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.
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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