13 classic horror films inspired by real events

By ·October 31, 2017 10:00 am

It’s that time of year again, Halloween is upon us and we all enjoy the thrill of allowing ourselves to be scared silly. A number of us enjoy turning to horror films to do so, a fun and exciting way to get that rush we’re seeking.

While some horror will impact us more than others, sometimes even inflicting a degree of fear that we carry with through the years, we ultimately know that they’re works of fiction. But what if they weren’t? As it turns out, there’s a vast number of horror-themed films that are not quite as make-believe as one might expect.

Personally, I always turn to the classics, as they maintain a unique and unsettling atmosphere that is rarely present in modern horror and still chills me to this very day. Below are 13 classic horror films allegedly inspired by real events. I’ve ranked them by what I find to be the least creepiest to the most, based on the film and the factors that influenced them.

13] Jaws

Jaws (1975) Image credit: Universal Pictures

Storyline: A local sheriff teams up with an oceanographer and a shark hunter to track down an enormous great white that’s been terrorizing the community by using their beaches as its feeding ground.

Real event: Jaws was adapted from Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel of the same name, which was inspired by a series of real-life shark attacks that plagued the New Jersey shore in 1916. During July of that year, five swimmers were attacked (4 of the assaults were fatal) by a juvenile great white over the span of 12 days as the shark prowled 70 miles of beaches along the Atlantic. The events caused a wave of panic that induced shark-hunts, and the beast was ultimately killed by a man as it attacked his boat.

12] A Nightmare on Elm Street

Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) Image credit: New Line Cinema

Storyline: Nancy Thompson and a group of her friends are being tormented in their dreams by Freddy Krueger, a disfigured killer donning a glove outfitted with razors. When their dreams begin to turn into a gruesome reality, the friends must uncover troubling secrets of the past in an effort to defeat him.

Real event: A Nightmare On Elm Street was supposedly inspired by “Sudden Unexpected Death Syndrome”—the sudden death of a person during sleep. After reading articles about the real-life deaths of several seemingly healthy Asian refugees who expired inexplicably while having nightmares, Wes Craven was driven to create his most memorable monster.

11] Child’s Play

Child’s Play (1988) Image credit: MGM

Storyline: After being mortally wounded, serial killer and fugitive Charles Lee Ray transfers his soul into a “Good Guy” doll via a Haitian Vodou spell. The much-sought-after toy is soon purchased by an unsuspecting single mother as a gift for her son Andy’s birthday. Charles, going by the name of Chucky, confides his true identity to Andy and soon resumes his killing spree. Not wanting to be trapped in the body of a doll forever, his only escape would be to transfer his soul into the first human he revealed his true identity to, placing the boy in mortal danger.

Real event: Child’s Play is rumored to be inspired by a nurse who allegedly put a voodoo curse on author Robert Eugene Otto, making one of his childhood dolls, referred to as “Robert the Doll”, come to life and torment him and his family. It’s also been claimed that Chucky was modeled after Cabbage Patch Kids and My Buddy dolls from the 80s, and that the original script dealt with the effect of advertising/television on children.

10] The Serpent and the Rainbow

Bill Pullman as Dennis Alan in The Serpent And The Rainbow (1988) Image credit: Universal Pictures

Storyline: An anthropologist travels to Haiti after hearing rumors of a drug being used by black magic practitioners to turn people into zombies. What transpires is a nightmarish journey into the eerie and deadly world of voodoo.

Real event: The Serpent and the Rainbow is considered to be an embellished adaptation of the 1985 non-fiction book of the same name by Canadian scientist Wade Davis. In the book, Davis relays his experiences in Haiti investigating the story of Clairvius Narcisse, who was allegedly poisoned, buried alive, and revived with a herbal brew which produced what was called a zombie. His claims were criticized for a number of reasons, and their veracity is considered debatable.

9] I Spit On Your Grave

I Spit On Your Grave (1978) Image credit: The Jerry Gross Organization

Storyline: An aspiring young writer rents a riverside cabin in upstate New York to work on her new novel. Her presence attracts the attention of a number of rowdy male locals who soon capture, sexually assault and beat her, leaving her for dead. She survives, and thereafter systematically hunts down and each of her perpetrators in horrific ways as a means of retribution.

Real event: Filmmaker Meir Zarchi claims that he was motivated to make I Spit on Your Grave after his own life experience. In 1974, he and a friend came across a woman that had been brutally raped and assaulted. They aided the traumatized woman by bringing her to the police instead of the hospital, a decision he would later regret because she was treated unfairly. He wrote the story based on this horrendous incident, imagining what could have happened were the woman to take matters into her own hands.

A number of countries initially banned the film, declaring that it glorifies violence against women. Zarchi denies that the film is exploitative, and feels that its violent nature was necessary to tell the story.

8] The Exorcist

Linda Blair as Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist (1973) Image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

Storyline: Accompanied by her 12 year-old daughter Regan, actress Chris McNeil relocates to Washington D.C. where she is filming a movie. She soon begins noticing strange and unsettling behavior in her daughter and seeks the help of medical professionals who are unable to find anything that would explain the girl’s actions. As the situation escalates, Chris turns to Father Karras, a Roman Catholic priest and psychiatrist. The church ultimately sends Father Merrin, who has previously conducted exorcisms, and the pair face off against an old demonic enemy.

Real event: The Exorcist was adapted from William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel of the same name, which was heavily inspired by the real-life exorcism of 14 year old Ronald Hunkeler, the alleged victim of demonic possession in the late 1940s. A vast number of people, including family and friends, priests, students, and medical professionals all claim to have witnessed Ronald’s inexplicable behavior. The attempts at an exorcism were recorded in detail by the attending priest. Although changes were made to divert attention away from the boy and his family, the events and the supernatural claims surrounding them were what inspired Blatty’s novel, which would go on to become one of the most horrifying films of all time.

7] Psycho

Janet Leigh as Marion Crane in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) Image credit: Universal Pictures

Storyline: A Phoenix secretary named Marion Crane embezzles $40,000 from her employer’s client and goes on the lam. Taking back roads to avoid the authorities, she is eventually overcome by exhaustion and checks into a remote motel run by a nervous young man seemingly under the domination of his mother.

Real event: While Norman Bates is a fictional character, he was inspired by real-life murderer Ed Gein. Although considered a suspect in a number of unsolved cases, Gein would only confess to the murders of two women and was also responsible for a number of grave robberies. After his mother’s death he began creating a “woman suit” in order to become her—enabling him to literally crawl into her skin. Gein was ultimately diagnosed with schizophrenia and institutionalized, and his story became the genesis for the 1959 novel Psycho by Robert Bloch that was later adapted for the big screen by the legendary Alfred Hitchcock.

6] The Legend of Boggy Creek

The Fouke Monster in The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972) Image Credit: Howco International Pictures

Storyline: A horror docudrama about the “Fouke Monster”, a Sasquatch-type creature that has been sighted in and around Fouke, Arkansas since the 1950s, inciting terror upon the community and its residents.

Real event: The film claims to be a true story, inspired by actual newspaper accounts of sightings, and details the existence of the creature. Many of the individuals who claim to have experienced these events actually played themselves in the movie. Despite being sighted and even hunted by locals, the creature has yet to be captured and is said to still stalk the swamps of southern Arkansas to this day.

5] The Amityville Horror

The Amityville Horror (1979) Image credit: American International Pictures

Storyline: Despite full disclosure by the real estate agent regarding the home’s history, George and Kathy Lutz purchase their dreamhouse on the coast of Long Island. After moving in with their three children, the family begin to experience unnerving manifestations that soon turn into a hellish ordeal that threatens their very existence. They must fight for survival or flee for their lives.

Real event: The Amityville Horror is based on the 1977 novel of the same name by Jay Anson, which claims to recount the actual paranormal experiences of the Lutz family. The Lutz’s purchased their home in the Long Island town of Amityville in 1974, which 13 months prior had been the harrowing scene of a mass murder—during which 23-year-old Ronald J. DeFeo Jr. murdered his entire family as they slept, including his parents and four siblings. Though there’s controversy over the truthfulness, the Lutz’s story has been propelled into legend and the home on Ocean Ave. is widely considered to be America’s most haunted house.

4] The Town that Dreaded Sundown

The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976) Image credit: American International Pictures

Storyline: The documentary-style story of a ranger on the hunt for hooded killer who is terrorizing the border town of Texarkana, Arkansas in 1946—leaving the local police force at a loss and no less than five murder victims in his wake. He was never caught.

Real event: The Town That Dreaded Sundown film lays the following claim: “the incredible story you are about to see is true, where it happened and how it happened; only the names have been changed.” It is based actual crimes that took place in Texarkana, Texas (near the border of Arkansas), and were attributed to an unidentified serial killer known as the Phantom Killer. The actual Phantom attacked eight people in 1946. The films general outline of the events closely follows reality, with only minor artistic license utilized. Like in the film, the real killer was never identified or apprehended.

3] Fire in the Sky

D. B. Sweeney as Travis Walton in Fire In the Sky (1993) Image credit: Paramount Pictures

Storyline: An Arizona logger named Travis Walton mysteriously disappears for five days in an alleged encounter with a flying saucer in 1975, during which he was subjected to a series of painful, unearthly medical experiments.

Real event: Fire in the Sky is based on the real Travis Walton’s 1978 book, “The Walton Experience”, in which he alleges that he was abducted by aliens and describes his ordeal. Though skeptics consider it a hoax, the Walton case received mainstream publicity and remains one of the well-known alien abduction stories to this day.

2] The Hills Have Eyes

Michael Berryman as Pluto in The Hills Have Eyes (1977) Image credit: Vanguard Monarch Releasing Corporation

Storyline: A family travelling to California haphazardly drives through a remote Air Testing range closed to the public. They crash and find themselves stranded, which turns out to be the least of their troubles as they soon become stalled by a clan of wild cannibalistic savages and forced to fight for their very lives.

Real event: The Hills Have Eyes is considered to be a modern retelling of a real-life clan consisting of 48 people that resided in Scotland somewhere between the 13th and 16th centuries. Clan leader Alexander Bean and his female companion took up residency in an isolated coastal cave where they remained undiscovered for a quarter of a century. The couple spawned eight sons, six daughters, eighteen grandsons and fourteen granddaughters. A number of the grandchildren were said to be products of incest.

The clan would remain in caves by day and ambush their victims by night. The disappearances of their victims did not go unnoticed by the local villagers, who launched several searches to find the culprits. Finally discovered via a manhunt consisting of 400 men and several bloodhounds, which was reportedly lead by King James VI of Scotland, they were executed without trial for the mass murder and cannibalisation of over 1,000 people. Many historians believe story to be vastly exaggerated, and it has since passed into folklore.

1] The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Gunnar Hansen as Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) Image credit: Bryanston Pictures

Storyline: Sally Hardesty and her wheelchair bound brother Franklin, along with three friends, embark on a journey through the back roads of Texas. En route to visit their decrepit family home with the intent of investigating rumors that their grandfather’s grave had been vandalized, they soon fall prey to a murderous cannibalistic family and a butcher in a mask made of human skin.

Real event: While the plot of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is entirely fictional, the character of Leatherface is loosely based on real-life murder and body-snatcher, Ed Gein. Though Gein did not wield a chainsaw, he was found to be in the possession of human remains which he used to fashion trophies and keepsakes out of—including clothing and furniture made from human bones and skin, as well as the “face mask” of at least one of his victims.

While most films on the list are only loosely based on real events, it’s still unsettling to know that there’s even a degree of truth behind them, making them all the more disturbing. Do you have a favorite horror film based on or inspired by true events? Let us know in the comments below.

Image credits: Universal Pictures, New Line Cinema, MGM, The Jerry Gross Organization, Warner Bros. Pictures, Howco International Pictures, American International Pictures, Paramount Pictures, Vanguard Monarch Releasing Corporation, Bryanston Pictures


Written by Jennifer Izykowski

Lead Writer

Jennifer is currently a stay a full time homemaker residing in the Adirondack region of upstate New York with a background in business management. At present, she provides care for disabled family members.

Hobbies and interests include homesteading, self defense and tactical training, hiking, photography, writing, reading, drawing, painting, television, comics, and film.

Specialty subjects include television, film, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Star Wars, and The Walking Dead comics and television series.

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