10 Must-See Horror Movies Based on Real-Life Events

The best horror movies based on real-life events include Silence of the Lambs, Zodiac, Open Water, and more

By Rick Gonzales | Updated

Sometimes some of the best horror movies on the big screen are based on real-life events. They may not follow the event exactly, Hollywood is notorious for taking creative liberties, but many of the must-see horror films come from a real background (sorry Scream and Halloween). With that in mind, here are 10 Must-See Horror Movies Based on real-life Events.


The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

horror movie

Who can forget Sir Anthony Hopkins’s performance as the serial killer and cannibal, Hannibal Lecter, who helps budding FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) go after serial killer, Buffalo Bill?

And while Hopkins’s performance, as well as Foster’s, is rightfully so given high praise, the unsung “hero” of the film is Ted LeVine, who famously played the whacked-out Buffalo Bill.

In coming up with the character of Buffalo Bill, novelist Thomas Harris, who wrote The Silence of the Lambs three years before the movie premiered, said he based the character on six real-life serial killers that included Jerry Brudos, Ed Gein, Ted Bundy, Gary M. Heidnik, Edmund Kemper, and Gary Ridgway.

Although the film wasn’t able to go into as much detail about the Buffalo Bill character as in the novel, LeVine truly gave the performance of his life in bringing Buffalo Bill to the big screen.

Ravenous (1999)

horror movie

Ravenous is based on the story of the Donner Party and of “The Colorado Cannibal”, Alfred Packer, who survived a harsh winter in the San Juan Mountains by eating five of his companions.

The film stars Guy Pierce (L.A. Confidential) as Captain John Boyd, a soldier in the 1840s whose cowardice puts him in a position to show a bit of bravery. After playing dead, Boyd seizes the opportunity to capture a Mexican command post.

This bit of bravery allows Boyd a promotion, but when his commander discovers it was cowardice that got him in that situation, Boyd is sent in exile to a military post high in the Sierra Nevadas. At the post, a frostbitten stranger appears with a sickening story about his group that was stranded in the snowbound wilderness, having to resort to cannibalism to survive.

Boyd puts together a rescue party and when they arrive, they find that the stranger was not lying but it was he who resorted to cannibalism and that he lured the soldiers out there so he could kill and eat them as well.

If you like your horror stomach-churning, then Ravenous is your cup of tea.

Zodiac (2007)

horror movie

This 2007 horror movie starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, and Robert Downey Jr. is based on the real-life story of the Zodiac killer, who terrorized the San Francisco Bay Area in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. As far as the Zodiac’s victims, there were five confirmed and two injured, though the Zodiac claimed he was responsible for 37 deaths.

The film follows the story of the manhunt surrounding the Zodiac killer and how he taunted police with letters, blood-stained clothes, and a cipher he mailed to newspapers claiming if they were able to solve it, they would know his identity.

The Zodiac killer was never brought to justice and the film follows the detectives who were assigned the case through to the bitter end when they felt they had the killer, though they never had hard proof to make it stick.

The Exorcist (1973)

horror movie

For those of you who did not grow up in that era, The Exorcist was THE horror movie of its time. Yes, as the years have progressed, we have seen a lot worse (graphically) on the big screen, but when the film came out in 1973, it left audiences shocked and had many running out in fear.

The horror movie, directed by William Friedkin from a script written by William Peter Blatty from his novel of the same name, told the story, in graphic detail, of 12-year-old Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) who begins to experience phenomena that leads to demonic possession.

While her mother (Ellen Burstyn) doesn’t think it could be possession by the devil, she is eventually convinced to bring in two priests, Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) and Father Karras (Jason Miller), to help her daughter.

While the film traumatized many, it was actually based on the true story of a young boy who, in 1949, had an exorcism performed on him in Cottage City, Maryland. The boy was first introduced by his aunt to an Ouija board and after she died, the boy’s family began to experience paranormal activities.

Blatty took what he had heard about the actual possession (violence, revulsion to religious items, the boys’ guttural voice) and turned it into his novel.

The Conjuring (2013)

horror movie

Before the horror movie The Conjuring was released in 2013, Ed and Lorraine Warren were only semi-famous. Then, James Wan decided to take one of their most well-known cases (the married duo were famous paranormal investigators) and turn it into a scary movie.

The result? It also turned the Warrens (here played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) into the most famous ghost hunters the world has ever seen. Their stories became famous as Wan brought more of them to the big screen.

As for The Conjuring, it tells of the Warren’s 1971 investigation into strange happenings at a Rhode Island farmhouse. Wan expertly dialed up the scares and The Conjuring led to The Conjuring Universe, a slate of films not only centered around the Warrens but other supernatural happenings as well.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

horror movie

Has anyone out there heard of “The Butcher of Plainfield” or the “Plainfield Ghost?” No? Well, perhaps you have heard of legendary murderer and body snatcher, Ed Gein. In 1957, Gein was brought in under the suspicion of murder, two of which were confirmed and 7 others he was suspected of, along with nine corpses he dug up from local cemeteries.

Gein’s crimes were the basis of the 1974 horror film, Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Gein’s propensity to wear women’s clothing and to turn human skin into face masks are just some of the of his crimes that were built into the story of Leatherface and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Open Water (2003)

horror movie

It is bad enough, for some, simply jumping into the ocean. The fear of sharks started eons ago when Steven Spielberg decided it’d be fun to tell the story of a man-eating great white shark. While that story was not based on a real incident, Open Water was.

The movie is based on the real-life 1998 incident where Americans Tom and Eileen Lonergan were in Australia scuba diving with a group off the Great Barrier Reef. While they were off diving, their group accidentally left them behind. The Great Barrier Reef is well known for its great white shark activity, which could account for the bodies of the Lonergan’s never being found.

The Girl Next Door (2007)

horror movie

Sometimes it takes the backstory to these films to truly grasp just how horrible we can be as human beings. The Girl Next Door is a film that is based on the true-life story of Sylvia Likens and the abuse and torture she endured at the hands of Gertrude Baniszewski.

We won’t go into the graphic details of what Gertrude did to Likens, but what is shown on the screen in The Girl Next Door is just a fraction of what Sylvia Likens experienced before she finally passed away from the torture.

The Strangers (2008

horror movie

The Strangers stars Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler as a couple who has to fight off a home invasion. While the story is not a retelling of a specific incident, the film is based on numerous home invasion incidents including one of the most notorious, the Manson Family, and the Keddie Cabin Murders in 1981, where four people were killed by three masked people.

This story finds James (Speedman) and Kristen (Tyler) alone in the summer home of James’ childhood. Things are tense between the couple but right before James heads out to grab a pack of cigarettes for Kristen, there is a knock on the front door with a female asking for Tamara. She leaves, as does James, leaving Kristen alone.

That same gal returns while James is gone, asking again for Tamara. Kristen begins to get spooked and calls James to come back. When he returns, not only has the girl returned wearing a mask, but she has brought friends with her.

The Amityville Horror (1979)

horror movie

One of the more famous true stories turned into a movie, The Amityville Horror stars James Brolin and Margot Kidder as George and Kathy Lutz, a married couple who, with their three children, moved into the famous house at 112 Ocean Avenue, Amityville, on Long Island.
What made this house so infamously famous is that in that home, on November 13, 1974, Ronald DeFeo Jr. shot and killed his entire family (mother, father, two brothers, and two sisters).

The Lutz’s were able to remain in the house for 28 days before paranormal phenomena finally forced them out. The Lutz’s never returned to the home, even to move out all of their belongings.