The Exorcist
Image via Warner Bros.

7 terrifying horror movies based on true stories

Our favorite horror movies constantly have us terrified, but which ones are based on real-life stories?

Spooky season has unfortunately come and gone, but that certainly doesn’t mean the time for bone-chilling horror movies is over. In fact, any time is the perfect time to begin a horror movie binge-athon. From Halloween to It, there are plenty of scary flicks out there to help you enjoy, including those inspired by true stories.

Recommended Videos

Some of our favorites have either taken inspiration from or completely based their plots on the true stories of real-life people in cases that collectively make our skin crawl. Somehow, it makes the experience that much scarier knowing that these events happened in real life, unearthing some of our greatest fears and giving them terrifying new life.

So, let’s get into the cult classics and fan-favorite horror films that are based on true stories, some of which may surprise you, and will keep you terrified when the lights go out at night.

The Amityville Horror (1979)

Image via American International Pictures

In 1975, the Lutz family purchased a home for an exceptionally low price. Little did they know that it was because of the horrific tragedy that had occurred at the residence just one year prior. The Amityville house is one of the most famous haunted houses in America, and the movie starring Ryan Reynolds and Melissa George as the house’s new owners is nearly just as famous.

A year before George Lutz purchased the house, Ronald DeFeo Jr. shot his entire family dead. Once the Lutz family moved in, they reported all kinds of paranormal activity including a knife being knocked down when no one was there, a voice screaming “Get out!” at a priest hired to exorcize the house, and even Kathy Lutz and her two children levitating above their beds.

While all of this is terrifying and makes for a great horror film, the Lutz family’s claims have been questioned due to their financial issues while owning the house as well as their lawyer claiming that they came up with the story while intoxicated. But, let’s face it, that’s a much less interesting story.

The Strangers (2008)

The masked killers in The Strangers taunt their victims.
Image via Universal Pictures

Much like projects such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre back in the ’70s, promotion for 2008’s The Strangers purposely featured information about the horror movie being based on a real-life occurrence. In reality, the events in the film weren’t based on a specific case, but instead, the horror flick was loosely based on the Manson family’s crimes and the 1981 Keddie Cabin Murders.

Without a doubt, the influential horror feature catapulted the home invasion sub-genre to new heights and certainly had that real-life feel to it. Though no precise cases were used as inspiration, there’s absolutely no denying that similar cases made the 2008 movie feel all the more terrifying, especially to those who weren’t yet used to the home invasion atmosphere.

Open Water (2003)

Image via Lionsgate

The concept of being stranded alone in the water with vicious sharks swimming around you is one thing, but when the entire ordeal could be seen as a real-life situation, there’s arguably nothing scarier than that. The horror flick was of course based on the real-life story of Tom and Eileen Lonergan, who were left stranded while scuba diving near the Great Barrier Reef. Much like the couple in the movie, the Lonergans were abandoned in the middle of the ocean, with the bodies never being discovered.

Unlike the couple in the movie, however, scientists and law officials were convinced that the Lonergans didn’t suffer the same fate of being targeted and eaten by sharks. Still, the entire idea of being stuck in the ocean without food, shelter, or safety, it’s hard to discount how terrifying this horror movie is, especially being based on real events.

The Exorcist (1973)

'The Exorcist' director offers update on reboot
Image via Warner Bros.

The classic horror movie that nearly every fan of the genre has seen is next. While the 12-year-old Regan is at the core of The Exorcist, the real event the movie based on involved a young boy named Roland Doe.. In 1949, after the death of his aunt, Roland began to experience strange things in his home: scratching sounds, water dripping from pipes and walls, and his mattress moving unexpectedly all on its own.

After seeking help, a priest made the decision to perform an exorcism but stopped in the middle after Roland broke free of his restraints, broke off a piece of his boxspring, and used it to cut the priest. After the exorcism, scratches were found on Roland’s body, one of which wrote out the word “Louis,” signaling his parents to go to St. Louis with their family. Another exorcism was performed on Roland, this time with multiple priests and assistants present. During the ritual, they witnessed scratches as well as the mattress moving. After that, things only got worse when they claimed that Roland was possessed by at least ten demons.

The story has a happy ending though. After Roland was moved to Alexian Brothers Hospital. Another exorcism was performed, which caused seizures as well as the outburst, “Satan will always be with me!” The priests continued, however, calling on St. Michael to help them. In the end, Roland awoke and claimed to have seen St. Michael vanquishing the demons. He went on to live a normal life after that.

Scream (1996)

Scream Jamie Kennedy
Image via Dimension Films

Another cult classic is Wes Craven’s serial killer spectacle Scream. Shockingly enough, this movie is also based on a true story and real-life serial killer the Gainesville Ripper, AKA Danny Rolling. In 1990, Rolling killed five students in the Gainesville area, one from Santa Fe College and four from the University of Florida. Each student was killed in their apartment and “posed” as if to evoke more shock from the public. Because he killed with a knife, he was dubbed the Gainesville Ripper.

Although Rolling didn’t wear a mask like Ghostface, you can see the similarities in the way the two kill people: with a knife and an inclination for said posing of the bodies. Kevin Williamson began writing the film after reading an article about the Gainesville Ripper. He noticed an open window and realized how easy it could have been for someone to get in. While there are some differences between Ghostface and the real Gainesville Ripper, if you know the story’s inspiration, you can easily see it shine through in the movies.

Psycho (1960)

Psycho Norman Bates
Image via Paramount Pictures

Not putting Psycho on this list would do a disservice to all horror fans. After all, it practically ignited the horror genre as we know it. Based on the crimes of Ed Gein, otherwise known as The Butcher of Plainfield, Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece wasn’t the only horror film to draw inspiration from the real-life incident. Silence of the Lambs also took pieces of Gein’s story for the killer in the movie known as Buffalo Bill, who was also a butcher.

Gein would dismember his victims and then skin them, keeping their skin and bones for decor, dishware and, most disturbingly, as clothing. In Psycho, we see Norman Bates wearing his dead mother’s clothes, but the reality is so much worse. Gein would walk around his home dressed in dead women’s skin and also use the skin to make lampshades, chairs and other furniture covers. He was obsessed with the idea of death and, like Norman Bates, his mother. The similarities between the two are in plain sight but were also toned down for the movie, which is terrifying in itself.

The Conjuring Universe (2013-Present)

Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson in 'The Conjuring'/Bonnie Aarons in 'The Nun'
Images via Warner Bros.

Probably the most successful horror films that are based on a true story – in this case multiple ones – are the ones in the Conjuring Universe. This collection of movies features Annabelle and its sequels, The Nun and The Conjuring series. The main characters throughout each film are Ed and Lorraine Warren, a husband-and-wife team of paranormal investigators.

Each film is based on a real-life case that was documented by a real-life couple. Of course, the writers of the movie franchise have taken some liberties with the stories and characters. In reality, the pair weren’t as happily married or as in love as they are in the movies, which is heartbreaking after the most recent installment of the franchise, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It.

The Warrens’ most famous case was the one surrounding the Annabelle doll and its demonic possession. Unlike in the film, Annabelle was a Raggedy-Anne doll and a gift to nursing student Angie.. She and her roommate Donna noticed that the doll would move on its own and found hand-written notes from Annabelle scattered through their apartment when they returned home.

Once the Warrens were brought in, they realized that the doll was looking to possess a human body. At this discovery, they exorcized the apartment and the doll, taking it home to the Warren Occult Museum so its inhuman spirit couldn’t reach anyone else.


We Got This Covered is supported by our audience. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn a small affiliate commission. Learn more
related content
Read Article ‘Late Night with the Devil’ Shudder release date and time, confirmed
Late Night With The Devil
Read Article ‘Jurassic World’ reboot cast, director, plot, release date, and more
Jonathan Bailey and Scarlett Johansson superimposed over velociraptor from Jurassic World
Read Article The 11 best country movies of all time
no-country-for-old-men
Read Article Is there a ‘Rust’ movie release date?
Rust
Read Article ‘Aang: The Last Airbender’ release date, cast, and more
Aang, Katara, Sokka and friends in Avatar: The Last Airbender
Related Content
Read Article ‘Late Night with the Devil’ Shudder release date and time, confirmed
Late Night With The Devil
Read Article ‘Jurassic World’ reboot cast, director, plot, release date, and more
Jonathan Bailey and Scarlett Johansson superimposed over velociraptor from Jurassic World
Read Article The 11 best country movies of all time
no-country-for-old-men
Read Article Is there a ‘Rust’ movie release date?
Rust
Read Article ‘Aang: The Last Airbender’ release date, cast, and more
Aang, Katara, Sokka and friends in Avatar: The Last Airbender
Author
Ashlie Coon
A Maryland native with a BA in Theatre Performance as well as an AA in Communications. She spent three years in high school yearbook and participated in extracurriculars such as newspaper, creative writing and theatre. She is an avid Marvel, anime and Teen tv fan as shown in her work.
Author
Taylor Mansfield
Fascinated by the art of journalism, Taylor Mansfield has been writing for over 10 years. In the present day, she lends her expertise as a Staff Writer / Editor for WGTC, tackling a broad range of topics such as movies, television, celebrity news, and of course… *anything* horror! Because wherever there is horror — Taylor isn't far behind. She has previously contributed to entertainment sites such as GamersDecide, MovieWeb, and The Nerd Stash.