Horror movies based on true stories have a special place in shaping contemporary anxieties. Because cinema is an art form closely associated with verisimilitude, adding in an extra element of “truth” to horror films makes their scares all the more provocative. However, despite film’s best attempts, it is built on illusions with pictures rolling at twenty four frames per second.
Filmmakers frequently skew or embellish the true story, thanks to creative license for entertainment purposes. Regardless, the discrepancy between truth and fiction can be just as telling as the content of the films themselves. And people do gravitate towards these offerings, with some films becoming bonafide franchises.
Here are seven horror films that are based (perhaps loosely) on real stories.
Editor’s Note: This post contains references to real life events that involve extreme physical violence. Please proceed with caution.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
One of the most iconic horror movie villains is Leatherface from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, directed by Tobe Hooper. The 1974 film featured a hulking killer wearing a mask made from human skin, preying on hitchhikers with his family. Leatherface transformed the look of what a horror movie villain could be.
There isn’t a direct Leatherface analogue in history. However, screenwriters Kim Henkel and Tobe Hooper credit serial killer Ed Gein as an influence in creating Leatherface. Ed Gein was known for, among other horrific crimes, fashioning masks out of human faces.
The Amityville Horror (1979)
The Amityville Horror adapts the eponymous book by Jay Anson, chronicling the reported hauntings of a house on Long Island. Stuart Rosenberg’s film portrays the Lutz family after they move into a home where a family was murdered the year before. The house soon exhibits demonic activity, with a disembodied voice telling a local priest to “get out.” Over the course of the film, the Lutz family unravels a sinister history about the house they’ve moved into, one that begins before murders occur.
The veracity of the supernatural elements in The Amityville Horror have been contended for years. Succeeding owners of the Lutz house claimed that no supernatural activity occurred. However, the real horror at the source of the story is absolutely true. Ronald DeFeo Jr. murdered his entire family in their home in 1974.
Ghostwatch terrorized an entire generation of viewers in the United Kingdom when the BBC special aired on Halloween in 1992. Presented as a live broadcast, Lesley Manning’s Ghostwatch followed a team of paranormal investigators and journalists to an allegedly haunted London house. The family—a single mother and her two daughters—explained that there was an entity haunting the basement and the daughters’ bedroom. Complete with presenter Michael Parkinson hosting the show from a BBC studio set, Ghostwatch fooled thousands of viewers into believing that the footage and broadcast were real.
Ghostwatch’s premise is inspired by the Enfield Poltergeist, which reportedly haunted the home of a single mother and her two daughters in London in the late 1970s. Like the BBC special, the Enfield Poltergeist possessed one of the daughters, causing her to speak in an unnatural voice. If this scenario sounds at all familiar, it’s also the basis for The Conjuring 2, directed by James Wan. Ultimately, Ghostwatch birthed an entire generation of found footage horror films, like The Blair Witch Project. Arguably, no descendant ever came as close to the effectiveness of its progenitor.
Wes Craven’s takedown of the slasher genre changed American horror films forever in 1996. The film follows a teenage girl named Sidney Prescott as she grieves the loss of her mother, who was murdered the year before. At the same time, a masked killer known as Ghostface starts murdering teenagers and adults in the town of Woodsboro. As Sidney realizes that she is being targeted by Ghostface, she must uncover the relationship between her mother’s murder and her town’s new serial killer.
While Scream engages with the mythology and tropes of fictional slasher films, the basis for its story is all too real. Screenwriter Kevin Williamson drew inspiration for his serial killer screenplay after learning about the Gainesville Ripper in Florida. The Gainesville Ripper murdered several University of Florida students within the first few weeks of the fall semester in 1990. Like Ghostface, the Gainesville Ripper used a knife to stab his victims to death.
The Conjuring (2013)
It’s difficult to imagine the state of demon possession movies today without The Conjuring. James Wan’s 2013 film about paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren shook up what had been a stale subgenre of horror, resuscitating it back to life with his distinctive directing prowess. The film depicts the couple investigating a house haunted by a witch in early 1970s Rhode Island.
The film’s credits roll with real photographs of the Warrens, as well as the Perron family, who lived in the “haunted” house. And while Ed and Lorraine Warren were real people, their work as paranormal investigators has been disputed for decades. Regardless of the veracity of the Warrens’ work, their careers have formed the basis for one of the biggest Hollywood horror franchises.
Referred to as the “scariest movie of all time” when it hit Netflix, the Spanish film Verónica is another story about demon possession. Director Paco Plaza’s film, set in 1991 in Madrid, tells the story of a teenage girl haunted by a malicious spirit after playing with a Ouija board during a solar eclipse. While its reputation as “the scariest movie” is debatable, there’s no question that Verónica is a highly effective horror film.
Verónica is based on the only case in Spanish police history where a detective claimed that something paranormal occurred. In reality, a teen girl named Estefanía Gutiérrez Lázaro died after playing with a Ouija board at school. After her death, the police claimed to experience paranormal activity in the home that her family lived in in Madrid.
The Pope’s Exorcist (2023)
The Pope’s Exorcist is perhaps the silliest film about demon exorcisms on this list. From director Julius Avery, the film follows the Catholic priest, Fr. Gabriele Amorth. He goes on a special assignment to Spain from the Vatican. Unlike the traditional image of an exorcist, Amorth has a sense of humor about this job. He even gets around on a scooter. Amorth’s chief objective is to determine whether a person is dealing with a mental illness or a true demonic possession. Therefore, he remains skeptical of demonic activity when assessing each case.
However, while treating a boy in Spain, Amorth encounters his wildest case yet. The film packs in outlandish, self-aware moments. But it is based on the life and work of Fr. Gabriele Amorth, who wrote dozens of books about his work as an exorcist. Amorth’s sense of humor in the film stems from his real life counterpart. It’s unclear to what extent the exorcism shown in The Pope’s Exorcist matches one of Amorth’s cases. However, the film accurately shows the priest’s beliefs, personality, and experience as a lawyer, journalist, and member of the Italian resistance during World War II.
Of course, there are many more horror films that draw inspiration—both directly and indirectly—from real people and events. But, you can re-explore (or discover) these seven films and see how knowing the true stories behind them changes your perception of their narratives.