These 25 Horror Movies Based on True Stories Are Downright Terrifying

Woman holding remote.

Because I'm Addicted

Something about getting a glimpse into a real person's world gives a book, movie, or TV show weight. True stories can be stranger than fiction and are always indicative of the power of the human spirit, but when it comes to horror movies, we want the fiction. We want to know the main characters weren’t actually harmed; it was all made up. Fortunately, for those of you who aren’t like us, there are a number of horror films based on true ghost stories—so you can know the scares are real.

Imagine experiencing "paranormal activity" while on vacation, coming face to face with evil, or getting trapped somewhere with no way out. Scary, right? From films like Open Water, in which a pair of scuba divers are left in shark-infested waters after their boat leaves them, to The Rite, which follows what happens after you take an exorcism class, we’ve done some searching and found 10 horror movies based on true stories. Brace yourself: after these movies, you’ll think twice about some of your behaviors—and you might never want to scuba dive in the deep ocean again.

Here are our picks for the best horror movies based on true stories.

01 of 25

Winchester (2018)

Winchester (2018) poster.

Cinematerial

After Sarah Winchester receives $20 million in inheritance following the death of her husband gun manufacturer William Wirt Winchester, she is convinced she’s haunted by the ghosts of those killed by Winchester firearms. She uses her money to construct a mansion full of twists and turns and doors to nowhere, as to confuse the ghosts, and she dwells in it, along with her son, Henry. In the movie, Henry becomes possessed in the night, leading to a terrifying string of events.

Available On: Amazon Prime Video

02 of 25

Veronica (2017)

Veronica (2017) poster.

IMP Awards

Based upon Madrid police reports, Veronica tells the story of a girl who develops seizures and hallucinations following a thwarted Ouija board seance. While in the movie Veronica dies battling a demon at home, in real life, she died in a hospital and her family didn’t get the police involved until a year after her death when they experienced paranormal activity. The police report calls the hauntings a "situation of mystery and rarity."

Available On: Netflix

03 of 25

The Strangers (2008)

The Strangers (2008) movie poster.

Joblo

When The Strangers director Bryan Bertino was young, he recalls a group of people knocking on his family’s front door one evening when his parents were out. His sister answered it, but if she hadn’t, they would have broken in. This story snowballed into the semi-fictional The Strangers, where a trio of masked killers breaks in and tortures a couple while uttering the eerie phrase, "Because you were home."

Available On: Amazon Prime Video

04 of 25

Open Water (2004)

Open Water (2004) poster.

Joblo

When an American couple goes scuba diving while on vacation in the Caribbean, they’re left stranded in shark-infested waters after the boat company fails to take a proper headcount. Terror ensues in Open Water, a story based on that of Tom and Eileen Lonergan, who were stranded off the Great Barrier Reef in 1998. The Lonergan's bodies were never found.

Available On: Amazon Prime Video

05 of 25

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

The Silence of the Lambs movie poster.

StackExchange

While not completely a true story, the Silence of the Lambs Buffalo Bill serial killer character was inspired by real-life serial killer Gary Heidnik, who designed and built a torture chamber in his basement. He hoped to have a farm of women to conceive and birth his children. In the film, an FBI trainee seeks help from another serial killer, Hannibal Lecter, to catch Buffalo Bill, who skins his victims’ corpses.

Available On: Amazon Prime Video

06 of 25

The Shining (1980)

The Shining yellow movie poster.

Film Art Gallery

When the writer of The Shining, Stephen King, spent the night at the namesake hotel in the Colorado Rockies, he had a nightmare that his son was being chased down the hall by a possessed fire hose. The dream became an inspiration for King’s book, and eventually, the horror film. In the movie, Jack, a writer, sees his son’s ability to experience the hotel’s horrific past. The supernatural happenings make him question his sanity.

Available On: Amazon Prime Video

07 of 25

The Sacrament (2014)

The Sacrament (2014) poster.

Joblo

Based on the mass suicide in Jonestown, this movie is inspired by cult leader Jim Jones and his followers after they move to Guyana only to drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid after suspecting outside interference. The Sacrament follows Brooklyn-based journalists as they investigate a co-worker’s sister after she joins a secluded religious group overseas. When they arrive, everyone seems welcoming. But what will happen once they stick around?

Available On: Amazon Prime Video

08 of 25

The Rite (2011)

The Rite (2011) poster.

Joblo

Based on the book by American journalist Matt Baglio, The Rite tells the story of Father Gary Thomas, who traveled to Rome from his San Jose parish to take an exorcism class. The movie takes a few liberties, making the main character a young seminary skeptic, who believes the answers are in psychiatry, not exorcism. But after he comes under the wing of a veteran exorcist, he starts to question everything he thought he knew.

Available On: Amazon Prime Video

09 of 25

The Girl Next Door (2007)

The Girl Next Door (2007) poster.

Cinematerial

The Girl Next Door is a fictionalized version of the story of Sylvia Likens, whose caregiver brutally tortured, mutilated, and humiliated her until she died. In the movie, a girl suffers abuse from her caretaker and neighborhood boys, whom the caretaker encouraged to participate in the abuse. The movie also shares the story of the boys who witnessed the crimes and didn’t speak up.

Available On: Amazon Prime Video

10 of 25

The Disappointments Room (2016)

The Disappointments Room (2016)

Horror News

When a family moves into a home, they’re curious about why their attic is finished the way it is. That’s when they find out it’s a "disappointments room"—a space where families who had children with special needs would hide them away, so no one else would know of their existence. The movie takes it a step further. When the protagonist has nightmares of events that happened in the house, she finds the key to the secret attic space.

Available On: Amazon Prime Video

11 of 25

Borderland (2007)

Borderland (2007)

IMP Awards

Borderland is about college friends stumbling upon a human-sacrifice cult on a trip to a Mexican border town. The film was loosely inspired by serial killer Adolfo Constanzo, who was a drug lord and leader of a religious cult that practiced human sacrifice (including that of a University of Texas student in 1989).

Available On: Amazon Prime Video

12 of 25

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) poster.

DVD Release Dates

The first film in a franchise, A Nightmare on Elm Street is about a pedophile who was murdered by a lynch mob. He preys on teenagers in their dreams, which kills them in reality. The writer and director Wes Craven told Vulture that the film was actually inspired by an L.A. Times article.

""I’d read an article in the L.A. Times about a family who had escaped the Killing Fields in Cambodia and managed to get to the U.S.," Craven said. "Things were fine, and then suddenly the young son was having very disturbing nightmares. He told his parents he was afraid that if he slept, the thing chasing him would get him, so he tried to stay awake for days at a time. When he finally fell asleep, his parents thought this crisis was over. Then they heard screams in the middle of the night. By the time they got to him, he was dead. He died in the middle of a nightmare. Here was a youngster having a vision of a horror that everyone older was denying. That became the central line of Nightmare on Elm Street."

Available On: Amazon Prime Video

13 of 25

Dahmer (2002)

Dahmer (2002) movie poster.

Cinematerial

As the name may imply, Dahmer is based on the true story of the serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer, who raped and murdered 17 boys and men. The film explores the childhood that led to his murderous streak.

Available On: Amazon Prime Video

14 of 25

Black Water (2007)

Black Water (2007)

The Movie Database

If you already have a fear of crocodiles, maybe skip Black Water. In it, three tourists fight for their lives in the swamps of Northern Australia when a crocodile capsizes their boat. The worst part is that this film was inspired by a real Australian crocodile attack in 2003, according to The Guardian, where three friends went biking, only for the nearby river to flood. One of the friends was fatally attacked by an alligator while the other two clung to a tree above the floodwaters until they were later rescued.

Available On: Amazon Prime Video

15 of 25

Dead Ringers (1988)

Dead Ringers (1988)

Poster Spy

In Dead Ringers, twins Elliot and Beverly are both gynecologists at the same practice. Elliot tends to have affairs with his patients and hands them over to the shyer Beverly once he loses interest. And all this without the women knowing. The story is loosely based on Stewart and Cyril Marcus, real New York-based twin gynecologists who both mysteriously died at age 45.

Available On: Amazon Prime Video

16 of 25

The Exorcist (1973)

The Exorcist (1973)

FFF Movie Posters

The Exorcist is arguably one of the most profitable horror movies ever made, and it's based loosely on actual events. When young Regan starts acting strangely—and by strangely, we mean levitating and speaking in tongues—her worried mother seeks help, which comes from the local priest who is convinced the girl may be possessed by the devil. What comes next is a risky exorcism that you'll have to see to believe.

Available On: Amazon Prime Video

17 of 25

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre movie poster.

Adam Rabalais

Though it isn't based on an actual massacre, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre based its antagonist, Leatherface, on serial killer Ed Gein, who wore the skin of his victims—horrifying. Sally and Franklin pay a visit to their family's old farmhouse and are later attacked by the chainsaw-wielding neighbor, Leatherface.

Available On: Amazon Prime Video

18 of 25

The Conjuring (2013)

The Conjuring (2013) poster.

Down to the Bones

In horror films, nothing good comes from moving into an old, abandoned farmhouse. And unfortunately, that is exactly where the Perron family just relocated. The Conjuring tells the story of a supernatural presence that starts to make itself known to the family, and they call on expert paranormal investigators to help solve the mystery.

Available On: Amazon Prime Video

19 of 25

An American Crime (2007)

An American Crime (2007) poster.

Movies Move Me

Gertrude Baniszewski as played by Catherine Keener agrees to take in Sylvia (Elliot Page) and Jennie (Hayley McFarland) while their parents travel with a carnival. After forming a close relationship with Sylvia, Gertrude then imprisons the girl in the basement and tortures her, based on a shocking true story from 1965.

Available On: Amazon Prime Video

20 of 25

The Witch (2015)

The Witch (2015) poster.

Critical Condition

This film is a retelling of a folktale from 1630s New England. Panic and despair soon consume a farmer, his wife, and their children when their youngest son Samuel suddenly vanishes. The family is quick to blame oldest daughter Thomasin, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, who was playing with the boy at the time of his disappearance. Unsurprisingly, they accuse her of witchcraft, and what unfolds may tear the family apart.

Available On: Amazon Prime Video

21 of 25

Zodiac (2007)

Zodiac movie poster.

Cinematerial

This film tells the story of the infamous serial killer who called himself "Zodiac," and as an update has still never been caught, which is possibly the scariest part of the film. Zodiac claims multiple victims and taunts the authorities with cryptic messages, as played by the star-studded cast of Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Robert Downey Jr.

Available On: Amazon Prime Video

22 of 25

The Birds (1963)

The Birds (1963)

MyTickets

An Alfred Hitchcock classic, The Birds’ tells a fear-inducing tale of a small town struggling to survive an invasion of violent birds, which is based on a terrifying event that occurred in Santa Cruz, California in 1961.

Available On: Amazon Prime Video

23 of 25

Monster (2003)

Monster (2003) poster.

Roger Ebert

Monster tells the true story of one of the first female American serial killers, Aileen Wuornos, who was convicted of luring men to their death in the early 2000s. We see her relationship with young Selby Wall unfold in this film, and in order to carve a better life for them, Wuornos begins to kill victims to gain their money and possessions.

Available On: Amazon Prime Video

24 of 25

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019)

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019)

All Horror

The infamous Ted Bundy gets a retelling of his story in this Netflix original starring Zac Efron and Lily Collins. Collins plays Bundy's girlfriend, and a chronicle of his crimes is told from her perspective, who refused to believe the truth about him for years.

Available On: Netflix

25 of 25

Jaws (1975)

Jaws (1975) poster.

Jaws Fandom

We know it, we love to be afraid of it: Jaws is the story of a woman killed by a great white shark off the coast of New England town, Amity Island. With the help of the town's mayor, police chief, an ichthyologist, and experienced ship captain, the goal is to slay the beast–if they can make it out of the water alive. This was ever-so-slightly based on true events of murderous shark attacks in New Jersey.

Available On: Amazon Prime Video

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