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The Conjuring
Image: Cinematic Collection / Alamy Stock Photo‘The Conjuring’

The 15 scariest horror movies based on true stories

In these movies, truth is scarier than fiction...

Matthew Singer
Written by
Matthew Singer
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During a truly terrifying horror film, there’s a mantra many of us silently repeat in order to bring ourselves down from any potential dread-induced anxiety attacks: ‘It’s only a movie.’ What happens, though, when the movie is based on a true story? In those cases, we may try to convince ourselves that the filmmakers are playing fast and loose with the facts for cinematic effect, and that the actual truth of the story is less disturbing than what’s being put on screen. And yeah, that’s usually the deal… but not always. 

In these 15 frightening films based on actual events, some details may be embellished, but they hew close enough to the real incidents that telling yourself: ‘it’s just a movie’ won’t be enough to stop your spine from tingling and your pulse from racing. 

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Best scary movies based on true stories

Zodiac (2007)
  • Film
  • Drama

Anyone with a passing interest in true crime is familiar with the Zodiac Killer, who terrorised San Francisco with a string of still-unsolved murders in the 1960s. But David Fincher’s chilling masterpiece is less about the slayings – though he re-enacts several of them in unnerving detail – than the rabbit hole the killer opened up with the maddening puzzles and coded messages he disseminated through the press. The case fully consumed political cartoonist Robert Graysmith, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, whose decades-long obsession with uncovering the Zodiac’s identity cost him his marriage. Given how, every few years, some new theory arises about who committed the killings, he’s clearly far from the only one.

The Amityville Horror (1979)
Image: Moviestore Collection Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

2. The Amityville Horror (1979)

Driven by a marketing campaign playing up its supposedly truthful bona fides, this haunted house tale became a significant leftfield success during the post-The Exorcist horror boom of the late ‘70s. Based on the book by Jay Anson, it depicts the supernatural harassment experienced by the Lutz family upon moving into an old house in Long Island that had previously been the site of a grisly mass murder. Of course, critics have long dismissed Anson’s book as a hoax, but that didn’t stop the movie from becoming a horror classic, spinning off numerous lesser sequels and inspiring a 2005 remake from Michael Bay.

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  • Film
  • Horror

James Wan’s ultra-successful trad-horror franchise mostly plays like a gleeful mishmash of genre tropes, but there’s a true story at its core – or at least, real people. Ed and Lorraine Warren were actual paranormal investigators, whose account of supernatural activity at a farmhouse in Rhode Island in 1971 formed the basis for the first Conjuring movie. Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson played the couple in four sequels now, including one of the Annabelle spinoffs, which focus on a possessed doll – also inspired by one of the Warrens’ real cases. 

  • Film
  • Horror

Three years after The Amityville Horror, director Tobe Hooper effectively ‘Spielbergised’ the modern haunted house movie – with an assist from Steven Spielberg himself, who produced and possibly, maybe ghost-directed some of it – turning in a horror classic. And like Amityville, it takes inspiration from an actual haunting. In the 1950s, the curious case of the Hermann house in suburban Long Island became a national media story after the family brought in a paranormal investigator to diagnose unusual activity, such as randomly popping bottles and objects moving on their own. The house did not ultimately vanish into an interdimensional portal, however.    

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Compliance (2012)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

The incident that inspired this indie thriller didn’t end in death or involve any sort of bloodshed, but it is nonetheless deeply disturbing – and not without torture. In 2004, a man claiming to be a police officer called a fast-food restaurant in rural Kentucky and managed to convince the employee who answered to strip search her coworker, the first in a series of rapidly mounting indignities. Craig Zobel’s claustrophobic drama doesn’t exploit the humiliation of what turned out to be an incredibly fucked-up prank call but uses it as a springboard to explore the American fealty to authority.

10 Rillington Place (1971)
  • Film

John Christie is perhaps second to Jack the Ripper as London’s most infamous serial killer, an unassuming postman who, in the 1940s and ‘50s, strangled at least eight women, including his wife, and hid their corpses in the walls of his Notting Hill flat. Richard Fleischer’s account of his killing spree is an under-seen gem of the true crime genre, featuring a truly chilling lead performance from Richard Attenborough, which the actor claimed haunted him for a long while afterward.  

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  • Film
  • Drama

In 1998, Americans Tom and Eileen Lonergan were accidentally left behind on a group scuba diving trip off the Great Barrier Reef. Their bodies were never recovered, but filmmaker Chris Kentis takes an educated guess at what ultimately happened to them: sharks, and lots of ‘em. Shot on a meagre budget, in the actual ocean and with real live sharks, it’s perhaps more of a well-executed nightmare than a full-fledged movie, but as a distillation of a widely-held irrational fear, it might be even more effective than Jaws

Snowtown (2011)
  • Film
  • Drama

Plenty of films from recent years are based on real-life acts of unspeakable violence – see Hounds of Love, Wolf Creek, The Girl Next Door etc – but few exude the visceral ugliness of Justin Kurzel’s depiction of the ‘barrel murders’ that rattled South Australia in the ‘90s. For seven years, starting in 1992, a group of four men, led by John Bunting, carried out a series of a gruesome murders, mostly targeting pedophiles and homosexuals, and Kurzel’s retelling spares few details. It’s hard to imagine watching Snowtown for entertainment, but if you want to stare directly into the darkest depths of humanity, the movie is as good a tour guide as any ever made.    

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The Birds (1963)
  • Film
  • Horror

It’s aged a bit worse than other Alfred Hitchcock classics, but perhaps it’d seem a bit less goofy today if more people knew that, in 1961, birds in the coastal town of Capitola, California, really did turn against their human superiors. Poisoned by toxic algae, flocks of normally mild-mannered seagulls began crashing into homes and cars and vomiting up half-digested food. It took decades for scientists to figure out the cause, but only two years for Big Al to turn the incident into an allegory for man’s increasingly fragile peace with the natural world – and maybe also female sexual frustration.

Dead Ringers (1988)
  • Film
  • Horror

Imagine the look of deranged glee that spread across David Cronenberg’s face when he read a New York magazine article about the Marcus brothers, twin gynaecologists who died simultaneously of drug overdoses in 1975. Cronenberg, of course, wildly embellishes their shared decline, using the case as a jumping off point to examine male sexual anxiety, among other things, in the most skincrawling, off-putting, distinctly Cronenbergian way possible.

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  • Film
  • Horror

Nineties kids remember Alive, the harrowing story of a Uruguayan rugby team who resorted to eating their dead teammates to survive after a plane crash in the Andes. Nineties kids almost certainly do not remember this box-office bomb, the decade’s other true cannibal tale. Well, sort of true – yes, Guy Pearce’s character, Capt. John Boyd, is based on Alfred Packer, a prospector who ate five members of his own party after getting trapped traversing the mountains of Colorado in 1874. No, he did not turn into a flesh-craving lunatic after being rescued. Packer’s life also inspired another, even more fabricated pseudo-biopic: 1993’s Cannibal! The Musical, directed by future South Park co-creator Trey Parker.

Borderland (2007)
"Borderland"

12. Borderland (2007)

In the late ‘80s, the Mexican border state of Tamaulipas was terrorised by a group of so-called ‘narcosatanists’, a clan of drug-dealing occultists who practised ritual human sacrifice as a means of assisting their associated cartel. This effectively freaky indie horror flick dramatises the events surrounding the cult’s most widely publicised crime, the abduction and subsequent murder of a University of Texas medical student in 1989. While the film embellishes the details, a lot of it is more factual than you might think – a horrifying thought. 

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  • Film
  • Drama

In ultra-religious circles, exorcisms are, of course, a very real and not outmoded practice – even The Exorcist was loosely based on an actual incident – but The Exorcism of Emily Rose is more specific in its inspiration. In 1975, a young German woman named Anneliese Michel began experiencing seizures and hallucinations. At the behest of her Catholic parents, two local priests initiated dozens of exorcism rites until she eventually died from malnutrition. Her parents were then charged with negligent homicide. Director Scott Derrickson blends those facts with a liberal sprinkling of fiction, creating an interesting mix of psychological thriller, demonic horror and courtroom drama.

  • Film
  • Science fiction

Alien abduction may stretch the definition for ‘true story’, and sceptics have certainly tried to throw doubt on logger Travis Walton’s account of being sucked into a spaceship, violently probed, then deposited on the side of an Arizona highway. Whether or not it actually happened – and for the record, Walton and his coworkers who witnessed his alleged extraterrestrial kidnapping have all passed polygraph tests – the depiction of Walton’s abduction in Fire in the Sky is one of the most horrifying scenes in ‘90s cinema: vivid, nightmarish and worst of all, totally believable.   

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Winchester (2018)
Image: Album / Alamy Stock Photo

15. Winchester (2018)

It’s not a great movie, even with Helen Mirren in the lead role, but it is a great, weird piece of lore. As the legend goes, after the sudden passing of her husband, gunmaker William Winchester, his widow, Sarah, began making odd additions to their Northern California mansion – hundreds of extra rooms, random doors, stairways to nowhere – supposedly at the behest of the spirits of those killed by her namesake rifle. It’s mostly hogwash: the renovations were primarily the result of hasty repairs following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. But hey, when choosing between myth and fact, film the myth.

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