by True Stories
The best horror often comes from not just from the imagination, but from real life. The truth is, there are an incredible amount of horror movies that carry the “based on a true story” tagline; it seems rare to come across any in recent years that don’t claim to be rooted in reality. Audiences may feel that this is a gimmick loosely used to instill even more terror into the viewer, but often times it can just be a little piece of history – or much more – that have inspired some of the most iconic scary movies to date. In honor of the newest based on a true story horror movie, the upcoming Winchester, here are a handful of the best horror movies that came to life (and were all the more terrifying) thanks to real life events.
The Conjuring Universe
With the growing success and popularity of each new addition to The Conjuring Universe, Ed and Lorraine Warren have become household names to millions of horror fans worldwide. The real-life couple was the most well-known paranormal investigators in the world. They even built their own occult museum in Monroe, Connecticut, containing many supposed supernatural items they found during their investigations (such as the infamous doll, Annabelle).
The Warren’s fascinating journey has proven to be a huge success for the big screen, expanding into its own franchise of prequels and spinoffs — headed up by horror master James Wan — and with no sign of slowing down.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Ed Gein has inspired a number of scary movie characters since his crimes were made public in the 1950s, including the iconic horror villain Leatherface. Gein was tied to the murders of two women (one he beheaded and gutted) but it was his other extracurricular activities that make his case all the more disturbing.
Stemming from a repressed childhood due to his controlling mother, Gein grew up obsessively devoted to her. Her death triggered a deranged spiral, and after confessing to his killings also admitted to grave robbing. Gein cut off dead body parts, committed necrophilia, and used skin from the corpses to make skin suits as well as items around the house such as lampshades.
The true story that inspired one of the most shocking horror movies of all time is seemingly less well-known than the other histories on this list. Given the fictitious name of Roland Doe by the Jesuit priests who performed a “months-long exorcism” on him, The Exorcist is based on the possession of a 14-year-old boy from Maryland in 1949. The exorcism supposedly took place in the upstairs bedroom (much like Regan from the movie) at a relative’s home.
The exorcism apparently worked, and as far as it was last reported in 2016, the subject was still alive at the ripe old age of 78. Doe, understandably, never spoke about his possession. His boyhood home where the possession first began (including violent bed shaking, furniture moving, and scratching noises on the walls) remains outside Washington, DC.
Norman Bates was another fictional character inspired by Ed Gein, particularly for his obsession with his mother. While Norman never donned any skin suits like Gein did in real-life, the movie does imply grave robbing when Mama Bates’ skeletal corpse is found “living” in Norman’s house. The movie takes the characterization a step further with Norman suffering from dissociative identity disorder, taking his mother’s identity alongside his own, wearing her clothes, and carrying on complete conversations with “mother,” completely in denial that she is indeed dead.
The Silence of the Lambs
In the famous first installment featuring Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal the Cannibal, there are a couple of characters in the crime thriller that were inspired by true characters. Once again, Ed Gein makes an appearance, this time as Jame Gumb, aka “Buffalo Bill.” The serial killer kidnaps and murders women, skinning them in order to make a woman skin suit for himself, directly reminiscent of Gein’s own habit of making skin suits. It’s said that the character was inspired by a handful of other prolific serial killers as well.
FBI agent Jack Crawford, who also appears in Red Dragon and NBC’s former television series, Hannibal, was inspired by real-life agent John E. Douglas, known for his ability to profile serial killers and who ultimately helped the FBI embrace the importance of behavioral science. He even coined the term “serial killer,” and his real-life investigations and interviews with serial killers can be seen on Netflix’s true crime drama series, Mindhunter.
The Amityville Horror
This particular story is pretty well-known among horror fans and paranormal investigators. Not only was the case investigated by our very own Ed and Lorraine Warren, but the house earned the reputation for being “America’s most haunted house” after a mass murder, later tormenting the Lutz family. The haunting of the New York residence started after 23-year-old Ronald J. DeFeo Jr. killed his parents and his four siblings with a rifle in 1974 as they slept.
Just over a year later, the Lutz family moved in, only lasting 28 days before being driven from the home. The family said that patriarch George Lutz would wake up every morning at 3:15, around the time of the DeFeo murders. There were also reports of strange odors, green slime, cold spots, the garage door opening and closing, mother Kathy and sons Daniel and Christopher levitating off of their beds, sightings of a pig-like creature with red eyes, and an invisible entity “knocking a knife down in the kitchen.” A priest even came to bless the house and was supposedly yelled at to “get out” by a voice screaming at him.
Afterwards, George and Kathy passed a lie detector test when telling their story, and Ron DeFeo, still serving a 25-year-life sentence, claimed at one point that voices told him to kill his family.
Director Bryan Bertino’s horror film was somewhat inspired by Charles Manson and the murders committed by the infamous Manson Family followers in 1969 after he read the true crime book based on the killings called Helter Skelter.
Mainly, though, it was Bertino’s childhood experience when he and his little sister were home alone and heard a knock on the door. After answering it, his little sister was asked by the people at the door if someone who didn’t live there was home, and then the strangers left right after. The siblings later found out that those same strangers were breaking into homes using this particular tactic if no one answered the door. That, along with the question of, “what if someone breaks in while you’re home?”, became Bertino’s vision for The Strangers.
A Nightmare on Elm Street
Wes Craven drew inspiration for his nightmare villain, Freddy Krueger, after reading an article in the L.A. Times about a family that had landed in the United States after surviving the killing fields in Cambodia. One of the children had nightmares, telling his parents he was terrified to sleep because he would dream about something chasing him that he knew would catch him if he didn’t stay awake.
One night, after managing to stay awake for a few days at a time, the boy died after he finally fell asleep. His parents woke up to him screaming in the middle of the night, during a nightmare, and was dead by the time they reached him. As Craven put it: “Here was a youngster having a vision of a horror that everyone older was denying. That became the central line of ‘Nightmare on Elm Street.’”
The Serpent and the Rainbow
Wes Craven being inspired by real-life horrors didn’t stop with Freddy. In 1962, Haiti native Clairvius Narcisse went to the hospital after becoming ill. After experiencing severe symptoms, Narcisse apparently died. The twist? Just like in the movie, the man had actually been buried alive, waking up in a coffin and buried in his own grave.
His brother allegedly planned the whole thing, acquiring help from a voodoo Shaman who poisoned Narcisse with a pufferfish and toad toxin combination that made him appear dead. That same Shaman supposedly later had Narcisse exhumed and transferred elsewhere, where he was routinely drugged and poisoned in order to keep him in a zombie-like state and was forced to work in a sugar plantation with others being drugged like him. It took two years for Narcisse to escape, only returning home once he learned of his brother’s death.
We’ve already briefly mentioned Annabelle, so why not the haunted doll, Robert, who inspired our favorite Good Guy? According to reports, Robert Eugene Otto, a Florida painter, once owned the doll who is dressed up as an American naval officer holding a stuffed lion. Otto received Robert from a female servant who happened to practice voodoo and used to take care of his parents’ house. Abused and seeking revenge on the family, the girl supposedly possessed the doll. While it never went on a killing spree like Chucky, Robert the doll would apparently speak to the young Otto in his bedroom, cause him nightmares, and strange things and misfortunes occurred to the family. Otto always blamed Robert.
There were even reports of the doll moving around the house, according to neighbors and friends. Otto inherited his parent’s house after they died, and despite having a “deep connection” with Robert, Otto’s wife demanded the doll remain locked in the attic. Visitors reported hearing footsteps and laughter coming from the attic. Otto also discovered the doll several times in a rocking chair elsewhere in the house. Even after Otto died in 1974, the new tenant’s 10-year-old daughter was tormented by the doll. Robert currently resides at the Key West Martello Museum, where employees claim that the doll has moved around and possibly left its case before.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose
Following in the footsteps of The Exorcist (and preceding other demonic movies based on true events such as The Possession and The Rite), The Exorcism of Emily Rose was inspired by the real-life story of Anneliese Michel. Her symptoms began in 1968 with doctors believing she had “Grand Mal” epilepsy. By 1970, Anneliese began to believe that she was possessed after experiencing “devilish” visions while praying.
Three years later, the desperate parents reached out to a number of pastors so Anneliese could receive an exorcism. The 20-year-old Anneliese was rejected, though, continuing with the same medication and treatment she had undergone for years now with no improvement. Within a year, her symptoms worsened, including attacking her family, eating spiders, flies, coal and ingesting her own urine as well as beginning to harm herself and destroying religious items (such as crucifixes or painted images of Jesus) while screaming throughout the house.
Finally, in 1975, an exorcism was permitted which resulted in “one or two exorcism sessions” held each week from September of 1975 to July 1976. The final day of the Exorcism Rite was on June 30th, 1976, and Anneliese was announced dead on July 1st, 1976. Her final words to the exorcists were, “Beg for absolution,” and to her mom, “Mother, I’m afraid.” Evidence found that Anneliese had starved to death and the exorcists as well as Anneliese’s parents were found guilty of manslaughter due to negligence and not providing her with first aid. Videos containing terrifying images and sounds of the supposed real exorcism have been posted online.
Steven Spielberg’s popular thriller was adapted by Peter Benchley’s novel, which was based on a real-life rogue shark that left five victims in its wake in 1916 near the Jersey Shore. The shark traveled over 30 miles between a couple of the attacks, leaving four people dead — including an 11-year-old boy. The only surviving victim was a teenager named Joseph Dunn. The attacks were said to happen close to shore, and Ichthyologist George Burgess called it the “most unique set of shark attacks that ever have occurred.”
The Hills Have Eyes
It’s become clear that Wes Craven’s theme of re-imagining true-life horrors on screen makes a solid argument for people being the scariest monsters. The tradition continues with the true story that inspired the horror classic, The Hills Have Eyes. The story of Alexander “Sawney” Bean and his family begins in the 15th century when they fled society to live in a system of caves located in Bennane Head, Scotland. The clan (which expanded to about 48 family members in the caves over a 25-year period) ambushed, robbed, murdered, and ate any person that came into their territory.
The nearby village was left unsure of who was to blame for any of the disappearances. After attempting to attack a man who was able to hold them off with a sword until help arrived, the family was captured and “condemned to death without a trial.” The men, women, and children were essentially tortured to death and/or burned alive as punishment for their crimes. It’s believed that the Bean family killed over 1,000 people.
The Mothman Prophecies
The “Mothman” legend takes us to November of 1996 in Point Pleasant, West Virginia. Two sets of married couples claimed to have seen two giant red eyes and described the creature as being “6-to-7 feet tall and no head, as if the eyes were in the breast area, and with huge wings.” The two couples told police that the creature followed them to the city limits; the local sheriff only found a “puff of smoke” when he went to investigate.
Over the next year or so, 200 individuals reported experiencing strange phenomena with about half of them claiming that they saw Mothman (as the creature was dubbed by a copy editor at the local newspaper). Journalist John Keel was assigned to the area, where more strange occurrences were reported and Keel began to experience “prophecies.” Everything came to a head when one day the Silver Bridge that crossed over the Ohio River between Gallipolis, Ohio and Point Pleasant, West Virginia (the location of the first Mothman sighting) collapsed, killing 46 people. It was reported that many of the people who died on that bridge were related to people who had witnessed the Mothman.
After accidentally being left behind by a diving company on January 25, 1998, Tom and Eileen Lonergan disappeared off of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and their bodies were never found.
Investigators say the couple likely survived the night as a note was written on a dive slate by Tom dated on January 26, begging for help. According to Jack Nairn, the skipper for the diving company, Outer Edge, the Lonergan’s passports and wallets were found in a bag two days after the couple was left behind, meaning the couple was likely dead by the time the alarm was raised.
By the following month, a wetsuit said to be in Eileen’s size washed up in north Queensland, and dive jackets containing Tom and Eileen’s names as well as their air tanks and one of Eileen’s diving fins were later found washed ashore north of Port Douglas. While investigators cannot be 100% sure what happened to the couple without being able to examine their bodies, their best guess was that the two likely suffered from dehydration and drowned.
If there’s anything this list proves, it’s that reality is far scarier than fiction.