Sometimes we get so swept up in a story, we start looking at its origin: How did the author come up with the idea? What did it take to complete it? Is it based on true events? It’s particularly jarring when a book that shouldn’t be based in fact turns out to have chilling backstories, and perhaps even a direct retelling of real-world events. Among the most effective are when the paranormal crosses paths with reality. There are tons of amazing examples of horror classics rooted in true events.
We've gathered a few here that demonstrate how reality can often be the secret sauce to a truly resonant tale of horror. Here are six horror books based on true events.
Dickey’s nonfiction opus, Ghostland, may not be outwardly written to “scare” readers, though it certainly and frequently does. It is my go-to paranormal horror based on true stories. Dickey did his research, and from his travels (and travails) he unearthed a darker history of America, focusing instead on its haunted places and the stories, myths, and odd occurrences that define the history of those places. After reading Ghostland, you’ll do a double take every single time you pass by a location that calls itself “haunted.”
There’s a certain type of “true horror” that delves into the unexplained in a very stripped-down, laid-bare kind of prose. Mercado’s Grave’s End is a great example of this sort of blend of memoir and reportage, a document of happenstance as much as a dire tale of paranormal horror. In the book, Mercado explains the events that transpire in her and her husband’s home in 1982 Brooklyn, New York. What happens inside that home lasts years—13 years, to be exact. Everything from shadow figures to the feeling of being watched, dire dreams and never-ending creaks and curiosities, the house and this book becomes a true and terrifying demonstration of the paranormal.
Related: 21 Haunted House Books That Will Leave You Sleeping with One Eye Open
The Amityville Horror
I almost didn’t add this to the list, because who hasn’t heard of or watched The Amityville Horror? Then it hit me, the question I should be asking is, who really knows the difference between real or not, true events or mere marketing angle? We’ve heard the story: A family moves into a dream home unaware of what had previously transpired in the domicile. The house begins to affect members of the family, especially the father, causing odd psychological reactions. In a month’s time, the family flees the dream having realized it was in fact a nightmare. The Amityville Horror is a classic, one of those books that will never leave the must-read lists.
Related: Butch DeFeo: The Killer Behind “The Amityville Horror”
Another classic that has ties to real-world events, Stephen King’s The Shining continues to be one of those books that people talk about as much as the location that inspired it—the Stanley Hotel. King checked in to the hotel seeking inspiration. He and Tabitha King were the only guests and proceeded to be served dinner in an empty dining hall, every hallway and public space eerily absent of life. King became influenced by the locale, his dreams while there becoming the stuff that would develop into Jack Torrence’s famous off-season stay that resulted in madness. This is an example of how true events can so directly influence an author into almost being possessed by voices from other realms to write a story that so easily could have never been written. In the case of The Shining, we are all thankful that King had decided to check into Room 217.
As its film adaptation continues to be cited as among the scariest films of all time, Blatty’s The Exorcist was published at a time when demonic possession wasn’t seemingly the subject of every other horror film. The events disclosed in the novel go deeper and more personal than most, and it is further driven by darkness due to the fact that the possession results in the form of a menacing demon that inhabits an innocent young girl. Blatty changed the names and gender of the demon’s host, but the book was influenced by a 1949 case of a possessed boy dubbed “Roland Doe,” who had numerous priests attempt to remove the intense latch on the poor boy’s mind and spirit. Like The Amityville Horror, The Exorcist is a book that successfully channels the true paranormal backstory that inspired the writing, complete with an unrelenting pace that possesses the reader’s mind.
Related: 9 Disturbing Cases of Real-Life Exorcism and Possession
The House Next Door
This book is unforgettable. Unlike most other paranormal horror novels involving a haunted location, Siddons’ The House Next Door does not align events with any religion or spirituality. The book offers a haunting, uncompromising, and vicious tale of bad things that happen to a would-be brand-new home. Reportedly influenced by real events in Siddons’ own neighborhood in Atlanta, readers are lulled into the suburban life of the Kennedy couple who spend evenings sipping cocktails with their neighbors. The vacated lot next to their home is bought out by a young couple looking to plant some roots. Of course, the moment they get the permit to build their home, things start to take a turn for the worse. Things just go… wrong. Horribly wrong. The evil described has no reason other than to punish and destroy, which leads to such a chilling and unforgettable read.