Real life is so horrifying it’s no surprise it regularly inspires horror fiction. Different from thrillers that dramatize documented events (like Zodiac or any of the various Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer projects), these 10 films pluck only certain elements from true crime and use them to enhance their own scripted nightmares.
Greg McLean’s 2005 Aussie chiller features a skin-crawlingly great performance by veteran actor John Jarratt, playing a man who materialises just as a group of travellers run into car trouble in the remote outback. Packed with atmospheric malevolence, Wolf Creek adds an extra layer of terror by drawing upon the real-life boogeymen who similarly targeted backpackers in rural Australia in the 1990s and 2000s. It’s worth noting that McLean’s other films include 2007’s Rogue, another tale inspired by a real-life tourist terror — though in that particular instance, it was a giant crocodile that chomped its way into folk-legend status after a series of boat attacks in the 1970s.
The Hills Have Eyes
Wes Craven made it no secret that he based The Hills Have Eyes’ mutant cannibal family on the Sawney Bean Clan, a sprawling Scottish family said to prey on anyone foolish enough to pass near their seaside lair. Some historians believe their colourfully gruesome lifestyle may have been exaggerated (or entirely made up), but its details still get the imagination racing — and thanks to Eyes, which itself became a highly influential horror tale, its legacy includes an entirely convincing argument against taking any sort of off-the-map shortcut.
Robert Bloch wrote most of his 1959 novel before learning about Ed Gein. But the real-life case of a loner with a mother fixation and murderous tendencies — plus a farmhouse full of artistically manipulated, grave-robbed body parts — informed the public’s perception of the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock film, which was released three years after Gein’s sensational arrest. The idea that someone like Norman Bates actually existed in our world made Psycho all the scarier.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Though 1974’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre begins with a crawl solemnly insisting that it’s based on actual crimes, the details cribbed from real life again go back to Ed Gein — this time, gleefully exploiting the troubled farmer’s fascination with making clothing, furniture, lawn art, and who knows what else out of leftover bones and dried skin. Fun fact: the production designer for Chainsaw, Robert A. Burns, also worked on The Hills Have Eyes — another movie that uses cannibalised body parts to make its mise-en-scène extra creeptastic.
There have been multiple documentaries and docudramas overtly based on the 1978 Jonestown Massacre, but this 2013 found-footage treatment from Ti West (Pearl) puts a modern spin on the story, with a Vice crew barging their way into a mysterious Christian cult’s jungle headquarters. The Sacrament hews so closely to the events of the actual Peoples Temple tragedy that aside from the time period in which it’s set, it’s very nearly an adaptation rather than a fictionalization.
Another cannibal movie for the list! Actually, let’s make it two, since both 1999’s Ravenous and 1993’s Cannibal! The Musical — movies rather different in tone, considering how similar they are in subject matter — tip their caps to the same man: Alfred (sometimes spelled Alferd) Packer, aka “The Colorado Cannibal,” who survived the harsh winter of 1874 by murdering his travelling companions and dining on their flesh.
In 2003, Open Water alerted millions of would-be tropical vacationers to the agonizing scenario of being accidentally left behind by a dive boat in shark-infested waters. And as it turns out, the filmmakers didn’t pull that idea out of thin air; they were inspired by a 1998 incident involving an American couple who disappeared after being left behind on a scuba trip in Australia’s Coral Sea.
The Town That Dreaded Sundown
A series of unsolved murders along the border of Texas and Arkansas in 1946 inspired this ominously titled movie about a hooded maniac dubbed “the Phantom.” It was actually filmed in the region where the killings took place and makes a point of suggesting its villain is still out there now; its 1976 release date makes it an early entry in the slasher-movie genre.
Recent headlines have reminded us that Americans should pay close attention to their driving routes when passing through parts of Mexico controlled by trigger-happy cartels. But this 2007 movie also reminds us — by way of an actual tourist-on-spring-break murder case from 1989 — that avoiding areas frequented by unhinged Satanic cults hellbent on human sacrifice is also a good plan for self-preservation.
The Amityville Horror
The Amityville Horror — that is, the “true” story told in the best-selling book, which in turn inspired the hit 1979 movie — is a notorious paranormal hoax. But there’s actual tragedy in its backstory, which is that in 1974, Ronald DeFeo Jr. shot his parents and four siblings as they slept in what soon became Amityville’s most infamous house. Fascination with the awful mass murder lent credibility to the ghost story, and it’s surely a big reason why we’re still getting Amityville-themed movies nearly five decades later.
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