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A lot of movies these days say "based on a true story." The truth is, filmmakers often take some liberties with these stories, stretching truths or timeframes, changing and adding characters, or simply filling in gaps with artistic choices. All of these movies should be taken with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, here are some of the most chilling horror films based on true stories. Many of them are, in fact, verified to be largely true. Others, if not certainly true, are at least based on enough factual, strange events to give you a chill down your spine.
Ed Gein, also known as the Butcher of Plainfield, killed at least two women, and stole buried bodies out of coffins. He was ultimately diagnosed with schizophrenia, and found to be mentally unable to stand trial. He died in a mental institution in Wisconsin in 1984.
However, that wasn't before he inspired the events of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. Psycho doesn't follow the real crimes and events of Gein's life, but the infamous Norman Bates is based on the real life Ed Gein—right down to the extreme mommy issues. Some of the creepier real-life details of Gein's life include lamps and eating utensils made out of the bones and other pieces of human remains, which were found at his home.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Widely known as one of the mainstays in terms of horror movies based on true life events, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is as terrifying as it is likely-to-have-happened. Like Psycho, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is one of the most famous horror films based on true stories, and in fact one of the most famous and popular horror films, period. Also like Psycho, parts of it are speculated to be loosely based on Ed Gein. In particular, this inspiration appears in the original 1974 version of the film, in which the home of the cannibalistic serial killer, Leatherface, is shown. In this shot, we see furniture made of human remains, and bones lying about, which harken back to Gein's own home, in which he created furniture and tools from bodies stolen from the graveyard, as well as those he was suspected of killing.
The Hills Have Eyes
The Hills Have Eyes, both the 1977 original and its more recent remake, are horror films based on true stories—allegedly true, at least. Another Wes Craven classic, this film follows a family into the clutches of a deranged cannibal and his followers. While this isn't a plot that screams "real life" at first glance, the cannibals are, in fact, based on a real group that is believed to have existed in the early 1600s, lead by Alexander "Sawney" Bean. Sawney Bean was a Scottish man who, allegedly, led his clan of cannibals to kill and eat over 1,000 people during their active years. There is some debate now about the veracity of this legend, but documents about the case date back centuries, and many historians believe it to be based in fact.
A Nightmare on Elm Street
Although the iconic villain of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Freddy Krueger, is not based on a real figure, the premise of the movie was inspired by real events. Wes Craven originally got the idea for the film after reading a news article about the death of a young boy. His family said that he had been plagued by nightmares so terrible he would try his hardest not to fall asleep—and when he did finally sleep, he died. This gave Craven the idea of a villain that kills in the dreamworld, but kills for real. Though it's perhaps more accurate to say that this film was "inspired by" real events rather than calling it a horror film based on a true story, it does still give one pause.
The Silence of the Lambs
Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs was inspired by aspects of a few different famous serial killers—as if he wasn't creepy enough in fiction. First, he's believed to have been inspired by, in part, Ed Gein. Who hasn't? Second, Buffalo Bill was based partially on Ted Bundy, one of the world's most prolific, and possibly most famous, serial killers.
Buffalo Bill isn't the only aspect of The Silence of the Lambs that was taken from real life: In fact, Hannibal Lecter himself, as created by author Thomas Harris, was based on a Mexican doctor who killed and ate people. So, while the events of The Silence of the Lambs are fictional, the most disturbing aspects of it are all taken from real-life events and people.
In 1998, a couple was left accidentally stranded by a diving company in open water. They were never seen again.
This is both the premise of the film Open Water, and the fate of the real-life couple, Tom and Eileen Lonergan. They went to the barrier reef with a scuba diving group, Outer Edge Diving Company. The boat left without them, leaving them stranded. Their bodies were never found, but their life-jackets were, and experts hypothesize that they took them off in the delirium of dehydration, and drowned. However, the events of Open Water are somewhat more exciting, if harrowing, as the couple is abandoned in heavily shark-infested waters.
The Girl Next Door
While some are simply inspired by real events, there are other horror films based on true stories that do depict real horrors that occurred. In 1965, 16-year-old Sylvia Likens was found dead. She and her sister Jenny had been living with their aunt, Gertrude Baniszewski, while their parents were traveling long-term for work. Investigators found that Baniszewski, her two children, and a couple of neighbor kids had all been involved in the death, first torturing and then murdering Likens in the Indiana town where they lived. These events were harrowingly recreated in the 2007 film The Girl Next Door.
Director Bryan Bertino based his invasion thriller, The Strangers, on events that actually happened to him as a child. He wasn't held hostage by terrifying strangers, no, but he has mentioned that the inspiration for this film came from a night when he and his sister were at home, and strangers knocked on the door. They asked for someone who didn't live there, and then left. Bertino later found out that they were knocking on doors, and breaking in if no one was home. This real-life event inspired his idea for The Strangers, in which a group of strangers break into a nice suburban home and terrorize its inhabitants, a young couple played by Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman.
The Rite follows a young American man, Father Thomas Gary, as he travels to learn the science of demonic possession, and how the Vatican was—and still—trying to save our souls. This character is based on a real man, of the same name, who did exactly that. The film is, in fact, based on a book written by a journalist living in Rome at the time, Matt Baglio. Baglio accompanied Father Gary on numerous exorcisms during his training, and reported many of the strange facts and details. In the Vatican, Gary assisted in over 80 exorcisms. Since returning to the United States, he has found opportunity to perform another 5 or so, but nothing like the pervasiveness of the ritual in Rome, and Italy in general, where exorcisms are actually still fairly common.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is one of the few horror films based on true stories that hews very closely to reality. In fact, it was created to give, as the title suggests, a picture of one of the world's most famous and prolific serial killers, Henry Lee Lucas. The facts of Lucas' crimes are hard to be certain of, as he has confessed to over 3,000 murders, many of which he has been proven not to have committed. However, he is estimated to have murdered around 350 people throughout his career as a serial killer, and that's good enough fodder for a compelling horror movie for most of us.