“What you’re about to see is based on real-life events…”
If you go see a horror movie nowadays, there’s a good chance you’re going to see a prologue like that on the screen at some point. Maybe in the past audiences might have believed those words, but nowadays it’s generally accepted that “Based on a true story” doesn’t necessarily mean much. That said, audiences may be surprised to learn just how close to the truth some of the scariest movies out there come. If you need proof, here are 44 facts about the inspirations behind horror movies that range from way out of left field to surprisingly close to the truth.
44. Husband and Wife Ghostbusters
The Conjuring was billed as being based on a true story, as was its sequel, The Conjuring 2, which is based on the case of the Enfield poltergeist. The movie’s heroes, Ed and Lorraine Warren, were real-life paranormal investigators that did actually look into a case of a mother and her four children who claimed that they were being haunted in Enfield, England. Although the Warrens and the affected family insisted that this was a real haunting, reporters believed the story to be a hoax.
43. Sergeant Demonologist
2014’s Deliver Us From Evil was based on the events of the book Beware the Night by Ralph Sarchie. Sarchie was an NYPD sergeant and Catholic demonologist who wrote the book as a “memoir,” but outside the character of Sarchie himself, the plot of the movie is entirely fictional.
42. Haunted Doll Alert
Ed and Lorraine Warren were also involved in the case of a haunted doll which became the basis for the movie Annabelle. In the movie, Annabelle is an unsettling porcelain doll that terrorizes a young couple. The real Annabelle was a regular, plush, Raggedy Ann doll that, in 1970s, was claimed to be possessed by a little girl named Annabelle Higgins. The Warrens took the doll and put it in their “Occult Museum.”
41. Take a Bathsheba
Yet another entry in the Warren’s film canon, The Conjuring marks the first appearance of Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson as the occult expert couple. It tells the story of the Perron family, who believed that they were being haunted by the ghost of Bathsheba Thayer, a mother of four who was said to have sacrificed her children to the devil. Although the Perron family did exist and the Warrens did agree that they were being haunted by Bathsheba, their accounts of what occurred are not widely believed and the plot of the movie was heavily fictionalized.
40. Spirit Box
In 2003, a man named Kevin Mannis put a Jewish wine cabinet up for sale on eBay with a lengthy story attached to it. He wrote that the box was possessed by a Dybbuk, a malevolent Jewish spirit. The story infatuated people on the internet, and the box has since been bought and sold several times. The story became so popular that the Dybbuk box ended up being the basis for the 2012 movie The Possession.
39. Real Life Exorcist
Father Gary Thomas is a real-life Catholic priest and one of the few trained exorcists in America. His accounts formed the basis of the 2011 Anthony Hopkins movie The Rite and he served as a consultant for filmmakers during production. He was trained in a Vatican-sponsored course in 2005 after the church noted an increase in reports of possessions.
38. It’s Real, We Swear
The 2011 American horror movie Silent House is based on a 2010 Uruguayan movie called La Casa Muda. Each of them tell the story of a young woman being terrorized alone in a house, and they’re unique in that they play out in one long, continuous shot. The movies are both inspired by an incident that supposedly took place in Uruguay in the 1940s, but despite the claims in each of the movies, no information about the event seems to exist.
37. Murder Down Under
Between 1992 and 1999, three Australian men committed a series of murders that became known as the Snowtown Murders. One of the most notorious cases in the history of Australia, the men hid the bodies of their victims in barrels in an abandoned bank vault. In 2011, the movie Snowtown was released based on the murders, and it’s one of the few entries on this list that stays mostly faithful to its source material.
36. Home Sweet Funeral Home
Shortly after the Snedeker family moved into the home they rented in Connecticut, they made an unsettling discovery: the basement was filled with mortician’s tools, because their house used to be a funeral parlor. The family reported various terrifying hauntings, and contacted good ol’ Ed and Lorraine Warren to investigate. Their story became the basis for the 2009 movie The Haunting in Connecticut.
35. Helter Skelter
When the trailers for 2008’s The Strangers were first released, they were accompanied with that ubiquitous horror movie tagline: based on true events. The movie was a thriller about three people with upsetting masks terrorizing and—spoiler alert—eventually killing three people staying in a vacation house. The true story that the filmmakers said they based their story on was none other than the infamous Manson Family murders of the late ‘60s.
34. More Fiction Than Fact
One of the most iconic slasher movies of all time, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece Psycho was based on a book, that was based on none other than Wisconsin’s Ed Gein. Norman Bate’s obsession with his dead mother and his isolation in the middle of nowhere were both directly inspired by Gein. Robert Bloch, the author, actually lived quite close to where Gein committed his murders, but he has insisted that while certain aspects of Gein inspired Bates, most of the character sprung from his imagination, not from real life.
The Fouke Monster, or the Boggy Creek Monster, is a legendary creature that’s said to live in the area around the town of Fouke, Arkansas. A Bigfoot-like creature that’s covered in hair and seven to eight feet tall, people have reported sightings of the beast as far back as 1834. The story forms the basis of the 1972 movie The Legend of Boggy Creek. The film is presented in the style of a documentary, featuring interviews with Fouke residents about the monster, and even showing it on film on multiple occasions. But, despite the movie’s presentation, it’s nearly entirely made up.
32. What’s Your Sign
The Zodiac Killer is one of America’s most infamous serial killers, made all the more frightening because they were never caught. The story has been the basis for more than ten movies, which range from documentaries to mysteries to the 2007 horror movie Curse of the Zodiac.
31. In a While… Gustave
For decades, a Nile crocodile known as Gustave haunted Burundi’s Lake Tanganyika. He was said to be 20 feet long, close to 2,000 pounds, and had reportedly eaten hundreds of people, gaining a reputation as a maniacal serial killer. Primeval, a 2007 movie about a giant, man-eating crocodile in Burundi, was based on the story, and the movie’s original title was Gustave.
30. Real-Life Monster
2007 must have been “the year of the crocodile movie,” because it also saw the release of Black Water, a mostly fictional account of a crocodile attack that happened near Victoria, Australia in 2003. Three young men went out on their ATVs one day, and while washing in a river, one of the was attacked and killed by a crocodile. Though it was certainly a terrifying ordeal in reality, the events shown in the movie are almost entirely altered.
29. Slave Ranch
In 1984, the ranch of Walter Wesley Welbracht Sr. and his family was raided by policemen. It turned out that the Welbrachts had been abducting and enslaving people to work for them for almost a decade. The prisoners were tortured, and at least one person died there. The “Texas Slave Ranch,” as it came to be known, served as the basis for the 2006 movie Hoboken Hollow.
28. Real Fears, Unreal Events
The 2006 French horror movie Ils (known as Them in the US) is about the murder of a French couple in Romania. Reportedly, the story is based on the real murder of an Austrian couple in their Czech Republic home, but there’s little evidence to back this up. Rather, critics have said the movie is more based on the xenophobia that existed in France amidst a growing European Union—Romania was accepted into the EU in 2006, the same year the movie came out).
27. Demonic Treatment
Anneliese Michel was a young German woman from the 1970s who suffered from epilepsy. Her devout parents were convinced that she was possessed by the devil. They hired two priests who performed 67 exorcisms on her and claimed to have found six different demons inside of her. During this time, Michel was horribly mistreated and malnourished, and she ended up dying less than a year after the exorcisms took place. Both her parents and the priests ended up being convicted of negligent homicide as a result. Filmmakers took elements of this story, moved it to America, changed Anneliese’s name to Emily, and made the movie The Exorcism of Emily Rose in 2005.
26. Outback Killer
Filmmaker Greg McLean wanted to show the darker side of Australian culture with his 2005 movie Wolf Creek. It’s a story about three backpackers who are hunted down by an insane killer in the Australian Outback. McLean borrowed aspects from several real-life murderers, including Ivan Milat and Bradley Murdoch, who were respectively known as “The Backpacker Killer” and “The Outback Killer.”
25. Sadistic Schoolgirls
Before she rose to fame as the titular Juno, Ellen Page starred in the 2005 psychological thriller Hard Candy about a young girl who kidnaps and tortures a man she suspects of being a pedophile. The idea for the movie came about from a news story that producer David W. Higgins saw about a group of Japanese schoolgirls that would lure older businessmen to secluded areas in order to beat and rob them.
24. Shark Bait
2003’s Open Water follows in the footsteps of Jaws, one of the most iconic horror movies of all time. It tells the story of two scuba divers who are left in the middle of the Caribbean by their group. Eventually, the two are hunted and eaten by a pack of man-eating sharks. The movie is very likely based on the case of Tom and Eileen Lonergan, two American tourists who were accidentally left behind by their dive-crew while scuba diving at the Great Barrier Reef. Evidence of the real Lonergans indicates that the two weren’t actually attacked by sharks, but instead likely drowned.
23. Moth Monster
Between 1966 and 1967 in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, a series of strange events occurred. People began reporting sightings of a seven-foot-tall moth like creature with a ten-foot wingspan: the mothman. Eventually the sightings stopped, but only after a bridge collapsed in 1967, killing 46 people, leading many to believe that the mothman was behind it. This local legend served as the inspiration for the 2002 Richard Gere flick The Mothman Prophecies.
22. Not All Horror Movies Are Just Stories
Most people are aware that just because a movie says “based on true events,” they should take that with a grain of salt—this list is proof enough of that. But sometimes, the truth is scary enough all on its own. This is the case with Jeffrey Dahmer, the infamous serial killer who was the focus of the 2002 movie Dahmer starring Jeremy Renner.
21. The Victorian Boogeyman
Jack the Ripper, the serial killer who preyed on prostitutes in 19th century London, is one of the most notorious murderers in history. He killed at least five women, perhaps more, and he was never caught by authorities. Police at the time received many letters from people who claimed to be the ripper, but one of the only ones that was thought to be genuine was one that was sent with part of a human kidney and opened with the line “From Hell.” This letter inspired Alan Moore’s graphic novel of the same name, which in turn led to the 2001 Johnny Depp movie From Hell.
20. Cannibal Caper
Cannibals are always a popular topic for horror movies like in 1999’s Ravenous. Though, as you could expect, the movie is highly fictionalized, the story of cannibalism in the Old West was inspired by the tales of Alfred Packer and the Donner party, each of which involve frontiersmen getting lost in the wilderness and resorting to cannibalism to stay alive.
19. Deadliest Catch
1975’s Jaws was the first modern-day blockbuster, but was it based on a true story? The short answer is… not exactly. The novel that the movie was based on was written by Peter Benchley, who had a lifelong fascination with sharks. He was inspired to write Jaws when he saw a news report of a man named Frank Mundus who had caught a 4,500 lb. great white shark off of Long Island. The story featured a photo, which shows Mundus next to the animal’s gaping mouth and razor-sharp teeth. Benchley took it from there.
18. Take Me to Your Leader
Travis Walton wrote the book The Walton Experience detailing his alleged abduction by aliens in Arizona in 1975. Although the account has been dismissed by all but fellow ufologists, the account was vivid enough to be adapted into a movie—1993’s The Fire in the Sky. But the producers of the film thought that Walton’s memory of the exact events was a little bit too foggy and too similar to other abduction stories, so they hired a screenwriter to jazz up the story for the screen.
17. Hannibal the Cannibal
Although the events of The Silence of the Lambs, as well as the other movies based around Hannibal Lecter, are fiction, author Thomas Harris took inspiration from many real life serial killers, including Jerry Brudos, Ted Bundy, Edmund Kemper and Ed Gein.
16. When Your Doll Plays With You
A lot of horror movies simply involve a crazed maniac who kills for fun, which is terrifying yet believable. But how could a movie about a psychotic, possessed doll be true? Well, that’s where Robert the haunted doll comes in, the basis for Chucky from the Child’s Play series. Robert is a 113-year-old doll that once belonged to Florida painter and author Robert Eugene Otto. It has been blamed for car accidents, lost jobs, and divorces, among many other things.
David Cronenberg is a master of the genre known as “body horror” who has made movies like The Fly and Videodrome. He also made the 1988 movie Dead Ringers about two identical twin gynecologists whose practice and lives slowly dissolve into drugs and madness over a woman. Though Cronenberg based the story on the novel Twins, both of these works were inspired by the real-life story of Stewart and Cyril Marcus, twin gynecologists who were found dead and badly decomposed from drug overdoses in their New York City apartment.
14. Attention Starved
The BBC called the 1986 movie Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer “quite possibly the most harrowing serial killer movie ever made.” It was based on the crimes of Henry Lee Lucas, the “confession killer,” so called because he confessed to more than 600 murders, although most of his confessions ended up being false, and he’s believed to have committed around 11 murders. The movie was inspired by his (mostly fake) confessions, and still took several liberties with the story, so there are only a few similarities between it and the real life Lucas.
13. Space Jelly
It seems impossible that the 1958 sci-fi movie The Blob could possibly be based in truth. It’s about a sentient, alien blob that lands on earth in a meteor and proceeds to devour everyone it can get near. But, believe it or not, it’s based on a real incident in 1950 where two police officers in Philadelphia witnessed a strange object that floated down out of the sky. When they tracked it down, it ended up being a puddle of purple goop that was filled with crystals and giving off a sort of mist. To add more mystery to the story, the FBI was called in to investigate, but by the time they arrived, it had evaporated without a trace. It never ate anyone and it didn’t exactly come to earth in a meteor, but it was enough to inspire the iconic flick.
12. Don’t Let Facts Ruin the Story
The 1982 movie The Entity was based on of a real-life incident where a woman named Doris Bither claimed to have been sexually assaulted by three ghosts. However, director Sydney J. Furie intentionally avoided looking into the real case or meeting with Bither, because he didn’t want to let anything affect how he approached the characters or the story.
11. Success Story
Just like in The Exorcism of Emily Rose, 1973’s The Exorcist was based on a real-life exorcism. In 1949, a boy named Roland Doe had apparently become obsessed with a Ouija board after his aunt passed away. Soon after, strange occurrences began happening in the house and his parents became convinced he was possessed. They brought in their minister to perform an exorcism on him, and apparently, after 30 sessions Doe was back to normal and ended up living a perfectly normal life afterward. William Peter Blatty, the author of The Exorcist, used elements of this story when writing his book.
10. Man’s Best Friend
The story of Joe Ball, the so-called Alligator Man, sounds like your usual down-south urban legend. A serial killer who got rid of evidence by feeding his victims to his pet alligators. Well, this story is frighteningly real. Ball was an actual person who actually did feed his murder victims to his alligators in south Texas during the 1930s. His story is the inspiration for the 1977 movie Eaten Alive, about a crazed innkeeper and his pet crocodile.
9. Tastes Like Haggis!
Although the location was changed all the way from the coast of Scotland to the desert of Nevada, the 1977 movie The Hills Have Eyes is meant to be a modernized re-telling of the story of Sawney Bean, the leader of an infamous clan of cannibals in Scotland. According to legend, Bean and his clan lived in the 17th century and were said to have killed and eaten 1,000 people before being stopped. The tale of the cannibal clan has become a part of Scottish folklore, but many scholars today believe the story to be more myth than reality.
8. Texas Phantom
The town of Texarkana, Texas, was the site of a series of vicious crimes in 1946 that left three people dead and five people badly hurt. The events sent the whole town into a panic, and the press named the perpetrator “The Phantom Killer.” The case was never solved, and the story became a part of Southern folklore, eventually forming the basis for the 1976 movie The Town That Dreaded Sundown, though of course, many artistic liberties were taken in the adaptation.
7. A Not-So-True True Story
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which was originally released in 1974, is considered to be a seminal slasher movie, serving as the origin for many tropes of the genre. It was even one of the first major horror movies to use the “based on a true story” tagline for a movie that’s almost entirely fantasy. While the creators did base certain aspects of the story on the crimes of Ed Gein, the “true story” tagline was mostly meant as a marketing scheme, as well as subtle political commentary.
6. Can’t Get Enough Gein
During the 1970s, Ed Gein was a subject of much public fascination. In the same year that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was released, so was the movie Deranged, which was based directly on his life and his crimes. Although the film was never meant to be a faithful biopic and so many aspects of the story were made up, it’s still a much more accurate portrayal of Gein than most of the other movies he’s inspired.
5. Open Wide
The Dentist is a 1996 slasher film about a murderous dentist who goes on a rampage after he catches his wife cheating on him. The real life inspiration was a man named Dr. Glennon Engleman, a practicing dentist who worked as a hitman on the side. Engleman committed at least seven murders for money across a span of 30 years. I guess it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a dentist turned out to be a sadistic sociopath.
4. A Real Nightmare
First of all, Freddy Krueger, the iconic villain from 1986’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, wasn’t a real person—there has never been a person that could enter your dreams and kill you, so don’t worry. But the movie was inspired by a story Wes Craven heard about a group of South Asian men who died unexpectedly in their sleep when they seemed to be perfectly healthy. The phenomenon still happens sometimes today, and it’s called “sudden unexplained death syndrome.” Sounds a bit on the nose!
3. Hoosiers from Hell
The murder of Sylvia Likens is known as “the most terrible crime ever committed in the state of Indiana.” Likens was the daughter of two carnival workers, who left her in the care of Gertrude Baniszewski. Baniszewski held Likens captive in her basement for weeks, and along with her daughter, son, and two other neighborhood boys, tortured and eventually killed her. The Girl Next Door, released in 2007, is a fictionalized version of these true events.
2. Cult Classic
Borderlands, the 2007 Mexican-American horror movie about a cult that practices human-sacrifice, is a loose adaptation of truly disturbing true story. Adolfo de Jesús Constanzo was a real-life Cuban-American serial killer who led a religious cult in the 1980s. Constanzo convinced his followers to kidnap, murder and dismember people between 1986 and 1989 in the name of the devil-like god Kadiempembe.
1. The Murder House
To this day, you can visit the house that inspired the 1979 classic The Amityville Horror. It’s on Long Island, just 30 miles outside of New York City. It was there that in 1974, Ronald J. DeFeo Jr. killed his whole family while they slept. It is also there that in 1975, the Lutz family moved in and lasted just 28 days before leaving due to what they claimed were horrifying paranormal events. It was also perhaps the highest profile case investigated by, you guessed it, Ed and Lorraine Warren, Hollywood’s favorite ghost detectives. Outside of that information though, the events of the movie, and the 2005 remake, were made up for the screen.
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