Top 10 Horror Films Based On True Stories

Top 10 Films might have scared itself looking at the scariest scenes in horror cinema but the following real-life stories are far more terrifying. Dan Stephens takes a look at the best scary movies based on true stories…

Try to tell yourself it’s “only a movie”. You’d be right, of course. Whatever horror film you might be watching is make-believe. But what if the inspiration behind the frightening carnage and unsettling events come from real events? What if the terror was in fact based on a true story? Believe it or not many of the greatest horror films were based on actual events; true tales of murderous madmen, nightmarish ordeals and strange, paranormal activity. So, which of those scary movies you tell yourself aren’t real are actually based on facts? Let’s find out…

10. Ravenous (Bird, 1999)

Based On: The activities of Alfred Packer in the 1870s

Top 10 Horror Films Based On True StoriesThere are many films about cannibalism and they are often purported to be based on some truth. Some aren’t even horror films – take Alive for example where air crash survivors feed on the bodies of the dead to survive in the inhospitable Andes. One of the most notable horror films concerning a true cannibal story is 1999’s Ravenous which was loosely based on the actions of Alfred Packer. He was an American prospector living in the middle and late 1900s. After emerging as the only man to survive an expedition through the Colorado mountains he claimed the others had killed each other and that he had survived by eating them. He was later convicted of their murder.

9. Fire In The Sky (Lieberman, 1993)

Based On: The Travis Walton UFO incident in 1975

Top 10 Horror Films Based On True StoriesFire In The Sky is one of those underrated horror films. It features a genuinely unnerving alien abduction sequence and presents the events surrounding Travis Walton’s disappearance as a dramatic mystery-drama that engulfs a small town in intrigue and captures the nation’s interest. The film is based on the real life Travis Walton, a logger working in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona who, in 1975, disappeared for five days. He claims to have little memory of events during his disappearance but claims aliens experimented on him before returning him to earth. Although the case has sceptics, Walton passed a lie detector test while recalling the abduction.

8. Wolf Creek (McLean, 2005)

Based On: The backpacker murders committed by Ivan Milat in the 1990s

Wolf Creek, Australian Horror,Wolf Creek is a difficult film to watch because of its relentless, gratuitous violence. But it is nothing compared to the real life horrors faced by backpackers in the 1990s who unfortunately crossed paths with psychopath Ivan Milat. The native of New South Wales, Australia was eventually convicted of seven murders and sentenced to life behind bars. His modus operandi was to either relentlessly stab his victims to death and decapitate them and/or shoot them in the head several times.

7. Open Water (Chris Kentis, 2003)

Based On: The tragedy of Tom and Eileen Lonergan – January 25, 1998

Open Water, sharks, horror, scaryExperiencing a boating trip while on holiday can be lots of fun but it’s frightening to think a professional business can mistakenly leave you stranded in the sea. It’s even worse if that location is a frequent hunting ground for sharks. That’s what allegedly happened to Tom and Eileen Lonergan in 1998 who had been scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef. The Outer Edge Dive Company’s boat crew mistakenly left them in open water after recording an inaccurate headcount. Chris Kentis’ film is only loosely based on their story with the events depicted being a fictionalised version of the tragedy. The film is recognised as one of cinema’s scariest movies thanks to its claustrophobic depiction of helplessness in shark-infested waters and agonising realisation of certain death.

6. A Nightmare On Elm Street (Craven, 1984)

Based On: The “Asian Death Syndrome” affecting Khmer refugees in the 1970s

Nightmare on Elm Street, film, horror, wes craven - Top 10 FilmsWes Craven was partly inspired to make A Nightmare on Elm Street by reports of Khmer refugees dying in their sleep during the 1970s. The men, aged between 19 and 57, had fled Cambodia and relocated to the United States. It was here that some reported having such disturbing nightmares that they refused to sleep. When they eventually fell to sleep they died. The phenomena was called Asian Death Syndrome with doctors likening it to sudden unexplained death syndrome.

5. Dead Ringers (Cronenberg, 1988)

Based On: The careers and demise of identical twin gynaecologists Stewart and Cyril Marcus

Dead Ringers, Cronenberg, Top 10 Films,You weren’t expecting this one! David Cronenberg’s brilliant tale of mad doctors was actually based on real gynaecologists Stewart and Cyril Marcus who practiced at New York Hospital and Cornell University Medical College. The pair died together in 1975, the result of drug withdrawal following prolonged and extensive use of barbiturates.

4. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Hooper, 1974)

Based On: The activities of murderer and body snatcher Ed Gein during the 1940s and 1950s

Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Top 10 Films, Horror, Tobe Hooper, Leatherface, Sunset,Tobe Hooper’s seminal 1974 horror film is entirely fictional. However, Leatherface and the psychotic family who attack and mutilate a group of innocent people in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre have motivations and modus operandi mimicking that of notorious mad man Ed Gein. The Mad Butcher was arrested following investigations into the disappearance of shop owner Bernice Worden in late 1957. The woman’s body was found at Gein’s home, her head missing. It was here that investigators also found human remains which had been fashioned into furniture such as a wastebasket made out of human skin and bowls made from skulls. The Texan native was found to have murdered at least two people while exhuming a number of recently buried bodies to make various domestic items.

3. The Amityville Horror (Rosenberg, 1979)

Based On: The experiences of the Lutz family in 1975

amityville-1979_ghost-story_filmIf you’re open to believing in the supernatural then this is one of the most frightening cases ever recorded. The Amityville Horror, released in 1979, does a terrific job of capturing the terror unfolding for the Lutz family who move into a new home only to find it is riddled with malevolent poltergeist activity. The true story came to light thanks to Jay Anson’s 1977 novel which detailed the tragic events at 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville. It was here that Ronald DeFeo, Jr. killed his entire family in a bloody gun attack on November 13, 1974. He was arrested and convicted. 13 months after the murders the house was bought by the Lutz family who moved in during late autumn, 1975. Their stay lasted 28 days. Following a series of paranormal occurrences they fled the house and never returned.

2. The Conjuring 2 (Wan, 2016)

Based On: The Enfield haunting which occurred in the 1970s

Conjuring 2, Enfield Poltergeist, James Wan - Top 10 FilmsJames Wan’s focus for the sequel to his horror hit The Conjuring (which was also based on a true story) finds itself in Enfield, London. This is the most notorious case of paranormal activity in the UK because it remains so well-documented. That’s because, during the alleged possession of a teenage girl, paranormal investigators, newspaper reporters and local law enforcement experienced “activity” they could not explain through any logical reason. A policewoman claimed to have seen a chair moving across the room while attending a disturbance call at the Enfield home and newspaper reporters published their experiences which included objects being thrown around the living room.

Paranormal investigators Maurice Grosse and Guy Lyon Playfair from the Society for Psychical Research got the most evocative evidence having spent months documenting evidence of poltergeist activity and possession. The most chilling findings put forward by the investigators relates to both audio and photographic exhibits. The first depicts the “possessed” girl allegedly levitating, the second is a recording of the same girl speaking with a low, gruff voice which claims to be a man who died in the house many years earlier.

1. The Exorcist (Friedkin, 1973)

Based On: The possession of Roland Doe which occurred in the 1940s

The Exorcist - Top 10 FilmsYes, the scariest film ever made has some basis in fact. Indeed, what makes William Friedkin’s The Exorcist so effective, and ultimately so unsettling, is the sheer amount of truth prevalent within it. Take away the supernatural elements of a young girl’s possession and you’ve still got the deeply disturbing story of a loving mother unable to help her daughter overcome her affliction. Running side by side is the equally powerful struggle of a priest battling his own inner demons; regret and guilt pulling at the fabric of his religious faith.

But the greatest horror film of them all wouldn’t merit such hyperbole without one of the great villains: a demon who infects the life of Regan, controlling her mind and body. Screenwriter William Peter Blatty based the film’s possession on the true story of Roland Doe. The Roman Catholic Church recorded the events which took place in the United States in the late 1940s following a number of exorcisms to save the boy’s life. The attending priest Raymond Bishop is credited as the man who documented the case in official Church records.

Over to you: what are your fave films from this list? What other true stories have you seen depicted in horror cinema?

Written and Compiled by Dan Stephens

Dan Stephens
About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Dan Grant Reply

    Oh my!

    I think this just became my favourite piece not only from you Dan, but from this entire site. What a brilliant but simple idea for a top ten. I don’t think there is one film on here that I could disagree with.

    Fire in the Sky is so under rated and that abduction scene is terrifying. I do believe there are aliens that have come here, in fact, imho, I think it’s kind of odd for anyone to think that in the entire universe, we are all alone. Fire in the Sky is brilliant.

    I remember Wolf Creek being delayed because as they were making the film, the trial for Milat was still going on and there was some kind of injunction against the film makers until the trial was over or something to that nature. Wolf Creek is old school violence. It’s reminiscent of films from the 70’s like Last House on the Left and a slew of others.

    You know my fear of sharks so Open Water absolutely must be here.

    The Nightmare on Elm Street back story is really quite crazy. I remember reading many quotes from Craven when he discussed the Cambodian refugees. Obviously, there was no burned man with a red and green sweater in their dreams, but something literally scared them to death.

    Ed Gein also inspired Psycho. But the Leatherface from 1974’s TCM is about as horrifying as they come.

    The first two Amityville films are as scary as they come and the Defao murders “because the Devil told me to do it” is every Catholic’s nightmare. My ex-wife, a devout Catholic, would never watch the Amityvilles or the Exorcist, ever again. Those films and the subjects absolutely terrified her. I’m not the biggest Exorcist fan but it absolutely belongs on this list, with the Conjuring 2 also.

    Thanks for an awesome top ten on this day before Halloween.

  2. Dan Reply

    Thanks Dan. Glad you like this one. Thought, with Halloween upon us, it’s a good top 10 to post.

    Some of these were interesting to learn more about such as the true stories behind Wolf Creek and Ravenous. I knew already a lot about the stuff to do with Amityville, Texas Chainsaw and Conjuring 2 but it’s scary learning about some of the more gory details. The Fire In The Sky true story is a fascinating one, particularly because lie detectors showed Travis Walton was telling the truth.

  3. Dan Grant Reply

    I’ve read a bit about the Walton stuff and imo, he’s telling the truth. To me, there is just too much evidence to support the existence of beings from beyond our world, and if you think about human nature, our propensity to vivisect and experiment on animals (so wrong in so many ways) it makes sense that aliens would do it to us. Slap a tin foil hat on me if you want, but truth is stranger than fiction at times.

  4. Callum Reply

    Chilling stuff. I didn’t know some of these were based on a true story while the ones I did know it’s creepy to hear of the details.

  5. Lee Hicks Reply

    Knew about some of these, didn’t know about others. The Wolf Creek killers sound about as sick as they come, and that’s saying something when Ed Gein is mentioned.

  6. Mark Fraser Reply

    Not sure I agree with number 8 – I always thought Wolf Creek was based on the murder of English backpacker Peter Falconio by Bradley Murdoch in the middle of the Northern Territory (the real outback) during mid 2001. From memory, Milat was in jail by 1997 or 1998 after being busted circa 1993. Murdoch’s trial, on the other hand, was in the second half of 2005.

    As an aside, there are many who believe Milat didn’t act alone – some of his brothers look like him and, at the time, also lived in Deliverance country.

    Nevertheless, a fine Halloween treat Dan …..

    • Dan Reply

      You may be right Mark. I’ll have to double check my sources but I do recall while researching that there were a couple of instances (and perpetrators) that could have influenced Wolf Creek.

    • Dan Reply

      According to moviepilot.com, which ran a feature in 2014 about the inspiration behind Wolf Creek, they cite Milat, the Snowtown Murderers and Murdoch as the real life killers.

      Further reading suggests the McClean wrote the script originally without any knowledge of real life events and then took elements from true tales for Wolf Creek. I think that’s why we see some resemblance to different events but the location definitely suggests Murdoch. The acts themselves perhaps link more towards Milat, partly because, I guess, there was more evidence found in his case.

  7. Dan Grant Reply

    Wolf Creek was based on Murdoch, who was in jail at time of production….. Here’s the article that I remember reading:

    • Dan Reply

      There’s definitely multiple elements that influence McClean’s film including the group involved in the Snowtown murders.

      Not that it’s a primary source but Imdb states in the film’s FAQ: “Fans are generally in agreement that the main real life influence on the film was Ivan Milat, who killed at least 7 victims between 1989 and 1994 in New South Wales.”

      The UK newspaper, the Mirror, in its story about an unrelated Outback attack recalled Wolf Creek and said: “The movie Wolf Creek is based on the murderous deeds of serial killer Ivan Milat – who murdered seven backpackers, including British women Joanne Walters and Carole Clarke – as well as Bradley Murdoch, who killed British traveller Peter Falconio.”

      According to the Sydney Morning Herald film critic Paul Byrnes, the reference to Murdoch comes mostly from relocating the film to the Outback for stylistic reasons: “Wolf Creek is not directly based on a true story, although a title at the start says, ‘based on actual events’. It was suggested partly by the gruesome details of the backpacker murders committed by Ivan Milat in the 1990s, but these murders were committed in a state forest near Sydney. Wolf Creek relocated its killing spree to a much more foreboding and lonely landscape in the Australian desert, partly because it wanted the power of isolation, and partly because it’s about the myth of the friendly Aussie bushman, typified by Paul Hogan as Mick Dundee. Mick Taylor is the evil inversion of Hogan’s tourism-building knockabout Northern Territory bloke.”

  8. Dan Grant Reply

    Good point Dan. The film could definitely be based on multiple cases. I guess the authorities wanted it postponed in 2005 simply because the guy on trial at the time had committed similar crimes. That’s all.

  9. Chris Reply

    Great read Dan. Horrror based in fact always scares me the most. Films like The Wicker Man or as you said The Texas Chainsaw Massacre could happen, which is a frightening prospect.

  10. Mark Fraser Reply

    Yes ….

    Part of the evidence against Milat was the fact the police found some of the missing backpackers’ belongings at his house when it was searched (a la the mountain of mementoes at the Wolf Creek hideout). From memory, a significant portion of the case against Murdoch relied instead on some road house CCTV footage.

    Plus (and I think this is correct; I may be wrong), unlike the serial killer Milat, Murdoch was only charged with the one murder.

    Furthermore, from what we’ve read about Milat, he was particularly vicious with a penchant for knife-related torture a la John Jarrett in WC.

    So in those regards there are similarities between WC and Milat.

    Not sure about the connection between WC and the Snowtown murders though, even when taking into account that strange dungeon scene at the end of the sequel. I mean those Snowtown guys were REALLY WEIRD.

  11. CineGirl Reply

    This is terrifying!

  12. Dan Grant Reply

    One film that would make my list, and pretty high up, would be Mothman Prophecies. The film is tension filled and imo one of the best films of 2002. The book came out in 1975 and was written by John Keel. When director Mark Pellington was asked about the story, he was quoted as saying that this is one instance where the film had to sanitize the real events because they are just so bizaare that he felt the audience wouldn’t by much of it. But the book is based on eyewitness accounts of events that took place in Pointe Pleasant, West Virginia. There was a famous bridge collapse that killed 46 people. The investigation of course said that the collapse was due to a stress fracture but when Keel did his own investigating, people in that town were convinced that the Mothman had something to do with it. The movie is indeed filtered but incredibly effective. The book is also a fascinating read and if there was no Mothman in Pointe Pleasant, the people there at least believe there was. It’s a chilling story.

  13. Ruth Reply

    I’m not into horror so the only thing I’ve seen is The Exorcist, which is still the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen.

  14. Diana Reply

    Interesting list, but I would never say that “Dead Ringers” was a horror film 🙂 Other interesting films on this topic are probably “I Spit on Your Grave” and “The Strangers”. What I find truly disturbing though is that “The Girl Next Door” movie is based on actual events. Scary.

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