There’s something a little more unsettling when a horror film is inspired by real events. Whether it starts out by spouting its based on a true story or recounts the lives of those caught in the cross-fire of crime or terror, we’ve collected a series of films that draw ever so slightly from the real world.
These aren’t the films you’ll see with a “Based On A True Story” tag before or after the film (unless they want you to believe it is for effect). These are films of a more outlandish nature, perhaps with fantastical elements or simply films that draw from primal events in our world history.
Let’s get started with our list of the Real-World Inspirations for 13 Horror and Mystery Films.
The novel for which Psycho was based on was written by Robert Bloch and centers on the encounter between a secretary, Marion Crane, who ends up at a secluded motel after stealing money from her employer, and the motel’s disturbed owner-manager, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins in an iconic role), and its aftermath. Bloch’s 1959 novel of the same name, was loosely inspired by the case of convicted Wisconsin murderer and grave robber Ed Gein. Both Gein (who lived just 40 miles from Bloch) and Norman Bates were solitary murderers in isolated rural locations. Each had deceased, domineering mothers, sealed off a room in their home as a shrine to her, and dressed in women’s clothes.
Psycho was seen as a departure for Hitchcock due in part to its low-budget and use of a television crew. But it became Hitchcock’s biggest success to date and changed the landscape of modern horror films, as well as theater etiquette. Before Psycho it wasn’t customary to attend a screening as it started as theaters would allow for ticket sales at any part of a film because of its continuous projection. Could you imagine stepping into a theater for any modern-day horror film during its third act now?
The Exorcist (1973)
Author William Peter Blatty based his horrifying novel on several instances of possession and exorcists. Father Merrin, the priest played by Max Von Sydow in the film, was based on Gerald Lankester Harding, a British archeologist who had excavated the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. This is later how we are introduced to Merrin in the novel and movie, excavating ancient artifacts deep within Iran.
As for the exorcism itself, recent reports say Blatty based it on an actual 1949 account of one Robbie Mannheim and Roland Doe (pseudonyms) in Cottage City, Maryland. But Blatty himself has referred to the Loudun possessions and the Louviers possessions throughout the story, mostly when Fr. Karras is researching possession and exorcism to present the case to his superiors. In any case, it made for a successful bestseller that also became one of the most iconic movies of all time.
Much of the true-to-life story that inspired Blatty’s book is covered in Mark Ramsay’s Inside The Exorcist, a seven-part dive into the film’s past. It emphasizes the atmosphere as well as the biographical details with an incredible sound design and very decent vocal performances.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
There are few films as influential and iconic on this list as Tobe Hooper’s 1974 crispy fleshed horror film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Hooper’s own inspiration for the film came from a similar source as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, albeit with a different emotional disposition, motivation, and geological location altogether. The film is fictional and based loosely on the life of Wisconsin killer Ed Gein, a ghoul who stole female body parts from many different graves, keeping parts in his refrigerator, and skinning another corpse to wear as a skin dress.
Hooper’s other inspiration for the film came to him from a less unsavory place. While standing in the hardware section of a crowded store he simply started to think of a way he could get through the busy bustle of people. That’s when he spotted the chainsaws for sale. The rest was history.
Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975)
Originally a historical fiction novel by Joan Lindsay published in 1967, Picnic At Hanging Rock was first adapted to the screen in 1975 by Peter Weir. A beguiling and haunting piece of literature as well as film, which is near-universally regarded as a masterpiece. Dreamlike in its pacing and visuals, Weir’s movie earned him incredible praise allowing him to go on to a prestigious career, which includes films like Dead Poet’s Society and The Truman Show. Picnic At Hanging Rock returned as a limited series event over on Amazon, starring Natalie Dormer.
The book’s basis in reality has taken on a mystery unto itself. Appleyard College was extrapolated from Clyde Girls’ Grammar School at East St Kilda, Melbourn, for which Lindsay attended as a girl. As for the girls that go missing at the titular Hanging Rock, and its surroundings do exist and the novel is framed as if it is, in fact, a true story, with a pseudohistorical prologue and epilogue.
Lindsay has done little to dispel the myth that the story is based on truth, often refusing to answer. When asked in a 1974 interview about whether or not the novel was based in truth, Lindsay responded:
“Well, it was written as a mystery and it remains a mystery. If you can draw your own conclusions, that’s fine, but I don’t think that it matters. I wrote that book as a sort of atmosphere of a place, and it was like dropping a stone into the water. I felt that story, if you call it a story—that the thing that happened on St. Valentine’s Day went on spreading, out and out and out, in circles.”
Eaten Alive (1976)
The second Tobe Hooper movie on this list, Eaten Alive is substantially lesser known than The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but carries with it Hooper’s pension for grueling, stylized textures and black comedy. A psychotic redneck, who owns a dilapidated hotel in rural East Texas, kills various people who upset him or his business, and he feeds their bodies to a large crocodile that he keeps as a pet in the swamp beside his hotel.
The film’s plot is said to be loosely based on the story known as either the Bluebeard from South Texas or the Alligator Man. Joe Ball owned a bar with a live alligator attraction during in Elmendorf, Texas during the 1930s. During this time, several women were murdered by Ball, and the legend grew that he disposed of their bodies by feeding them to his pet alligators. Never proven, the story grew in legend and Hooper brought another horrific tale of Texas to the big screen, which is also notable for having an early screen appearance from Freddy Krueger himself, Robert Englund.
A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984)
The late-great Wes Craven’s iconic tale of the burned Freddy Krueger who stalks and kills teens while they sleep started off in an unsettling true-to-life way. The Los Angeles Times had published a study done over a three-year period on a group of Southeast Asian refugees that had died in the midst of horrific nightmares. Craven saw this LA Times article and continued to dive into the notion of dying in your sleep, against your will. The actual group came to the U.S. in which several more members died in similar situations (changing their locale, their routines, their very life did nothing to escape it). The men were otherwise healthy but began to refuse to go to sleep. It was this inability to find a cause of death while they slept that intrigued Craven.
While the inspiration behind the formidable and terrifying Fred Krueger came from Wes Craven’s own childhood. Fred Krueger was the name of a classmate of Craven’s with whom he shared a paper route, and bullied the soon-to-be filmmaker. The sweater and drab appearance of Freddy Krueger’s were inspired by a hobo Craven saw staring at him one night through his window when he was ten. They often say to “write what you know” and Craven certainly knew “scary” when he saw it.
Dead Ringers (1988)
David Cronenberg’s controversial tale of twin gynecologists who take full advantage of the fact that nobody can tell them apart, until their relationship begins to deteriorate over a woman, was a turning point for the Canadian director who, up until that time, had been known for horror films varying from the cerebral to the gory.
The script, co-written by Cronenberg and Norman Snider, was based on the lives of Stewart and Cyril Marcus, as well as on the novel Twins by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland. The film and novel are highly fictionalized versions of the Marcus’ story. The Marcus brothers were themselves gynecologists in New York Hospital and Cornell University Medical College. They were found dead in their Manhattan apartment in 1975 of assumed barbiturate withdrawal. However, only one of the brothers is assumed to have died in that matter, Stewart, as Cyril appeared to have shown no signs of fatal convulsions that accompany narcotic withdrawal.
In Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers, he devises an almost ritualistic murder/suicide, in which the brothers are at once so connected and yet so apart that they can no longer go on with or without one another.
The Serpent And The Rainbow (1988)
Craven also hits this list with a double-whammy of horror inspired by true events. This time we’re going back to the legend surrounding the original notion of the zombie wherein ethnobotanist Wade Davis recounts his experiences in Haiti investigating the story of Clairvius Narcisse.
Anthropologist and researcher Wade Davis published the book for which the film is based on back in 1985. The book documents Davis’ investigation into Haitian Vodou and the process of making zombies. His studies found the use of ethnobotanical poisons, and their use in a reported case of a contemporary zombie, Clairvius Narcisse, a man said to have been turned into a zombie by a Haitian vodou preparation.
Craven’s film, however, is only loosely based on Davis’ novel, instead favoring fantastical scares, a love story and a maniacal villain. It still remains one of Craven’s most interesting endeavors.
Hard Candy (2005)
David Slade’s film about a 14-year-old female vigilante’s trapping and torture of a man whom she suspects of being a sexual predator made waves when it premiered almost 15 years ago. Ellen Page and Patrick Wilson starred in a script written by Brian Nelson, but the real-life inspiration for the film came from its producer, David W. Higgins. Higgins saw an expose on 20/20 about young Japanese girls who would lure older businessmen to a location with the promise of meaningful conversation, only to assault and mug the men with a gang of other girls. From there the concept for Hard Candy began, but the finished film is a terse and wicked little chamber piece that showcases an ambient sound design with incredibly sparse moments of music.
Due in part to the controversial nature of the film, the budget was kept under $1 million, which also allowed to production to keep whatever they wanted in the finished version without cuts.
The Girl Next Door (2007)
No, not the Elisha Cuthbert movie. Not even close. This one is unfortunately based on a truly troubling case surrounding the torture and murder of Sylvia Likens by her caregiver, Gertrude Baniszewski during the summer of 1965. Sylvia and her sister were beaten, starved, raped and taunted by her former neighborhood friends and by her caregiver. While her sister survived, Sylvia died from all the trauma and the case was brought to trial, raising awareness of child abuse and bullying.
The film version does allow for a little bit of breathing room from the actual events but it is still a troubling watch. Stephen King once said of the film, “The first authentically shocking American film I’ve seen since Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer over 20 years ago. If you are easily disturbed, you should not watch this movie. If, on the other hand, you are prepared for a long look into hell, suburban style, The Girl Next Door will not disappoint. This is the dark-side-of-the-moon version of Stand by Me.”
The Strangers (2008)
Partly inspired by a true story that happened to the film’s director, The Strangers introduced audiences to an atmospheric, effectively paced and designed horror film in which bad things happen to good people just because they were home.
Director, Bryan Bertino explains:
“As a kid, I lived in a house on a street in the middle of nowhere. One night, while our parents were out, somebody knocked on the front door and my little sister answered it. At the door were some people asking for somebody who didn’t live there. We later found out that these people were knocking on doors on the area and, if no one was home, breaking into the houses.”
Additionally, Bertino also says that the true crime book Helter Skelter about the Manson Family murders was a huge influence on the script and development of the film.
Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)
When researching his script for his 2011 mystery film Martha Marcy May Marlene, director Sean Durkin read about what he calls “the big ones” of cults: Jonestown, the Manson family, the Unification Church of the United States, and David Koresh. The film stars Elizabeth Olsen only a few years before she climbed the ranks of movie-stardom as part of the MCU.
There are many similarities between the cult of the film’s story, lead by a creepy John Hawkes, and the Charles Manson “family”, principally enough Manson, like Hawke’s Patrick, attracts a group of young, attractive people he discovers are especially damaged. In a rural compound, he gives them names as part of his new family, similar to Manson. Martha is given the name”Marcy May,” as Manson dubbed Susan Atkins “Sadie Mae Glutz.” Patrick, like Manson, also made sex with all the women a requirement as part of his “family” membership, encouraging everyone to have multiple partners. When the film turns violent, Martha flees from a murder, similar to what Manson murderer Patricia Krenwinkel did when she fled her relatives after the Manson Family murders.
It’s all pretty heavy stuff but Dobkin instead takes loose inspiration from it all to create an uneasy, experimental film rather than a political or true crime story.
The Witch (2015)
Writer / Director Robert Eggers’ period supernatural horror film is steeped in history, religion, and literature, even drawing from the works of Goya to bring his decadent cauldron to a boiling point by film’s end. The Witch follows a Puritan family encountering forces of evil in the woods beyond their New England farm. The premise for the film derives from America’s first witch hysteria in colonial New England. However, Eggers film is set 62 years before the infamous “Salem Witch Trials” which occurred in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Though it isn’t based on any one case or story, Eggers proves just what you can do when you research the hell out of a project you’re deftly passionate about. The Witch doesn’t concern itself with cheap tricks in order to scare, its horrors come from its sense of dread and relentlessness that sometimes feels like torment.
Images: 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros.,
Universal, A24, MGM, Orion, MPI, Lionsgate,
New Line, Starz, Mars Production Company,
British Empire Films, Fox Searchlight