7 True Stories that Inspired Horror Films

A good horror story draws audiences in with a tantalizing cocktail of foreshadowing, suspense, mystery, surprise and, naturally, a fear that incites hesitation at the light switch. You strive to take comfort in the fact that “it’s not real,” but unfortunately, that’s a thin defense against a sleepless night. Some things are just too terrifying to imagine, and the inspiration for the storylines of these classic horror films comes from true stories that are just as frightening, or more, than the fiction their creators wove.

A Nightmare on Elm Street

  Source: IMDB

Source: IMDB

In an interview, Wes Craven, the writer and director of A Nightmare on Elm Street, said:

“I’d read an article in the L.A. Times about a family who had escaped the Killing Fields in Cambodia and managed to get to the U.S. Things were fine, and then suddenly the young son was having very disturbing nightmares. He told his parents he was afraid that if he slept, the thing chasing him would get him, so he tried to stay awake for days at a time. When he finally fell asleep, his parents thought this crisis was over. Then they heard screams in the middle of the night. By the time they got to him, he was dead. He died in the middle of a nightmare. Here was a youngster having a vision of a horror that everyone older was denying. That became the central line of Nightmare on Elm Street.”

Stories of other Southeast Asian refugees dying from “nightmare death syndrome” — also called “sudden arrhythmic death syndrome” — cropped up in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times both before and after the movie released in 1984. From 1978-1981, eighteen apparently healthy Laotian refugees from a preliterate mountain society called the Hmong, died in their sleep after escaping to the United States from the Pathet Lao. Officially, it was ruled that the refugees died of “probable cardiac arrhythmia” or an irregular heartbeat, but it’s possible that their nightmares frightened them to death.

By 1988, more than one hundred people succumbed to the syndrome with a median age of thirty-three years. Ninety-eight percent of them died between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m. In most cases, the victims were found dead but in the instances where medics arrived beforehand, their hearts were fibrillating or contracting wildly.

The Hills Have Eyes

  Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Sawney Bean’s notorious family provided the basis for The Hills Have Eyes. Over the course of twenty-five years, the Bean family allegedly murdered and devoured more than 1,000 people from their hidden sea cave dwelling along Scotland’s southwest coast. As the story goes, Sawney’s fourteen children and thirty-two grandchildren, born of incest, preyed on travelers. After robbing, killing and eating their victims, they hacked what was left of the bodies to pieces and pickled the remains in their cave.

However, the tale of Sawney’s cannibal family clan originated in England, not Scotland — making the validity of the story rather dubious, especially since it arose during the Jacobite rebellions. During that time, the English press regularly portrayed the Scots as villains — or in this case, bloodthirsty cannibals — and frequently used the name “Sawney” for their cartoon caricatures of Scotsmen.

While the story of Sawney Bean and his family may not be real after all, the tale has been around for more than 230 years and has nevertheless inspired numerous novels, plays, operas and, of course, the American film, The Hills Have Eyes.

Open Water

open water 3.jpg

Source: The Daily Telegraph, IMDB

Loosely based on the story of Tom and Eileen Lonergan, a couple accidentally left behind in open water by their tour group on a scuba-diving trip to the Great Barrier Reef, this film explores what remains terrifyingly unknown — what happened to them? In the film, the crew miscounted the passengers on board, but in real life, the crew never took a headcount. Whether the real-life, abandoned couple succumbed to exposure, got caught in a storm, drowned or was attacked by sharks — threats their characters face in the movie —  their bodies were never found. Uncannily, some of their scuba gear washed ashore completely intact with no signs of teeth marks, tearing or blood, further shrouding their story in mystery.

The Exorcist

  Source:  The Exorcist (1973)

Source: The Exorcist (1973)

Father Raymond Bishop’s diary details the months-long exorcism of a 14-year-old boy, called Roland Doe to protect his identity, and it is the fodder that inspired the book and film The Exorcist. In it, Fr. Bishop wrote that he and eight other Jesuit priests began the exorcism rites in 1949 after a series of events led the Church and the boy’s family to believe he was possessed.

Roland Doe’s alleged trials and tribulations with the devil began after his spiritualist aunt showed him a Ouija board. During that time, his parents began noticing strange activity within their house, including scratching noises coming from inside the walls, furniture moving by unseen forces and their son’s bed shaking. Soon after, his aunt died. Suspecting that there was something wrong with their son, Roland’s parents took him to be evaluated at a hospital, but the doctors released him with a clean bill of health. A local priest said otherwise. Believing Roland was possessed, he received permission from the Church to begin the rite of exorcism.

In the diary, Fr. Bishop described frightening encounters such as these:

“[Roland] was awake. The shaking ceased when Father Bowdern blessed the bed with Holy Water...The prayers of the exorcism were continued and [Roland] was seized violently so that he began to struggle with his pillow and the bed clothing. The arms, legs, and head of [Roland] had to be held by three men.”

“The word 'HELLO' was printed on his chest and thigh. Upon the explanation of the Apostles becoming Priests and receiving Our Lord at the Last Supper, scratches appeared from [Roland’s] hips to his ankles in heavy lines, seemingly as a protest to Holy Communion.”

The priest also wrote that the devil’s face appeared on Roland’s leg.

The possession and exorcism rite finally ended when Roland cried out: “Satan! I am Saint Michael! I command you to leave this body now!” The boy’s body spasmed violently. Then Roland said, “He is gone.”

Psycho, Silence of the Lambs & The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

  Source: Daily Mirror

Source: Daily Mirror

Characters Norman Bates, Jame Gumb, and Leatherface from the classic horror films Psycho, Silence of the Lambs, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were all inspired by the real-life murderer and grave robber Ed Gein, The Butcher of Plainfield.

According to Biography.com, “Obsessively devoted to his mother, Gein never left home or dated women. However, after she died in late 1945, he became increasingly deranged. Now living alone, he left her room neat and untouched, while the rest of the home fell into squalor, and he developed an interest in anatomy books.”

While Gein only killed two women, Mary Hogan and Bernice Worden, his home was filled with the macabre collections of his body snatching activities, too. Among the most disturbing items authorities found:

  • A wastebasket, chair seat covers, leggings and a vest made from human skin
  • Skulls made into soup bowls and adornments for his bed posts
  • Masks and a lampshade made from human faces
  • Mary Hogan's face in a paper bag and her skull in a box
  • Bernice Worden's headless, gutted body hanging from the ceiling; her decapitated head in a burlap sack and her heart in a plastic bag near the stove
  • Nine vulvae in a shoe box
  • A belt made from female human nipples
  • A pair of lips on a window shade drawstring

Gein confessed to wearing the masks and suits he made out of human skin around his house.

The Amityville Horror

   Source: The Amityville Horror (1979)

Source: The Amityville Horror (1979)

On November 13, 1974, in Amityville, New York, 23-year-old Ronald J. DeFeo Jr. murdered his parents and four siblings in cold blood. While his unsuspecting family slept, DeFeo shot them with a high-powered rifle. According to CBS New York, he confessed to police that “the voices from the house made him do it.”

Thirteen months later, George and Kathy Lutz bought the family’s house, but within twenty-eight days, they moved out. Their accounts of the paranormal activity that occurred during their stay went on to inspire numerous books, films, and documentaries. They claimed:

  • George woke up at 3:15 every morning, around the time Ronald J. DeFeo, Jr. murdered his family

  • There were cold spots, strange odors, and green slime oozing out of the walls and keyholes

  • A priest, visiting the house with the intention to bless it, heard a voice scream "Get out!"

  • A spirit knocked down a knife in the kitchen

  • A red-eyed, pig-like creature peered in at George Lutz and his son Daniel through a window

  • Members of the family levitated in their beds at night

Although George and Kathy Lutz passed a polygraph with these claims, their lawyer confessed in 1979 that they made up the whole story to cover up the married couple’s financial troubles. Ghosts or not, six people were murdered in the Amityville house and that’s a horrific true story.

Child's Play

  Source: Trip Advisor

Source: Trip Advisor

The movie franchise featuring the murderous doll “Chucky” drew inspiration from Robert the Doll, a toy formerly owned by a boy who would later become the famous painter Robert Eugene Otto from Key West, Florida. Voodoo-cursed with an evil spirit, Robert was given to Otto by an abused female servant seeking revenge against the family — or so the story goes.

Servants, neighbors, friends and family then began reporting bizarre incidents with the doll. For one, Otto’s parents claimed to have overheard Robert talking to their son. Others reported seeing Robert blink, laugh, and walk around the house. And then there were nights when Otto’s blood curdling screams brought his parents rushing to his room. Awaiting them was knocked over furniture, their crying son, and Robert’s beady-eyed gaze.

Even when Otto grew up and locked Robert away in the attic, visitors still heard the doll’s footsteps and laughter through the floorboards. And despite being under lock and key, Robert sometimes escaped. He was found, on several occasions, sitting in a rocking chair elsewhere in the house. After Otto died, Robert eventually made his way to the Fort East Martello Museum, but to this day, the doll has not relented in his reign of terror.

Jill Schensul, a staff travel writer for The Record (NJ), penned an article last year about the exhibit and concluded the piece with an eerie account of how her camera stopped functioning after taking pictures of Robert the Doll.

If you like horror films, spooky legends, weird histories and tales of the supernatural, check out our podcast Haunted Places. Every episode takes listeners on an audio tour of a new haunted place, and it’s haunted history.

One of our recent episodes, “Island of the Dolls,” explores the mysterious Xochimilco canals and their secrets — legends tell of a drowned girl searching for her doll in the afterlife, a woman who haunts the canals hoping to kidnap children, and Don Julian, a man rumored to have built the shrine of dolls and who died canalside with them.