You might be surprised to learn how many horror movies out there are based on a true story to some degree or another. Some horror films are based directly on real-life events and people, while others take so much inspiration from a specific case or story, it’s not unreasonable to say the film was inspired by something from our own waking reality. This can even cross into the fantastical, as movies such as A Nightmare on Elm Street have at least some roots in things that actually occurred .
There’s a difference between “based on” and “inspired by.” While acknowledging that, it’s worth keeping in mind that we’re going to consider both categories for this look at the best based on a true story horror movies. The only subgenre we’re going to avoid are biopics of serial killers, which is more of a true crime thing anyway. The films can take as many liberties with their sources as they like, but the connection to their inspirations must be established and relatively easy to prove.
Best Based on a True Story Horror Movies
12. The Sacrament (2013)
Director: Ti West
The Sacrament is not a work of historical fiction, yet its ties to the Jonestown Massacre are so clear. These links are vividly established within its original story of a fashion photographer named Patrick (Kentucker Audley), who visits his sister at a compound with some journalist friends from VICE.
Patrick is naturally concerned that his sibling (Amy Seimetz) has fallen in with some dangerous lunatics, given that the compound is in a region of the world only accessible by helicopter. This is the first red flag Patrick and his friends ignore at their peril. Their situation quickly moves from bizarre to deadly, as the leader of the compound’s Eden Parish order has no intention of letting them leave.
Known to everyone under his unhinged care as Father (Gene Jones, an excellent character actor who shines here), Patrick and the others are soon left to fight for their lives. The Sacrament is scary stuff on its own terms, drawing just enough from the actual Jonestown event to ground it in something that shakes you.
11. Fire in the Sky (1993)
Director: Robert Lieberman
The alleged alien abduction case concerning Travis Walton in 1975 is one of the most famous UFO cases in modern history. Its enduring legacy can be attributed at least partially to the release of the 1993 science fiction horror film Fire in the Sky. The story goes that a UFO took Walton, returning from working with his friends, after he got too close — Walton wasn’t seen for days afterwards. He would eventually turn up with an extraordinary story about what had happened to him.
Whether or not you believe Walton is immaterial to enjoying this film. Even if you believe the whole thing to be utter nonsense, Fire in the Sky is a well-made and well-acted film (particularly by D.B. Sweeney as Walton) about a man whose life is completely shattered by an unfathomable encounter.
The scenes in which we catch up with Walton after he’s been taken away, waking up as he does inside a horrifying location he doesn’t know or even understand, are still the scariest UFO abduction scenes ever filmed.
10. Hounds of Love (2016)
Director: Ben Young
Writer/director Ben Young has gone on record as stating that Hounds of Love is not a true crime film. Nevertheless, there are some difficult-to-ignore connections between this story of a young woman kidnapped and brutalized by a couple in Perth, Australia and a real-life story in which a married couple (David and Catherine Birnie) kidnapped, raped, and murdered four women. Hounds of Love doesn’t purport to be based on a true story, and indeed its details differ dramatically from its clear inspiration in a variety of ways.
Hounds of Love focuses primarily on the nightmarish, frenetically co-dependent relationship between John and Evelyn White (Stephen Curry and Emma Booth respectively), as well as the horrifying situation young Vicki Maloney (a superb Ashleigh Cummings) finds herself in. It’s also a story of harrowing survival in a scenario nothing could ever accurately prepare you for.
While Hounds of Love doesn’t need a connection to reality to be chilling and vicious, knowing something very similar to this film’s plot occurred does add an extra layer of discomfort.
9. The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)
Director: Charles B. Pierce
We’re definitely going to stretch the “based on” part of horror movies based on a true story for this article. This is important to remember specifically where it concerns the genuinely effecting and cleverly-made 1976 horror film The Town That Dreaded Sundown.
Besides featuring one of the best horror movie titles ever, this story of a mysterious hooded killer tearing through bodies throughout Texarkana drew its basic premise from a 1946 cold case. Of course, the movie wants you to believe that every blood-soaked second of this drive-in classic was ripped from actual headlines.
Not so, but there’s enough of a connection between this film and its source material to justify inclusion here. The Town That Dreaded Sundown is another oddly charming, genuinely unsettling experience from the same guy who brought us The Legend of Boggy Creek.
Eccentric personalities and odd flashes of humor can be found here, but there’s also an intensely eerie atmosphere and a very believable sense that legitimate Hell has come to this small town.
8. The Stepfather (1987)
Director: Joseph Ruben
Besides an electrifying performance by Terry O’Quinn as the monstrous titular stepfather, one of the key elements to the enduring popularity of The Stepfather is its plausibility. Unlike a lot of slashers, particularly from this time period, it’s very easy to imagine a man marrying into and then murdering families who fail to live up to his impossible standards for the perfect familial unit.
So, it shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who’s at least seen The Stepfather that it has roots in actual events. This is once again a movie drawing very loose inspiration from a story, in this case the hideous mass murder of a family by its patriarch John List. Just as Terry O’Quinn’s charming, psychotic serial killer murdered whole families for not adhering to his deranged standards, John List murdered his family for similar reasons, while managing to evade authorities for over 18 years.
The Stepfather isn’t a biopic by any stretch of the imagination, but its basic characterization from O’Quinn’s performance isn’t too terribly far from the truth either.
A memorable paranormal horror story with a rather infamous depiction of a malignant spirit sexually assaulting a single mother of three (Barbara Hershey, who really seems to put herself through a certain kind of hell to make these scenes click), The Entity isn’t for everyone. Its horrors can feel suffocating to an audience, since that’s how they’re supposed to feel for our protagonist.
That’s not really true. While The Entity benefits from our understanding what these movies entail, the focus on the tragic, horrendous life of the woman who must endure this baffling torture gives the film something unique. The pacing and escalation of the haunting can get under your skin quickly and seriously mess with your head.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose is markedly different from virtually any other horror film dealing with the subject.
The structure of the story is part of that, focusing on a lawyer (Laura Linney) defending a priest named Father Richard Moore (Tom Wilkinson) who is being held responsible for the death of a girl named Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter). The contention held by the parish priest is that Emily was possessed by demons, leaving her mortal soul in danger. An exorcism was the only thing that could potentially save her.
The movie only spends about half of its running time on the above. The other half is an engaging, tense legal drama that will determine Father Moore’s eventual fate. The film is an intriguing balance with a sincerely scary execution of its premise and good performances.
There is a grounded element to this story, even when we get to its fantastical, impressive ending. That element could be due to the fact that the film is loosely based on the tragic story of Anneliese Michel.
Admittedly, there is something sickeningly compelling about the Lutz’ claims that they were attacked savagely on all fronts by a paranormal force of overwhelming rage. After all, just one year prior in 1974, Ronald DeFeo murdered the six other members of his family in their Long Island home. That story in of itself is perhaps the scariest thing in this entire article.
This is the basis for The Amityville Horror, which works largely on the strength of exceptional efforts by James Brolin and the late, great Margot Kidder. Of all the horror movies based on true stories out there, The Amityville Horror’s backstory is one of the most tragic.
4. The Exorcist (1973)
Director: William Friedkin
The Exorcist presents one of the most intensive, fascinating, and frightening depictions of demonic possession in film history. It’s also a film based on a novel (both written by William Peter Blatty) that drew some of its inspiration from a couple of different places. Most notably, The Exorcist was partially inspired by the infamous 1949 exorcism of Roland Doe in suburban Washington DC.
This is where the concept of a “true story” can become a little muddled. We’re not going to tell you the 1949 exorcism in question concerned a legitimate demonic possession. In fact, there is evidence suggesting the exorcism of 1949 didn’t even happen. Draw your own conclusions.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter whether or not the basis for The Exorcist, one of the most successful films in movie history, is grounded in events that actually transpired. What matters more is that The Exorcist exists at all, remaining even today one of the most memorable and popular horror films of all time. Its background can make for a fascinating rabbit hole but take it with a grain of salt.
3. Scream (1996)
Director: Wes Craven
Yes, Scream was inspired by real-life slayings. Specifically, the decade-defining meta-slasher had its origins in the story of Danny Rolling. Also known as the Gainesville Ripper, Rolling murdered several people throughout Gainesville, Florida in 1989 and 1990, including several college students. Eventually arrested in connection with a supermarket robbery, Rolling was convicted of eight murders, and was killed by the state in 2006 with lethal injection.
Rolling killing (and sometimes posing) college students is what inspired Scream screenwriter Kevin Williamson. Obviously, Williamson’s eventual screenplay, which helped to pull the entire horror genre out of the 90s doldrums, went in a dramatically different direction from its source material. Danny Rolling did not have an accomplice, target his close friends (although he nearly beat his abusive father to death), or wear a disarmingly unremarkable Halloween costume.
Even if you didn’t actually know that the 1982 Tobe Hooper-Steven Spielberg collaboration Poltergeist was based on a famous poltergeist case, it’s not a leap to imagine it would be.
One of the best things about the film is that it takes a Steven Spielberg family unit ideal and runs it through the blender of Tobe Hooper, one of the most creative and dynamic horror directors of all time. The suburban California family that finds themselves menaced by vengeful spirits is a family we like and believe in almost instantly. It shouldn’t be a surprise then that at least some of this movie’s background comes from the Hermann House Poltergeist of 1958.
The actual story behind Poltergeist is unfortunately not quite as exciting as the film. There’s no killer toy clown. The TV doesn’t become a walkie talkie to the afterlife. The Hermann family allegedly experienced disturbances along the lines of objects moving by themselves. Police and even parapsychologists from Duke University investigated the incidents, which lasted for several months.
Thankfully none of the trees in their yard tried to kill anyone.
1. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Director: Wes Craven
The main idea of A Nightmare on Elm Street, the story of a burned maniac murdering teens in the dreamworld wile they sleep, came from some news articles writer/director Wes Craven had read, one of which concerned the story of a young man who had become convinced that his dreams would kill him. The fact that he died in his sleep under such frightening circumstances made an impression on Craven.
The entire story behind what’s known as bangungot in the Philippines (the name changes from one region of the world to the next) is well worth checking out on its own. As it turns out, there is in fact a sleep disorder that causes individuals from a variety of age groups and backgrounds to die unexpectedly in their sleep.
A Nightmare on Elm Street remains a classic for its atmosphere, performances, and low budget inventiveness. There’s also the presence of Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), whose origins also owe themselves to something that made a big impression on Wes Craven.
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