10 Terrifying Horror Movies Based on True Stories

Sometimes “based on a true story” means “this could happen to you.”

By DeAnna Janes
10 Terrifying Horror Movies Based on True Stories

A lot can be said about the sensational horrors that haunt the big screen. Despite the blood and guts they’re easy enough to enjoy. After all, they could never occur in real life, right? But what happens when the popcorn horror we watch is rooted in fact?

Below are 10 horror movies based on true stories that left a permanent scar our psyches.

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horror movies based on true stories

Still from Psycho via Shamley Productions

Alfred Hitchcock’s classic about a schizoid motel owner and the mother he’ll never please lands at the top of any best-of list, including best of true horror. Ed Gein, the notorious Wisconsin killer and body snatcher was devastated when his overbearing mother passed away in 1945. But Ed had plans to keep women in his life—namely, carving up female corpses and constructing household items out of their bones and skin. The grave robber’s grisly ways inspired countless films, perhaps the most infamous being Psycho. Hit the road with Janet Leigh, then cue up Deranged for another Gein-inspired take.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

horror movies based on true stories

Still from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre via Vortex Productions

Easily one of the most punishing films of the 20th century—and one of the only ‘70s horror films that remains effective today—Tobe Hooper’s slasher film about a group of friends who are terrorized by deadly Texas cannibals claims it’s based on fact. While a chainsaw-wielding maniac in a skin suit never actually stalked the back roads of Texas (that we know of, anyway), the film does have a whiff of gruesome truth to it: It, too, was inspired by the naughty deeds of Mr. Gein.


horror movies based on true stories

Still from Borderland via Lionsgate

University of Texas junior Mark Kilroy suffered more than just a hangover during spring break 1989. Soon after he and his friends crossed the Rio Grande into Matamoros, Mexico, they lost track of one another. His friends eventually made it back in Brownsville, Texas; Kilroy, meanwhile, was kidnapped and sodomized, then dismembered and sacrificed, all at the bloody hands of a Voodoo cult led by “El Padrino,” Adolfo de Jesus Constanzo. Director Zev Berman brings all of the vicious horror to life in Borderland.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

horror movies based on true stories

Still from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer via Maljack Productions

On the hunt for a perverse thriller? Look no further than Michael Rooker as one of America’s most prolific serial killers. Henry Lee Lucas, a Southern drifter, confessed to hundreds of murders in the 1980s. While John McNaughton’s 1986 crime horror is technically a fictional representation of Lucas’s life, it’s underlying reality still sends a shiver down your spine: Henry is real and could be living right next door.


horror movies based on true stories

Still from Ravenous via Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

With references to the unforgettable Donner party, this gruesome historical horror film is primarily based upon real-life American prospector and convicted cannibal Alfred “Alferd” Packer. Packer stood accused of murdering, roasting, and devouring his fellow travelers in 1874, after being stranded in the high Colorado Mountains during winter.  Packer eventually admitted to his deed, and was first sentenced to death—though he escaped execution thanks to a retrial.

The Girl Next Door

horror movies based on true stories

Still from The Girl Next Door via Modern Girl Productions

While The Girl Next Door is based on Jack Ketchum’s novel of the same name, both titles are rooted in the real-life brutality suffered by teenager Silvia Likens. Fact is, in 1965, Likens was starved, tortured, mutilated, and murdered in a basement at the hands of her caregiver, Gertrude Baniszewski, and several neighborhood boys in Indianapolis, Indiana. Gregory Wilson’s unflinching horror is at once enthralling and hard to watch.

The Amityville Horror

horror movies based on true stories

Still from Amityville Horror via American International Pictures

Believe it or not, the haunted house story that inspired the 1979 classic chiller was ripped from the headlines. According to the Lutz family, they spent 28 days losing the battle of good vs. evil in the now-legendary three-story colonial on Ocean Avenue on NYC’s Long Island. It may be a hard pill to swallow, but the Oscar-nominated film—and all of its GET OUT! Hospitality—is always a good time.

The Silent House

horror movies based on true stories

Still from The Silent House via Tokio Films

Somewhere in 1940s Uruguay, two men and a woman entered a secluded country house, only to be brutalized by forces hiding within. In director Gustavo Hernandez’s Spanish film, that woman’s name is Laura, and the secrets she unlocks are darker than a Hitchcock mystery. The film, which spawned an English-language remake starring Elizabeth Olsen, is supposedly based on true events and is told in real time, filmed in a seemingly single 88-minute shot.

The Serpent and the Rainbow

horror movies based on true stories

Still from The Serpent and the Rainbow via Universal Pictures

We’re sure you’re aware of the real-life nightmares that inspired a little franchise on Elm Street, but what about this Wes Craven gem? Believe it or not, The Serpent and the Rainbow is inspired by a real-life zombie. Don’t believe us? Read this. Then cue up Craven’s witching horror starring Bill Pullman as the anthropologist who heads to Haiti to study a Voodoo drug that turns its victims into the undead.

Dead Ringers

horror movies based on true stories

Still from Dead Ringers via Morgan Creek Productions

Dead Ringers is based on the novel Twins, which itself drew inspiration from the mysterious deaths of real-life identical siblings Stewart and Cyril Marcus. The successful gynecologists were found dead together in their Manhattan apartment. Cronenberg’s psychological thriller is just as unsettling. About one gynecologist who passes off his love interests to his twin brother doc after he’s finished, Dead Ringers blurs reality with fantasy through the use of body horror, schizophrenia, and macabre wit.

Featured Photo: Still from "Psycho" via Shamley Productions; Ed Gein via Wikimedia Commons