Stranger Than Fiction: The Origins Behind 9 Famous Horror Movies

By Occult Museum
horror movies based on true stories the exorcist

Still from The Exorcist via Warner Bros.

All writers draw their inspiration from one source or another. Whether it is a personal experience or a story they heard, and it is no different for horror movies. Many writers take real life events and expand on them. So if you’re sitting there safe in the belief that Freddy Krueger or Norman Bates are just harmless fictional creations, think again, because sometimes, the truth can be far stranger than fiction.


A Nightmare on Elm Street

horror movies based on true stories nightmare on elm street

Still from A Nightmare on Elm Street via New Line Cinema

Film: Freddy Krueger, a suspected pedophile, is burned alive by the parents of his supposed victims. After his death, he haunts the children and parents alike and takes his vengeance on them. He finds his victims while they sleep and murder them in their dreams.

Reality: Obviously there isn’t any nightmare murderer running around, but Wes Craven was inspired by the stories in the LA Times that detailed the deaths of Cambodians in their sleep. Though the paper wrote three articles on three different deaths, the paper never drew any correlation between them. Craven was interested in one particular case, when a man was petrified of falling asleep. When he finally did, days later, he died for unexplained reasons.

The Mothman Prophecies

horror movies based on true stories mothman prophecies

Still from Mothman Prophecies via Sony Pictures Entertainment

Film: The film details the fictionalized encounter with the legendary Mothman creature. It appears to be a winged human, and is said to foretell ominous events.

Reality: The legend of the Mothman is alive and well in the eastern U.S. One such foretelling credited to the Mothman was the collapse of a bridge that caused 46 deaths. People still claim to see the Mothman every now and then.

The Hills Have Eyes

horror movies based on true stories The Hills Have Eyes

Still from The Hills Have Eyes via Blood Relations Co.

Film: A car breaks down and a family is left stranded in a desolate area of California that is not intended to be traveled on. What they encounter is a group of cannibalistic savages who are looking for something to eat.

Reality: While the reality dates back to the 16th century, it is no less unsettling. Alexander Bean was the leader of a group of cave dwellers, who got their food by trapping, killing and eating humans. Over 1,000 people are estimated to have been killed and eaten in the 25 years this group was active.


horror movies based on true stories jaws

Still from Jaws via Universal Pictures

Film: A massive great white shark terrorizes the small island town of Amity, so the new chief of police, a scientist and a local fisherman team up in order to hunt down the man-eating monster and stop the attacks.

Reality: While the size is certainly exaggerated, a string of shark attacks in 1916 along the New Jersey coastline inspired the story of jaws. A fisherman caught a shark, ending the hysteria and adding to the lore of the man-eating shark.

The Conjuring

cursed movie sets

Still from The Conjuring via New Line Cinema

Film: An unwitting family moves to a new home with a lot of history. When they begin to experience strange and dangerous paranormal events, they invite paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren into their home in order to get to the bottom of their situation.

Reality: The reality stays close to the fiction in this case. The two famous paranormal investigation couple entered the old farmhouse and declared that it was indeed haunted by a witch named Bathsheba Sharon. The spirit had lived there in the 19th century, and tormented the family for the length of their residence.

An American Haunting

horror movies based on true stories american haunting

Still from American Haunting via Allan Zeman Productions

Film: After a dispute over land John Bell is cursed by notorious witch Kathe Batts, who sets loose an entity that begins to terrorize his daughter.

Reality: The story is based on the legend of the Bell witch, who was known for tormenting the Bell family. The movie gives a voice to this legend, who had some famous believers, namely Andrew Jackson.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose

horror movies based on true stories Exorcism of Emily Rose

Still from The Exorcism of Emily Rose via Screen Gems

Film: Emily Rose is possessed by an evil spirit and dies during an exorcism. The priest who performed the exorcism is then put on trial for murder, as no one truly believed the girl was possessed.

Reality: The story is based on the 1960’s-1970’s attempts of extracting demons from a German girl named Anneliese Michel. After enduring 67 rites of exorcism Anneliese died of pneumonia and malnourishment, but skeptics claim there was no possession and the priests, as well as her parents were charged with negligent homicide and sentenced to six months in prison.


classic horror movies

Still from Psycho via Paramount Pictures

Film: A woman steals a sizeable amount of money from her boss and goes on the run. She stops in a remote hotel, only to be greeted by a creepy innkeeper who runs the hotel with his mother. The story spirals into a murderous, and deeply deranged tale as the audience uncovers the truth behind the pleasantries.

Reality: Norman Bates was only one of a few characters based on the real-world psycho, Ed Gein. He was a murderer and grave robber, and collected human skin from his victims. Out of this, he made masks, belts and furniture coverings. Novelist Robert Bloch changed this character to form Norman Bates, but other writers picked up where he left off. Leatherface from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs were also based on Ed Gein.

The Exorcist

exorcism movies

Still from The Exorcist via via Warner Bros.

Film: A young girl is possessed by the devil, and two Catholic priests attempt to rid her of her demonic infestation.

Reality: The author of The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty, based his story on a 1949 article that detailed the exorcism of a young, unnamed boy. This was an official, sanctioned exorcism, and it followed the priests who were charged with the task. Much like in the film, the boy was said to speak in tongues, hover inexplicably and move things with his mind.

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