True Terror: 10 Horror Movies Based on Real-Life Events
The true story behind these films makes them all the more disturbing.
1. "The Mothman Prophecies" (2002)
If your favorite moth-themed superhero isn't cutting it, take a look at "The Mothman Prophecies." This film is based on the 1975 book of the same name by John Keel, who reports real-life encounters with a creature known as the Mothman in West Virginia. The Mothman, as described by eyewitnesses, was a massive, red-eyed creature resembling a moth-human hybrid. In the film, Richard Gere plays a reporter who gets sucked into the Mothman mystery after his wife has a terrifying encounter with the creature. It may not be the most well-known horror flick, but it's a tense and eerie exploration of folklore coming to life. The Mothman Prophecies managed to rake in a decent $55 million at the box office – not bad for a lesser-known horror movie!
2. "An American Haunting" (2005)
The tale of the Bell Witch haunting is one of America's most famous ghost stories, and "An American Haunting" brings this chilling piece of folklore to life. The film retells the story of the Bell family, who were tormented by a malicious spirit in the early 1800s. Donald Sutherland and Sissy Spacek lead the cast, as they experience terrifying visions, physical attacks, and disturbing phenomena. While the film may not have hit the heights at the box office, earning only $29 million worldwide, the tale itself remains a chilling footnote in American folklore.
3. "The Strangers" (2008)
"The Strangers," though not directly based on a specific event, is inspired by a series of real-life home invasion incidents. The film follows a couple, played by Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman, whose romantic getaway turns into a living nightmare when they are terrorized by three masked invaders. The unsettling element of "The Strangers" is the randomness of the attack; the assailants chose the couple simply because they were home. Despite a mixed critical response, with a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 48%, the film's nail-biting suspense has made it a modern horror classic.
4. "Wolf Creek" (2005)
"Wolf Creek" might not be well-known to everyone, but it's a key player in the Australian horror genre. The film is loosely based on real-life murderers Ivan Milat and Bradley John Murdoch, two men responsible for horrific crimes against tourists in the Australian outback. The film, focusing on three backpackers who become stranded in the desolate wilderness, only to be hunted by a deranged killer, is a grueling ordeal of survival. Despite its humble budget of $1.4 million, "Wolf Creek" managed to carve up over $27 million at the box office, turning a tidy profit and a respectable cult following.
5. "The Entity" (1982)
"The Entity" is based on the true story of Doris Bither, a woman who claimed to have been tormented and physically assaulted by an invisible entity. In the film, Barbara Hershey gives a powerfully unsettling performance as a single mother who is attacked by an unseen force in her home. The film was a modest box office success, pulling in around $13 million, but it's the disturbing events and their basis in a real-life case that gives "The Entity" its chilling edge.
6. "The Town That Dreaded Sundown" (1976)
"Wait a second," you might say, "isn't that a cheesy slasher flick from the 70s?" You'd be partially correct! But what makes "The Town That Dreaded Sundown" worthy of this list is its basis in reality. It's based on the Texarkana Moonlight Murders of 1946, a series of unsolved crimes attributed to the elusive "Phantom Killer." In the film, the small town of Texarkana is rocked by a string of brutal murders. As the body count rises, so does the dread. You're not just watching a slasher flick; you're reliving a real nightmare.
7. "Open Water" (2003)
"Open Water" might not be your traditional horror movie – there are no haunted houses, masked killers, or vengeful spirits – but that doesn't make it any less terrifying. The film is based on the tragic true story of Tom and Eileen Lonergan, a couple left behind by their diving group in the middle of the ocean. What ensues is a survival story as the couple face dehydration, the threat of hypothermia, and a group of very interested sharks. With a budget of just $500,000, the movie managed to gross $55 million worldwide, becoming a surprising sleeper hit.
8. "The Girl Next Door" (2007)
"The Girl Next Door" is an often overlooked horror movie based on a truly horrifying real-life crime: the torture and murder of Sylvia Likens in 1965. The film centers around a young girl who is systematically abused by her caretaker, played chillingly by Blanche Baker, and the neighborhood children. It's a very difficult film to watch, not least because of its gruesome realism, but it's a stark reminder of the horrors humans can inflict on each other.
9. "Compliance" (2012)
When you watch "Compliance," you may find yourself shouting at the screen, baffled at the characters' actions. But what's even more baffling? It's based on true events. The film centers around a fast-food restaurant manager who receives a phone call from a man claiming to be a police officer. The 'officer' convinces her to carry out increasingly invasive and degrading actions on a young employee, all under the guise of an investigation. It's a deeply uncomfortable film that explores the depths of human gullibility and the dangerous implications of blind obedience to authority. Needless to say, watching it in 2023 is even more uncomfortable experience.
10. "The Sacrament" (2013)
"The Sacrament" is a found-footage horror film loosely based on the infamous Jonestown Massacre of 1978. A team of journalists sets out to document a friend's journey to find his missing sister, who's joined a secluded commune known as Eden Parish. As they dig deeper into the seemingly idyllic community, the dark truth begins to unravel. Directed by indie horror maestro Ti West, "The Sacrament" weaves real-life tragedy into a disturbing tapestry of cult horror. The film was made on a shoestring budget and grossed just over $9,000 in its limited theatrical release, but it's gained recognition over the years for its chilling portrayal of fanaticism and mass manipulation.