A lot of movies begin with phrases like “based on a true story”. This gives the audience the impression that what they are about to witness genuinely happened, and when it’s a horror movie you are watching, the scares get all the more chilling. The truth is that they’re often not actually portraying real events, or they change what really happened so much that it barely resembles the truth anymore.
But among the falsehoods are some genuine tales of horror that are as terrifying as their cinematic counterparts. The following stories made it to the big screen, either closely resembling the real events or being heavily inspired by them. There is some safety in turning the TV off or leaving the theatre at the end of a horror film, but there isn’t much respite when you learn the chilling truths behind the fiction.
1. The Conjuring
This haunted house film is based on the case files and recordings of paranormal investigators Lorraine and Ed Warren, who were called in to help the Perron family, whose newly-purchased house was reportedly haunted. Lorraine acted as a consultant to the filmmakers, to ensure that they accurately portrayed what had happened.
Andrea, who was 12 years old when her family moved to the old Arnold estate, has written a book of her version of events called House of Darkness, House of Light. The rest of the family has put their support behind both this book and the film.
Bathsheba Sherman, who once lived in the house, was regarded as a witch by her neighbours, and was rumoured to have killed her infant son with a knitting needle. In 1971, when Carolyn Perron was lying down on the sofa, she felt a piercing pain in her calf and her muscle began to spasm. She looked to her foot, which was bleeding from a puncture in her leg. There was nothing nearby that could have caused it, and it was described by her daughter Andrea as a perfect circle, “as if a large sewing needle had impaled her skin”.
The town’s public records book reveals that the before the family moved in the residence was host to two suicides by hanging, one by poison, two drownings, four frozen to death, and the rape and murder of an eleven-year-old girl. The day the family moved in, the man who sold the house advised them to “leave the lights on at night”.
Beyond their own experience with rotten smells, levitating beds and spiritual possession, Andrea claims that the other tenants of the house have experienced the same thing. “the man who moved in to begin the restoration on the house when we sold it left screaming,” she explained, “without his car, without his tools, without his clothing”.
The current owner has said that she has heard the sounds of people talking in another room, and doors opening and closing, but is adamant that there are scientific explanations for the phenomena.
2. Open Water
Open Water is about a couple who go on a scuba-diving vacation together with a larger group. After separating from the group briefly, they reach the surface of the water only to realise that the boat has left without them. The headcount was taken wrongly, and they are left in the middle of the ocean, vulnerable to the sea and its inhabitants.
The film is based on the real-life tragedy of Tom and Eileen Lonergan, an American couple who were left behind in the same way. It was not until two days later that their bags were found on the boat, and a massive three-day air and sea search begun.
Their bodies were never found, but their diving gear was found washed up later on a beach miles away. Fishermen found a driver’s slate (a device used for underwater communication), which reportedly read: “To anyone who can help us: We have been abandoned on Agincourt Reef by MV Outer Edge. Please help to rescue us before we die. Help!!!”
The company was fined for negligence and went out of business. The government also introduced stiffer regulations, for instance requiring that captains and dive masters independently confirm each head count.
3. The Exorcism of Emily Rose
The Exorcism of Emily Rose covers the death of a 19-year-old teenage girl who had died due to self-inflicted wounds and malnutrition following an exorcism attempt. It turns out, however, that these flashbacks were based on a real events that took place in Germany in the 1970s.
Anneliese Michel began to suffer from convulsions when she was 17. She was diagnosed with epilepsy, and was admitted to hospital briefly due to the severity of the fits and the depression that followed. She began to see things, and heard voices which told her to “stew in Hell”. Her parents visited various pastors seeking an exorcism and were repeatedly denied as she didn’t meet their specifications of possession, recommending that they continue medical treatment instead.
Anneliese got increasingly worse, insulting and attacking her family. She refused to eat because the demons would not allow it, slept on the stone floor, ate spiders, and even began drinking her own urine. She would scream and destroy any crucifix or religious object she came across. The Catholic church eventually agreed and exorcism sessions took place twice a week between 1975 and 1976. She was chained up; for several weeks she refused all food, and her knees ruptured due to the 600 genuflections she performed during each exorcism.
She began to suffer from pneumonia, and was so exhausted her parents helped carry her through the motions of the sessions. Her last words were “Beg for Absolution” and “Mother, I’m afraid”. After her death, it was ruled that she died of starvation. Her parents and those involved in the exorcism were found guilty of manslaughter from negligence and omitting first aid, and received six months in prison. Her mother later stated that “She died to save other lost souls, to atone for their sins”.
4. Wolf Creek
The plot of Wolf Creek follows three backpackers in Australia whose car breaks down in the middle of the outback. They are taken in by a supposedly helpful man who offers to fix their car at his property, but he soon shows his true colours, imprisoning and torturing the tourists. The writer-director Greg McClean revealed that he weaved aspects of a few real-life Australian serial killer cases into the plot: The Backpack Killer and The Outback Killer.
The Backpack Killer, later identified as Ivan Milat, picked up travellers near Belango State Forest, offering rides before torturing and killing them. The bodies of seven missing people were discovered buried in the forest. Much like a similar scene in the film, Milat wounded the spines of his victims so they could not escape, before shooting and stabbing them. He kept belongings of his victims as trophies, which only served to incriminate him further. Milat was given seven life sentences in 1996.
The Outback Killer, Bradley Murdoch, was convicted of killing British tourist Peter Falconio in 2004. Peter and his girlfriend Joanne were pulled over by Murdoch, who claimed to see sparks from their exhaust. When Peter went to check it out, Joanne heard a gunshot. Her hands were then bound and she was dragged into the back of Murdoch’s truck, but fortunately escaped. Peter’s body was never found, and Murdoch still claims to be innocent, despite the fact that Peter’s DNA was found on a pair of handcuffs Murdoch owned.
During the trial in 2005, a judge felt that Wolf Creek was so similar in plot to the murder case that it may potentially influence the case of Brad Murdoch, so the film was not released in Northern Australia until after the trial.
5. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
While Leatherface, the iconic chainsaw-wielding son of a family of cannibals, didn’t really exist in a small town in Texas, there is a similar story that heavily inspired the film. The real life exploits of Ed Gein, the infamous serial killer of Wisconsin, were the key inspiration for the film.
Ed Gein was brought up in a household that was both physically and psychologically abusive. His alcoholic father beat him and his brother Henry, while his fanatically religious mother instilled a fear of God and a mistrust of women. Ed and Henry were forbidden from having visitors, punished for having friends, and were reminded daily that they would never be loved by another woman.
Ed’s father died of a heart failure in 1940, and four years later Henry died in a fire on the family farm, which many suspect Ed played a role in. After his mother died in 1945, Ed was devastated. He confined himself to one room, taking odd jobs but spending most of his time reading about Nazis and cannibalism.
After Bernice Worden went missing, police suspected Ed as he was the last to see her. When they searched the family farm they found Bernice’s decapitated body hanging upside down in the barn. Searching the rest of his home, they found countless household items made out of human remains. There were chairs covered in human skin, skull bedposts, and a belt made from nipples. There was a corset, leggings, dress, and even a mask made from the skin of women he had killed or attained through grave-robbing. He was attempting to create a “woman suit” so that he could become his deceased mother.
Gein was sent to the Central State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, where he died in 1984. As well as influencing the plot of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which similarly featured reclusive cannibalism, furniture and masks made from human remains, Ed Gein’s crimes were also a heavy influence on Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, as well as Deranged, The Silence of the Lambs and House of 1000 Corpses.
The 2007 film Borderland involved some party-goers getting mixed up with a brutal cartel who used human sacrifice and Satan worship to help them smuggle drugs across the border. While the main characters are invented for the film, there was a group that committed similar crimes in the 1980s.
Adolfo de Jesús Constanzo was a serial killer, drug dealer, and cult leader of the gang dubbed by the media “The Narco-satanists”. In Mexico City, Constanzo ran a successful business casting spells for good luck, using elaborate ritual sacrifices of chickens, goats, zebras, and even lion cubs for the city’s rich and corrupt.
Contanzo began to rob graveyards for the human bones used in his concoctions, but eventually turned to human sacrifices instead. More than 20 mutilated corpses found in the area are thought to have died this way. He believed that his spells were responsible for the cartels’ successes, so he demanded to become part of the business. Those who disagreed with him turned up with fingers, ears, brains and even their spines missing.
Moving to a house in the desert, he carried out more sadistic murders. In 1989, the gang abducted American student Mark Kilroy from a bar while he was celebrating Spring Break. Constanzo murdered him because he needed a “good” brain for one of his rituals. In the raid, police found a human brain in the drug lord’s cauldron. They also found 15 corpses buried outside, including Kilroy’s. Constanzo eventually died in a stand-off with the police, where he convinced a follower to shoot him rather than let him be imprisoned.
Annabelle, who first turned up in The Conjuring, received her own movie treatment in 2014. The characters, as well as the explanation of the doll’s previous owners being attacked by a satanic cult, are purely fictional. However, the doll really did exist, and there are a number of creepy stories about her.
In 1970, college student Donna was given a Raggedy Ann doll by her mother as a birthday present. At first Donna and her roommate Angie didn’t pay much attention to the doll, until it started to move around. At first it was subtle movements, but soon enough she was disappearing and reappearing in different rooms.
Donna’s friend Lou thought there was something deeply wrong with it, but the girls didn’t believe him. But then things took a turn for the weird. Donna started to find pieces of parchment paper in the house with messages like “Help us” written on them. And once she returned home to find the doll in her bed, blood on its hands and chest, which seemed to be seeping out of the doll itself. It was at this point that they brought in a medium.
After spending time with the doll, the medium explained that a seven-year-old girl named Annabelle Higgins had died in the area before their apartment complex was built. When the doll came into the house Annabelle’s spirit latched on to it. The spirit trusted Donna and Angie and just wanted to stay with them to be safe, so they agreed to let her stay.
It was at this point that Lou started having bad dreams, including one where he couldn’t move as Annabelle climbed up his body, clawing and choking him. A few days later he and Angie heard the sound of movement from Donna’s room. When Lou opened the door, Annabelle had moved from the bed to the corner. As he approached Lou felt a sudden pain on his chest, and was left with a series of burning claw marks in his flesh.
They called in paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, who came to the conclusion that it was a demon manipulating the doll to make it seem like as if it were possessed by a spirit, with its real goal being to claim Donna’s soul. A priest was called in to perform an exorcism on the apartment and the Warrens took the doll to their occult museum, where it resides to this day, kept inside a locked case. This seems to have kept Annabelle from moving around, but the Warrens claim the demon is still present within the doll.
While this is based on the testimony of people who may be untrustworthy, there are some strange coincidences. One visitor to the Warrens’ Occult Museum tapped on the glass of the case, challenging Annabelle to hurt him like it had supposedly done in the past. He was promptly kicked out of the museum. Around three hours later, he died when he lost control of his motorcycle and crashed. His girlfriend survived but remained hospitalized for over a year.
8. The Town That Dreaded Sundown
This 1976 movie and its 2014 remake told the tale of the residents of Texarkana, Texas, who were terrorized by a mysterious hooded killer known as the “Phantom Killer”. This story is very close to the truth, as the Texarkana Moonlight Murders really did happen in the Spring of 1946.
Katie Starks barely survived an encounter with the Phantom Killer when she found her husband shot dead in her home. She was shot twice through the window, one bullet hit her cheek, while the other hit her lower jaw, knocking out teeth and becoming lodged under her tongue.
The killer is credited with attacking eight people within 10 weeks, five of which were killed. The victims were shot by the same weapon: a .32 automatic pistol. He would attack young couples in private areas late at night, and was described by survivors as being six feet tall, wearing a white mask with holes cut out for his eyes and mouth.
The murders sent the town into a panic throughout the summer, as the inhabitants stocked up on weaponry and locked themselves indoors. Businesses lost customers at night, but stores sold out of ammunition and locks. It even inspired youths to take matters into their own hands when the police came up empty. They would wait in cars by the side of the road, ready to shoot him if he came near. The killer never took the bait.
While he was never caught, many believed car thief Youell Swinney was responsible for the murders. Swinney’s wife claimed that he was responsible for the murders, but later refused to testify in court. Due to the evidence being circumstantial, he was only jailed for auto-theft. He was sentenced to life in prison, but was released in 1973.
Nine people gave confessions that were revealed to be false. In both 1999 and 2000, an anonymous woman contacted family of the victims and apologised for “what her father had done”. The weird thing is, Youell Swinney never had a daughter.
While it’s wise to not believe it every time you see the words “based on a true story”, there are some cases where there is some truth behind the horror. In fact, sometimes the story lurking beneath is far more chilling than any film could be. So much for saying “it’s only a movie”.