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
There 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
Fire 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 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
Experiencing 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
Wes 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
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
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
If 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
James 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
Yes, 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?