New York State In-depth

Best Horror Movies Based on True Stories

Everyone’s a badass when watching a horror movie until somewhere in the opening credits the words, “Based on a True Story” come up. Because no matter how cliched or dull a horror movie may seem, thinking about how the events unfolding before you more or less happened in real life will always be jarring and spine-tingling. This list features ten horror movies based on true stories we love here on The Mary Sue.

The Exorcist (1973)

The 1973 classic horror movie flick remains among the highest-grossing films of all time, but only a few will probably know that this movie based on Peter Blatty’s novel of the same name is based on actual events. Blatty took inspiration from the unofficial diaries kept by priests Father Walter H. Halloran and Rev. William Bowdern, who’d conducted an exorcism on a boy given the pseudonym Roland Doe (although it is widely believed that his real name is actually Ronald Edwin Hunkeler ). Much of the movie depicted the same eerie instances that occurred in real life such as Doe’s scratches, shouting, spitting, and cursing. However, it’s worth noting that his head didn’t actually turn 360 degrees, nor was there any showing that he’d ever vomited any green ectoplasm. Roland went on to live a long and normal life. He even became a NASA engineer and contributed to the Apollo space missions of the 1960s.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

sally screaming her head off in the texas cahinaw massacre

Although marketed as a “true story,” it would be more fitting to describe The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as “inspired by true events” given that in real life, there actually wasn’t a family of deranged cannibals that lived in a creepy house. But that doesn’t make the real details any less chilling. Leatherface parallels the crimes of body snatcher and murderer Ed Gein, who, contrary to popular belief, actually does not “count” as a serial killer because he’d admitted to killing only two women. Gein also serves as the basis for other notorious horror movie villains like Norman Bates from Psycho and Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs.

The Amityville Horror (1979)

the amityville horror 1979 on an Indian burial ground

Widely considered the most famous haunting in the United States, The Amityville Horror is based on a book that narrates the alleged tale of the Lutz family who’d lived at 112 Ocean Avenue, a Dutch Colonial house on Long Island for only 28 days before deciding that they were out. Now, depending on what you believe, the Amityville story has long been the subject of countless speculation about whether or not it was a hoax. But the long and short of the case is that the house located just thirty miles outside of New York City was the scene of a mass murder conducted by 23-year-old Ronald J. DeFeo Jr., who’d killed his entire family while they were asleep. DeFeo had confessed to the killings but claimed to have been “possessed” when he’d done the crime. He died just last year at the age of 69 at a hospital in Albany, New York.

Currently, the infamous Dutch Colonial has now passed hands and was sold to an undisclosed owner for $605,000, which was $200,000 less than the original asking price back in February of 2017. It has also since changed addresses and is no longer marked “112 Ocean Avenue ” following the initiative of previous owners who had to suffer countless tourists visiting the home.

A Nightmare On Elm Street (1985)

jacob and freddy in A Nightmare On Elm Street 5: The Dream Child

Yet another beloved classic that was surprisingly based on true events. First created nearly four decades ago by horror film mater Wes Craven, the movie was based on an LA Times article Craven had read about a family who had escaped the Killing Fields in Cambodia and managed to get to the United States. In an interview with Vulture, Craven narrates,

“Things were fine, and then suddenly the young son was having very disturbing nightmares. He told his parents he was afraid that if he slept, the thing chasing him would get him, so he tried to stay awake for days at a time. When he finally fell asleep, his parents thought this crisis was over. Then they heard screams in the middle of the night. By the time they got to him, he was dead. He died in the middle of a nightmare. Here was a youngster having a vision of a horror that everyone older was denying. That became the central line of Nightmare on Elm Street.”

The Exorcism Of Emily Rose (2005)

Laura Linney as Emily Rose

Told from the lens of a legal drama perspective, The Exorcism Of Emily Rose is based on the possession of Anneliese Michel, whose real story was actually much worse than what was depicted on film. Michel was a German girl born into an extremely devout Catholic family. When she was sixteen, she experienced a blackout in school and was noted to have been in a “trance-like” state afterwards. She would suffer from a similar episode the following year but from there, a series of disturbing events would occur. Although she sought the help of science and medicine, she would believe she was possessed after suffering from numerous delusions, eating spiders, and other disturbing behavior. Her family would eventually make the decision to have her exorcised over 67 times. By the time she died, she was only 23 and extremely malnourished.

On a personal note, this one is probably the first “real horror movie” I have the earliest and most vivid recollection of seeing at the age of eight. That “One, two, three, four, five, six. One, two, three, four, five, six.” scene will probably haunt me until the end of my days.

Zodiac (2007)

Robert Downey Jr and Jake Gyllenhaal in Zodiac

Based on the manhunt for the serial killer of the same name, David Fincher’s Zodiac provides insight into some of the most famous and likely suspects behind the still-unsolved killings in San Francisco back in the ’60s and ’70s. The movie itself is based on the book written by Robert Graysmith (played by Jake Gyllenhaal in the film) and is often regarded as one of the most historically accurate true crime films to date. The two remaining survivors at the time of filming the movie had been hesitant with the making of Zodiac but one of them, Bryan Hartnell, eventually changed his mind and said in an interview, “…I knew that, sooner or later, someone was going to tell this story again,” he said. “So you want to put it in the hands of someone you trust. David wants to get it right. That’s all you can ask a person.”

Arguably one of the scariest scenes in this film is when Graysmith visits the home of a colleague of a suspect named Rick Marshall, a projectionist whose handwriting was eerily similar to that of the killer’s. In the movie, Graysmith is promptly informed by the colleague that it wasn’t Marshall who’d made the movie posters but rather, it was him. All this transpired as Graysmith was led to a basement, and while there, they hear footsteps above, despite being told that they were alone in the house. According to the real Robert Graysmith, this scene was entirely accurate.

The Conjuring 2 (2016)

Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) looks after his wife Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) in The Conjuring 2

The third installation to The Conjuring franchise is arguably one of the strongest of the seven-part cinematic universe, although one may also argue that the allegations surrounding the real-life Warrens prove to be much scarier. The Conjuring 2 opens to the Warrens helping out in another infamous investigation featured on this list: the Amityville Haunting. Later, they cross the pond to the UK and help out with what is now known as the “Enfield Haunting.” Much like Amityville, there are still questions to this day regarding whether or not the haunting was another hoax after two experts from the Society for Psychical Research discovered the children bending spoons themselves. The real Janet Hodgson also once told ITV News that they had faked things “once” or “twice” to see if any of the experts would notice and be able to tell the difference. According to her, they were always caught.

Regardless, the Enfield Poltergeist case is consistently noted as one of the most witnessed cases of supernatural activity. Recorded events include strange voices, levitation, flying objects, furniture being moved through the air, and cold breezes. You can watch this interview of Janet herself with her voice changing into that of the alleged poltergeist.

The Watcher (2016)

The Watcher HouseThe Watcher House in Westfield. Image courtesy of Zillow.

This 2016 film is based on the mysterious “Watcher” case in the quiet and upscale town of Westfield, Jersey. The case involves another Dutch Colonial that was allegedly being stalked by a person only known as the “Watcher.” To this day, the terrorizer remains unknown however the Braudduses, who’d received letters from the Watcher, remain adamant that the culprit was most likely a neighbor.

The Photographer of Mauthausen (2018)

Set in the darkest days of World War II, the photographer of Mauthausen is a Spanish film that narrates the story of hero and photographer Francisco Boix, who was imprisoned in an Austrian concentration camp. The two-hour movie shows his harrowing life within the camp and the Nazi Party’s disturbing fascination with documenting their own crimes, which Boix tries to save as evidence.

Winchester (2018)

If you’re from San Jose, California, then you probably already know all about the Winchester Mystery House. First purchased as a small unfinished farmhouse in 1884 by Sarah Winchester, the house is now a seven-story mansion filled with dead ends, doors that lead nowhere, multiple staircases, and other odd details. Despite all this, it is technically “unfinished.” The home has 161 rooms, 47 fireplaces, 10,000 panes of glass, two basements, three elevators, and stained-glass windows allegedly designed personally by Louis Comfort Tiffany himself. The 2018 film starring Helen Mirren shows Sarah’s story and the myth surrounding her fears about the ghosts of people killed by her husband’s Winchester rifles throughout the course of her life.

What are your favorite horror movies based on true stories?

(featured image: American International Pictures)

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