15 Horror Films Based on True Stories

15 Horror Films Based on True Stories
Image credit: Legion-Media, Lionsgate, MGM, Universal Pictures, Warner Bros.

These films serve as a chilling reminder that sometimes, reality can be far more horrifying than fiction.

1. The Exorcist (1973)

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Arguably one of the most infamous horror movies of all time, The Exorcist holds an 86% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and grossed over $232 million at the box office. The film was inspired by the real-life exorcism of a boy, pseudonymously known as Roland Doe in 1949.

In the film, a 12-year-old girl is possessed by a demonic entity, leading her mother to seek the help of two priests. The film's horrifically realistic portrayal of demonic possession, coupled with Linda Blair's unsettling performance, left audiences and critics alike terrified.

2. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

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With a 88% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, this classic slasher flick was loosely inspired by the real-life crimes of Ed Gein, a notorious murderer and body snatcher. While Gein didn't wield a chainsaw, his macabre habit of fashioning trophies and keepsakes from his victims' bones and skin became the basis for Leatherface's horrifying antics in the film. The movie raked in over $30 million at the box office, a remarkable feat considering its low-budget production.

3. Psycho (1960)

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Master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, rated 96% on Rotten Tomatoes, was also inspired by the heinous crimes of Ed Gein. The film's chilling protagonist, Norman Bates, reflects Gein's twisted relationship with his domineering mother.

Hitchcock's deft storytelling and Anthony Perkins' compelling performance as Bates turned Psycho into a landmark in cinematic horror, earning over $50 million at the box office. Its infamous shower scene and the unsettling revelation of Bates' dual personality have been lauded by critics as pivotal moments in the horror genre.

4. Jaws (1975)

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Steven Spielberg's Jaws, sitting at a solid 98% on Rotten Tomatoes, grossed a staggering $470 million, forever instilling a fear of the open water in viewers worldwide. It was based on a series of shark attacks that plagued the New Jersey shore in 1916. The film's story of a massive great white shark terrorizing a small beach community and the trio who set out to kill it revolutionized the summer blockbuster and established Spielberg as a master of suspense.

5. The Amityville Horror (1979)

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With a 28% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, The Amityville Horror was a box office success, earning $86 million. The film was based on the alleged experiences of the Lutz family, who claimed their house in Amityville, New York, was haunted by violent, demonic entities.

The basis for the movie, however, was the brutal murder of six members of the DeFeo family at the hands of the eldest son, Ronald DeFeo Jr., in the very same house a year before the Lutz family moved in. Despite the controversy surrounding the authenticity of the Lutz's claims, the film spawned numerous sequels and remains a staple of the haunted house subgenre.

6. The Conjuring (2013)

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With an 86% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a box office take of over $319 million, The Conjuring has become a modern classic in the horror genre. The film is based on the real-life case files of paranormal investigators, Ed and Lorraine Warren. Their investigation of the supposedly haunted Perron family home serves as the movie's eerie plotline. The family's encounters with a malevolent spirit and the chilling exorcism sequence left audiences on the edge of their seats.

7. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

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Rated 94% on Rotten Tomatoes, A Nightmare on Elm Street grossed over $25 million at the box office. The film is inspired by a series of newspaper articles about Southeast Asian refugees, who, after fleeing to the United States, died in their sleep after suffering from disturbing nightmares.

The movie introduced the world to Freddy Krueger, a disfigured serial killer who stalks teenagers in their dreams. The film's inventive dream sequences and Robert Englund's unforgettable performance as Krueger earned it a cult following and cemented its place in horror history.

8. The Girl Next Door (2007)

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With a hard-to-stomach plot, The Girl Next Door received mixed reviews and holds a 67% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The movie is based on the horrifying real-life murder of Sylvia Likens in 1965. The teenage girl was tortured to death by her caregiver, Gertrude Baniszewski, and her children. While the film was criticized for its disturbing content, it was also praised for its performances and unflinching depiction of the darkest corners of humanity.

9. The Strangers (2008)

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The Strangers, with a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 48%, made over $82 million at the box office. The home-invasion horror is based on the real-life Keddie Cabin Murders and the director Bryan Bertino's childhood experience when strangers would knock on doors in his neighborhood as a part of a burglary scheme. The film's straightforward plot – a couple terrorized by three masked intruders – and its relentless tension struck a chord with audiences.

10. Zodiac (2007)

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David Fincher's Zodiac, boasting an 89% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, takes on the true story of the Zodiac Killer, an unidentified serial murderer who terrorized the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1960s and early 1970s. While not a traditional horror movie, the film's methodical exploration of the Zodiac's cryptic letters, unsolved murders, and the obsessive quest to unmask the killer instills a deep, lingering dread.

Although it wasn't a huge box office success (earning just over $84 million), it received high praise from critics for its meticulous attention to detail and Fincher's atmospheric direction.

11. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

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With an impressive 96% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, this horror-thriller grossed over $272 million at the box office. While not entirely based on a true story, Hannibal Lecter, brilliantly portrayed by Anthony Hopkins, is believed to be inspired by the convicted murderer and psychiatrist Dr. Alfredo Ballí Treviño. Jodie Foster's portrayal of the young FBI recruit, Clarice Starling, is also worth mentioning. The film's suspenseful storyline, combined with the unsettling performance of its leads, has left an indelible mark on the genre.

12. The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

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Directed by horror master Wes Craven, The Hills Have Eyes holds a 65% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. This harrowing tale of survival was loosely inspired by the legend of Alexander Sawney Bean, a clan leader who, along with his inbred family, reportedly murdered and cannibalized over a thousand victims in Scotland in the 16th century. The film's brutal depiction of a suburban family attacked by a group of deranged, cannibalistic mutants in the Nevada desert left audiences terrified.

13. Wolf Creek (2005)

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Wolf Creek, with a 53% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, is based on the real-life crimes of Australian serial killers Ivan Milat and Bradley Murdoch. The plot follows a trio of backpackers who find themselves held captive by a sadistic bushman in the Australian Outback. The film's stark setting and its antagonist's chillingly casual approach to violence made it a deeply unsettling viewing experience.

14. Open Water (2003)

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Open Water, rated 71% on Rotten Tomatoes, was inspired by the tragic story of Tom and Eileen Lonergan, who were accidentally left behind in the Coral Sea by their diving group in 1998. The film portrays a similar scenario, where a couple stranded in shark-infested waters must fight for survival. Its claustrophobic setting and the constant threat of lurking danger made it a nerve-wracking watch.

The film received mixed reviews, but it was praised for its realistic depiction of the ocean's perils and turned a substantial profit compared to its meager budget.

15. The Haunting in Connecticut (2009)

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With a measly 16% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, The Haunting in Connecticut is based on the alleged supernatural experiences of the Snedeker family in the 1980s. In the film, a family moves into a new home, which turns out to be a former mortuary haunted by malevolent spirits. Critics were divided over the film's reliance on horror clichés, but it was a commercial success, earning over $77 million worldwide.