There’s something about getting a glimpse into a real person's world that 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–who need something more than watching the news to fill your thrill bucket–there are a number of horror films based on true 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. 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.
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.
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."
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The Strangers (2008)
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."
Open Water (2004)
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.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
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.
The Shining (1980)
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.
The Sacrament (2014)
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?
The Rite (2011)
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.
The Girl Next Door (2007)
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.
The Disappointments Room (2016)
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.
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).
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
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."
Black Water (2007)
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.
Dead Ringers (1988)
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.