Show Mobile Navigation
Movies and TV |

10 Horror Films Based On True Stories

by Tarni Kirkpatrick
fact checked by Jamie Frater

We all love a good horror film now and then. Or maybe we hate them, but we watch them anyway to make ourselves feel tough and brave. Either way, you’ve probably seen a horror movie at some point in your life.

What you may not realize is that the plots of some horror films were derived from true happenings recorded in history. The following are a few of the stories behind some of the most watched scary movies out there. And be warned: There will be spoilers.

Featured image credit: Warner Bros.

10 The Exorcist

The Exorcist (1973) Priest scene part 2 (1080p HD)

The Exorcist tells the story of 12-year-old Regan and her film star mother Chris. After playing with a Ouija board, Regan is possessed by a demon and starts showing symptoms of anxiety and depression. The girl displays unusual behavior, even entering her mother’s room one night and insisting that her bed was shaking. It isn’t until Chris witnesses these events for herself that she realizes something is wrong with her daughter and seeks medical attention to help her. The doctors, however, are lost on Regan’s condition and suggest exorcism to Chris as a form of therapy to break her out of a mental disorder.

Later, Chris comes home to find a man dead on her doorsteps. Nervous that her daughter may have been the cause, she seeks out a priest to start arranging an exorcism. The priest, while at first doubtful that the girl is possessed, eventually comes to believe and calls in an expert to perform the exorcism. Both priests die in the process, and Regan is left healed and unaware of the havoc she has caused. Chris and Regan leave town before the investigation can reveal the true cause of the deaths.

The Exorcist (or rather the eponymous novel it is adapted from) is based on a story published in The Washington Post in 1949 about 14-year-old boy dubbed “Robbie.” Robbie lived in his grandmother’s house, and both were frequent users of the Ouija board. One night, however, Robbie claimed to have gone downstairs upon hearing some strange noises and witnessed a religious icon moving as though something was pounding the wall behind it. Days later, his grandmother died.

After her death, Robbie began to experience the same paranormal activity that is depicted in the film. The mattress began shaking, and objects would suspend themselves in the air. Eventually, the family arranged an exorcism, after which Robbie spent some time in a mental hospital until the word “exit” appeared on his body, and suddenly, all paranormal activity ceased. While some people believe in paranormal activity and exorcism, others criticize the story, claiming that the boy was merely suffering extreme grief from the loss of his grandmother, resulting in unusual and violent behavior.[1]

9 A Nightmare On Elm Street

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) Official Trailer – Wes Craven, Johnny Depp Horror Movie HD

A Nightmare on Elm Street follows the story of four teenagers: Tina, Nancy, Glen, and Rod. In the start of the film, a man is shown putting together a weapon. It is a glove with knives for fingers, and when Tina wanders down the alleyway, he lashes out at her, gouging her stomach. This, however, is all a dream, and Tina wakes up. Nonetheless, her stomach is gouged from the incident in her dream. Tina goes on to find out that her friends have also been having the same nightmares, and they organize a sleepover. However, when Tina is attacked in her dreams this time, she is killed, and her boyfriend Rod flees for fear of looking guilty.

After the incident, Rod is eventually imprisoned, and Nancy becomes aware of the severity of the dreams. Shortly afterward, Rod is killed by the dream man in his jail cell, and Nancy goes to her parents for help. They place her in a sleep clinic, where she winds up producing the name of her attacker, Freddy Krueger. This is when we find out that Freddy Krueger was a serial killer who slipped through the justice system and was therefore killed by the town. He has now come back in the children’s dreams for revenge. After Glen is killed, Nancy manifests a plan to bring Freddy back from her dreams and succeeds, only to see her mother killed by him before waking and up and finding out the whole thing was a dream. As a psychotic twist to a happy ending, the children all get in a car and are swallowed up by Freddy Krueger, who also takes Nancy’s mother.

This story was inspired by a number of stories which were published in the Los Angeles Times in 1981. The first is about refugees from Laos who successfully made it to the United States, only to die in their sleep. This case was exclusive to young males, and autopsy reports could not come up with any medical explanation for the deaths of 13 unrelated men.

Another of the articles delves further into the specific story of a family from Cambodia. They were safely relocated in the US, but one of the boys kept having recurring nightmares and was terrified of going to sleep. After days of not sleeping, the boy finally fell asleep, giving relief to his family, who thought the whole ordeal was over. They later awoke in the middle of the night to screaming and banging, but by the time they got to the boy, he was dead.[2]

8 Psycho

The Shower – Psycho (5/12) Movie CLIP (1960) HD

Psycho tells the story of Norman Bates, owner of Bates Motel, where Marion checks in after stealing $40,000 from her boss. Throughout the film, Marion’s soon-to-be fiance and sister are on the hunt for her, along with an investigator seeking the stolen money. Marion, however, is killed by what appears to be Bates’s mother. The investigator is murdered as well.

Suspicion leads the fiance and sister to the sheriff, where they discover that Mrs. Bates poisoned her lover and herself in a murder-suicide ten years previously. We then later find out that although she did die of poisoning, it wasn’t at her own hand but at the hands of her son, whose guilty conscience leads him to dress and act as his mother in order to keep her soul alive while he preserves her body in his basement. While acting as his mother, however, he murdered Marion and the investigator and probably many more before returning as Norman to clean up the mess.

This horror story (and, again, the novel the movie was adapted from) is an adaptation of the real-life story of Ed Gein, one of the world’s most notorious murderers. He became so infamous that he not only fueled the story for Psycho but also The Silence of the Lambs. He dug up corpses from the ground and used them to make clothes and hung their preserved faces on the walls of his house. He was properly deranged.[3]

Gein was caught when a trail of blood was found leading out the back door of a hardware store where he was recorded as the last person to make a purchase. Police merely went to question him and were faced with the horrors within his home. Having been excluded from everyone his whole life, Gein had formed a sick obsession with his mother, which worsened after her death. It was from this that the idea of Norman Bates emerged.

7 The Conjuring

The Conjuring Official Trailer #1 (2013) – Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson Movie HD

This horror film tells the story of a happy couple and their five daughters, who move into a new home which turns out to be riddled with paranormal activity. After the dog is killed and one of the children displays acts of unusual behavior, the parents get a couple of specialists in the area to investigate the house. It is during this investigation that they discover that the house once belonged to a lady who tried to sacrifice her infant before cursing the land and committing suicide. It is her demon which is now haunting the house and any family that has lived on the property since. They soon discover that the demon’s intention is to possess the mothers of these families and use them to sacrifice the daughters. After the mother almost kills two of the daughters, the experts perform an exorcism, which rids the family of the demonic presence.

Ed and Lorraine Warren, the investigators from the film, were paranormal investigators in real life, and although Ed passed away before the making of the movie, Lorraine was a consultant all through its production. Unlike in the film, the family who moved into the farmhouse in Rhode Island lived there for nine years before eventually having had enough of the demonic spirits and leaving their haunted past behind. While the house was haunted, and a seance caused one of the evil spirits to inhabit the mother, elaborations did occur to make the film more intriguing, including the attempted sacrifice and the exorcism. Lorraine swore that she and her husband would never have attempted something so dangerous as an exorcism; they merely did seances.[4]

6 Annabelle

Annabelle Official Teaser Trailer #1 (2014) – Horror Movie HD

Annabelle begins with a couple, Mia and John Godron, telling Ed and Lorraine Warren of a haunted doll, Annabelle. The doll got its name after Annabelle, the neighbors’ daughter, murdered her parents and committed suicide, releasing a demonic soul which takes up residence in the doll. The demon is determined to take a soul and focuses its energy on the Gordons’ daughter Lea.

After several incidents, it locks Mia out of the baby’s room and begins its attack. Evelyn, a neighbor from the couples’ apartment building, is in the apartment with Mia when this happens, after she had recently shared her guilt about the death of her own daughter. Therefore, when the demon insists that it must take a soul before it will stop, Evelyn takes the doll and commits suicide as a plan to seek forgiveness for her late daughter.

There is, in fact, a real Annabelle doll in this world. However, the creepy wooden creation in the movie, with the garish makeup and infamous smile, is far from a replica of the original. The original doll is no more than a Raggedy Ann doll with button eyes and red yarn for hair. It now lives in the Warrens’ museum, where it is blessed twice a week by a priest and kept inside a glass case.

The paranormal activity around the doll began in the 1970s, when a mother purchased the doll as a gift to her daughter, leading to several attacks, including the near-strangling of a family friend. It is claimed that several years after the doll was placed in the museum, a couple were laughing at her and mocking her before being removed from the premises by the Warrens themselves. Legend has it that the couple’s motorbike crashed into a tree on the way home.[5] Would you be daring enough to meet Annabelle in person?

5 The Rite

The Rite Official Trailer #1 – (2011) HD

In this movie, the protagonist, Michael Kovak, tires of his father’s work in a funeral home and enrolls himself in a seminary, planning to renounce his vows at the end, thus getting a free college degree. However, upon trying to resign, his superior, Father Matthew, attempts to stop Michael, resulting in a horrific car accident in which a young woman dies. Michael, dressed in his priest clothes, is asked to cleanse the woman of her sins as she is dying, and he reluctantly performs the ceremony. After seeing Michael’s ability to deal with the situation, Father Matthew sends him to Rome to attend a class in exorcism with the agreement that the seminary will continue to pay for his college education even if he still chooses to drop out.

In Rome, Michael witnesses a priest performing an exorcism on a girl who is pregnant with her father’s baby and begins working with him to free the girl of the demon possessing her. They fail, and both the girl and her baby pass away. In the conclusion, Michael realizes that his mentor has been possessed by the demonic presence which inhabited the girl and is left to perform the exorcism by himself. After having success, Michael’s faith is restored, and he returns to the US to complete his degree and become a priest.

The story is based on a priest from the Sacred Heart parish in Saratoga, California, Father Gary Thomas. He is one of only 14 trained and certified exorcists in the world and is the inspiration for the character of Michael Kovak. He received his certificate after a tedious time at the Vatican’s Athenaeum Pontificium Regina Apostolorum in Rome, where a journalism student recorded his journey. His work was published as a book titled The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist, hence the movie’s title. The story of the young girl who was carrying her father’s baby was, in fact, a real experience that altered Father Gary’s life, and he spent a week advising on the film to help perfect the sequence of events.[6]

4 The Haunting In Connecticut

The Haunting in Connecticut (2009) – Ectoplasm Scene (5/11) | Movieclips

The Haunting in Connecticut tells the story of Sarah and her son Matt, who has terminal cancer and is receiving treatment at a hospital in Connecticut. Sarah is tired of having to drive Matt so far to and from the hospital, as it is not helping his health, so after discussion with her husband, she begins hunting for a place to stay near the hospital. Shortly afterward, she sees a man hammering a “For Rent” sign into the ground and promptly discusses her interest in the place. The owner informs Sarah that the house has some history and offers her the first month free, after we see a dark shadow looming in the house around them. Sarah isn’t sure about the house initially, but things become desperate, so she rents it. A number of ominous events occur after the family moves in.

After weeks of seeing visions and having nightmares, Matt finally confides in his sister, and they research the new family home to discover that a man who used to live there hosted seances. In one, everyone present was found dead in the house except for one person, who disappeared. In recent years, the bodies had been exhumed due to construction, only for the workers to find that they had never been buried. Eventually, it is discovered that a spirit is taking over the terminally ill boy’s body in an attempt to free the remaining spirits in the house from within the walls. In a final dramatic scene, Matt escapes from the hospital and breaks down the walls with an ax, revealing the missing corpses, which he then sets alight. Matt’s cancer is taken away when the spirit leaves his body.

The Haunting in Connecticut is based on real-life family, the Snedekers, who moved into an old house in Southington, Connecticut, with their daughter and three sons. The parents were exploring their new house when Carmen Snedeker, the mother, found tools in the basement which were later identified as having been used by a mortician. The family then discovered that the home once housed a funeral parlor after their eldest son began seeing ghosts and having terrible nightmares. Eventually, Carmen contacted our previously mentioned investigators, Ed and Lorraine Warren, who quickly noted that the house was riddled with evil souls and demons. Since then, the family have appeared on several talk shows to tell their story, claiming the whole thing was real.[7]

3 The Strangers

“The Strangers” Trailer (Better Lock Your Doors!)

The Strangers is the story of a couple, Kristen and James, who head out to James’s parents’ holiday house in the middle of the night after a friend’s wedding reception. They are interrupted by a knock on the door from a lady asking for someone by the name of Tamara. Thinking nothing of it, James leaves Kristen in the house alone to go buy cigarettes, where she is tormented by a man wearing a sack mask and lady wearing a doll face.

James comes home to find her hiding in the bedroom, yelling at the strangers to go away, and after searching the hous, they find nothing abnormal. James at first thinks Kristen was imagining things. However, after a short while, he, too, sees the doll-face lady, and his phone and car are both vandalized, so they decide to leave, only to discover a third stranger on the property. The group of strangers go on to torture them all night. The strangers eventually knock the couple out, tie them to chairs, and murder them in cold blood.

The film’s director, Bryan Bertino, derived his story from a number of true events. The first was a personal childhood experience in which his parents were out of town, and he and his little sister answered a knock on the door by a group of people asking for someone who didn’t live in the house. It turned out that these people were knocking on doors to check if anyone was home before breaking in and stealing.

Another huge inspiration for the story was the Manson Family. They committed a murder that involved breaking into a family home and finding the husband asleep on the couch and the wife asleep in bed. They tied them both up and stabbed them repeatedly. They also stole as much money and valuables as possible. There were a lot of conspiracy theories about why the couple were murdered, but Bertino decided to combine his experience with the murders, which is where the tagline “Because you were home” came from.[8] What would happen if people broke into your house and found you there?

2 The Exorcism Of Emily Rose

The Exorcism Of Emily Rose Trailer HD

A young girl named Emily Rose passed away after Father Moore performed an exorcism on her to try to rid her of a demon possessing her soul. As a result, the priest was arrested after speculation that he was the cause of her death. He is unfortunately represented by a lawyer with little faith in God and therefore does not stand much chance of convincing the jury that his story is true. Through the movie, he claims that the first exorcism revealed the names of the demons possessing her. After this, she refused another exorcism and also stopped taking her antipsychotic medication, as she knew she was going to die, which she did. While the movie is based around the court case, the story of the exorcism is told through flashbacks, adding to the horror of the film.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose was derived from the story of Anneliese Michel, born in Bavaria in 1952. She was from a family of four who attended church regularly. However, shortly after turning 16, Michel suffered from a seizure due to a specific type of epilepsy. She was eventually prescribed drugs which would cease her seizures but would induce thoughts of suicide and depression. Her condition worsened. She began to see things and was given more drugs to calm her now-diagnosed schizophrenia. She developed a hatred for all things church-related, which led to her family believing she was possessed. Thus, they sought a priest to perform an exorcism on their beloved daughter.

After a total of 67 exorcisms, Anneliese Michel was found dead. The priest was questioned over her death. He stated the demon inside her had won, but her autopsy report showed she was underweight, dehydrated, and was suffering from pneumonia. The case was closed with her parents and the priest being found guilty of manslaughter.[9]

1 The Possession

The Possession Official Trailer #1 (2012) – Horror Movie HD

The Possession is the story of a girl who buys an old antique box from a yard sale she attended with her father Clyde and her sister Hannah. After finding the secret key to unlock the box, she accidentally releases an evil spirit which takes over her soul. Clyde shortly realizes that something’s not right with his daughter but can’t seem to get anyone to take him seriously, which results in his ex-wife’s new partner obtaining a restraining order against him.

Desperate to help his daughter, he reaches out to a professor who explains that the box his daughter got was a dibbuk box, which has the ability to trap an evil spirit and should never be opened. With this newfound knowledge, Clyde finds a Jewish community and seeks the help of the rabbi’s son to exorcise his daughter. Despite a struggle, the exorcism is successful, and the spirit retreats back into the box.

It turns out this story was inspired by an old article from the Los Angeles Times, which tells the story of a small wooden cabinet which was placed for sale on eBay. The box contained two locks of hair, a slab of granite, a dried rosebud, a goblet, two wheat pennies, a candlestick, and apparently a dybbuk, an evil spirit known in Yiddish folklore. The box was sold under the label “haunted Jewish wine cabinet box” and listed its history of owners along with the unusual paranormal activity that surrounded said owners.

Eventually, the box sold for $280 to a university museum. The trail left by the box includes unexplainable strokes, hair loss, property destruction, and hallucinations, all which were blamed by the owners on this particular box.[10] Maybe this will make you think twice about what you take home from the neighbor’s garage sale.

My name is Tarni Kirkpatrick, and I am the author and editor of Life in Wonderland, an online travel blog. I started this when I began my journey around the world, and it has been growing ever since. Check it out at or add me on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook.


Read about more inspirations for famous horror films on 10 Inspirations For Top-Grossing Horror Movies and 10 Horrific Inspirations For Terrifying Horror Movies.

fact checked by Jamie Frater