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These horror movies were inspired by unbelievable true stories (or claims of truth) that are among the most shocking or controversial.

With all due respect to Dracula, the most frightening stories are those we relate to. Stories grounded in reality creep under our skin, making us lock our doors while we breathe “there but for the grace of god go I” or our non-denominational equivalent. Given the insidious dread of real-world threats, it’s not surprising that horror creators often visit the well of true stories.

However, “Based on a True Story” is a very forgiving title card that covers all manner of sins. There should, in theory, be a separation between “based on a true story” and “inspired by true events,” but the two are often used interchangeably. For our purposes, I’ve adhered to movies that truly reflect their source material.

The Amityville Horror (1979 and 2005)

The True Story

When they moved into the most famous lot on Ocean Avenue, the Lutz family had no idea they were moving into the house that would launch a thousand sub-par sequels. Ronny DeFeo murdered his entire family in the house before George, Kathy, and their three children moved into the picturesque home.
After 28 days of uncanny occurrences, the family fled the house abruptly, abandoning their earthly possessions in their haste to escape. The family later collaborated with author Jay Anson on a book about their experiences, aptly titled The Amityville Horror.

The Movie

While there is controversy a-plenty about the veracity of the book and its sequels, the movie adaptation is embraced as a classic. With a cast capably led by James Brolin and Margot Kidder, it’s no wonder the film has stood the test of time, though it is remarkable how impressively every subsequent sequel fumbled the bag. They truly and deeply stink and should only be braved by completists.

In 2005, Ryan Reynolds put on his James Brolin pants, starring in a largely maligned remake. Critics panned it; I liked it! It’s less grounded and more fantastic, gorier by a large margin. George Lutz claimed he wasn’t consulted for the movie, so we are left to wonder if a movie deviating from a huckster’s account is less trustworthy than the original fairytale.

Hounds of Love (2016)

The True Story

David and Catherine Birnie and their vicious crime spree left a permanent scar on Perth’s collective consciousness. The married couple kidnapped, raped, and murdered four women who they buried in shallow graves. Kate Moir, the Birnies’ fifth abductee, managed to end their rampage when she escaped their home and reported her captors to the police.

The Movie

Hounds of Love follows young Vicki Maloney as she tries to survive her abduction by Evelyn and John White. Vicki survives by manipulating the couple and playing them against each other. Simultaneously, Vicki’s mother, Maggie, desperately searches for her missing teenage daughter.

While the writer and director of Hounds of Love claimed the film wasn’t specifically based on the Birnies’ crimes, the similarities are remarkable. The film’s resolution differs from the real-life events’ conclusion, and the screenplay shifts the power dynamics between the husband and wife. However, Vicki’s abuse echoes that of Kate and fellow victim Susannah Candy in many very specific ways.

Both Vicki and Susannah were forced to deceive their families by sending home letters claiming they were ok. Both girls are the daughters of surgeons in Perth. Even the location where Evelyn and John abducted Vicki mirrors the spot where the Birnies took Susannah from.

Borderland (2007)

The True Story

There is very little anyone could do to develop a fictional story that is stranger than Adolfo de Jesus Constanzo‘s real life and crimes. Constanzo was the end fusion of a natural criminal predisposition, a mysticism susceptibility, and a messiah complex. He founded a cult that mixed Vodou and Palo Monte with brutal results.

Constanzo convinced cartels that he could perform rituals to bring them good fortune. These ceremonies often involved sacrifices. He worked his way up the Mexico City food chain and became functionally untouchable by both gangs and police. He sacrificed his enemies and ran his cult with no interference from any authority until he abducted and killed Mark Kilroy.

Kilroy was an American college student, and Texas authorities pressured Mexican officials until they arrested Constanzo and raided his compound, where they exhumed fifteen corpses, including Kilroy’s.

The Movie

Borderland is a descendant of the Hostel School of Filmmaking. It roots its brutality in mostly unlikable American characters getting murdered in strange lands.
The unlikable Americans, in this case, are Phil, Ed, and Henry, traveling to Mexico because they believe the looser law enforcement suits their particular brand of assholery. Phil is abducted by a cult that practices Palo Monte, run by a serial killer. Sound familiar?

The cult’s abduction of Phil is about where the similarities end. Without giving any spoilers away, the film follows a different path than Constanzo and his cult. Still, it is clear Borderland wouldn’t exist without Constanzo.

The Entity (1982)

The True Story

Doris Bither‘s story might have gone unnoticed and unremarked upon if it weren’t for one exploitative detail. The mother of four’s story of poltergeists and supernatural goings-on is relatively mundane until she mentions the ghosts who raped her.

The story is sad enough in its own right; Doris and her children lived in a condemned and dilapidated home. Doris survived childhood trauma only to endure abuse and develop substance abuse issues.

Kerry Gaynor and Barry Taff, parapsychologists on paper and grifters in trade, checked out the house, took some shitty pictures, and called it a haunting. Latter-day appraisals of the case view it more critically, acknowledging that over-exposure, confirmation bias, and a strained, traumatized family searching for meaning caused the phenomena.

The Movie

For the sake of objectivity, I want to disclose that I’ve never seen this film. Up to this point, I was speaking from a place of experience; for The Entity, I am speaking from a place called Wikipedia.

The Movie changes Doris’s name to Carla Moran but retains the fundamental salient details. To whit: a single mother moves into a haunted house with her children. She is violated by a spirit and seeks help from parapsychologists. The movie ups the exploitation level, increasing the heroine’s sexual encounters with the ghosts.

The film doesn’t critically examine the parapsychologists or interrogate the veracity of Doris/Carla’s claims. However, it does give her a backstory similar to Bither’s true life background.

Fire in the Sky (1993)

The True Story

As with so many of these movies, it feels incumbent upon me to qualify the nebulous nature of “true stories.” Sometimes, truth is in the eye of the beholder, and we have no choice but to take it in good faith that Travis Walton recounted his lived encounter and how he experienced it.

Walton vanished for five days in 1975. An extensive search was executed, but neither helicopters nor hounds could locate the missing man. Walton showed up on a roadside, claiming aliens had taken him. His memories of the event were vague, but he was confident he saw a tractor beam and three small, bald creatures. Walton took and passed a polygraph — a fallible but compelling bit of evidence.

Popular opinion was divided on the veracity of the claims, but everyone, believers and skeptics alike, was intrigued. Walton wrote a book called The Walton Experience, which Tracy Torme adapted into…

The Movie

The nightmare fuel of many a ’90s kid, Fire in the Sky presented a traumatic vision of alien abductions we couldn’t look away from. Studios deemed Walton’s account of his abduction too vague and generic and tasked Torme with upping the drama and terror. Fire in the Sky describes Walton’s abduction as a brutal ordeal, a physically grueling and vicious endurance test.

The Movie’s graphic depictions of alien tortures fucked many of us up, though they veered far from Walton’s (already fabulous) account.

CONCLUSION
Truth, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. The best fiction often takes its inspiration from reality, finding the core of fear hidden inside and expanding it to something tangible that lodges in the spine. If you prefer your horror grounded in reality, these movies will make you double-check the locks on your doors.

2 Comments

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  1. on May 28, 2024 at 11:54 pm
    Kristine McCarthy wrote:
    I LOVE True Crime Horror I thought horror porn too 10 list was the greatest! Now I'm unable to decide if the true crime horror movie list is the greatest! I'm a true crime official junkie and literally watch it every day and horror being my favorite movie genre, the 2 go hand in hand! Supernatural is really my movie genre favorite and true crime TV shows/documentaries being the viewing pleasure only other than an actual movie that I will watch! Love you and this sure is a fantastic site and fantastic job by everyone involved, I can't thank you enough for the entertainment I've been missing out on as well as knowledge, facts, and just knowing so many other like minded people do really exist on the same planet as I is awesome in and of itself 🙏🏻 thank you all
    Reply
    • on May 30, 2024 at 9:41 pm
      Stephanie Malone wrote:

      Thank you SO much for your kind words and your support of the site. We are thrilled that you are finding great content to entertain, educate, and engage. Hearing feedback like this absolutely makes our day, and we are so grateful for readers like you! If there is anything else you’d like to see, please let us know. We are always excited to hear ideas from our readership and always looking for more great content to bring your way.

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