Sometimes real life is what the worst nightmares are made of. For your horrifying pleasure, members of the SDNYC team named their Top 20 horror films based on real events. Find out the chilling truth behind classic Halloween favorites in this year’s Halloween Horror Flicks list.
The Birds (1963)
A few years before The Birds hit theatres an eerily similar event occurred in the Monterey Bay area. Thousands of migrating sooty shearwater sea birds diverted from their normal flight path and slammed into nearby homes and buildings. Not exactly a mass-bird-attack, but frightening nonetheless.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)
The practice of exorcising demons can be found in the history of several large religions. The true Emily Rose was a 23 year old German woman by the name Anneliese Michel. In 1976 she died of starvation after an 11-month exorcism led by her family.
The real man behind the mask is Danny Rolling. Better known as the Gainesville Killer who murdered five Florida college students over the course of three days in 1990. Though Rolling’s disguise was was a black ski mask, he is the inspiration behind the villain of the 1994 hit slasher film.
The cursed doll was first introduced in the 2013 film The Conjuring. Her fast-growing popularity lead to her own franchise. An occult museum curator in Connecticut currently keeps a doll possessed by the real “Annabelle” under lock and key. Unlike the porcelain doll in the film, the actual menace is a soft Raggedy Anne doll.
METRO MISFITS, ILLUSTRATOR
Summer of Sam (1999)
Spike Lee’s hit Summer of Sam is a fictional retelling of serial killer David Berkowitz, aka The Son of Sam‘s reign of terror on the streets of New York City from 1976-1977. If you aren’t old enough to have felt the fear yourself, this film accurately captures the chaos of the time.
The Amityville Horror (1979)
At 112 Ocean Ave. (now 108 Ocean Ave.) in Amityville, NY sits the original house of horrors. It was this location where Ronald J. DeFeo Jr. murdered his parents and four siblings in 1974. Ronald claimed he heard voices urging him to kill his family. This is the true story behind the plot of the 1979 film.
The Exorcist (1973)
Ronald Edwin Hunkeler/ Roland Doe was only 14 years old when he underwent several exorcisms in Maryland and Missouri in 1949 at the hands of Father Raymond Bishop. Inspiring the terrifying relationship between Father Damian Karras and little Regan in the 1973 film The Exorcist.
The Blob (1958)
Believe it or not The Blob is based on the bizarre yet true 1950 UFO encounter of two Philadelphia police officers. After spotting a Flying Saucer falling from the sky they approached to investigate, only to find a quivering mound of “purple jelly”. The phenomenon isn’t the only report of what experts call Star Rot or Star Jelly.
SIN DEE SUGAR
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
The cult classic slasher flick was inspired by real life serial killer Ed Gein aka “the Butcher of Plainfield”. The 1950’s murderer enjoyed crafting souvenirs from his victims’ bones and skin. The flesh masks which police found on the scene inspired the movie’s lead character Leatherface.
The Black Dahlia (2006)
The story of Black Dahlia continues to captivate murder mystery buffs since the 1947 discovery of Elizabeth Short‘s body in Hollywood. She was left in a bizarre pose, dismembered, and drained of all her blood. The movie is a fictionalization of what could have happened in the cold case.
The Girl Next Door (2007)
This one is a 100% true and 100% horrifying. It recounts the months of torture and abuse of Sylvia Likens. The teenager was kept captive by friends and family who humiliated, beat, branded, cut and eventually killed her.
Lords of Chaos (2019)
This flick is packed with murder, suicide and church-burning. The bloody portrayal of the 90’s Norwegian black metal scene is based on the very real events surrounding members of the band Mayhem. Giving a whole new meaning to Death Metal.
Ok, ok, I know my last two picks aren’t exactly true stories, but the urban legends they’re based on and their influence on real lives is just as terrifying.
The Mothman Prophecies (2002)
From 1966 – 1967 the town of Point Pleasant, Virginia reported sightings of a large winged man-like creature with bright red eyes. Coincidentally, the town’s hysteria ended with a catastrophic event. On December 15, 1967 the town’s Silver Bridge collapsed killing 46 people. Also marking the last sighting of the “Mothman“. The 1975 and 2002 film adaptations attempt to explain the connection between the urban legend and the real-life tragedy.
Slender Man (2018)
The internet age’s version of Bloody Mary is Slender Man. Unfortunately, fantasy collided with reality when in 2014, two twelve year old girls in Wisconsin lured their friend into the woods and stabbed her 19 times. All in the name of Slender Man. The 2018 film is a fictional horror movie inspired by this IRL attack.
SINFUL SOUNDS, SINFUL SCREENINGS
My list of horror films based on a true story has a twist. My selection highlights the weird, but true origins of how writers and filmmakers made their classic tales of terror. If you think horror films are freaky, just imagine what the people who make horror films are like!
Raven’s Hollow (2022)
Before he became a leading writer of mystery and horror, Edgar Allan Poe was a young cadet at West Point. Raven’s Hollow presents Poe as a young soldier investigating what appears to be a human sacrifice. When Poe and his fellow cadets enter the rural community of Raven’s Hollow, they encounter a community in fear of a curse placed upon them. This is a far-fetched take on Poe’s origins, but it is interesting to combine the typical gothic Poe mystery with folk horror elements.
Lord Byron invites his bohemian friends Percy Shelly and his wife Mary along with his doctor John Polidori over to his estate in Lake Geneva for the summer. Thunderstorms force them to spend most of their time inside smoking opium. One night Byron suggests they engage in a ghost story writing contest. Dr. Polidori wrote the first western literary vampire story, The Vampyre, and Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. Director Ken Russell brings his signature hallucinatory vision to this story that is equal parts erotic and nightmarish.
B-movie director William Castle was an eccentric, cigar-chomping maverick behind horror classics House on Haunted Hill, 13 Ghosts, and The Tingler. He mastered the use of gimmicks to draw people into theaters. John Goodman gleefully portrays Lawrence Woolsey a character very much inspired by Castle who arrives in Key West during the Cuban Missile Crisis. When told by a theater manager that the populace who only live 90 miles from Cuba are living in fear of an atomic apocalypse, Woolsey says, “what a perfect time to open a new horror movie.” Matinee is Joe Dante’s nostalgic love letter to classic Cold War sci-fi exploitation.
Shadow of the Vampire (2001)
The silent film classic Nosferatu still holds up today as an eerie film that will make your skin crawl. Nosferatu was released by the studio Prana Film which was founded by occultists who viewed filmmaking as a magical act. In this meta-horror film, Shadow of the Vampire takes this to an extreme by imagining that director F.W. Murnau recruited the actor Max Schreck for the title role specifically because he was an actual vampire. Soon after cast and crew mysteriously disappear. William Dafoe is wonderfully creepy as always in the Max Schreck/Nosferatu role while John Malkovich plays the obsessed filmmaker.
The Creep Behind the Camera (2014)
Plan 9 from Outer Space has some stiff competition for “worst film ever made” in Z-grade horror movie The Creeping Terror. The director Vic Savage was actually A. J . Nelson, a con man, hustler, bigamist, drug addict, wife beater, and child porn peddler. While Ed Wood is an affectionate portrayal of a horror filmmaker, The Creep Behind the Camera is an expose of a man who was more of a monster than anything ever shown on screen.
Ed Wood (1994)
The zombie schlock Plan 9 from Outer Space has been considered by many critics to be the “worst film ever made.” Director Ed Wood was notorious in Hollywood for being openly transgender. The unbelievable, but true story of its creation is retold by Tim Burton in this loving tribute to a man whose ambition and enthusiasm for cinema far surpassed any actual talent as a filmmaker. Wood’s troupe of eccentric performers is portrayed by an all-star cast including Sarah Jessica Parker, Bill Murray, George “the Animal” Steele, and Martin Landau (who won an Oscar for portraying Bela Lugosi.)
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