One of the most enjoyable aspects of horror movies is that they can make reality look great by comparison. After all, at least we don’t have to worry about getting kidnapped by a homicidal nurse or eaten by the undead anytime soon, right? But some of the most terrifying movies out there are a case of art imitating life, rather than the other way around. These 25 heart-stopping horror movies based on true stories prove that sometimes real life is so much scarier than fiction.
Alfred Hitchcock’s classic about a schizoid motel owner and the mother he’ll never please lands at the top of any best-of list, including the best of true horror. Ed Gein, the notorious Wisconsin killer and body snatcher was devastated when his overbearing mother passed away in 1945. But Ed had plans to keep women in his life—namely, carving up female corpses and constructing household items out of their bones and skin. The grave robber’s grisly ways inspired countless films, perhaps the most infamous being Psycho. Hit the road with Janet Leigh.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
Easily one of the most punishing films of the 20th century—and one of the only 70s horror films that remains effective today—Tobe Hooper’s slasher film about a group of friends who are terrorized by deadly Texas cannibals claims it’s based on fact. While a chainsaw-wielding maniac in a skin suit never actually stalked the back roads of Texas (that we know of, anyway), the film does have a whiff of gruesome truth to it: It, too, was inspired by the naughty deeds of Mr. Gein.
In 1989, University of Texas junior Mark Kilroy embarked on a spring break excursion from which he would never return. Soon after he and his friends crossed the Rio Grande into Matamoros, Mexico, they lost track of one another. His friends eventually made it back in Brownsville, Texas; Kilroy, meanwhile, was kidnapped and sodomized, then dismembered and sacrificed, all at the bloody hands of a Voodoo cult led by “El Padrino,” Adolfo de Jesus Constanzo. Director Zev Berman brings all of the vicious horror to life in Borderland.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
On the hunt for a perverse thriller? Look no further than Michael Rooker's role as one of America’s most prolific serial killers. Henry Lee Lucas, a Southern drifter, confessed to hundreds of murders in the 1980s. While John McNaughton’s 1986 crime horror is technically a fictional representation of Lucas’s life, its underlying reality still sends a shiver down your spine: Henry is real and could be living right next door.
With references to the unforgettable Donner party, this gruesome historical horror film draws its inspiration from real-life American prospector and cannibal Alfred “Alferd” Packer. Packer stood accused of murdering and eating his fellow travelers in 1874, after being stranded in the high Colorado Mountains during winter. Packer eventually admitted to his deed, and was first sentenced to death—though he escaped execution thanks to a retrial.
The Girl Next Door
While The Girl Next Door is based on Jack Ketchum’s novel of the same name, both titles are rooted in the real-life brutality suffered by teenager Silvia Likens. Fact is, in 1965, Likens was starved, tortured, mutilated, and murdered in a basement at the hands of her caregiver, Gertrude Baniszewski, and several neighborhood boys in Indianapolis, Indiana. Gregory Wilson’s unflinching horror is at once enthralling and hard to watch.
The Amityville Horror
Believe it or not, the haunted house story that inspired the 1979 classic chiller was ripped from the headlines. According to the Lutz family, they spent 28 days losing the battle of good vs. evil in the now-legendary three-story colonial on Ocean Avenue on NYC’s Long Island. It may be a hard pill to swallow, but the Oscar-nominated film—and all of its GET OUT! Hospitality—is always a good time.
The Silent House
Somewhere in 1940s Uruguay, two men and a woman entered a secluded country house, only to be brutalized by forces hiding within. In director Gustavo Hernandez’s Spanish-language film, that woman’s name is Laura, and the secrets she unlocks are darker than a Hitchcock mystery. The film, which spawned an American remake starring Elizabeth Olsen, is supposedly based on true events and is told in real time, filmed in a seemingly single 88-minute shot. The whole truth and nothing but or a creepy dose of horror movie myth-making? Either way, The Silent House gets your heart racing.
The Serpent and the Rainbow
We’re sure you’re aware of the real-life nightmares that inspired a little franchise on Elm Street, but what about this lesser-known Wes Craven gem? Believe it or not, The Serpent and the Rainbow is a loose adaptation of a non-fiction book by the same name. Written by anthropologist and researcher Wade Davis, The Serpent and the Rainbow investigates the history of Haitian Vodou and the real-life case of Clairvius Narcisse, a man allegedly turned into a zombie by Vodou rituals. Don’t believe us? Read this. Then cue up Craven’s witching horror starring Bill Pullman as the anthropologist who heads to Haiti to study a Voodoo drug that turns its victims into the undead.
Dead Ringers is based on the novel Twins, which itself drew inspiration from the mysterious deaths of real-life identical siblings Stewart and Cyril Marcus. The successful gynecologists were found dead together in their Manhattan apartment. Cronenberg’s psychological thriller is just as unsettling. About one gynecologist who passes off his love interests to his twin brother doc after he’s finished, Dead Ringers blurs reality with fantasy through the use of body horror, schizophrenia, and macabre wit.
Let’s break fact apart from fiction. The premise of this movie involves a scuba-diving couple stranded in shark-infested Caribbean waters. Unfortunately—as the tagline states—the movie is based on the true story of Tom and Eileen Lonergan. The American couple disappeared off Australia’s Great Barrier Reef on January 25, 1998. It took the diving company two days to realize the couple was missing after they discovered a bag with their belongings. Now here’s the catch—unlike the film—the cause of the couple’s disappearance was never confirmed. Although a shark attack is a possibility, the couple’s dive jackets were eventually found undamaged. Some theories include dehydration to murder-suicide. Nonetheless, a real life mystery.
This film is based on an incident involving real life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. The film follows hunters, Ed and Lorraine Warren, as they attempt to rid the Perron family of the incensed spirits that inhabit their home. Back in 1971, the Warrens were brought to Rhode Island to investigate the real life Perron home. According to the Warrens, the house was haunted by a witch, Bathsheba Sherman, who cursed the land so that anyone who lived there somehow died. In a report from USA Today, one of the daughters depicted in the film—Andrea Perron—recalled the torment caused from the angry spirit of Bathsheba.
In the movie, journalists accompany a co-worker as he attempts to rescue his sister from an abusive cult. The plot is inspired by the real-life events of the Jonestown Massacre of 1978. The 1978 mass murder-suicide represented the largest number of American civilian casualties in a single non-natural event before the September 11th attacks. More than 900 Americans—members of the religious group the People’s Temple—were led by cult leader Jim Jones into Guyana. From there Jones convinced his followers to partake in cyanide poisoning or in his infamous words “drink the Kool-aid.”
In the film Verónica, a 15-year-old girl uses a Ouija board and accidently connects with a demon that terrorizes her and her family. The Netflix film was inspired by the case of Estefania Gutierrez Lazaro, a young woman who performed a séance in her school. There is a real police report that reports several unnatural occurrences in the family’s house. When even the police note 'unnatural' things happening, you know that you might want to keep the light on for this one.
One of the most profitable horror movies ever made, this haunting tale is actually inspired by real events. Based on a novel by William Peter Blatty, the story behind the movie is based on a 1949 Washington Post article that followed a possessed boy who had to undergo exorcism. Attending priest, Raymond Bishop, documented the events performed on the pseudonymously identified “Roland Doe”. During the exorcism furniture moved, weapons were thrown, and the boy had visible marks on his body.
No introduction necessary: The name alone should tell you enough. The movie is about—you guessed it—Jeffrey Dahmer. This horror biopic focuses on the notorious serial killer, also known as the Milwaukee Cannibal, that killed a total of 17 boys and men. Dahmer (played by Jeremy Renner) would lure young men, at times by offering money to pose nude, before killing them. He would then take photos of the corpses and dissolve the flesh and bones, keeping the skulls as trophies. Eventually, he also dabbled in cannibalism and would keep body parts to feed on.
Wolf Creek's plot revolves around three backpackers that are hunted by Mick Taylor, a deranged serial killer, through the Australian outback. The film was inspired by three real-life Australian serial killers: Ivan Milat, Bradley Murdoch, and the Snowtown Murders. Ivan Milat—sometimes referred to as the Backpack Killer—murdered backpackers in the 90s. Bradley Murdoch tried to kidnap a woman after murdering her boyfriend. The Snowtown Murders occurred in South Australian town carried out by four men and a woman that killed 11 people.
Another tale brought to you by Ed and Lorraine Warren, this time involving a Raggedy Ann doll. According to the Warrens, the doll was given to a student nurse in 1968. Soon after, strange occurrences began around the nurse, her roommate, and her boyfriend. A psychic medium informed the student that a spirit inhabited the doll. Although at first Annabelle seemed like a kindly spiritual roommate, things quickly got out-of-hand. In the film, you'll discover a backstory of Annabelle's doll-shaped confinement.
This one is based on the infamous Zodiac Killer who was directly linked to at least five murders in the late 1960s. The film follows the manhunt of the serial killer as he commits his murderous acts around the San Francisco Bay Area. The name “Zodiac” originated from a series of letters sent to local Bay Area press. Unfortunately, the killer’s identity remains a mystery, and the cases remain the United States’s most infamous unsolved crimes.
The Haunting in Connecticut
A family moves into a haunted house that used to be a mortuary. What could make it any worse? Perhaps the fact that it's based on a real story. During the 80s, the Snedeker family experienced strange events, including apparitions, after moving into the former funeral home. Once again, the Warrens were called (we detect a theme). The powerful supernatural forces were eventually cured by a three-hour exorcism. Nothing like home sweet home!
A Nightmare on Elm Street
You hear A Nightmare on Elm Street and automatically think of Freddy Krueger. That infamous Freddy that stalks and kills a group of teenagers in their sleep. Oddly enough, the character has real roots: It was inspired by the “Asian Death Syndrome” phenomenon. In the 1970s, newspaper articles covered Southeast Asian refugees that suffered disturbing nightmares and would refuse to sleep. Some of the men—ages 19-57—would soon die in their sleep.
Chucky has become an infamously haunted doll in his own right, but the inspiration for Child's Play came from an all-too-real demonic plaything. Robert the Doll was a toy given to Robert Otto who soon displayed an eerie tendency to move, giggle, and cause pain to those who crossed his owner. Rumors of voodoo or other curses hang around Robert. When Don Mancini took Robert as inspiration, he added in the factor of a serial killer to the creepy doll's backstory, resulting in one of horror's most iconic characters.
Psycho isn't the only movie that's taken Ed Gein as its starting point. Gein's crimes have proven fertile ground for many a horror movie, including 1974's Deranged. Ezra Cobb, the killer of this film, also harbors an obsession with his mother and dead bodies that leads to some utterly gruesome places.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose
In the 1980s, a young woman named Anneliese Michel began hearing voices. Soon her condition escalated, and she started reacting violently to religious object, having vivid hallucinations, and cursing at her parents, medical professionals, and priests. Her parents, convinced she was possessed by the devil, called in exorcists. Sadly, Anneliese died during the exorcism. This movie is based both on the exorcism and the court case that followed.
Yard sales are usually good places to pick up a new kitchen table, cheap. But sometimes you instead find yourself with a bargain-priced demon. In The Possession, Clyde Brenek and his two daughters go garage sailing. They stumble across an old wooden box engraved with Hebrew lettering. Turns out, this antique item possesses more than just vintage charm. The movie is inspired by the real-life story of Kevin Mannis, who in 2003 purchased a wine box off of eBay that was allegedly haunted by a restless spirit known as a dybbuk. According to numerous owners of the box, it came pre-filled–not with wine, but with horrors.
Featured still from "The Conjuring" via New Line Cinema