Have you ever sat in a movie theater, ready to scare yourself silly with the latest horror movie when “based on a true story” flashes across the screen? For many, a chill runs down the spine in response to that creepy little warning—and it isn’t just for movies. In fact, many of the movies based on real life were adapted from books. From true accounts of demonic possessions and haunted houses to lost and wayward spirits, these books are downright horrifying. No amount of special effects, creepy soundtracks, and camera tricks can outdo a chilling story written by those who faced the terror and survived to tell the tale.
So, if you’re looking for a hair-raising read or two, these are the scariest non-fiction books based on true-life hauntings and paranormal cases.
Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places
As far as scary goes, this is probably the tamest book on the list. One part ghost story, one part travel guide, and one part memoir, Colin Dickey recounts the many haunted places he visited, ghost tours he’s attended in an attempt to make sense of the human obsession with the supernatural. He also wrestles with the social implications and context of supposed supernatural occurrences. For example, Dickey attributes many of the tales of southern ghosts to the guilt of slavery and the need to conjure another evil to fear that didn’t directly implicate those who were guilty of the slave industry. He goes on a journey throughout the United States with a mission: find the most haunted places and delve into their often dark and mysterious pasts.
Hostage to the Devil
You might recognize this name from the Netflix documentary Cross to Bear. The documentary was based on author Malachi Martin who was both a prolific writer on demonology and a Catholic priest who performed exorcisms. Martin moved from his native Ireland to New York in the 60s. Over the course of his career, he would pen 17 books. Many were critical of the Catholic Church and recount exorcisms performed by Martin and his battles with demons. This title, in particular, recounts several exorcisms he oversaw during the 60s and 70s. Hostage to the Devil is seen by many as a rebuke of Hollywood's version of demonic exorcism is and how it affects those seemingly afflicted by possession.
The Haunted: One Family’s Nightmare
The Haunted: One Family’s Nightmare is the account of an incident known as the Smurl Family Haunting. The Smurl family claimed to be besieged in their home by a demon for over ten years during the 70s and 80s. Seeking help from clergy members, paranormal experts, and local authorities, the Smurls eventually turned to famed paranormal investigators hunters, Ed and Lorraine Warren). Robert Curran recounts the the emotional and physical abuse the Smurl family suffered during this time. Curran also helped pen the made-for-TV movie The Haunted that was based on his book.
The Demonologist: The Extraordinary Career of Ed & Lorraine Warren
If you’re a fan of movies and books about demonic hauntings, you already know who Ed and Lorraine Warren are. Recently, they’ve become somewhat larger than life as demon fighting heroes in James Wan's horror movies. The Warrens are responsible for bringing to national attention the Amityville Haunting and also appear in stories such as the Haunting in Connecticut and the Enfield Poltergeist. This book recounts many of their cases, focusing on the Warrens' unique reliance on religion as they investigated the most famous hauntings of the late 20th century.
Yes, that’s right, the scariest movie of all time is, in fact, based on true events. While Blatty's book is a work of fiction, and an outlier on this list, he based his chilling tale on the real-life exorcism of Roland Doe, a 14-year-old boy from St. Louis who allegedly slipped under the control of demonic forces in the 1940s. Blatty used details from the notes of Roland Doe's real-life exorcist while writing his book, reframing the event as a mother and daughter living in Georgetown, fighting to save their souls.
The Myrtles Plantation: The True Story of America’s Most Haunted House
The Myrtles Plantation tells the true story of a stately home in Louisiana with one sinister reputation. Like many American haunts, the paranormal activity reported at Myrtles Plantation can be traced back to a dark past; rumor has it that the plantation was built atop an Indian burial ground, to say nothing of the blood spilled across the grounds during its years of slavery. Myrtles has seen multiple deaths, and a bevy of ghosts are said to haunt the grounds. Kermeen’s book explores the dark history of the house, as well as modern sightings during the plantation's current tenure as a bed and breakfast.
Ghosts: A Natural History: 500 Years of Hunting for Proof
A Natural History of Ghosts: 500 Years of Hunting for Proof describes the history of hauntings through the lens of an explorer and a skeptic. Clarke tracks over 500 years of stories of wayward spirits, hauntings and the occult to tell gripping ghost stories that don’t have a logical explanation. You might be surprised by some of the famous historical characters that make an appearance in Clarke's hunt for the supernatural.
The Uninvited: The True Story of the Union Screaming House
In a first-hand account of the Union house haunting in Missouri, LaChance recounts how he and his children were the victims of relentless demonic entities in the early 2000s. The family moved into an old home on Cedar Street in Union, Missouri, which had once been a butcher shop. Despite a warning from the realtor that the house wasn’t quite right, the family moved in and quickly found themselves besieged by entities they could not see. Furniture began to move, religious iconography in the house was mysteriously defaced and horrifying screams tore through the air. These screams were so terrifying that their new home became known as the Union Screaming House. LaChance tells the story of his family and the next tenant's encounters with the demons that haunted the Union House.
Deliver Us from Evil: A New York City Cop Investigates the Supernatural
The title of this book might ring a bell: A film adaptation starring Eric Bana was released in 2014. Writer Ralph Sarchie was a 17-year veteran of the NYPD and a devout Roman Catholic who investigated several crimes that he claimed were the result of demonic possession. A practicing demonologist, Sarchie had a supposed relic of the True Cross that he used during his exorcisms. The film adaptation takes liberties with Sarchie’s writings but captures the spirit that drew Sarchie into what he refers to as “the Work” of ridding the world of ghosts and demons.