The 25 Best Horror Movies Of All Time — And The Chilling True Stories Behind Them

Published August 14, 2022
Updated March 12, 2024

From Ed Gein's house of horrors that inspired Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to the unsolved string of murders behind Zodiac, learn about Hollywood's best horror movies and the grisly crimes behind them.

The Exorcism Of Emily Rose
Anneliese Michel Being Restrained
Classic Horror Movies The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
Police Searching Ed Gein's House
The 25 Best Horror Movies Of All Time — And The Chilling True Stories Behind Them
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Scary movies have always run a rather wide gamut from entertaining schlock to great art. But the best horror movies of all time provide several things at once: thrilling entertainment, great fear followed by utter relief, and catharsis for our own deep-seated anxieties and terrors.

All of these things are perhaps most intense in the classic horror films that are based on actual events. From tales of serial killers to exorcisms to alleged hauntings, the scariest horror movies ever made are often all the more terrifying when we know that we're seeing real-life stories unfolding on the screen.

Whether it's established favorites like Psycho and The Shining or recent classics like The Exorcism of Emily Rose and The Conjuring, these 25 films take on new levels of terror once you've learned the true stories that inspired them.

The True Story That Made Scream One Of The Best Horror Movies Of All Time

While most fright fans surely know that The Amityville Horror was based on a true story or that The Conjuring's Ed and Lorraine Warren were real-life paranormal investigators, many actual stories behind history's most famous horror movies have stayed under the radar. There's perhaps no better example of this than the Gainesville Ripper and Scream.

Over the span of just four days in August 1990, Danny Rolling murdered five students in northern Florida and secured his place in true crime history as "The Gainesville Ripper." But it was one particular aspect of the case that allowed Rolling's story to soon secure a place in the history of horror films as well.

The unseen killer discusses scary movies with his soon-to-be victim in the opening sequence of Scream.

Rolling loved scary movies, namely The Exorcist III, which he admitted to watching obsessively before carrying out his murders. He believed that the film's story of the twisted Gemini serial killer was speaking to him personally.

"Gemini is a part of Mr. Rolling's persona," said psychiatrist Dr. Robert Sadoff, who testified during Rolling's 1994 trial.

It was this detail that helped prompt Scream writer Kevin Williamson to pen his draft about a serial killer driven to murder by a deep love and knowledge of the horror genre.

But while Rolling's story may have been responsible for Scream, his case was even more terrifying than anything the film could ever depict. For example, after he raped and killed 18-year-old University of Florida student Christina Hoyt on August 25, he cut off her head and placed it on her shelf facing her decapitated corpse in hopes of shocking whoever found the body.

Sometimes, even the scariest horror movies can't fully portray the true-life terrors they're attempting to depict.

The Surprising Story Behind A Nightmare On Elm Street

While A Nightmare on Elm Street's tale of the infamous Freddy Krueger killing teens in their dreams may sound outlandish, it was actually based on a true story that's nothing like you'd ever expect. In 2008, director Wes Craven revealed that his 1984 classic was inspired by the inexplicable deaths of a string of Asian refugees in their sleep.

"It was a series of articles in the LA Times, about men from South East Asia, who were from immigrant families and who had died in the middle of nightmares — and the paper never correlated them, never said, 'Hey, we've had another story like this.'"

"The third one was the son of a physician. He was about 21... Everybody in his family said almost exactly these lines: 'You must sleep.' He said, 'No, you don't understand. I've had nightmares before — this is different.'"

Soon after the young men went to sleep, his parents heard screams coming from his room. They rushed in but were too late. He was dead and the autopsy never revealed a clear cause of death.

Craven used incidents like these to form the basis of a story about teenagers whose parents don't believe their fears that they'll die in their sleep. Though what ended up on the screen bore little resemblance to the initial news reports, the kernel of the story undoubtedly remained intact.

While filmmakers indeed often take major creative liberties to produce what will become classic horror movies, learning the true stories behind them helps make both their scares and their cathartic power all the more real.

Anneliese Michel
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Episode 27: The Exorcism Of Anneliese Michel, The Real-Life Emily Rose
Inside the haunting story of the 1976 exorcisms that left the supposedly possessed Anneliese Michel dead at only 23-years-old.

After learning about the best horror movies of all time and the real-life tales behind them, discover some terrifying true stories from history that are creepier than fiction. Then, learn about more of history's scariest horror films that are based on actual events.

Marco Margaritoff
A former staff writer for All That’s Interesting, Marco Margaritoff holds dual Bachelor's degrees from Pace University and a Master's in journalism from New York University. He has published work at People, VICE, Complex, and serves as a staff reporter at HuffPost.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Margaritoff, Marco. "The 25 Best Horror Movies Of All Time — And The Chilling True Stories Behind Them.", August 14, 2022, Accessed June 25, 2024.