The fantastical world of cinematic horror can offer a great escape, but many horror films have their roots firmly planted in true and terrifying reality.
What is so scary about a horror movie? Is it the unknown assailant waiting in the dark? Or maybe it’s the eerie stillness that silently fills the room? For me, it’s knowing that something terrible really could happen…that something did happen before.
I’ve seen quite a few movies that began with opening credits stating “the film you are about to see is based on real events.” That one sentence has the power to switch my brain into overdrive. Totally ignoring the “based on” part, I immediately think that all I’m about to witness happened somewhere on Earth, somewhere in a town just like mine, to someone just like me. That thought is quite alarming.
The Devil Inside
I’ve seen this most often with movies about exorcisms. The Exorcist, of course, is a pretty famous movie. But it has its roots in a 1940’s exorcism, reportedly the first (and most notorious) exorcism performed in the US. The Exorcism of Emily Rose has ties to a German court case involving the exorcism and subsequent death of Anneliese Michel in 1976.
Movies with exorcisms, demons, and religious doctrine can be really scary, even for people with different beliefs. Here, we get groups of people who believe in supernatural forces compelling them to commit awful acts on the world as well as themselves, and other groups of people frozen in awe over non-supernatural, superhuman actions.
Whether you believe in exorcisms or not, these events happen, and still go on today. In the US, over the past 10 years, the number of official priest exorcists has more than quadrupled from 12 to 50 while books and films about exorcism and the supernatural have proliferated in the cultural mainstream.
Editor’s Note: There’s a powerful documentary currently showing on Netflix called Hostage to the Devil, about Father Malachi Martin, the infamous Irish priest believed to have inspired The Exorcist. Regardless of what you believe about exorcisms and demonic possessions, it’s a fascinating watch.
Real Life Boogymen
Movies based on serial killers are probably the next most-known “inspired by” movies, and I’m not surprised why; unlike exorcisms, tales of a prolific serial killer’s exploits are undeniable truths, regardless of religion. Sure, you could not believe in demons, but seeing a news conference about decomposing bodies stuffed into oil drums being taken out of Jeffrey Dahmer’s apartment is pretty hard to disprove.
It’s said that there are 25 to 50 active serial killers in the US at any given time; that’s about 25 to 50 too many, making serial killer movies all too relevant even today.
Love them or hate them, serial killers make great movie villains. Their stories are salacious and obscene, and no matter how ghastly their crimes, everyone is just a little bit interested in the story. A few real-life unsolved murders have played out in in movies about California’s Zodiac Killer, The Phantom Killer from Texarkana, Texas, and Finland’s Lake Bodom killer. And though not at all a true event, a bit of John Wayne Gacy can be seen in the likeness of a certain child-killing clown.
But the most prolific killer to grace the silver screen is Ed Gein. Traces of his crimes against women are seen in Psycho (1960), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), House of 1000 Corpses (2003), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), and countless others.
The highly anticipated film Leatherface (2017) will be the eight film in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise, serving as a prequel to the the 1974 horror classic. It will explain the origin of the series’ infamous chainsaw-wielding, human skin-wearing lead character (partly inspired by Gein).
And who could forget the ever-present haunted house story? Phantoms, ghosts, and curses have haunted homely dwellings since the dawn of time, as seen in The Amityville Horror (1979), The Conjuring (2013), The Haunting in Connecticut (2009), The Entity (1982), and 1408 (2007). No one really knows what happens when we die, so a disembodied head floating down a hallway might actually be possible.
One thing we all can agree on though that knowing a person (or oftentimes, many people) has died in the place you live in is spine-chilling.
That wisp of air on the back of your neck could be the AC running, or the breath of a prior owner. The creaking you hear above you could be the house settling, or a specter roaming the halls. It’s even worse when a hotel is haunted, because you may never know if the bed you’re sleeping on was last touched by a dead body.
The current blockbuster horror film to come out of the ever-expanding and hugely successful Conjuring cinematic universe, Annabelle: Creation, is also said to be inspired by true events. The demonically possessed Annabelle doll, who made her first appearance in The Conjuring, is based on a real “evil” Raggedy Ann doll.
Stranger Than Fiction
My favorite “inspired by” movies, though, are documentaries. They are the closest you can get to showing the real story, as opposed to an overly dramatized version. The Jeffrey Dahmer Files chronicles the last few years of Jeffrey Dahmer’s killing spree, featuring the neighbors and police officers involved. My Amityville Horror follows Daniel Lutz as he relives the nights in his old Amityville home. Cropsey (2009) and Killer Legends (2014) show the truths behind the ghost stories.
Nightmares in Red, White, and Blue (2009) isn’t wholly based on a true story, as it details horror movies from their start in the 1890s to present day, but it presents movies that are a sign of the times, detailing how horror was influenced by historic and cultural events in each decade.
Note: You can watch Cropsey, Killer Legends, and Nightmares in Red, White, and Blue for free on Amazon Prime Video. The Jeffrey Dahmer Files and My Amityville Horror are available to rent on Amazon Video (or watch free with an Amazon Shudder subscription). You can also find a large selection of great serial killer documentaries on Netflix.
You don’t have to look far to find a little darkness in life. Every person has their own story, and, like the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, every person is connected in some way to what could become this summer’s biggest blockbuster. Movies based on true events aren’t only scary for their shocks and screams. They’re scary because something terrible happened — and it could happen again. The truth is definitely stranger than fiction.