The “Based on a True Story” tagline is one of the oldest tricks in the book; it’s gotten to the point where horror movies baring the subtitle carry no more additional weight than your average release. In other words: It’s meaningless. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, films based on documented people, places, and occurrences, but even these are woefully exaggerated beyond any tangible connection to reality. But are there any “Based on True Story” horror movies where the truth is actually scarier than the resulting fiction? Indeed!
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Check out the video below from our friends at Looper: Horror Movies Based on Even Scarier True Stories! When they get done separating truth from myth, you might wish you’d remained eternally skeptical. Give it a spin and let us know what you think in the Comments section! Did any of these real-life inspirations surprise you? Let’s discuss!
If you can’t stream, the films are listed below the video, along with a brief summary of the truth behind the fiction. Enjoy!
Official Synopsis: “Based on a true story” is the oldest trick in Hollywood’s book, and horror fans have seen variations on that idea countless times. The blurrier the line between fact and fiction, the bigger the potential scares, right? But sometimes, the stories behind the scenes are even more terrifying. Here are some horror movies based on even scarier true stories…
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992, Directed by Francis Ford Coppola)
Official Synopsis: Adaptation of Bram Stoker’s classic vampire novel. Gary Oldman plays Dracula whose lonely soul is determined to reunite with his lost love, Mina (Winona Ryder). In Britain, Dracula begins a reign of terror and seduction draining the life from her closest friend, Lucy (Sadie Frost). Together they try and drive Dracula away.
The Truth: Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula was the first to establish a connection between Bram Stoker’s infamous Count and Vlad Dracula (aka Vlad the Impaler). If you think a seductive bloodsucker who can turn into a bat is scary, you haven’t met Vlad, the Prince of Wallachia (now Romania) in the 13th Century. The warrior voivode was known for impaling his victim Cannibal Holocaust-style, and leaving hundreds of them propped around his castle as a warning to any would-be attacker. You can learn even more about bad old Vlad in the video below.
Official Synopsis: Vlad III, known as Vlad the Impaler, was voivode (or prince) of Wallachia three times between 1448 and his death. He was the second son of Vlad Dracul, who became the ruler of Wallachia in 1436. Vlad and his younger brother, Radu, were held as hostages in the Ottoman Empire from 1442 to secure their father’s loyalty. Vlad’s father and eldest brother, Mircea, were murdered after John Hunyadi, Regent-Governor of Hungary, invaded Wallachia in 1447. Hunyadi installed Vlad’s second cousin, Vladislav II, as the new voivode.
The Exorcist (1973, Directed by William Friedkin)
Official Synopsis: One of the most profitable horror movies ever made, this tale of an exorcism is based loosely on actual events. When young Regan (Linda Blair) starts acting odd — levitating, speaking in tongues — her worried mother (Ellen Burstyn) seeks medical help, only to hit a dead end. A local priest (Jason Miller), however, thinks the girl may be seized by the devil. The priest makes a request to perform an exorcism, and the church sends in an expert (Max von Sydow) to help with the difficult job.
The Truth: Most people know that The Exorcist author William Peter Blatty based his novel and screenplay on the true case of Ronald Doe (later identified as Robbie Mannheim); many don’ realize, however, that Blatty originally intended to pen a nonfiction account of the boy’s exorcism and only shifted to a fictional account after local Jesuits denied him access to confidential information. The fact that much remains unknown about the actual Doe/Mannhein case has only intensified a consistently terrifying legacy. You can delve deeper into the mystery with the 45-minute documentary below.
The Amityville Horror (1979, Directed by Stuart Rosenberg)
Official Synopsis: Chiller about a family who is terrorized by supernatural forces when they move into a new house in New York State which was the scene of a recent mass killing and the home of an 18th-century satanist. When swarms of flies appear from nowhere and the pipes and walls begin to ooze slime and blood, they call on a local priest to exorcise the evil spirits.
The Truth: The more time that passes, the more it seems likely that George and Kathleen Lutz fabricated most of the supernatural events documented in the 1977 novel The Amityville Horror (and subsequent film in 1979). The murder spree that left the home vacant for the Lutz family, however, is scarier than any paranormal musings. On November 13, 1974, Ronald DeFeo, Jr. shot and killed six members of his family at 112 Ocean Avenue. If the act isn’t horrifying enough, DeFeo claimed he was possessed when he committed the crimes. Delve deeper into the truth with the 20-minute documentary below.
Official Synopsis: The Paranormal Scholar presents the truth behind the legendary Amityville Horror film franchise. We will separate the fact from the fiction, to reveal the true terror lurking behind the infamous movie and book. There is more to this tale than meets the eye: the mystifying and chilling details of Ronald DeFeo Jr.’s crimes; the horrifying account of the subsequent haunting of the Lutz family, and; new revelations by Daniel Lutz.
The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988, Directed by Wes Craven)
Official Synopsis: In a time of social and political unrest in Haiti, anthropologist Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman) travels to the torn country to study a Voodoo drug used in religious practices to turn victims into living zombies. With the help of a witch doctor (Brent Jennings) and a fellow researcher (Cathy Tyson), Dennis pieces together the deadly mystery. But as Dennis uncovers the secrets behind the mysterious powder, he must evade the Haitian authorities who view his research as a potential threat.
The Truth: The story of an American anthropologist who gets a taste of some Voodoo powder pales in comparison to the shocking tale of local Haitian Clairvius Narcisse, the real-life subject of the academic study The Serpent and the Rainbow: A Harvard Scientist’s Astonishing Journey into the Secret Societies of Haitian Voodoo, Zombies, and Magic by Wade Davis. Narcisse claims to have been zombified by a Voodoo practitioner, an experience that left him in a state of living death. He was “resurrected” 48 hours after his burial and put to work as a field laborer for 18 years before, miraculously, returning to his hometown. You can dip your toes deeper into the truth behind Haitian zombification with Part 1 of Vice’s 6-part exploration below.
Official Synopsis: Rumor has it that there is a secret drug in Haiti that can turn the living into Zombies. In part 1, Hamilton takes off for Port-Au-Prince on a quest for the secret poison.
Movies Inspired by Ed Gein
Psycho (1960, Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
Official Synopsis: Phoenix secretary Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), on the lam after stealing $40,000 from her employer in order to run away with her boyfriend, Sam Loomis (John Gavin), is overcome by exhaustion during a heavy rainstorm. Traveling on the back roads to avoid the police, she stops for the night at the ramshackle Bates Motel and meets the polite but highly-strung proprietor Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), a young man with an interest in taxidermy and a difficult relationship with his mother.
The Truth: The stories are very different, but the relationship Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) has with his mother is based on Gein’s dysfunctional family. The hermit was completely oppressed by his mother for his entire life; it’s reported she stoked a deep-seeded fear of women in her mentally challenged son, perhaps fearing she might one-day be abandoned. It’s this relationship that inspired Gein’s ghoulish meanderings once she died—and he was left to his own devices.
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The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974, Directed by Tobe Hooper)
Official Synopsis: When Sally (Marilyn Burns) hears that her grandfather’s grave may have been vandalized, she and her paraplegic brother, Franklin (Paul A. Partain), set out with their friends to investigate. After a detour to their family’s old farmhouse, they discover a group of crazed, murderous outcasts living next door. As the group is attacked one by one by the chainsaw-wielding Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), who wears a mask of human skin, the survivors must do everything they can to escape.
The Truth: Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) and his house of horrors were absolutely inspired by Gein, and Hooper’s film is probably the most accurate re-imaginings of the truth. Still, the Sawyer Clan’s dilapidated domicile pales in comparison to Gein’s homestead. When his exploits were finally discovered, cops found a human carcass in the garage, gutted like a deer, along with a virtual catalog of atrocities deeper inside. Whereas Leatherface had a skin mask, Gein had an entire skin suit! This suit, and the implications of transformation were elements of the character Jame Gumb (played by Ted Levine) in The Silence of the Lambs (1989); besides this connection, though, I found the link between Gumb and Gein intentional but tenuous.
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You can learn more about Ed Gein (too much, perhaps!) in the 25-minute documentary below.
Official Synopsis: Ed Gein was an American murderer and body snatcher. His crimes, committed around his hometown of Plainfield, Wisconsin, gathered widespread notoriety after authorities discovered Gein had exhumed corpses from local graveyards and fashioned trophies and keepsakes from their bones and skin.
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