The 25 Best Horror Movies Of All Time — And The Chilling True Stories Behind Them
By Marco Margaritoff | Edited By John Kuroski
Published August 14, 2022
Updated October 25, 2022
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.
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The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)
One of the best horror movies of this century, The Exorcism of Emily Rose masterfully toes the line between the real and the paranormal in its story of a young woman who dies after enduring a grueling exorcism meant to cure her supposed demonic possession. When the priest responsible then stands trial for her death, we see her chilling tale unfold in flashbacks of what happened both before and during the exorcism. What's more, this story is disturbingly similar to the real exorcism that inspired it...Screen Gems
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The Exorcism Of Anneliese Michel
Anneliese Michel of Germany began experiencing convulsions when she was 16 years old. While she was diagnosed with epilepsy a year later, Michel then claimed demons were visiting and torturing her. She also began to eat spiders, lick her own urine off the floor, and crawl under a table and bark like a dog repeatedly. After her parents tried to cure her with an exorcism, she died of malnutrition at just 68 pounds in 1976. Eventually, two priests involved in the case were found guilty of negligent homicide.Facebook
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The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
While The Texas Chain Saw Massacre routinely ranks with the most famous horror movies of all time, few may know that it was inspired by true events. In fact, this classic horror film about a chainsaw-wielding madman named Leatherface took several cues from the tale of real-life killer Ed Gein.Vortex
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Known as "The Butcher of Plainfield," Ed Gein has captivated authors and screenwriters perhaps more than any other American serial killer. Traumatized by an unhealthy relationship with his mother and the isolation of rural Plainfield, Wisconsin, Gein began to kill and dismember locals — and fashion everything from lampshades and gloves to masks and kitchen utensils from their skins. When police searched Gein's house in 1957, they found scores of such grisly items, not to mention a skin suit he was fashioning for himself. He was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in an institution and died there at 77 in 1984.Bettmann/Getty Images
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Candyman, one of the scariest horror movies of the modern era, tells the story of a Chicago woman who hears tales of the murderous ghost of a former slave who was killed for his relationship with a white woman. But things turn deadly when she finds that the stories are true and that the Candyman is actually stalking the city's housing projects and entering people's rooms by traveling through mirrors before killing his victims with a hook. While this may sound outrageous, there is a true story of murder in the Chicago projects that helped inspire the film.TriStar
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The Ruthie Mae McCoy Murder
Though there's no undead, hook-handed killer involved in the real-life story of Candyman, the tragic murder of Ruthie Mae McCoy was just as unsettling. A mentally ill resident of Chicago's South Side ABLA homes, she was killed on April 22, 1987 after fruitlessly calling 911 and begging to be saved from intruders coming in through her bathroom mirror. Authorities finally entered the home two days later and found her dead, face-down on the floor in a puddle of blood — and a hole in her bathroom mirror.David Wilson
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The Shining (1980)
One of the most enduring classic horror movies, The Shining remains terrifying four decades after its release. Isolated in a haunted Colorado hotel constructed over an Indian burial ground, the Torrance family has to battle their own demons — and the hotel's — as a massive snowstorm traps them inside. Eventually, patriarch Jack Torrance succumbs to the hotel's powers and goes insane before trying to kill his wife and son.Warner Bros.
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The Stanley Hotel
While the story of the Torrance family was invented by horror author Stephen King, a real-life Colorado hotel called the Stanley actually did inspire The Shining. King was compelled to write the novel that preceded the film after a chilling stay at the cavernous Stanley as its sole guest one night in 1974. But long before that, the Stanley played host to a series of scary incidents, namely the mysterious 1911 (some sources say 1917) explosion that nearly killed a chambermaid in Room 217 — the very room where King would stay decades later. To this day, guests insist that Room 217 is haunted by the chambermaid's ghost.Pixabay
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The Exorcist (1973)
There had been very few horror films as disturbing as The Exorcist before its wildly successful 1973 release. Centered on a young suburban girl possessed by a demon, it remains one of the scariest horror movies of all time due to its grotesque imagery and intense exorcism scenes.Warner Bros.
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The Roland Doe Exorcism
As in The Exorcist, the case of Roland Doe involved an adolescent child subjected to exorcisms due to supposed demonic possession in the picturesque suburbs outside of Washington, D.C. In the 1940s, the 13-year-old Doe began to experience paranormal occurrences like his mattress moving on its own and unexplainable scratching sounds coming from his walls. Mirroring the movie, the family sought psychiatric advice, to no avail, and eventually turned to a priest. In Doe's case, they couldn't even finish the exorcism after he ripped a metal spring from his bed and slashed the priest with it.Discovery/Getty Images
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The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
The Silence of the Lambs was the first horror movie in history to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Thanks to its disturbing story of imprisoned serial killer Hannibal Lecter helping FBI agent Clarice Starling track down active murderer Buffalo Bill, its reputation as one of the best and scariest horror films ever made is well deserved.Orion Pictures
The Amityville Horror took audiences by storm, grossed over $80 million, and became one of the most successful independent movies of all time. To promote this tale of a family terrorized by malevolent spirits inside their new home, stars Josh Brolin and Margot Kidder even visited the real house that inspired the story...American International Pictures
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Ronald DeFeo Jr.
On a brisk November night in 1974, Ronald DeFeo Jr. murdered six of his family members inside their Long Island home, stalking from room to room with a .35 caliber rifle. DeFeo later claimed that otherworldly voices coming from the house had instructed him to kill. And this wouldn't be the last time that residents of 112 Ocean Avenue reported paranormal experiences. The trend continued after subsequent owners George and Kathy Lutz moved in and soon wrote a book about their experiences, which in turn inspired the film.New York Daily News/Getty Images
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Poltergeist tells the story of a California family whose home is invaded by ghosts that eventually abduct their daughter into a paranormal realm. As chilling as the onscreen story was, the movie remains infamous for its behind-the-scenes incidents as well. Within six years of the movie being filmed, the two young actresses who portrayed the sisters died tragically. Dominique Dunne was murdered by her boyfriend, while Heather O'Rourke — whose famous line, "They're here," announced the coming of the ghosts — died of congenital intestinal issues at just 12 years old. Some remain convinced a curse was to blame.MGM
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The Hermann Family
Though it may seem outlandish, Poltergeist was actually inspired by an alleged haunting suffered by the Hermann family of Seaford, Long Island in 1958. "All of a sudden, you'd hear this loud noise, like a popping bottle sound, and you'd look around and find a bottle that was 12 feet away from where it was supposed to be and all the contents were missing and the bottle was hot to the touch," recalled Lucille Hermann. Her family's ordeal was reportedly so dreadful that none of them had any interest in seeing the film. "I had my own nightmare," Lucille said.YouTube
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Open Water (2003)
"This is a horrifying movie," said Open Water director Chris Kentis, "because this could happen. It's unlikely a guy wielding a chainsaw is going to come to your house, but you know if you're a diver this is what you worry about. This is very real." Indeed, Kentis' tale of two divers left behind by their boat in shark-infested waters is all too real.Lionsgate
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Tom And Eileen Lonergan
In 1998, American divers Tom and Eileen Lonergan were forgotten by their scuba group's boat in the Coral Sea off the northwest coast of Australia. An extensive search by the authorities turned up nothing but diving gear and a note, reading, "Please help us come to rescue us before we die. Help!!!" While their bodies have never been found, shark attack is one of the prevailing theories.YouTube
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A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
While A Nightmare on Elm Street is one of the more fantastical entries among the best horror movies of all time, it was actually inspired by a series of Southeast Asian immigrants who suddenly died in their sleep for no known reason. That's all director Wes Craven had to read to get cracking on this classic horror film about the evil Freddy Krueger invading the dreams of his victims in order to kill them.New Line Cinema
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The Mysterious Cambodian Sleeping Deaths
In the early 1980s, dozens of Southeast Asians living as refugees in America were dying in their sleep and doctors were baffled. Most of those who died were Cambodians who'd fled the Khmer Rouge genocide that had turned their home country into a killing field. Among the refugee community, everything from nerve agents to ancestral spirits were considered as possible culprits for the sleeping deaths, but no definitive cause was ever found.Roland Neveu/LightRocket/Getty Images
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Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)
Bram Stoker's Dracula saw revered director Francis Ford Coppola create an operatic horror classic for the ages. Though previous versions of Dracula rank with some of the top-rated horror movies of all time, this version stands out as one that explicitly engages with the mythic vampire's real-life origins.Columbia
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Vlad The Impaler
Vlad the Impaler earned his macabre moniker after indeed impaling some 20,000 people while ruler of Wallachia (present-day Romania) in the mid-15th century. Ultimately, he brutalized and killed some 80,000 people while clashing with the Turks and other neighboring powers. Known as Vlad Dracula and believed to have been born in Transylvania, this bloodthirsty ruler eventually inspired Irish author Bram Stoker to write Dracula in 1897.Wikimedia Commons
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Wolf Creek (2005)
Screenwriter Greg McLean initially wrote Wolf Creek as a typical slasher film, but then rewrote the script after learning about Australian serial killer Ivan Milat. McLean ultimately said that Wolf Creek killer Mick Taylor, who captures and then brutally murders several backpackers in the Australian outback, was a combination of "famous Australian exports" such as Milat and Steve Irwin.FFC Australia
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Otherwise known as the Backpacker Murderer, Ivan Milat was found guilty in 1996 of seven grisly hitchhiker murders in Australia's Belanglo State Forest between 1989 and 1993. He had a penchant for stabbing his victims in the spine — and even decapitated one with a machete. After more than 20 years in prison, Milat died behind bars of cancer at age 74 in 2019.Public Domain
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When Charlize Theron was tapped to play serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster, many were surprised by such a casting choice. But Theron's chilling portrayal of Wuornos earned her not only an Academy Award, but the respect of those who knew this killer for real. As Theron recalled, "Al, the bartender who knew Aileen
really well—who kind of laughed at us when we
showed up for research and said that I was going to play Aileen—went to Patty [Jenkins, the director] and said, 'This is really
freaking us out, how much she looks like Aileen and
how much she’s carrying herself like Aileen. Everybody’s talking about it.'"Newmarket Films
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After a childhood filled with abuse and abandonment, Aileen Wuornos turned to drugs, prostitution — and murder. Her bloody rampage saw her fatally shoot seven men in Florida between 1989 and 1990, and made her one of America's most infamous female serial killers in recent history. Ultimately, after being caught in 1991, she was executed in 2002 at age 46.YouTube
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Though it may not yet rank with other classic horror movies, critics gave Borderland a 100 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes for its realistic writing and shocking depictions of gore. Centered on a cult of drug-dealing, murderous Satanists on the Texas-Mexico border, the film's violence is only more disturbing due to the stunning fact that it's based on true events.Lionsgate
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Adolfo Constanzo and "The Narcosatanists"
In the late 1980s, cult leader Adolfo Constanzo and his "Narcosatanist" followers ritualistically killed and dismembered at least 20 people in southern Mexico — and maybe as many as 100. He had avoided detection because his victims were largely homeless or prostitutes. But eventually Constanzo was killed in 1989 after opening fire on approaching police — who he assumed were closing in on him, but were actually searching for a missing child instead.Wikimedia Commons
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Child's Play (1988)
While Child's Play's story of a nefarious killer doll named Chucky would be terrible in the wrong hands, director Tom Holland made one of the most beloved classic horror movies of the last few decades, perhaps because it was rooted in some semblance of truth. In fact, the doll that inspired the film continues to be both marveled at and feared by fans of the paranormal to this day.United Artists
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Robert The Doll
Since 1904, Robert the Doll has been blamed for everything from causing car accidents to breaking people's bones thanks to his alleged otherworldly powers. The stories began when his first owners claimed that he perpetrated violent mayhem inside their home. Now sitting on display in a museum in Key West, Florida, Robert has a chilling enough résumé that people regularly write him letters pleading not to be cursed.Susan Smith/Flickr
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Both one of the best horror movies of all time and a hidden gem, Ravenous is made all the more terrifying by its backstory. Inspired by true events in the Old West, the film sees soldiers in an isolated military outpost battle a marauding band of cannibals — before falling victim to the hunger for human flesh themselves.20th Century Fox
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Alferd Packer is arguably the Wild West's most infamous cannibal. He killed several of his fellow miners during a treacherous trip through the Rocky Mountains in 1874 and ate them. In the end, he was caught and signed a full confession. Though he was sentenced to 40 years, he was paroled before serving 20— and worked as a guard for the Denver Post until he died in 1907.Public Domain
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The Curse of La Llorona (2019)
The Curse of La Llorona revolves around a social worker and her children falling prey to the murderous titular ghost. Though creative license made for some horrifying flourishes in the film version, the tale of La Llorona is rooted in actual Latin American folklore that may have historical origins.Warner Bros.
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Known in English as "The Weeping Woman" or "The Wailer," La Llorona is a ghost from an actual Mexican folktale about a woman who drowns her own children in a fit of rage before killing herself and then returning to our world as an evil spirit. For some 400 years, people have told tales and reported sightings of this wailing woman in white appearing near bodies of water, searching for her departed children. Though various historical people have been put forth as the real La Llorona, there is no definitively verified origin for this chilling story.Flickr
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The Nun (2018)
One of the scariest horror movies in recent years, The Nun centers on a priest who is sent to investigate paranormal occurrences at a Romanian cloister where nuns are being attacked by a mysterious entity. They soon discover that a centuries-old demon known as Valak is responsible. But according to the historical records that speak of Valak, this demon may be even scarier than what the movie portrayed.Warner Bros.
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First described in an anonymous 17th-century book as "a Boy with angels wings, riding on a 2 headed Dragon," Valak purportedly haunted a Romanian monastery while dressed as a nun. Titled The Lesser Key of Solomon, the book in question describes itself as a guide to "the ceremonial art of commanding spirits both good and evil." Wikimedia Commons
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Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer follows the titular solitary drifter as he draw his former prison mate into a grisly killing spree throughout Chicago. Due to the explicitness of the onscreen violence and its basis in actual fact, the film helped inspire the creation of the NC-17 rating and remains heralded as one of the scariest horror movies of all time.Greycat Films
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Henry Lee Lucas
Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole's reign of terror across America throughout the 1960s and 1970s saw them rape, torture, kill — and even cannibalize — as many as 600 people before being captured, if their taped confessions are to be believed. In one prison recording, they reminisced fondly about how good a victim tasted after being covered in barbecue sauce. However, such confessions remain in doubt and Lucas may have only killed as few as three people. And with Lucas dying in prison of heart failure at age 64 in 2001, we may never know his death toll for sure.Getty Images
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The Conjuring (2013)
Ranking among the scariest horror movies of recent decades, The Conjuring sees two paranormal investigators named Ed and Lorraine Warren help the Perron family through a terrifying haunting in their Rhode Island home. Soon discovering that the Perrons are being tormented by a 19th-century witch named Bathsheba, the Warrens work quickly to save the family from the spirit's devilish designs.New Line Cinema
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Ed And Lorraine Warren
In 1971, paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren were indeed hired by the Perron family in Rhode Island to rid them of the demonic entities allegedly taking over their home. It started small, like a broom going missing — but eventually led to a spirit called Bathsheba supposedly demanding control of the house. According to the Warrens, it turned out that a woman named Bathsheba Sherman actually had lived in that house before — and was rumored to have been a Satanist.Getty Images
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A sprawling and chilling true crime opus, Zodiac follows the years-long search for the titular serial killer who terrorized the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1960s and early '70s. What makes the film all the more disquieting is just how much it sticks to the facts, especially in terms of its ending, in which the killer remains uncaught. Paramount
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The Zodiac Killer
In 1968 and 1969, the Zodiac Killer murdered at least five people in and around San Francisco and then proceeded to terrorize the Bay Area throughout the 1970s by sending threatening letters to newspapers and police alike. In the end, despite an enormous list of suspects and a wealth of tantalizing evidence, the case went unsolved. But that hasn't stopped a series of sleuths from making solid cases against a number of persons of interest to this day.San Francisco Police Department
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The Sacrament (2013)
The Sacrament sees a VICE crew infiltrate the compound of a cult living on a remote commune run by a man known as "Father." Danger lurks just below the surface as the cult members' claims of Father's benevolence and kindness grow more and more dubious and it becomes clear that a violent end is imminent for everyone involved.Worldview Entertainment
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The Jonestown Massacre
From the 1950s through the 1970s, Jim Jones presided over his cult, the Peoples Temple, eventually gaining complete control over his flock. His reign only ended after he moved his followers to Guyana and orchestrated their mass suicide there in 1978 by forcing them to drink cyanide-laced Flavor Aid before killing himself. Until the September 11th attacks, the 918 deaths of the Jonestown Massacre represented the greatest deliberately inflicted loss of civilian life at one time in American history.FBI
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The Mothman Prophecies (2002)
Though not one of the most famous horror movies of all time, The Mothman Prophecies remains an eerie foray into the supernatural. Set in the small town of Point Pleasant, West Virginia, the film follows one visiting out-of-towner and a host of locals who cross paths with a supernatural moth-like man with glowing red eyes who can see death and tragedy coming before it occurs. Ultimately, the Mothman warns of a great tragedy on the Ohio River that comes true when a bridge collapses and 36 people die.Lakeshore Entertainment
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The Point Pleasant Silver Bridge Collapse
Starting in 1966, people in and around Point Pleasant, West Virginia began seeing something strange — a figure with big bright eyes that soared like a bird but looked like a "brown human being." Some described it as seven feet tall, while others noted a wingspan of 10 feet — and a flight speed of 100 mph. When the Silver Bridge collapsed in 1967 and killed 46 people, those who had encountered the so-called Mothman were convinced that the creature was involved.Point Pleasant River Museum
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Scream revolves around a group of high school friends being hunted by a masked serial killer who is inspired by horror films. Though Scream pokes fun at the conventions of other scary movies while presenting its own slasher tale, it remains one of the scariest horror movies in recent decades.Dimension Films
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Danny Rolling murdered five students in Gainesville, Florida over the course of just four days in August 1990 — and had an obsession with watching horror movies before committing his grisly deeds. He particularly liked to watch The Exorcist III before his murders and believed that the film's tale of a demonic serial killer was speaking to him personally. Soon after, the gruesome case inspired screenwriter Kevin Williamson to pen Scream.YouTube
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Widely cited as one of the best horror movies of all time, Psycho focuses on the disturbing crimes of the shy and mild-mannered Norman Bates, who lives in an isolated motel with his mother. From the iconic scene that sees Bates murder a motel guest while she's showering to the chilling ending in which the origins of his psychosis become clear, Psycho earns its place among classic horror movies.Paramount
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Given his stomach-turning list of crimes, it's no wonder that serial killer Ed Gein has served as the inspiration for the murderers in several of the most famous horror films ever made. In the eponymous novel that served as the source material for Psycho, author Robert Bloch drew upon Gein's unhealthy relationship with his mother, who lived alone with her son in an isolated house and forbade him from making friends while convincing him that the outside world was evil and that all women except her were instruments of the devil. He eventually became obsessed with her and felt that she was his one true love.Bettmann/Getty Images
The 25 Best Horror Movies Of All Time — And The Chilling True Stories Behind Them
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.
Listen above to the History Uncovered podcast, episode 27: The Exorcism Of Anneliese Michel, also available on iTunes and Spotify.
A staff writer for All That’s Interesting, Marco Margaritoff has also published work at outlets including People, VICE, and Complex, covering everything from film to finance to technology. He holds dual bachelor's degrees from Pace University and a master's degree from New York University.