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Over the years, audiences have been frightened by the varied horror films onscreen, and, while after some jump scares, these audiences can be reminded it’s only a film. However, things can take a dark turn when it’s discovered the stories are actually based on real-life events.
Whether being terrorized by a knife-wielding killer or possessed by a demonic spirit, a variety of real-life crimes and events acted as inspiration for filmmakers and screenwriters who brought scary tales to life onscreen.
From the 2013 film The Conjuring to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, The Hollywood Reporter takes a look at 25 frightening films based on actual events.
'Fire in the Sky' (1993)
Fire in the Sky retells the tale of Travis Walton, a man who claims to have been abducted by aliens on Nov. 5, 1975, while heading home to Snowflake, Ariz., with a few colleagues. Walton was missing for five days before returning. He published his experiences in a book called The Walton Experience, which was later republished and titled Fire in the Sky following the release of the movie.
'The Amityville Horror' (1979)
The Amityville Horror draws on the real experiences of the Lutz family during the 28 days they spent in their Amityville, N.Y., home at 112 Ocean Avenue. Thirteen months before the family moved in, Ronald DeFeo Jr. had murdered six members of his family in the house. The Lutz’s experiences launched a series of books and is the basis for 11 films. Daniel Lutz, the eldest of the Lutz children, spoke about his experiences publicly for the first time in the documentary My Amityville Horror, released in 2012.
'A Nightmare on Elm Street' (1984)
Wes Craven’s 1984 slasher film centers on a killer who stalks his prey while they’re sleeping. In an interview with Vulture for the film’s 30th anniversary, the late Craven shared that the film’s premise was inspired by newspaper articles from the Los Angeles Times about young male Southeast Asian refugees who died in their sleep. Many men would reportedly refuse to sleep because of the nightmares that they feared would lead to death, with a total of 26 men, dying in their sleep in 1981.
The cursed doll Annabelle was first introduced in The Conjuring (2013) and later the focus of a separate franchise with the films Annabelle (2014), Annabelle: Creation (2017) and Annabelle Comes Home (2019). The doll is based off a Raggedy Anne doll that was gifted to a young nurse. But after a string of mysterious events occur, including a traumatic experience with the nurse’s boyfriend, the nurse and her friend invited a medium over, who stated that the doll was inhabited by the spirit of a deceased 7-year-old named Annabelle Higgins. The doll, allegedly cursed by a demonic spirit, has been blamed for violent attacks and at least two near-death experiences. The allegedly haunted Raggedy Anne doll is kept in the Occult Museum owned by paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren with a message under her glass case reading: “Warning: Positively do not open.”
Helen Mirren stars as heiress Sarah Winchester in the supernatural thriller directed by Michael and Peter Spierig. The 2018 film Winchester is based off the true story of the Winchester Mystery House, a historic landmark in San Jose, California, and the residence of the late Sarah Winchester. The house has remained a mystery for its renovations and paranormal activity reportedly taking place there. After Winchester’s infant daughter died of a childhood illness and her husband from tuberculosis, she moved to San Jose, where she began renovation on an eight-room farmhouse that continued up until her death in 1922. As detailed on the Winchester Mystery House’s website, the house has “160 rooms including 40 bedrooms, 40 staircases, 13 bathrooms, 6 kitchens, 10,000 window panes, 2,000 doors, 52 skylights, 47 fireplaces, three elevators, two basements and just one shower.” Tours are available to visitors.
'Deliver Us From Evil' (2014)
Eric Bana portrays real New York cop Ralph Sarchie, who encountered paranormal activity while working on crimes in the city. This is director Scott Derrickson’s second film based on real events.
'The Conjuring' (2013)
Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga play Ed and Lorraine Warren, demonologists known for investigating the Lutz family. The Conjuring draws on a previous case of theirs that involved a creepy doll. Wilson and Farmiga continued to star in the Conjuring universe, reprising their roles for The Conjuring 2 (2016) and The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (2021).
'The Possession' (2012)
The Possession originated from an eBay listing for a “dybbuk box” accompanied by a horror story written by its owner, Kevin Mannis. In Hebrew folklore, a dybbuk is a malicious a spirit that has the ability to haunt and possess the living.
'The Rite' (2011)
Colin O’Donoghue stars as Michael Kovak, whose experiences are inspired by the real-life Father Gary Thomas, “one of 14 Vatican-certified exorcists working in the U.S.” While studying in Rome, Thomas met journalist Matt Baglio, who wrote about Thomas’ journey in The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist. Thomas helped supervise the making of the film.
'The Haunting in Connecticut' (2009)
In 1986, the Snedeker family rented a home in Connecticut that turned out to be a former mortuary. Well-known demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren declared the home to be overrun by demons. The experiences of the Snedeker family provide the inspiration for what happens to the Campbell family in The Haunting in Connecticut.
After committing a hit-and-run where the victim becomes lodged in the windshield, a young nursing assistant named Brandi (Mena Suvari) tries to figure out her next course of action. Brandi is based on Chante Jawan Mallard, a Texan woman who hit Gregory Glen Biggs — a homeless man — and left him embedded in her windshield until he died. She was convicted and sentenced to 50 years in prison for her crime.
Rider Strong and Sean Astin star in Borderland, a film that centers on three friends who head down to Mexico to celebrate their college graduation but stumble upon a cult that practices human sacrifice. The film is loosely based on the life of Adolfo Constanzo, an American-born serial killer and cult leader who moved to Mexico City as an adult where he met friends who would become his future followers.
'Black Water' (2007)
What begins as a family vacation to the mangroves of Northern Australia ends up with a crocodile attack and a fight to survive in Black Water. The marketing for the film said that it was based on real-life events, and to an extent, that’s true. The movie is inspired by a crocodile attack that happened in Northern Australia in 2003. The film used footage of real crocodiles (and some CGI) to create the vicious monsters portrayed in the embellished story.
'The Exorcism of Emily Rose' (2005)
The story of Emily Rose is loosely based on that of Anneliese Michel, a young German woman who underwent an exorcism and later died from malnutrition and dehydration. Her parents and the priests involved were charged with negligent homicide following her death. This is director Scott Derrickson’s first exorcism movie based on real events.
'Open Water' (2003)
A couple left behind in the open ocean after their scuba diving group left without them isn’t just the premise of Open Water, but the real story of Tom and Eileen Lonergan. The Lonergans were tourists visiting Australia’s Great Barrier Reef when they were left behind Jan. 25, 1998. Experts doubt that the Lonergans shared the same fate as the characters in the film, but the couple was never found.
Charlize Theron won 17 awards, including an Oscar, for her portrayal of former prostitute-turned-serial killer Aileen Wuornos. Wuornos was convicted on six counts of first-degree murder — though there was a seventh victim — and was executed in Florida in 2002.
Jeremy Renner plays well-known serial killer and rapist Jeffrey Dahmer in the 2002 biopic. Though the crimes portrayed are real events, the victims’ names were changed. The Dahmer story was also portrayed in the 2017 film My Friend Dahmer, with Ross Lynch starring as the serial killer. Evan Peters also portrayed Dahmer in the 2022 Netflix series Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story.
'Things Heard & Seen' (2021)
In the Amanda Seyfried starrer Things Heard & Seen, a Manhattan couple moves to a historic hamlet where they discover that their marriage has sinister secrets involving their new home’s history. The film was based on the 2016 novel All Things Cease to Appear by Elizabeth Brundage. The novel and film are loosely based off alleged supernatural experiences in a home Brundage and her husband rented.
'The Birds' (1963)
Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds short story may have been an inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 film The Birds, but the film was reportedly based on real-life events. The film centers on a Californian coastal town that was terrorized by a flock of birds. In 1961, birds in the Monterey Bay area reportedly acted disoriented and rammed into people’s houses due to an unknown cause. In 2011, it was reported that researchers found a toxin-making algae in the birds that cause amnesia, disorientation and seizures.
The 1996 original slasher film that would spawn a franchise was inspired by the Gainesville, Florida, mutilations in which several young people were murdered in the Florida community. After screenwriter Kevin Williamson watched a television special on the Gainesville murders, the story inspired what would be a script about a knife-wielding killer.
The 1982 classic co-written by Steven Spielberg tells the story of a family whose home was built on a burial ground and plagued by its violent spirits. The premise of the story was based on the Hermann family, who claimed that their Long Island, New York, home was haunted by a poltergeist due to objects mysteriously flying around the house. The family, who eventually moved, believe the events were due to the home being near a Native American burial site.
'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' (1974)
The 1974 film centered on chainsaw murderer Leatherface is loosely inspired by the life and crimes of killer Ed Gein, also known as “the Butcher of Plainfield” or “Plainfield Ghoul,” in the 1950s. Gein exhumed corpses from graveyards and made keepsakes from their bones and skin. Gein also had a history of wearing women’s clothes as Leatherface does in the original film.
'The Strangers' (2008)
Bryan Bertino’s 2008 film, which starred Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler, chronicled a terrifying home invasion. The story was inspired by real-life violent crimes, including the murders committed by the Manson Family and the 1981 Keddie Cabin Murders, in which four people were killed by three masked assailants in a California resort town. It was announced Sept. 13 that The Strangers will be getting a reboot from Lionsgate, with Madelaine Petsch to star and Renny Harlin directing.
The chilling 2007 film starring Jake Gyllenhaal was based on the Zodiac Killer, who was behind brutal murders in San Francisco throughout the 1960s and ’70s. The killer would also taunt police by sharing puzzles and coded messages through the press. The David Fincher film centered on political cartoonist Robert Graysmith (portrayed by Gyllenhaal) who spent decades obsessing over uncovering the identity of the killer. However, the Zodiac Killer case remains unsolved.
'The Exorcist' (1973)
The Exorcist continues to frighten audiences years after its 1974 debut, but the film’s inspiration is just as chilling. The film’s premise is based off the case of 14-year-old boy known as Roland Doe. In 1994, it was reported that Doe was possessed by something sinister, and an exorcism was performed on him by priests. The exorcism reportedly had to be stopped because Doe ripped off and threw a piece of mattress spring at the priest. Red scratches would appear on Doe a few days later with marks spelling out “LOUIS.” The circumstances surrounding Doe continue to be a mystery.
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