19 Horror Films You Didn’t Know Were Based on Real-Life Events

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Have you heard the saying that reality is often stranger than fiction? No genre showcases this phenomenon more than horror, with many classic “fictional” films based on actual events. 

Some of the most iconic monsters, from serial killers to creepy dolls, are based on real-life happenings more terrifying than anything depicted on the silver screen. So how many of your favorite horror movies are rooted in real life? Check out our list and see for yourself!

1. The Amityville Horror

Photo Credit: American International Pictures.

On November 13, 1972, Ronald J. DeFeo Jr. murdered all six members of his family. His parents, Ronald Sr. and Louise, as well as his brothers and sisters, Dawn, Allison, Marc, and John, were all found murdered in their beds. DeFeo admitted to the murders, but the police never received a satisfying answer to why he committed his crimes.

The following year, the Lutz family purchased the house for a low price after being informed of the murders. Soon after the family moved in, they claimed that they felt a demonic presence in the home. The family fled the house less than a month after their purchase.

After escaping the supposedly haunted home, the Lutz family worked with Jay Anson to create the book The Amityville Horror. Many claim that the family made up the ordeal to profit off the DeFeo family’s tragedy. But others, such as famous demonologist Lorraine Warren, say this is a credible paranormal event.

2. A Nightmare on Elm Street

Photo Credit: New Line Cinema.

A sadistic man killing people in their dreams seems unlikely to have any grounding in reality. But creator Wes Craven based this iconic slasher on an event published in the L.A. Times. The article focused on a Cambodian family who fled to the United States in an attempt to escape the killing fields of their home country.

Once the family made it to America, one of the young men began having terrible nightmares in which a man chased him, attempting to kill him. The young man refused to sleep because of these nightmares. Eventually, the young man died while in the throws of one of these nightmares.

As terrifying as that is, what caught Craven’s attention is that this happened to three other young men from the same area. Craven took the mystery surrounding these four deaths and created one of the most iconic horror franchises of the 1980s.

3. Annabelle

Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

Although the film takes many liberties in recounting the events, the story of Annabelle the doll is based on an event that happened in the 1970s. Unlike the creepy porcelain doll in the film, the original Annabelle is a standard Raggedy Ann doll named Donna.

According to the owner, Donna moved around the house, left messages for her, and caused blood to appear in her home. The famous paranormal researchers, Ed and Lorraine Warren, eventually took the doll from her. The couple placed the doll in their Occult Museum in Connecticut, where horror enthusiasts can still visit Annabelle today.

4. Winchester

Photo Credit: CBS Films.

The Winchester repeating rifle is one of the most successful firearms of the 19th century. As a result, the gun is synonymous with death to many familiar with it, including its heir, Sarah Winchester. As the story goes, she inherited the company in 1881. Winchester lived burdened by the guilt of knowing her family’s wealth came from the death of others.

To ease her mind, she visited a medium for advice on how to spend her newfound wealth. The medium told her that she must build a manor to house all the spirits that died due to the Winchester company. A sprawling, almost never-ending mansion has become a tourist attraction. Whether there are ghosts in the mansion is up for speculation, but it’s clear that Winchester’s guilt is genuine.

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5. The Conjuring

Photo Credit: New Line Cinema.

The haunting of the Harrisville farmhouse in Rhode Island inspired the first Conjuring film. Many of the events of the film mirror what happened to the Perron family in 1971. The main difference between the film’s events and what happened in 1971 is the legend of Bathsheba Sherman.

Sherman is a real woman who lived in Rhode Island in the 1800s. While babysitting a neighbor’s child, the young boy in her care died mysteriously. No charges came against the woman, and she later passed away in 1885.

This calls into question the legend of her murder and the proceeding curse that paranormal experts Ed and Lorraine Warren claimed happened in 1849. Like many cases involving the Warrens, it’s hard to tell how much of this event is fact and fiction.

6. Monster

Photo Credit: Newmarket Films.

Aileen Wuornos is a serial killer who operated between 1989 and 1991. She’s one of the few female serial killers on record and received the nickname, The Damsel of Death. When making the film, Patty Jenkins attempted to remain as close to the truth as possible, writing Wuornos in prison to confirm certain events.

Wuornos was put to death on October 9, 2022, in Starke, Florida. Some criticize the film for romanticizing a person suspected of killing up to seven people. The film portrays Wuornos as killing her victims out of necessity more than malice. Unfortunately, no one knows the story’s events other than Wuornos herself.

7. Poltergeist

Photo Credit: MGM.

A paranormal event in the Herrmann house during the 1950s inspired the film Poltergeist. From February to March 1958, the Herrmann family was terrorized by a presence in their home before all paranormal activity abruptly stopped.

Many witnesses to this strange occurrence, including the local police, have been identified—still, the public needs to receive a proper explanation of what happened. Director Steven Spielberg used this story as a baseline for the events that would eventually become the Poltergeist franchise.

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8. The Silence of the Lambs

Photo Credit: MGM.

While Hannibal Lecter may be a complete work of fiction, real-world murderers, most notably Gary M. Heidnik, inspiredThe Silence of the Lambs psycho Buffalo Bill.

The famous United Church of the Ministers of God bishop, Heidnik lived in Philadelphia during the 1980s. Authorities later discovered that Heidnik chained six women in his basement. He subjected his victims to sexual violence and forced cannibalism. Police finally caught Heidnik when one of his victims escaped and relayed these horrors.

9. The Haunting in Connecticut

Photo Credit: Lionsgate Films.

Although not set in the Conjuring universe, this film is inspired by an event involving renowned demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren. In 1986, the Snedeker family rented a home in Connecticut. Shortly after moving in, the family reported experiencing violent demonic forces that forced them to leave.

The property’s landlord dismissed this story, saying that the family stayed for two years and that no other tenant had any complaints about demons. Still, the story created a media buzz, incentivizing the Warrens to have their associate Ray Garton reach out to the family and write a book about the events. This book became the inspiration for the film The Haunting in Connecticut.

10. The Birds

Photo Credit: Universal Studios.

This story feels so fantastical and silly that it must be entirely fiction, right? However, Alfred Hitchcock used a real-life event for his 1963 horror classic The Birds. In 1961, a strange event happened in Monterey Bay, California. A large group of birds began descending and crashing into buildings.

The cause of the event is still unknown. However, some scientists speculate that the birds’ food supply may have been poisoned, leading to disorientation and erratic behavior. This strange event became the starting point for one of Hitchcock’s most memorable films.

11. Wolf Creek

Photo Credit: Australian Film Finance Corporation.

This film came to us during the wave of extreme torture films that became popular in the early 2000s. The film’s killer, Mike Taylor, is a combination of Australia’s most notorious killers, Bradley Murdoch and Ivan Milat.

Murdoch was a car mechanic who lured his victims by pretending to have car trouble. He was convicted of murder in 2005. Milat, also known as the Backpack Killer, murdered at least seven people from 1989 to 1993.

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12. The Sacrament

Photo Credit: Worldview Entertainment.

The events of the 1978 Jonestown massacre inspired this film. The Sacrament is a fictionalized version of how the cult of Jim Jones came to a bloody end. This event will go down in history as the largest murder-suicide event ever recorded, with the death of over 900 people.

The film gives the audience an inside view of the camp’s inner workings before its downfall. The Sacrament could be a more accurate depiction of these events, but its found-footage approach creates a realism that other films still need to achieve.

13. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Photo Credit: Focus Features.

The events that take place in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre are entirely fictional. However, the inspiration for Leatherface is real-world serial killer Ed Gein. Also known as the Butcher of Plainfield, Gein’s killings took place from 1947 to 1957.

Gein removed his victims’ skin to create decorations for his house, such as lampshades. These gruesome acts inspired Toby Cooper to create the Leatherface character and launch one of the most controversial movies of the decade.

14. The Mothman Prophecies

Photo Credit: Lakeshore Entertainment.

The Mothman is a humanoid creature reportedly seen by many people in Point Pleasant, West Virginia. The town gathers to celebrate this elusive figure each September, drawing large crowds of tourists and revenue.

This event stems from the belief that the Mothman warned people of the Silver Bridge collapse in 1967. The Mothman Prophecies is a darker retelling of these events that focuses more on the horror aspect of the mythological creature.

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15. Scream

Photo Credit: Lionsgate Entertainment.

Fans regard Wes Craven’s Scream as one of the greatest horror films ever. Although the story is entirely fictional, Ghostface is based on the actions of serial killer Daniel Rolling, also known as the Gainesville Ripper.

In August 1990, Rolling committed a four-day murder spree in which he killed five college students. Rolling stalked his victims and lurked outside of their windows. These crimes planted the idea that would eventually become Ghostface.

16. The Possession

Photo Credit: Box Productions.

Dybbuk boxes are cursed objects from Hebrew mythology that attempt to possess the person who opens them. They’ve become widely popular online and have inspired many horror flicks.

The Possession events are based on a Dybbuk box sold on eBay in 2003. The box changed hands many times after the events of The Possession before ending up in ghost-hunter Zak Bagans’ The Haunted Museum in Las Vegas. Today, the original seller of the box says that he made the whole thing up to turn a quick buck.

17. Psycho

Photo Credit: Shamley Productions.

Serial killer Ed Gein is also the inspiration for the classic horror villain Norman Bates in Psycho. Gein not only used people’s skin as lampshades, but he also dug up corpses and wore his female victims’ clothes.

These two aspects of the serial killer would form the foundation for Psycho’s plot. The film became a generation’s most notable horror film, still inspiring new movies.

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18. The Exorcism of Emily Rose

Photo Credit: Screen Gems.

The true story of Anneliese Michel is the inspiration for The Exorcism of Emily Rose. On March 30, 1978, two priests faced trial for negligible homicide for the role that they played in Michel’s death. A court found the two guilty after deciding that their exorcism led to the death of the young girl.

While the film takes liberties with the story, it offers a reasonably accurate depiction of these events. The film even includes actual audio recordings of these events. However, some argue that this is simply exploiting a tragedy for profit.

19. The Stepfather

Photo Credit: Incorporated Television Company.

On November 9, 1971, John List killed his wife, their three children, and his mother. No one discovered the bodies for a month. List disappeared into thin air for 18 years, during which time he remarried and created a new life for himself. Eventually, authorities apprehended List due to his appearance on America’s Most Wanted. These chilling events inspired the cult classic horror film The Stepfather.

 

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