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.
Some of the best horror movies of all time have fact-based origins. For instance, the creepy child's plaything from Annabelle Comes Home, the latest upcoming entry in The Conjuring Universe, was inspired by an allegedly possessed Raggedy Ann doll. That is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to art imitating bizarre, disturbing reality.
But of these films that sport the "inspired by true events" claim, which can also claim to be the best horror movies around? I have chosen 14 of some of the best films that made a scary movie-going experience out of a true disturbing event.
The Strangers (2008)
Let me clear this up for you right off the bat: No, The Strangers is not based on a specific, true story of a young married couple teasingly stalked and killed by masked assailants.
While many have speculated what famous murder cases could have inspired this gorefest starring Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman, director Bryan Bertino claims the inspiration was a group of mysterious strangers who knocked on the door of his childhood home in Texas, who turned out to be looking for empty houses to rob.
Bryan Bertino decided to 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.” So, it's based on a true story, perhaps just not what you would guess.
It does make sense that The Strangers is really just inspired by a plausible concept based on something that happened to the director, because I cannot imagine a trio of killers preying on two helpless victims in a cabin in the middle of nowhere taking that long to finish the job.
The Entity (1982)
In The Entity, single mother of four Carol Moran (Insidious star Barbara Hershey) is a victim of sexual assault. As if that could be any worse than it already is, her attacker is an invisible apparition of great evil and unstoppable strength.
Fusing a very real and prevelanet horrific crime with supernatural elements is creepy enough, but what makes the story of The Entity 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, The 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 onto her are real.
Fire in the Sky (1993)
Say what you want about UFOs and alien abductions, according to Travis Walton, it happened to him.
The 1993 film Fire In The Sky is based on the memoir of the same name and recounts the most famous and best-documented alien abduction in history. In 1975, Arizona logger Travis Walton went missing for five days. When he returned, he claimed that he was taken by extraterrestrials.
D.B. Sweeney portrays Walton in the film, which does not take the concept of alien abduction lightly. It shows in graphic detail the torturous experience Walton alleges that he endured in traumatically graphic detail. It just barely earns its PG-13 rating.
The Girl Next Door (2007)
Not to be confused with the 2004 comedy about a high schooler in love with an adult film star, The Girl Next Door is based on Jack Ketchum’s novel, which was inspired by the tragic story of Sylvia Likens.
In 1965 in the state of Indiana, Likens was subjected to almost three months of abuse, neglect, humiliation, and torture by her sociopathic caregiver. 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, I would say you may be better off reading about it than seeing it. It is not for the faint of heart.
The Amityville Horror (1979)
One of the most prolific cases of supernatural haunting comes from one now legendary house in New York.
It inspired the 1977 novel The Amityville Horror, which was made into a film two years later, starring 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 conspire 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, there is no real evidence to support an actual haunting occurred there. Yet, that has not stopped Hollywood for continuing to use the story as franchise material.
The original film, however, still pops into conversation as one of the best horror movies, mostly by those who still believe in its ghostly legend.
Child’s Play (1988)
Before there was Annabelle, there was Chucky. However, did you know that both of these fearful playthings are inspired by alleged fact?
In Child’s Play, regarded as one of the best horror films of all time, serial killer Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif) inserts his soul into a cute, red headed doll to continue his murderous tirade after death. The inspiration was a doll of unnerving design named Robert, owned by then six-year-old Gene Otto in 1906.
Robert the Doll was made for Gene by his family’s Bahamian servant, who happened to be skilled in voodoo. Her skills apparently proved effective as Robert would take enjoyment in taunting children and mutilating Gene’s other toys, among other unexplainable phenomena.
With the technophobic Child’s Play remake on the horizon, I now wonder what is scarier: stuffed doll possessed by evil or robotic doll with fatally faulty programming?
Wolf Creek (2005)
While Crocodile Dundee was a film that greatly helped the tourism industry in Australia, Greg McLean’s 2005 cult slasher film 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. While not entirely a lie, the real Australia-based hitchhiker murders that inspired the film occurred far from the scenic national park the title borrows from… and misspells (Wolfe Creek).
Nevertheless, the film has earned acclaim as one of the best horror movies of its kind for its ultra realistic depictions of violence and, especially, for its sinister antagonist, Mick Taylor (John Jarratt).
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. However, the one that started it all is still regarded as one of the best horror movies in recent memory.
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.
Wes 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.
Craven took the concept of a fatal nightmare, added villain Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) as an antagonist, and one of the best horror movies of all time was born.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
A large part of the appeal of the late Tobe Hooper’s breakout hit was the claim in the marketing and in the film’s opening narration that the events depicted in the movie actually happened. No, there is no record of a massacre involving a chainsaw that took place in Texas in the early 1970s.
Instead, Tobe Hooper’s initial inspiration came from the cruel and gross crimes of Ed Gein, who has inspired several antagonists on film. Yet, Leatherface may be the killer’s most iconic cinematic counterpart due to his weapon of choice.
So, where did the chainsaw element in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre come from? Tobe Hooper and his wife were in a crowded department store when he saw the bladed tool on a shelf and thought to himself, I bet I could use that to get through this crowd a lot easier.
Steven Spielberg’s masterful creature feature (and the first blockbuster) was inspired by Peter Benchley’s novel, Jaws. But even Benchley needed inspiration from somewhere.
Benchley stated in the introduction of his man vs. shark novel that his initial inspiration was a 1964 newspaper article about a fisherman who caught a 4,500-pound great white off Long Island. The story got him to wonder what would happen if such an animal became a more local nuisance.
Many also cite the infamous 1916 shark attack off of Jersey Shore. While the incident is mentioned in both the book and movie, Peter Benchley has said that the mere reference of the event should is not to be taken as a sign that it inspired the plot of Jaws.
Or, perhaps, he and Steven Spielberg would rather one of the best horror movies of all time, and one of their most iconic creations, not be linked to tragedy. That is quite challenging for a shark movie.
Leatherface is not the only killer on our list to be inspired by Ed Gein. The prolific murdered also paved the way for Alfred Hitchcock’s most iconic creation.
Much like Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins’ bone chilling role in Psycho), Ed Gein was very close to his mother Augusta, who sealed him off from the rest of the world for much of his life. After she died, leaving him a state of crippling loneliness, he eventually began identifying as a woman, taking up cross dressing and skinning female victims to create a bodysuit to help assume his gender of choice.
All I can say, in regards to the life of Ed Gein AND the plot of Psycho, mothers, please be careful how you raise your children. They may end up inspiring some of the best horror movies of all time.
You may recognize Count Orlok from Nosferatu by his brief cameo in a SpongeBob Squarepants episode, or by the name of his original source material: Bram Stoker’s 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,” his father. Of course, he was Drac was not an undead creature of night, but he apparently did have a taste for human blood.
F.W. Murnau, unable to obtain the rights to the name Dracula, adapted Stoker’s novel into the 1922 silent film Nosferatu, which I still believe is one of the best horror of all time and my top pick for vampire movies.
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 one of the best horror movies ever.
What interested Friedkin about The Exorcist, inspired by the actual exorcism of 14-year-old boy Roland Doe in a St. Louis hospital, was the unique opportunity he saw in it. He wanted to use the fictionalized take of 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 more than 40 years since The Exorcist was first released.
What do you think of our list? Can you think of more horror movies "based on a true story" that deserve a spot? There are plenty more out there, but hopefully this provides a few for you to choose from.