The Best Horror Movies Based On A True Story And How To Watch Them

Gunnar Hansen in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
(Image credit: Bryanston Distributing Company)

I know what you're thinking: horror movies that are "based on a true story" are bologna. Well, of course, Hollywood has a way of stretching the truth, especially when scaring audiences is involved, but that does not mean the claim is always a lie either. See for yourself by taking a look at some of the best horror movies that made a frightening cinematic experience out of a disturbing and factual event below.

Ryan Blanchard and Daniel Travis in Open Water

(Image credit: Lionsgate)

Open Water (2003)

One of the scariest and best shark movies in more recent memory is Open Water, which stars Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis as a vacationing couple who are left stranded in the middle of the Caribbean Sea when their scuba diving tour boat accidentally leaves without them. But, a mistake like that could never happen in real life, right?

Actually, director Chris Kentis’ intense, intimate, and uniquely shot drama does draw inspiration from the tragic story of Tom and Eileen Lonergan, who were left behind in the Great Barrier Reef after their tour boat miscounted its passengers in 1998. While their fictional counterparts would fall prey to sharks, despite some subsequent evidence – including a discovered wetsuit Eileen’s size – the couple’s fate remains unknown, according to The Sun.

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Guy Pearce in Ravenous

(Image credit: 20th Century Fox)

Ravenous (1999)

When thinking of the best cannibal movies, one might think of The Silence of the Lambs, the cult favorite quasi-found footage horror movie Cannibal Holocaust, or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (more on that one later). One of the more overlooked of the bunch is Ravenous, which stars Guy Pearce as a military captain whose rescue mission is botched when his crew is ambushed by a sadist (Robert Carlyle) with a taste for human flesh in 1840s California.

While director Antonia Bird’s period piece is fiction, Ted Griffin’s script involves elements from two of the most notorious cannibalistic incidents from the 19th Century: the Donner Party and the story of murderous prospector Alfred Packer, as JoBlo recalls. The latter topic would also inspire a more overtly satirical horror-comedy musical from the creators of South Park called Cannibal: The Musical, but Ravenous is a better choice for a good, gory scare.

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Sean Astin in Borderland

(Image credit: After Dark Films)

Borderland (2007)

Not to be confused with a popular series of video games that Eli Roth adapted into the film Borderlands, Borderland is a horror film from co-writer and director Zev Berman that stars Sean Astin and Boy Meets World cast member Rider Strong. The well-received After Dark Horrorfest entry follows a group of college students whose trip to a town by the Mexican border is interrupted by an encounter with a sacrificial cult.

While it sounds like Berman must have been a fan of movies like The Wicker Man or Rosemary’s Baby, the inspiration for Borderland comes from a more disturbingly real place. As Scriptophobic recalls, the story is loosely based on Adolfo de Jesus Costanzo – a drug lord who also led a cult whose practices included human sacrifice.

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Emily in The Exorcism of Emily Rose.

(Image credit: Screen Gems)

The Exorcism Of Emily Rose (2005)

Quite a few well-known horror movies about demonic possession are inspired by alleged fact. Before we get to the most famous example later, let’s talk about co-writer and director Scott Derrickson’s breakthrough hit, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which stars Jennifer Carpenter as the titular young woman whose death following a violent exorcism leads to a soul-shattering court trial.

Emily Rose did not exist, but is the fictional counterpart of Anneliese Michel – a German woman who passed away in 1976 at 23 years old after 67 rites of exorcism were performed on her. The subsequent trial found her parents and the priests involved in her exorcism guilty of manslaughter and ruled she died of nothing more than malnutrition. However, according to The Washington Post, the people she was close to believed it was the work of the devil and the movie might have you convinced of the same thing.

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Richard Gere in The Mothman Prophecies

(Image credit: Lakeshore Entertainment)

The Mothman Prophecies (2002)

Before she starred in The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Oscar nominee Laura Linney starred in another freaky flick inspired by alleged fact called The Mothman Prophecies. Richard Gere leads as John Klein – a widower investigating sightings of a winged creature in a small town when he begins receiving phone calls that seem to tell the future.

Director Mark Pellington’s amusing thriller is a highly fictionalized adaptation of John Keel’s non-fiction book of the same name, which documents real testimonies from citizens of Point Pleasant, Virginia, who claimed to see what was dubbed the “Mothman” in the late 1960s. According to EW, Keel claims that these sightings coincided with warnings he personally received, such as a real-life bridge collapse that is dramatized in the film.

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The Phantom from The Town That Dreaded Sundown

(Image credit: AIP)

The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)

In 1946, a quaint Texas community was terrorized by a string of deaths that came to be known as the Texarkana Moonlight Murders. According to Texas Monthly, the killer – who is said to have claimed five victims over a three-month period – was never identified, but was dubbed the Phantom Killer.

Thirty years later, this brutal case served as the basis of a film called The Town That Dreaded Sundown, which was directed by The Legend of Boggy Creek helmer Charles B. Pierce. Its particular embellishments of the events has been noted and has contributed to its controversial legacy, but also to its reputation as a ‘70s slasher favorite, which later spawned a metafictional sequel of the same name in 2014.

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Three masked strangers terrorize a couple in The Strangers

(Image credit: Universal Pictures, Rogue Pictures)

The Strangers (2008)

To clarify, The Strangers is not based on one specific, true story of a young couple teasingly stalked and killed by masked assailants. Writer and director Bryan Bertino told Den of Geek that his gorefest starring Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman was inspired by cases like the Manson Family murders and a childhood memory of his own when he and his sister were visited by a mysterious woman whom he later discovered was part of a group looking for empty houses to rob.

Bertino would flip that idea on its head by making the thieves masked serial killers and changing the purpose of their shocking, gory visit into – as what is now regarded as one of the best horror movie quotes in recent memory reveals – “because you were home.” The home invasion thriller would inspire a 2018 sequel that he co-wrote called The Strangers: Prey at Night, and a 2024 reimagining called The Strangers: Chapter 1, which is the first in a new trilogy.

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Barbara Hershey in The Entity

(Image credit: 20th Century Fox)

The Entity (1982)

In The Entity, single mother of four Carol Moran (Insidious cast member Barbara Hershey) is a victim of sexual assault. As if that could be any worse, her attacker is an invisible apparition of great evil and unstoppable strength.

Fusing a very real and prevalent horrific crime with supernatural elements is creepy enough, but what makes this story even more shocking is that it is inspired by the case of Doris Bither who, in 1974, claimed she suffered physical attacks from not one, but three ghosts that also attacked her children. Without considering the bizarre origins of the story – which is personally detailed by Dr. Taff, who was hired by Bither to investigate her case, on his official websiteThe Entity remains a shocking and thought-provoking story, as the best horror movies tend to be, about a woman’s struggle to prove that the terrifying, violent offenses committed against her are real.

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D.B. Sweeney in Fire in the Sky

(Image credit: Paramount)

Fire In The Sky (1993)

Say what you want about UFOs and alien abductions, but according to Travis Walton, it happened to him. The former Arizona logger has recalled his experience – one of the most famous and best-documented alien abductions in history – on multiple occasions, such as in an interview with Joe Rogan and in his own memoir, Fire in the Sky

The book was adapted into a 1993 film of the same name that depicts the five days that Walton – portrayed by D.B. Sweeney – was missing in 1975 and what happened from his perspective. The dramatization does not take the concept of alien abduction lightly, showing in graphic detail the torturous experience Walton alleges that he endured. It just barely earns its PG-13 rating.

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Blythe Auffarth in The Girl Next Door

(Image credit: Modern Distributors)

The Girl Next Door (2007)

Not to be confused with a raunchy 2004 comedy of the same name, The Girl Next Door is based on Jack Ketchum’s novel, which was inspired by the tragic story of Sylvia Likens. As All That’s Interesting recalls, in 1965 in Indiana, Likens was subjected to almost three months of abuse, neglect, humiliation, and torture by her sociopathic caregiver, a family friend named Gertrude Baniszewski. She eventually succumbed to her injuries and died at just 16.

The events depicted in the The Girl Next Door are just as unsettling and unspeakable as the original shockingly sadistic case. While a fan of the genre would say that is a key point of acclaim for the best horror movies, we would say you might be better off reading about it than seeing it. It is not for the faint of heart.

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The house from The Amityville Horror

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

The Amityville Horror (1979)

One of the most prolific cases of a supernatural haunting inspired the 1977 novel The Amityville Horror, which was made into a film two years later. It stars James Brolin and Margot Kidder as George and Kathy Lutz, who find a great deal on a house after a man murdered his family in it years earlier. Soon, they begin to suspect that the crime was influenced by a demonic presence in the house and worry they will fall victim to it next.

While there is truth to the story of a man murdering his family in the infamous Amityville house, as SyFy recalls, there is no real evidence to support an actual haunting occurred there. Yet, that has not stopped Hollywood from continuing to use the story as franchise material. The original film, however, still pops into conversation as one of the best haunted houses movies, even by those who do not believe in its ghostly legend.

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John Jarratt is Wolf Creek

(Image credit: AFFC)

Wolf Creek (2005)

While Crocodile Dundee was a film that greatly helped the tourism industry in Australia, Greg McLean’s 2005 cult slasher was the film that could have come close to ruining it. Wolf Creek – about three travelers terrorized by a crazed pig hunter – claimed to be based on true events when first released, which is not entirely false, having taking inspiration from the crimes of Ivan Milat, who never confessed to any of his killings before he died in prison, according to CNN.

However, the real murders occurred far from the scenic national park the title borrows from… and misspells (Wolfe Creek). Nevertheless, the film has earned acclaim for its ultra realistic depictions of violence – some of which are kept offscreen, but terrifying enough to imagine – and, especially, for its sinister antagonist, Mick Taylor (John Jarratt).

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Vera Farmiga in The Conjuring.

(Image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures)

The Conjuring (2013)

Famed paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren’s most famous case is, most likely, the case that inspired The Amityville Horror. Of course, no confirmed evidence of that haunting exists (as I have mentioned) and the story has already been done to death in Hollywood. Thus, James Wan thankfully chose the Warrens’ 1971 investigation of the Perron Family’s house as inspiration for The Conjuring.

Featuring interviews with the actual Perron Family in the film’s marketing is what helped convince audiences to buy into its “based on a true story” claims and made it one of the highest-grossing horror movies of all time. The Conjuring would spin off its own universe, which has gone on for some time, but the one that started it all is still regarded as one of the scariest in recent memory.

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Robert Englund in A Nightmare on Elm Street

(Image credit: New Line Cinema)

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Wes Craven was smart to not market his slasher-fantasy hit as inspired by true events because no one would have believed that a badly burned, clawed, wisecracking boogeyman would be real. That being said, claiming it to be based on true events still, technically, would not have been a lie.

Craven wrote the script for A Nightmare on Elm Street after reading an L.A. Times article about a teenage boy suffering from nightmares that kept him desperate to stay awake, until he eventually died in his sleep. The filmmaker took the concept of a fatal nightmare, added a now iconic horror movie villain dubbed Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), and one of the most iconic slasher of all time was born.

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The whole family in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

(Image credit: Bryanston Distributing Company)

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

A large part of what made the late Tobe Hooper’s breakout hit appealing was the claim in its marketing and opening narration that the events depicted in the movie actually happened. While there is no record of a massacre involving a chainsaw that took place in Texas in the early 1970s, the initial inspiration came from the cruel and gross crimes of Ed Gein, who has inspired several antagonists on film, with the cannibalistic Leatherface, arguably, being the most iconic due to his weapon of choice.

So, where did the chainsaw element in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre come from? Hooper revealed to Interview that he and his wife were in a crowded department store when he saw the bladed tool on a shelf and thought to himself, “If I start the saw, those people would just part. They would get out of my way," and the rest is history.

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Jaws on a rampage

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

Jaws (1975)

Steven Spielberg’s masterful creature feature (and the first blockbuster) was inspired by Peter Benchley’s novel, Jaws, but even the author needed inspiration from somewhere. He stated in the introduction of his man vs. shark opus that the idea came from a 1964 newspaper article about a fisherman who caught a 4,500-pound great white off Long Island, which got him to wonder what would happen if such an animal became a more local nuisance.

Some have also cited the infamous 1916 shark attack off of Jersey Shore, since it is also mentioned in both the book and movie, but Benchley has said that should not to be taken as a sign that it inspired the plot of Jaws. Or, perhaps, he and Spielberg would rather one of their most iconic creations not be linked to tragedy. That is quite a challenging thing for a shark movie.

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Janet Leigh in Psycho

(Image credit: Paramount Pictures)

Psycho (1960)

Leatherface is not the only killer on our list to be inspired by Ed Gein, who also paved the way for the main antagonist of one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best movies. As Den of Geek explains, Psycho is based on a novel by Robert Bloch, who modeled the character of Norman Bates (played in the film by Anthony Perkins) off of the notorious sadist.

Much like Bates, Gein was very close to his mother, Augusta, who sealed him off from the rest of the world for much of his life and, after she died, left him in a state of traumatic loneliness. He eventually began identifying as a woman, taking up cross dressing, and skinning female victims to create a bodysuit that would help assume his gender of choice. All we can say is, mothers: please be careful how you raise your children as they may end up inspiring some chilling stories.

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Max Schreck in Nosferatu

(Image credit: Art Films Guild)

Nosferatu (1922)

Some may recognize Count Orlok from the 1922 silent film Nosferatu by his brief cameo in a SpongeBob Squarepants episode, or by the name of his original source material: Dracula. Believe it or not, Count Dracula was an actual person: a Romanian prince named Vlad who took on the name Dracula, which meant “son of Dracul,” in reference to his father. 

Of course, Drac was not an undead creature of night, but he apparently did have a taste for human blood, which Bram Stoker used as inspiration to pioneer an entire subgenre of horror fiction. F.W. Murnau, unable to obtain the rights to the name Dracula, adapted the novel into the one of the best vampire films of all time, Nosferatu, which Robert Eggers is remaking into one of the most anticipated upcoming horror movies of 2024.

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Linda Blair, Max von Sydow, and Jason Miller

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

The Exorcist (1973)

Director William Friedkin never regarded his Oscar-nominated adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s novel as a horror film, despite being regarded now as a terrifying masterpiece. What interested Friedkin about The Exorcist – inspired by the actual exorcism of 14-year-old boy Roland Doe, as recalled by The Guardian – was the unique opportunity he saw in it. 

He wanted to use the fictionalized take on the St. Louis possession (changed to a 12-year-old girl, played by Linda Blair) and make a film that commented on the mystery of faith. Perhaps that unique approach to the thriller, as well as its fact-based origin, is what has kept audiences intrigued and in fear in the decades since The Exorcist was first released.

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Next time you come across a horror movie that claims to be “inspired by true events,” don’t be so quick to doubt it.

Jason Wiese
Content Writer

Jason Wiese writes feature stories for CinemaBlend. His occupation results from years dreaming of a filmmaking career, settling on a "professional film fan" career, studying journalism at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, MO (where he served as Culture Editor for its student-run print and online publications), and a brief stint of reviewing movies for fun. He would later continue that side-hustle of film criticism on TikTok (@wiesewisdom), where he posts videos on a semi-weekly basis. Look for his name in almost any article about Batman.