13 SCARIEST… HORROR FILMS BASED ON ACTUAL EVENTS
13 horror films inspired by real and terrifying events...
Horror movies marketed as “based on actual events” are often met with skepticism, and understandably so. The authenticity of supernatural horror films like The Exorcist (1973) and Poltergeist (1982) can be debated, and the marketing strategy for The Blair Witch Project (1999) brilliantly duped many into believing it was actual found footage.
The most unheralded and disturbing horror films based on actual events typically focus on the methodical unraveling of the human mind. There’s something supremely unnerving about knowing these stories could happen to anyone, anywhere. For this reason, this list excludes films by filmmakers who’ve taken such drastic artistic liberties that their inspiration is barely recognisable.
Leatherface is a fictional character, but the true story that inspired The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is chilling. Notorious murderer Ed Gein’s exploits inspired Tobe Hooper’s seminal classic, which is frequently regarded as one of the greatest horror films of all time and has been highly influential in the genre.
Upon hearing that vandals have desecrated her grandfather’s grave, Sally (Marilyn Burns) and her friends travel to Texas to investigate. When the group is forced to stop for fuel and supplies, they discover a large, deserted farmhouse. What they don’t realize is that the house is home to the murderous Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) and his demented family of cannibalistic psychopaths.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a perfect example of a horror film that pushes boundaries and delivers a visceral cinematic experience. Despite its simple premise and relatively small budget, Hooper creates a foreboding and bleak atmosphere in which the characters fight for survival, confronting the unsettling truth that the line between monster and human is alarmingly thin.
Without resorting to gratuitous bloodshed, Hooper draws on realism to create a cacophony of unrelenting horror and violence. Daniel Pearl’s grimy cinematography exudes a palpable sense of atmospheric dread, dilapidation, and frightening absurdity. The wide compositions of open fields of uninhabited terrain and sweltering environment emphasize the characters’ vulnerability and perpetuate unease. Wayne Bell’s (Boyhood) unsettling sound design layers a complex combination of piercing organic and electronic sounds to create an ominous atmosphere.
The Girl Next Door, based on Jack Ketchum’s novel, is a notoriously cruel horror film, even more disturbing because it’s based on a true story. Directed by Gregory M. Wilson, the film tells the story of Megan (Blythe Auffarth), a young girl who is sent to live with her dysfunctional aunt Ruth (Blanche Baker) after her parents die. Over the course of the summer, Megan endures horrific abuse, including physical and sexual assault.
Wilson shatters the American dream, exposing the dark reality that can lurk behind white picket fences. The Girl Next Door is a harrowing experience, but it’s important to note that Wilson refrains from gratuitous violence. Instead, he focuses on the reactions of the characters involved, particularly the dehumanizing indifference of Megan’s aunt and the other adults in her life. The film also explores the underlying themes of 1950s attitudes and the capacity for human evil.
While the screenplay differs from the novel in some ways, it still captures the brutality of the story and fully embraces the events that Sylvia Likens, the real-life victim on whom the story is based, was subjected to. The Girl Next Door is a powerful and disturbing film that will test even the most hardened horror fan. It’s a potent reminder that human beings can be the most monstrous creatures of all.
Writer-director Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers is a terrifying amalgamation of various crime stories, including the Manson Family murders and the Keddie Cabin Murders. But perhaps the biggest inspiration for Bertino’s directorial debut was an unnerving event from his own childhood: when he was a child, someone knocked on his door late at night and asked for someone who didn’t live there. He later learned that the people knocking were robbing houses in the neighborhood when no one was home. This experience left an indelible mark on Bertino and forms the backbone of The Strangers.
The film opens with Kristen (Liv Tyler) and James (Scott Speedman) returning home from a friend’s wedding reception. They receive a knock at the door, and Kristen answers to find a young woman concealed by shadows asking for her friend. Kristen turns the woman away, and she disappears into the darkness. But she soon returns with two other masked strangers who have no agenda except murder and mayhem.
What makes The Strangers so terrifying is that the relatively straightforward sequence of events seems ominously close to reality. Bertino exposes audiences to the grim reality that anyone could potentially be a victim, and the safety one’s home provides is only an illusion.
Bertino’s direction is intriguingly minimalistic, and he aligns the camera with the predatory attitudes of the intruders. Rather than relying on copious amounts of bloodshed or tiresome jump scares, Bertino focuses on the protagonists while allowing the intruders to materialize in the background of unbroken sequences. This creates a pervasive sense of unease and moody dementia that blankets the entire 90-minute runtime.
Bertino proves that an unexpected knock at the door is enough to get under the audience’s skin. The Strangers is a chilling and unforgettable film that stands apart from typical exploitation aesthetics.
Austrian filmmaker Gerald Kargl concocts a fiendish blend of fact and fiction in his disturbingly pragmatic and sympathetic portrait of sadistic behaviour, Angst. Loosely based on the exploits of Salzburgian murderer Werner Kniesek, the film follows an unnamed psychopath (Erwin Leder) who, after being released from prison, becomes overwhelmed to commit crime again. After an unsuccessful attempt to strangle a taxi driver, the psychopath flees to a large secluded rural home, where he discovers a beautiful young woman (Edith Rosset) living with her sick mother (Silvia Rabenreither) and disabled brother (Rudolf Goetz). He succumbs to his appetite for brutality, and what follows is a methodical examination of homicidal madness as the psychopath proceeds to torture and murder the three family members.
Kargl eschews the minutiae of tortured fantasies, instead ensnaring his audience in a monstrous trap. Angst is a testament to the visceral power of cinema, and an ugly and unrelenting assault on the senses. Cinematographer Zbigniew Rybczynski’s unconventionally stylized camerawork wraps around the antagonist like a gyroscope, swirling and intimately composing his frantic tear through the house as an unflinching witness to his hunt. Rybczynski’s impressionistic editing techniques elevate the impact of the photography, alternating between the psychopath and his victims’ perspectives in a way that is both insanely hypnotic and painfully unnerving. The victims don’t scream while being attacked, instead whimpering, choking, and staring into the psychopath’s face with confusion. Although it may seem gratuitous to watch the psychopath labor over lifeless corpses, it provides a perfect conduit into his fevered brain. Terrifying monsters like Kniesek definitely walk among us, and Kargl brings us uncomfortably close to their doomed circle.
Ti West’s second found-footage film, The Sacrament, is a chilling and intense depiction of a mysterious cult that bears striking similarities to the infamous People’s Temple headed by Jim Jones. Heavily influenced by the events surrounding the Jonestown Massacre in 1978, the film is told through the prism of a documentary, following photographer Patrick (Kentucker Audley) as he travels to South America to meet his sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz). Sensing the potential for an interesting story, a reporter and cameraman from an investigative magazine accompany Patrick on his trip.
Once the trio arrives in the foreign country, they are taken to the compound Eden Parish. After being granted permission to film their documentary, the crew begin interviewing Eden Parish’s inhabitants. However, once they’re introduced to the group’s charismatic leader, known only as The Father (Gene Jones), the sinister truth about the commune is quickly revealed.
In a market oversaturated with uninspired found-footage horrors, The Sacrament stands out as one of the most original. West’s decision to approach the material as a documentary resonates with a visceral authenticity, and his meticulous replication of many of the details of the Jonestown Massacre generates an unsettling tension as if the audience are witnessing the actual events unfold.
While passive viewers without investment in the psychology behind the Jonestown Massacre may find themselves disappointed with the lack of bloodshed, West deliberately liberates himself from the specific brand of horror that had shaped his career to imbue a deeper meaning into the screenplay. The Sacrament is a poignant meditation on how religious texts can be perverted and manipulated to justify evil intentions, and West presents the fragile desperation of people targeted by such cults in depth to provide a better understanding of such an instance.
The relevance of manipulative cults and the threats they pose on society is far more scary and relatable than any fictional monster, and The Sacrament is a powerful and disturbing reminder of this.
Throughout history, there have been many unique and unsolved cases, but the cold case of the Texarkana Moonlight Murders is truly unlike any other. In the spring and summer of 1946, a hooded killer claimed five lives and traumatized three others in the small town of Texarkana, Texas. The Phantom Killer, as he came to be known, threw the entire town into hysterics.
Charles B. Pierce’s cult classic film, The Town That Dreaded Sundown, is a loosely based retelling of this infamous case. The film transitions between a documentary style approach and a straightforward narrative, creating a unique and unsettling atmosphere.
The film opens with a chilling reenactment of the Phantom Killer’s attack on a young couple. The killer’s burlap sack mask and heavy breathing create a palpable sense of dread. However, the film’s momentum falters somewhat when it cuts to misjudged attempts at humor and bumbling police detective work.
Despite its flaws, The Town That Dreaded Sundown is at its best when it focuses on the hooded assailant stalking and attacking his victims. The five murders are particularly unsettling, especially the assault during the opening sequence and Dawn Wells’ subsequent frantic flight. While the film may not be an accurate depiction of what actually happened, its connection to true events is sure to have viewers checking the backseats of their cars.
Black Christmas was released several years before the slasher genre became saturated with films like Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980). What sets Bob Clark’s festive horror apart from its contemporaries is that it is loosely based on an urban legend and a series of murders that occurred in Canada in 1943.
In the Westmount neighbourhood of Montreal, a young man named George Webster brutally murdered several of his family members in their home. Co-written by Roy Moore (The Last Chase), Black Christmas is set in a sorority house where the residents are throwing a Christmas party before they depart for the holidays. The sisters have been receiving obscene and threatening phone calls from an anonymous source, and their fears are realized when Claire (Lynne Griffin) is strangled in the attic.
Initially, the police are dismissive of the sisters’ concerns, but they finally begin to investigate after a young girl’s body is found in a park. They place a wiretap on the sorority house phones and soon discover that the deranged killer is inside the house with them.
Although Black Christmas was not warmly received upon its initial release, it has since found a cult following among contemporary horror fans. Clark’s under-appreciated gem is a masterclass in suspense and atmosphere, and it continues to inspire filmmakers today.
When a Stranger Calls is an expanded remake of Fred Walton’s short film The Sitter (1977), inspired by the unsolved murder of teenager Janett Christman. Walton’s cult classic helped shape the horror genre with its simple line of dialogue: “Have you checked the children lately?”
Jill Johnson (Carol Kane) babysits for the Mandrakis family, but her evening is tormented by increasingly threatening phone calls from a stranger. When she realises it’s not a joke, she calls the police. They trace the next call to inside the house, but when they arrive, Jill has narrowly escaped. The police discover that the Mandrakis children have been brutally murdered. Seven years later, the murderer, Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley), escapes from a psychiatric hospital and resumes his pursuit of Jill and her family.
While When a Stranger Calls isn’t a fully-fledged slasher, its classic prologue has become engrained in horror history. Director Fred Walton masterfully establishes an ominous atmosphere, gradually stripping away every sense of security from the opulent bourgeois environment. Despite Jill’s impeccable responsibility, her vulnerability and helplessness become even more pronounced.
Walton’s screenplay is firmly rooted in reality, which is why When a Stranger Calls continues to resonate with contemporary audiences. The critically neglected second half of the film slowly transitions into a fascinating character study about Duncan’s descent into madness due to a toxic society. He is a complex and ambiguous character, counterbalancing the supernatural psychopaths that inhabit Halloween and Friday the 13th.
Despite the prologue’s assurance that the events depicted are factual, writer-director Greg McLean blends elements of several different crimes to create a brutally violent tale. Combining the gruesome murders of Australia’s notorious serial killers Bradley Murdoch and Ivan Millat with obvious nods to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Wolf Creek is an unflinching exploration of the unknown horrors lurking in isolated landscapes.
Set in the desolate bushland of Western Australia, Liz Hunter (Cassandra Magrath), Kristy Earl (Kestie Morassi), and Ben Mitchell (Nathan Phillips) are carefree backpackers enjoying the natural splendor of the Outback. When their car mysteriously breaks down at the eponymous Wolf Creek National Park, the trio encounters affable wilderness expert Mick Taylor (John Jarratt). Offering to escort them back to his junkyard to help repair their vehicle, Mick’s seemingly friendly demeanor quickly dissolves into a sinister charade when the tourists arrive at his suspiciously decrepit camp. Their idealistic vacation turns into a horrifying nightmare, as they are subjected to Mick’s sadistic brutality.
While Hollywood churned out a tepid quota of misjudged remakes and sequels during the turn of the millennia, Wolf Creek was a welcome indication that horror was receiving a much-needed revival. Impatient audiences might bemoan McLean’s methodical screenplay, but it naturally builds momentum, generating a palpable sense of dread. Sequences built around campfire stories and roadside encounters establish an unforgiving atmosphere and unnerving threat, while the breathtaking landscapes of the desolate Australian outback become an integral aspect of the terrifying final half.
Will Gibson’s (Rogue) cinematography makes excellent use of the picturesque locations, exploiting the endless desert landscape to create an unsettling and encompassing atmosphere. The agoraphobic use of long, stretching roads evokes the primal fear of isolation and vulnerability that is palpable throughout the film. Aiding the implementation of brutal suppression is John Jarratt’s (Picnic at Hanging Rock) intimidating performance. Portrayed with a hint of menace to his jovial charisma, Mick Taylor is a monstrously effective villain. His seemingly friendly demeanour and exaggerated Aussie charm echoes Paul Hogan’s lovable Mick Dundee from Crocodile Dundee (1986). However, his disturbing monologues and his nonchalant attitude towards murder create an unsettling atmosphere that lingers long after the credits roll. The parallels between Jarratt as the sadistic serial killer and his real-life counterparts might be enough to make viewers never want to travel across Australia.
The Hills Have Eyes, produced on a tight budget and under grueling conditions, cemented Wes Craven’s reputation as one of Hollywood’s great horror masters. Inspired by a Scottish family of cannibals, this unsettling voyage into the depths of human depravity marks Craven’s sophomore effort.
Retired cop Bob Carter (Russ Grieve) and his wife Ethel (Virginia Vincent) embark on a road trip to California with their family. While taking an unexpected detour to visit silver mines in the mountains, they stop at a gas station, where they’re warned against venturing into the uncharted wilderness. Dismissing the warning as incoherent ramblings, Bob continues off-road.
An accident leaves the Carters stranded in the desert, and Bob and his son-in-law, Doug (Martin Speer), set off to find help, leaving the others to wait. However, they’re unaware that a savage group of cannibals lurks in the hills.
The Hills Have Eyes is another brutal addition to Craven’s filmography. Hinting at the trademark flourishes he would bring to his later works, Craven presents a harrowing examination of humans pushed to their absolute limit. Despite relying sparingly on gruesome set pieces, Craven effectively disturbs the audience in other ways. Keeping the cannibalistic family unseen for most of the runtime, as they sadistically taunt their victims, heightens the genuinely dreadful atmosphere. The cheap production and expansive cinematography only enhance the feeling of unease and helplessness.
Several years ago, I reviewed The Hills Have Eyes, characterizing it as Craven’s most nihilistic and economical piece of filmmaking. If you would like to read these points, please click here.
Tobe Hooper’s legendary status as a director began with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a visceral expression of the underlying cultural dissonance of the 1970s that continues to inspire creative filmmakers today. His sophomore effort, Eaten Alive, was immediately associated with video nasties and slipped into relative obscurity. However, this film marks a fruitful period for the wildly inventive and unpredictable filmmaker.
Inspired by the eccentric bootlegger Joe Ball, Eaten Alive presents a sadistic and terrifying killer with a creative yet twisted murder method. After seeking shelter and accommodation at the dilapidated Starlight Hotel, Clara (Roberta Collins) has the misfortune of meeting its owner, Judd (Neville Brand). Judd is an old war veteran who proudly owns a gigantic crocodile kept inside an enclosure next to his hotel. When he realizes Clara is a prostitute, he attacks her with a scythe and feeds her to his pet crocodile. Shortly afterwards, Harvey Wood (Mel Ferrer) and his daughter Libby (Crystin Sinclair) arrive at the Starlight in search of Clara. After denying ever meeting the young runaway, Judd is placed in a difficult position when Sheriff Martin (Stuart Whitman) returns to the hotel and begins searching for her.
Although influenced by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Eaten Alive marked a new direction for Hooper. Here, he is less interested in spinning a tale of unrelenting terror and more interested in examining the mind of his monster. Neville Brand provides an amazingly sympathetic performance as the completely unhinged bootlegger, Judd. Reacting to social changes with paranoia and violence, he vehemently justifies his crimes to himself through a series of demented monologues and rambling diatribes.
Despite its lethargic narrative, Eaten Alive is a visually stunning film. Hooper’s use of hallucinatory neon reds to create a nightmarish otherworldliness is particularly effective. The film’s unkept setting, drenched in these neon reds, perfectly mirrors the sordid subject matter and presents the story through Judd’s warped perspective.
Dead Ringers, directed by David Cronenberg, is a psychological horror film based on the real-life story of identical twin gynecologists Stewart and Cyril Marcus, who died mysteriously in 1975. The film centers on Elliot and Beverly Mantle (both played by Jeremy Irons), twin gynecologists who take advantage of their identical appearance to seduce and deceive women. Elliot is the extroverted twin who lures women in, while Beverly is the more shy and passive twin. When Beverly falls in love with a patient named Claire (Geneviéve Bujold), the twins’ symbiotic relationship begins to unravel.
Cronenberg’s film is a masterful exploration of addiction, lecherousness, dependency, and the loss of identity and individuality. Elliot and Beverly’s inability to live separate lives becomes increasingly terrifying as their relationship deteriorates. Dead Ringers is a beautiful and poetic tragedy about two people who are inextricably linked and yet ultimately alone.
Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow is a surprisingly thoughtful examination of voodoo and political upheaval in Haiti. Based on Wade Davis’s book of the same name, the film follows anthropologist Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman) as he travels to the war-torn country to study a mysterious drug used in voodoo rituals. Alan is tasked by a pharmaceutical company to isolate the drug’s active ingredient, which paralyzes victims and leaves them unconscious, in hopes of developing a safer alternative to anesthesia.
Accompanied by fellow researcher Marielle Duchamp (Cathy Tyson), Alan soon discovers that voodoo is more than just a religion; it is a way of life for many Haitians. He also learns that zombification is not just a myth, but a real phenomenon that can be induced through spiritual rituals. As Alan uncovers the disturbing secrets behind voodoo, he must evade the authorities, who view his research as a potential threat.
While The Serpent and the Rainbow is often overshadowed by Craven’s more famous horror films, such as The Last House on the Left (1972) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), it is one of the best entries in his filmography. The film features a tonal balance of restrained drama and surreal nightmare imagery, which creates a truly unique and unsettling experience. The heavily stylized camerawork conjures up some impressive visuals and underscores the politically menacing atmosphere.
Bill Pullman gives an excellent performance as Alan, a cocky academic who is woefully unprepared for the horrors he encounters in Haiti. His gradual descent into madness is believable and terrifying to watch. The Serpent and the Rainbow also avoids the exploitative representations of voodoo that are common in Hollywood films. Instead, it shows how voodoo is an important part of Haitian culture and heritage.
Overall, The Serpent and the Rainbow is a thoughtful and well-crafted film that offers a unique perspective on Haitian culture and the horrors of political upheaval. It’s one of Wes Craven’s most underrated works and deserves to be seen by more people.