The tagline “Based on a True Story” is tossed around all too liberally in horror; it’s as though our genre has been given a pass on truth in advertising since the idea that a movie is anchored in fact adds significantly to the terror seen on screen. In other words, the ends justify the means when the goal is to terrify. The downside is that, after decades of promoters hitting us with this tactic, the “Based on a True Story” tagline has lost the bulk of its power; if anything, claiming a horror film is based in fact is likely to cause knee-jerk skepticism in the 21st Century.
A much more accurate, though less titillating tagline is “Inspired by True Events”. The most famous of these include The Exorcist, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and The Strangers. All of these films were inspired by “facts”, but the writer/director took complete creative license. The “facts” surrounding The Exorcist, for example, have to do with a young boy living in upstate New York, not a young girl from Georgetown. When you really get down to it, though, just about every film in every genre could claim “inspiration” from actual events, though these are usually too tangential or insignificant to even mention.
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So when looking at the body of horror films claiming to be based on actual events, how can we determine which are most valid? For this list, I’m looking at films that are based on documented people and/or events with facts that can be independently verified. These can include biographical horror like Monster or films that have changed names/locations specifically to protect the privacy of those involved. While the bulk of these films have admittedly been exaggerated past all credible connection to the facts they are based on, they still deserve to carry the infamous tagline.
Have a read and let us know what you think in the Comments section. Do any of the films on this list surprise you? What are your favorite “Based on a True Story” horror movies? Let’s discuss.
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 Conjuring (2013, Directed by James Wan)
Official Synopsis: In 1970, paranormal investigators and demonologists Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) and Ed (Patrick Wilson) Warren are summoned to the home of Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and Roger (Ron Livingston) Perron. The Perrons and their five daughters have recently moved into a secluded farmhouse, where a supernatural presence has made itself known. Though the manifestations are relatively benign at first, events soon escalate in horrifying fashion, especially after the Warrens discover the house’s macabre history.
Zodiac (2007, Directed by David Fincher)
Official Synopsis: In the late 1960s and 1970s, fear grips the city of San Francisco as a serial killer called Zodiac stalks its residents. Investigators (Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards) and reporters (Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr.) become obsessed with learning the killer’s identity and bringing him to justice. Meanwhile, Zodiac claims victim after victim and taunts the authorities with cryptic messages, cyphers and menacing phone calls.
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: This film is based on the book “The Serpent and the Rainbow: A Harvard Scientist’s Astonishing Journey into the Secret Societies of Haitian Voodoo, Zombies, and Magic is a 1985 book by anthropologist and researcher Wade Davis. The book presents the case of Clairvius Narcisse, a man who had been a zombie for two years, as showing that the zombification process was more likely the result of a complex interaction of tetrodotoxin, a powerful hallucinogenic plant called Datura, and cultural forces and beliefs.” (Source)
Open Water (2004, Directed by Chris Kentis)
Official Synopsis: Daniel (Daniel Travis) and Susan (Blanchard Ryan) embark on a tropical vacation with their scuba-diving certifications in tow. During a group dive, the two separate themselves from the others to dive a little deeper. An incorrect head-count suggests the entire group has returned, so the boat departs. When the pair surfaces, they make out a vessel in the distance, but it does not immediately set in that they have been left behind. With sharks lurking beneath, their survival chances grow smaller.
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The Reef (2011, Directed by Andrew Traucki)
Official Synopsis: A sailing trip becomes a disaster for a group of friends when the boat sinks and a white shark hunts the helpless passengers.
The Truth: “The movie is based on the true story of Ray Boundy. In 1983, the fishing boat where he was traveling in, along with his friend Dennis “Smurf” Murphy, 24, and his girlfriend Linda Ann Horton, 21, the boat’s cook. The New Venture, capsized, sending the trio into the shark infested waters near Townsville, Australia. They had surfboards to stay afloat and swim to Lodestone Reef, where they hoped to be rescued. But before reaching their destination they realized they were being hunted by a 15 foot long Tiger shark. The shark attacked Murphy first, taking his leg, in an act of sheer courage and gut wrenching valor he swam while bleeding profusely from his wounds to lure the shark away from his friends, he succeeded, the shark went after him and killed him. Two hours later the killer shark came back and took Linda, who died while holding Boundy’s hand before being dragged underwater. Boundy was able to finally reach shore, but not before being stalked and attacked by the shark, although he was lucky that rescuers were able to save him just in time before becoming victim No.3 in this tragedy. He was the lone survivor.” (Source)
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Dead Ringers (1988, Directed by David Cronenberg)
Official Synopsis: Elliot (Jeremy Irons), a successful gynecologist, works at the same practice as his identical twin, Beverly (also Irons). Elliot is attracted to many of his patients and has affairs with them. When he inevitably loses interest, he will give the woman over to Beverly, the meeker of the two, without the woman knowing the difference. Beverly falls hard for one of the patients, Claire (Geneviève Bujold), but when she inadvertently deceives him, he slips into a state of madness.
The Truth: “Brothers Stewart and Cyril Marcus were gynecologists on the staff of New York Hospital and Cornell University Medical College. The Marcus brothers’ lives and the circumstances of their deaths are the subjects of an article in Ron Rosenbaum’s collection of essays, The Secret Parts of Fortune. Film director David Cronenberg drew on elements from the biography of the Marcus brothers for his 1988 movie Dead Ringers, in particular, their decline and their deaths.” (Source)
A Haunting in Connecticut (2009, Directed by Peter Cornwell)
Official Synopsis: When their son Matt (Kyle Gallner) receives a diagnosis of cancer, Sara (Virginia Madsen) and Peter (Martin Donovan) Campbell move to Connecticut to be closer to his doctors. At first all is well, but then Matt becomes increasingly disturbed by what appears to be paranormal activity. Sara turns to a priest for help, and the ghosts are seemingly banished — but Matt’s condition takes a sudden and unexplained turn for the worse, and the lives of Sara and the rest of her family are endangered.
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The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005, Directed by Scott Derrickson) [Featured Image]
Official Synopsis: The Rev. Moore (Tom Wilkinson) is prosecuted for the wrongful death of a girl thought to be demonically possessed, because he administered the church-sanctioned exorcism that ultimately killed her. Prosecuting attorney Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott) contends that the young woman, Emily (Jennifer Carpenter), suffered from schizophrenia and should have been medically diagnosed. Meanwhile, defense lawyer Erin Bruner (Laura Linney) argues that Emily’s condition cannot be explained by science alone.
From Hell (2001, Directed by Allen Hughes & Albert Hughes)
Official Synopsis: The first tabloid star of the twentieth century, he remains the most notorious and enigmatic serial killer in history. “From Hell” puts an intense urban spin on the horrific legend of Jack the Ripper and unravels a chilling alleged conspiracy involving the highest powers in England.
Borderland (2007, Directed by Zev Berman)
Official Synopsis: Ed (Brian Presley), Henry (Jake Muxworthy) and Phil (Rider Strong) are three American college graduates in search of wild times in Mexico. After a night of partying with two local women, Ed and Henry realize that Phil is missing. Joining forces with an ex-cop, their search for their friend leads them to a horrifying encounter with cultists who practice human sacrifice.
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The Possession (2012, Directed by Ole Bornedal)
Official Synopsis: When their youngest daughter, Em (Natasha Calis), becomes strangely obsessed with an antique wooden box bought from a yard sale, parents Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick) see little cause for alarm. However, Em becomes increasingly unstable, leading the couple to fear the presence of a malevolent force. To their horror, Clyde and Stephanie learn that the box contains a dybbuk, a dislocated spirit that inhabits — and ultimately devours — a human host.
Stuck (2008, Directed by Stuart Gordon)
Official Synopsis: Passionate hospice worker Brandi Boski (Mena Suvari) believes she will soon be promoted for her hard work. Meanwhile, penniless Thomas Bardo (Stephen Rea) is evicted from his apartment. Their lives intersect in shocking fashion when Brandi hits Thomas with her car. Thomas, lodged in the car’s partially shattered windshield, pleads for help, but a frightened Brandi ignores him and drives home. Fearing she may lose her job or receive jail time, she makes a chilling, life-changing decision.
Fire in the Sky (1993, Directed by Robert Lieberman)
Official Synopsis: In 1975, a group of five men are driving home after working in a forest when they see a mysterious light. Intrigued, Travis Walton (D.B. Sweeney) leaves the truck — only to be sucked up by a flying saucer. The other four men report the strange event, but they are skeptically interrogated by Lt. Frank Watters (James Garner), who suspects that murder is behind Walton’s disappearance. When Walton reappears five days later, his story of alien abduction is met with disbelief.
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247°F (2011, Directed by Levan Bakhia & Beqa Jguburia)
Official Synopsis: Three friends staying in a lakeside cabin become locked inside a sauna that gradually gets hotter as time goes by.
The Truth: “The true event that the movie is based on happened in Georgia, where this film is made and filmmakers are from. 4 friends were in the sauna, one left for the toilet, locking his friends in – exactly as it is shown in the movie. He never came back, and when he woke up he didn’t remember that he left them in the sauna, and started to search for them elsewhere. Fortunately no one died since they managed to turn the heater off, but they had to spend over 10 hours in the decreasing heat until they were found.” (Source)