Whether the villain is a demon, malevolent entity or serial killer, horror movies terrify audiences in all manner of ways, but some of the truly scary movies are those claiming basis in reality. Knowing something happened in real life – or something similar, anyway – adds an extra something to horror.
The upcoming Winchester is the latest terrifying true story – or the latest story with some roots in truth. It’s based on the history of Sarah Winchester, a widow whose late husband worked for the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. After his death she moved to San Jose, CA, where she built and continually expanded a mansion. The film dives into her obsession with the paranormal, and the spirits that supposedly roamed the halls of the massive home. With the film so close to hitting theaters, let’s take a look back at some of the best horror films based on true stories.
The Amityville Horror
- Release: 2005
- Director: Andrew Douglas
- Stars: Ryan Reynolds, Melissa George, Phillip Baker Hall, Jessie James
The story of the Lutz family and the infamous Long Island house has been one of fascination and debate ever since the novel detailing their experiences was released in 1977, with many claiming it to be a hoax and putting in doubt the Lutz’s credibility. While the truthfulness might still be questioned by many today, the story has been the subject of numerous films, but the better of the 15 adaptations out there is not the 1979 original, but rather the 2005 remake, starring Ryan Reynolds (#Deadpool) as George Lutz and Melissa George (Triangle) as Kathy Lutz. While neither film is a masterpiece by any means, the remake was more effective in delivering a tenser atmosphere, scarier visuals and stronger performances, making it a far more entertaining horror film that really makes the audience wonder whether or not the frights were real.
- Release: 2013
- Director: James Wan
- Stars: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Ron Livingston, Lili Taylor
James Wan has become the king of the modern horror world with his combination of directorial flair with warm stories, and the prime example, and arguably his best, in the genre is the first entry into #TheConjuring franchise. Based around the experiences of the Perron family and their dark experiences with the supernatural in their Rhode Island home in 1971 and the assistance they received from paranormal investigators Ed (Wilson, Insidious) and Lorraine Warren (Farmiga, Bates Motel). The Warrens, Ed a demonologist and Lorraine a medium, were involved in numerous cases over the years, including the Amityville haunting, and Wan plans to delve into their history for the films to both scare audiences and honor the legacy of the married couple, of whom Lorraine still survives after Ed passed in 2006.
Deliver Us From Evil
- Release: 2014
- Director: Scott Derrickson
- Stars: Eric Bana, Edgar Ramirez, Sean Harris, Joel McHale
Police officers, like journalists, are trained to remain objective in every situation and learn all of the facts before taking any kind of bias or side, but sometimes even personal beliefs can factor into the job that makes one question everything they know. Deliver Us From Evil’s Ralph Sarchie (Bana, Munich), an NYPD sergeant walking a fine line between atheist and agnostic, comes across a case of multiple paranormal events all around the city connected by one man possessed by a demonic entity. While the film was based on Sarchie’s novel recounting many cases over his career in the NYPD, the story blended a few of the cases and changed some aspects, but thanks to its disturbing imagery and strong performances, it’s one that will certainly shock the modern viewers.
The Haunting in Connecticut
- Release: 2009
- Director: Peter Cornwell
- Stars: Virginia Madsen, Kyle Gallner, Martin Donovan, Elias Koteas
A new house is always a scary thing for a family, especially when the realtor fails to mention some key information about it, such as the fact it’s being haunted by spirits from the funeral home that used to be there. That’s the dilemma that the Snedeker family, in the film the Campbell’s, go through when they move into a new house in order to be closer to the hospital their son go to for his cancer treatments. While the real story has been put in more doubt than the Amityville story, the film effectively delivers some creepy visuals and solid performances to result in an entertaining ghost story.
- Release: 1987
- Director: Joseph Ruben
- Stars: Terry O’Quinn, Jill Schoelen, Shelley Hack, Stephen Shellen
A new father figure is never easy to adjust to for anyone in life, especially during the high school years, but what if your stepfather was secretly a serial killer? In The Stepfather, the titular character (O’Quinn, Lost) integrates into a new family with a new identity and gets close to them before eventually murdering them all and donning a new identity, getting rid of any evidence of his previous life as he moves on to the next family. However, after an unknown amount of time and number of families doing this, his secret is slowly catching up with him and his new stepdaughter is suspicious of his real identity. While the film’s story is mostly original, the lead character is loosely based on mass murderer John List, who murdered his entire family and planned the months in advance in order to evade suspicion and assumed a new identity, remaining hidden from the authorities for 18 years.
The Conjuring 2
- Release: 2016
- Director: James Wan
- Stars: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Madison Wolfe, Frances O’Connor
Following up the critical and commercial success of the first entry in the series, James Wan and the Hayes brothers returned to the case files of the Warrens for another hit, The Conjuring 2. Set in 1977, the film tells the story of the haunting of the Hodgson family in their Enfield council house that would become popularized as the Enfield Poltergeist and the Warrens’ assistance in ridding the family of the evil spirit, while also introducing the original element of demonic entity The Nun (soon to receive a solo film in July) to the mix. Featuring all of the stylish direction from the first film, shocking jump scares and rich characters, it was a sequel that was able to survive the slight feel of familiarity and draw audiences in for more.
- Release: 1974
- Directors: Jeff Gillen, Alan Ormsby
- Stars: Roberts Blossom, Cosette Lee, Leslie Carlson, Robert Warner
Ed Gein is one of the most infamous serial killers in the history of the United States and has been the subject of numerous films and has inspired various characters over the years ranging from Psycho’s Norman Bates to Hannibal Lecter. One of the more closer adaptations of Gein’s story in a fictionalized format was the 1974 horror film Deranged, following serial killer Ezra Cobb who was instilled by his mother to hate women and digs her back up after her death believing she is still alive and drawing in various young women and using them as decorations for his house. Though it received overall mixed reviews, Blossom’s performance was very well-received and the disturbing visuals were praised.
- Release: 1973
- Director: William Friedkin
- Stars: Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Jason Miller, Linda Blair
Often seen as one of the earliest major successes of the horror genre, the original Exorcist is still one of the most terrifying films of all-time, thanks to its combination of gruesome visuals and stellar lead performance from Blair as the possessed child at the heart of the film. Based on the novel of the same name, the film follows a veteran Catholic priest (von Sydow, Minority Report) and his partner (Miller, Rudy) who work to exorcise a powerful demon holding a strong possession over a little girl (Blair) in Georgetown. The novel the film was based on was itself based on/inspired by the 1949 exorcism of Roland Doe, and the original film was such a hit it spawned two sequel and two prequel films, as well as a sequel television series.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose
- Release: 2005
- Director: Scott Derickson
- Stars: Jennifer Carpenter, Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson, Campbell Scott
Exorcisms have always been subject to debate and controversy for the adverse health effects and psychological damage it can do, but one doesn’t often hear of the legal ramifications that can result when these rituals go awry. The Exorcism of Emily Rose is loosely based on the story of Anneliese Michel, a German woman who died during an exorcism and whose parents and priests were charged with negligence and manslaughter in the 1975 leading up to her death in 1976. While the film blends the legal drama element with the horror storytelling pretty well, it does change a few aspects from the original story, including the jury’s verdict, which in real life resulting in the accused being sentenced to jail for six months and three years of probation, whereas the film resulted in the jury also finding them guilty, but instead choosing to opting for a sentence of time served.
- Release: 2005
- Director: Greg McLean
- Stars: John Jarratt, Cassandra Magrath, Kestie Morassi, Nathan Phillips
Being a tourist anywhere can be a bit worrisome, especially in a foreign country with laws different from your own. It gets even scarier when lost in a desert expanse. In Wolf Creek, audiences follow two British and Australian backpackers as they journey through the Australian outback, where they’re taken captive by psychopath Mick Taylor and then hunted through the desert. While not directly based on any one true event, the film is loosely based on the murders of Ivan Milat in the ‘90s and Bradley Murdoch in 2001. Wolf Creek earned fans with grindhouse style filmmaking, and has gone on to spawn a sequel and a TV series.
- Release: 2008
- Director: Bryan Bertino
- Stars: Scott Speedman, Liv Tyler, Gemma Ward, Glenn Howerton
One would hope the safest place to hide from all the evil in the world is home, but when home becomes the one place you can’t stay, it’s truly a terrifying place. Writer/director Bryan Bertino injected elements of the Tate murders and break-ins from his childhood neighborhood into that concept to make The Strangers, which follows a young couple terrorized in their home by three masked assailants. The invaders toy with the couple, hiding and destroying their phones, allowing them to make it to their car only to destroy it, all as the perpetrators move freely in and out of the house. The Strangers has a dark and tense atmosphere and chilling villains, and after years in development hell a sequel (still purporting to be based on a true story) is set to release in March.