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10 Movies Based on Real-Life Disappearances
True crime adds a level of intrigue to any story. And movies have been capitalizing on the drama this genre brings for decades. Audiences can’t help but be captivated by how murders and mysteries unfold on the big screen. Some movies are entirely fictional, bringing sordid villains to life. However, others have gone a step further, rooting their stories in real-life tragedies. These are ten missing-person movies based on real-life disappearances.
10 Changeling (2008)
Arguably some of the worst missing persons cases are ones involving young children. Walter Collins was one of these unfortunate cases. On March 10, 1928, nine-year-old Walter Collins disappeared from his home in Los Angeles, California. His mother, Christine Collins, insisted the police search for her son, and later that year, a boy matching Walter’s description was found in Illinois and brought back to California. While the boy claimed to be Walter, Christine was adamant that he was not her son.
Christine continued searching for Walter, much to the chagrin of the police force. The case collected public intrigue for its unusual details—like its country-wide search. And nearly 100 years later, with the release of the case’s fictional movie counterpart Changeling, audiences would continue to be captivated by the strange story of Walter Collins.
9 Without a Trace (1983)
Highlighting another missing child’s case is the 1983 mystery movie Without a Trace. The movie depicts the story of a young boy named Alex Selky who disappeared on his way to school. His mother, Susan, then enlists the help of police, friends, and family to find out what happened to her son.
While Without a Trace clearly tells its viewers that the story is a work of fiction, it still bears a stark similarity to the real-life disappearance of six-year-old Etan Patz. On May 25, 1979, Etan Patz also disappeared on his way to school. When his parents discovered he was missing, they called the police. The search for this missing boy would continue for decades and gain national attention until its eventual conclusion in 2017, almost 40 years later. Most notably, Etan’s face was among the first to appear on milk cartons.
8 Agatha (1979)
Among the most renowned mystery writers is the infamous Agatha Christie. And while she’s most commonly known as the author behind puzzling fictional disappearances, she was actually the victim of an unusual disappearance herself.
One evening in December 1926, Agatha Christie left her home and seemingly disappeared into the night. After a fight with her husband, Archie Christie, she fled the house, leaving their daughter with the maid. The following morning, Christie’s car was found several miles away at a crash site, with Christie herself nowhere to be found.
The author’s nearly two-week disappearance would spark an international search, with fingers pointed at her husband and his young mistress, Nancy Neele. In the end, the event was nothing more than a simple misunderstanding. However, the drama and the intrigue would appear on the screen many decades later as the thriller mystery Agatha.
7 Alive (1993)
Some disappearances yield harrowing results that test the limits of all those involved. Such was the disappearance of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571. In October 1972, a rugby team from Uruguay was flying to Chile for an exhibition match when suddenly their plane started losing elevation. In just minutes, the plane crashed in the snowy mountains of the Andes. Initially, there were 29 survivors. But by the end of their 72-day experience, there would only be 16 left.
Alive is the 1993 movie retelling of this unfortunate accident from the perspective of the accident survivors. The movie details not only the conditions of the crash environment but also the difficult decisions this team had to make in order to survive. While not a conventional mystery, Alive still manages to relate the same fear and hope that makes movies of this genre so riveting.
6 Lost Colony: The Legend of Roanoke (2007)
Missing persons cases are nothing new to this time in history. In the case of Roanoke, a whole colony of people was thought to have disappeared. In 1587, 117 settlers arrived from England in what is now modern-day North Carolina. They were meant to form the second Roanoke colony. However, just three years later, the entire colony seemingly abandoned their settlement and disappeared.
There were many theories surrounding the disappearance of the colony. A few included tensions between the English and the Native Americans as well as leaving the current area for one with better living conditions. Whatever the case, the Roanoke colony was never discovered again. And while there are more accurate accounts of what may have happened, there are also some stories with more creative liberties.
One such alternative is seen in the case of Lost Colony: The Legend of Roanoke, originally titled Wraiths of Roanoke, which attributed the disappearance of the missing colony to fictional phantoms. Perhaps a far stretch from what really happened to those 117 settlers; however, we’ll never truly know.
5 Fire in the Sky (1993)
When a person goes missing, it’s rare to assume supernatural forces like alien abductions are behind the disappearance. Which is what makes this next case a strange one. In 1975, Travis Walton was allegedly abducted by aliens in a town in Arizona. Walton was a logger who, on his way home from a job, witnessed a bright light on the road. When he went to investigate the light, he was swiftly thrown to the ground by an unseen force. Panicked, the other loggers who were with him left the scene. It would be another five days and six hours before anyone heard from Walton again.
The Walton Experience was written by Walton himself to document his own disappearance. In the book, Walton relays the events of his alien abduction, which is what he believed caused his disappearance in the first place. In 1993, Walton’s book was turned into a movie called Fire in the Sky. To this day, many people remain divided as to what really happened to Travis Walton.
4 Point Last Seen (1998)
In 1977, just before her high school graduation, Hannah Nyala married a young man she had only recently met. They lived together for many years and would go on to have two children. However, Nyala’s life was not idyllic in the slightest. Because it turned out her husband was a violent man.
Nyala documented her entire story, from trying to escape her husband to him retaining custody of their children, in her memoir Point Last Seen: A Woman Tracker’s Story. In 1998, the book was turned into a feature film of the same name. Unlike other disappearance movies, Point Last Seen doesn’t rely on the intensity of action scenes or fight sequences. Instead, the steady and suspenseful pacing highlights how emotional disappearances of any kind can really be.
3 Lost Girls (2020)
In 2010, Shannan Gilbert went missing after making a panicked call to 911, saying that someone was after her. This phone call and subsequent police actions would uncover a string of serial killings on Giglo Beach in New York’s Long Island.
Over the next year, while searching for Gilbert, authorities would discover the bodies of four more missing women. All women were sex workers in their twenties, similar to Gilbert. Gilbert’s remains would eventually be found at the end of the following year.
The story of these women would make it to the big screen in the 2020 movie Lost Girls. The movie goes beyond the regular mystery and shares a loss and desperation for someone to advocate for these women. Gilbert’s mother serves as the strong character lead who insists on an investigation and drives the story forward with inspiration.
2 Gone Girl (2014)
The popular 2014 thriller Gone Girl takes a look at how relationships are often more complicated than they appear. In the movie, Nick and Amy Dunne present a happy marriage. However, when Amy goes missing, Nick quickly becomes a suspect in her disappearance.
The movie was based on a novel by the same name, authored by Gillian Flynn, who modeled the fictional story on ones with real-life domestic strife. One of these inspirations was the disappearance and murder of Laci Peterson.
A pregnant Laci went missing on December 24, 2002, while her husband, Scott, was out of the house. Scott’s ambivalence to the progression of the case, along with the discovery of his extramarital affair, convinced the public he was responsible for his wife’s disappearance all along. Both Flynn’s fictionalized story and the Petersons’ real one force audiences to examine how distrust and betrayal can bring out the darkest traits in the ones we love the most.
1 Open Water (2003)
Sometimes a disappearance boils down to just one mistake. In 1998, Tom and Eileen Lonergan were scuba diving along Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. The couple was tragically left behind when their tour miscounted the number of people in the group and left the area. Over two decades later, there are still no definitive answers about what happened to the Lonergans after that terrible mistake.
The survival movie Open Water was influenced by this very true story. And while the movie, at its core, aims to tell the story of what happened to the Lonergans, it capitalizes on the fear of being stuck in the middle of the ocean surrounded by the water’s most well-known apex predator—the shark. Like many other entries on this list, this real-life disappearance makes for a terrifying and thrilling movie.