The 5 scariest horror movies based on true stories

Chris Tilly
Little possessed girl in The Exorcist.Universal Pictures

From Poltergeist and The Exorcist, to Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Conjuring, these are the best horror movies based on true stories.

Horror movies have gone through many evolutions. Many of the classics were based on myths, legends, and the great of literature, helping to spawn classic characters like Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy.

While more recently, we’ve had the ‘found footage’ sub-genre, in which the horror looks like it’s real, even though the stories are very much fictitious.

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But there’s another sub-set – the horror movie based on a true story – that has inspired some of the scariest movies ever made. Like the following five…

Top 5 scariest horror movies based on true stories

When putting together this list, we’ve included movies that are loosely based on fact, meaning they feature a fair amount of embellishment. Alongside flicks that rigorously stick to the truth.

And while four of our movies are out-and-out horror, the first pick is a thriller. One that shifts gear in terrifying fashion as proceedings progress…

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5. Zodiac (2007)

The thriller in question is Zodiac, which is directed by David Fincher, who has form on this front having helmed the very fictional Se7en. Zodiac is based in fact however, being a police procedural about the hunt for the ‘Zodiac Killer,’ a serial murderer who terrorised Northern California in the late-1960s.

Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., and Mark Ruffalo lend star power to the project. But as their investigative efforts bring them ever close to the titular target, Zodiac becomes unbearably tense, while Fincher shoots the murders themselves in terrifying fashion. And the fact that the killer was never found makes this the stuff of true nightmares.

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Poltergeist (1982)

A family of five is living in a planned Californian community called Cuesta Verde, which is a pretty average suburb. Though all that changes when their youngest starts conversing with spirits via the static on TV. “They’re here,” she warns, in advance of multiple ghosts haunting the home. The result of their house being built over an ancient Native American burial ground.

Which while not a totally true story, is loosely inspired by what happened to the Herrmann family in 1958. Living in a suburb of Long Island in New Jersey, it started with bottles popping, which progressed to objects moving, and then Holy Water mysteriously being spilled. The police couldn’t come up with an explanation for the spooky goings-on, with the Herrmann’s ultimately turning to a priest for help.

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The Conjuring (2013)

The Amityville Horror (1979) is probably the most famous haunted house movie based on a true story. But The Conjuring is both the scariest, and the best. The film stars Patrick Wilson and and Vera Farmiga as ghostbusting couple Ed and Lorraine Warren, investigating a Rhode Island family being terrorised by dark spirits in their farmhouse.

The Warrens really did exist, and investigated the paranormal for decades, which means the Conjuring franchise has had much material to draw from over the last decade. Indeed, Ed and Lorraine even spent time at the Amityville house, with that investigation inspiring the opening sequence of The Conjuring 2.

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The Exorcist (1973)

The most successful horror movie of all time (adjusted for inflation) is also one of the very best. The Exorcist is based on a book by William Peter Blatty, which in turn was influenced by a supposed real-life case of possession. One that has since pretty much been debunked.

The exorcism in question was performed by a Jesuit priest on a boy in Maryland in 1949, and details of the lad’s plight was in the news for days. Which inspired Blatty to write a novel about a possessed girl called Regan – who is exorcised by a priest – and the rest is horror history.

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The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

“Who will survive, and what will be left of them?” That was the Texas Chain Saw Massacre tagline, promoting a film that is 83-minutes of pure, unfiltered, terror. The story concerns a family of cannibals killing a group of teens in ever-more-gruesome ways, with horror icon ‘Leatherface’ slicing and dicing them with his chainsaw.

These events are loosely inspired by the activities of one of America’s most notorious serial killers – Ed Gein. Also known as the Butcher of Plainfield, Gein robbed graves and turned what was left of the bodies into trinkets and furniture. While he was also convicted of two murders, and suspected of committing many more. Gein didn’t just inspire The Texas Chain Saw Massacre either, as his story also influenced the killer in Psycho, Norman Bates.

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About The Author

Chris Tilly is the TV and Movies Editor at Dexerto. He has a BA in English Literature, an MA in Newspaper Journalism, and over the last 20 years, he's worked for the likes of Time Out, IGN, and Fandom. Chris loves Star Wars, Marvel, DC, sci-fi, and especially horror, while he knows maybe too much about Alan Partridge. You can email him here: chris.tilly@dexerto.com.