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5 horror movies based on true stories

Updated: Apr 12, 2022

About four months ago, I made a post about horror movies (not) based on true stories. As you can imagine by the title, it featured horror movies that claimed to be based on true stories, but when you looked at the details, they were…fudged, to put it mildly. As much as I enjoyed making that video, I felt like a bit of a killjoy. But rest assured, there are plenty of horror movies that say they’re true and, for the most part, actually are. Here are five horror movies based on true stories…for real this time.

(First, though, I want to give a quick disclaimer. A couple of the true stories I’m going to talk about took place outside the U.S., and some of the sources I got my information from had to be translated from languages I don’t read or speak. I did my best with the details, but if I get something wrong due to a translation error, I’m very sorry.)

1. Veronica (2017)

Veronica premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2017, and was released on Netflix the following year, which helped it gain immense popularity. People around the internet were hailing it as ’the scariest movie of all time,’ YouTube had tons of videos about it…and then everyone stopped talking about it. Seriously, I’ve barely heard anything about this movie in at least a year — which in internet time is like, 2,000 years.

Nobody has mentioned this movie since the time of Jesus.

Anyway, Veronica is set in Madrid in 1991 and follows a teenager named Veronica —shocker — who, along with two of her friends, use a ouija board to attempt to contact the dead boyfriend of one of the group members. But something goes wrong and they end up contacting Veronica’s dead father instead. And it only gets worse from there as someone — or something — follows Veronica home, resulting in some pretty frightening goings-on before an explosive conclusion.

The movie claims to be based on a police report filed by a real detective in a real case. It’s supposedly the first case in Spain's history where a police officer witnessed paranormal activity. Surprisingly, this is true.

Veronica is based on what’s come to be known in Spain as the Vallecas case, which comes from the name of the neighborhood where it took place. It’s apparently a pretty well known story in Spain. The actual victim was a Spanish teenage girl, just like Veronica — but her name was Estefania Gutierrez Lazaro. Just like in the movie, Estefania and her friends used a ouija board in an attempt to contact the dead boyfriend of one of the girls. But a teacher at the school found them and broke the board, not only ending the ritual but kind of screwing it up.

(Some sources say it was a nun who broke the board so I'm assuming Estefania went to Catholic school — which might explain why the nun was angry enough to break the board. I mean, if I were trying to teach kids about Jesus and Christianity and I caught them trying to summon ghosts, I’d be pretty upset too.)

Over the next few months, Estefania claimed to see ghosts and other paranormal entities, and also experienced seizures and hallucinations. I couldn’t find exactly when this activity began, but by August 1991, Estefania was admitted to a hospital, where she soon died.

But that’s not where the story ends. A year after her death, police officers visited her home again — I couldn’t find out exactly why — and witnessed even more paranormal activity. A statue of Jesus being crucified separated from the cross, an armoire opened on its own, and noises came from the empty porch. Multiple officers witnessed this and stuck by their story. The fact that so many police officers claimed to witness paranormal activity, which is a rarity even here in the U.S., may explain why this case is so well known over 20 years later.

2. The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)

The Exorcism of Emily Rose plays out more like a courtroom drama than a horror movie. But it does deal with a subject many people find both bizarre and horrifying — religion.

No, I'm kidding. I'm talking about exorcism. But there are religious overtones as well.

The movie follows the trial of a priest being charged with negligent homicide. A young woman named Emily Rose died under his care as he attempted to perform an exorcism on her. Interestingly, the movie explores issues of faith in relation to legal matters. As Roger Ebert put it in his review, “[I]t asks a secular institution, the court, to decide a question that hinges on matters the court cannot have an opinion on...A juror who does not believe in demons must find the priest guilty, if perhaps sincere. A juror who does believe in demons must decide if Emily Rose was possessed, or misdiagnosed. In a case like this, during the jury selection, are you qualified or disqualified by believing one way or the other?” Pretty fascinating subject matter, and the true story behind the movie is even crazier.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose is based on the real life story of Annelise Michel, a 23-year-old German woman who died in a similar manner as Emily Rose on July 1, 1976. Two priests and even Michel’s own parents were put on trial for her death. None of the defendants ever took Michel to get any sort of medical treatment, believing wholeheartedly that possession was the problem and exorcism was the cure.

Michel had been diagnosed with epilepsy back in 1968. In the following years, she would claim to see demonic faces in people around her and became convinced she was being possessed by the devil.

Michel, who was a strict Catholic, believed she was being possessed “to atone for sins of German youth” and began sleeping on a stone floor as penance. But that’s the least bizarre bit of her reported behavior over the next few years. She refused to walk by certain religious symbols, and threw herself directly at others. She urinated on the floor and licked it up, fed on insects, and even bit the head off a bird. (Though the article I got that last bit from was translated from Italian, so maybe she wasn’t actually pulling an Ozzy Osbourne. Although in his case, that was a bat, not a know what I mean.)

Michel soon contacted two priests for help, and they began performing exorcisms on her in September 1975. The exorcisms usually took place about three times a week. There are several videos floating around the internet that claim to be audio from these exorcisms. I can’t confirm 100 % that they’re real, but either way, they’re pretty frightening.

At some point in late June 1976, Michel asked for the exorcisms to stop. The source I found translated from Italian seemed to imply that Michel knew she was going to die soon — which, of course, she did at midnight on July 1. An autopsy report said her cause of death was malnutrition and dehydration.

Just like the Vallecas case in Spain, this case became pretty well known in Germany. Michel’s death occurred just two years after the German release of The Exorcist, arguably one of the most famous exorcism movies of all time (and, I’m sure, the exorcism movie you expected me to cover on this list. Sorry.)

But that wasn’t the only reason the story took off. I have no idea what the religious culture of today’s Germany is like. But in the 1970’s, it was very secular — the devout Catholic Michel family seemed to be the exception, rather than the rule. Germans were shocked that the belief in demonic possession could be so strong that it could actually lead to someone’s death.

All four defendants were found guilty of negligent homicide. They were given suspended sentences of six months with three years’ probation. This case is still a fascinating — and controversial — one even today…which is probably why someone decided to make a movie based on it.

3. The Mothman Prophecies (2002)

In my research for this post I came across an interesting statement from Mark Pellington, the director of The Mothman Prophecies. In 2002, in relation to the movie’s ‘based on a true story’ claim, he told Entertainment Weekly: ”Maybe it would have been more accurate to say ‘inspired by true events’ rather than ‘based on true events.’ Anyway, you’re talking about events that were [originally] questioned as to whether they were truthful or not.” Now I know what you’re thinking — ‘why is this movie being included on a list of movies BASED on a true story, when the director himself claims that’s not really true?’ Well, you’ll see as we get more into the story.

In the movie, Richard Gere plays a Washington Post reporter named John Klein, who is involved in a car accident after his wife swerves to avoid a flying black, moth-shaped creature. He begins researching this strange sighting, and his research takes him to the town of Point Pleasant, West Virginia, where he learns more about a terrifying paranormal creature called the Mothman.

Technically, The Mothman Prophecies is based on a 1975 book of the same name, but the book was marketed as non fiction. Author John Keel’s experience of writing the book (and it really was an experience) began in the summer of 1966. He was initially under contract to write a book about UFO’s, but soon assigned to the tiny town of Point Pleasant. About a month earlier, two couples had been in a wooded area described as a “lover’s lane” when they saw a giant, winged creature with glowing red eyes. Upon his arrival, Keel began to receive mysterious phone calls predicting all sorts of horrible things, including the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.

But one of these predictions was much closer to home. On numerous occasions, the mystery caller allegedly predicted the collapse of nearby Silver Bridge, which really did occur in December 1967. 46 people were killed in the disaster. In 1975, The Mothman Prophecies was released though, obviously, we can't say for sure if all of the claims of paranormal creatures or prophecies actually happened.

Still, plenty of Keel’s claims made it into the movie. Richard Gere’s character is named John Klein, which is pretty similar to ‘John Keel'. John Klein also goes to Point Pleasant to investigate stories of the Mothman and, while there, receives mysterious phone calls predicting a bridge collapse. The legends of the Mothman are real stories from Point Pleasant, which still holds a Mothman Festival every year.

Now, back to what the movie’s director said earlier. When someone says a horror movie is ‘based on a true story,’ what does that even mean? There are plenty of people who don’t believe in the paranormal — which a lot of these movies are about. So can we really prove any of these movies are based on truth? Obviously any movie that’s based on claims of paranormal experiences is going to be questioned. However, much of what made it into the movie were claims that Keel really made in his book. So I still think it’s fair to say The Mothman Prophecies was based on a true story — at least as true as a story about a paranormal creature can get.

4. Open Water (2004)

Open Water is the only movie on this list with no paranormal overtones, so my speech in the last section wouldn’t really apply. But the writers still had to fudge quite a few details since much of the original true story that inspired the movie is still a mystery.

Open Water premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004 and was released in the U.S. later that year. The movie follows Susan Watkins and Daniel Kitner, a couple on vacation in the Caribbean. But there’s trouble in paradise when they decide to go on a scuba diving trip…and the boat leaves them behind. Susan and Daniel are now stranded in the middle of the ocean…with several hungry sharks nearby.

Being stranded out on the open ocean is one of the most terrifying things I can imagine. The ocean itself is already pretty frightening — have you seen some of the fish they’ve discovered that live further down? Fish in general already freak me out, so being stuck in a place where there are probably thousands of them, some of which look like this…well, I’d probably lose my mind.

Unfortunately, this really did happen, and the incident inspired this movie. The real story involves Tom and Eileen Lonergan, who disappeared after a diving trip in Australia on January 25, 1998. The Louisiana couple had been traveling the world and Australia was their last stop before going back to their new home in Fiji — but they’ve never been seen since that trip.

The crew of the boat they were on was supposed to do multiple head counts during the trip, but the Lonergans somehow slipped through the cracks. Nobody realized anything was wrong until two days later when Jack Nairn, the skipper of the boat, found a bag on the boat with their wallets and passports inside. (There’s a similar scene in the movie.)

Over the next few months, several pieces of evidence were found, including notes seemingly written by Tom begging for rescue and a wetsuit supposedly belonging to Eileen. Jack Nairn went on trial for manslaughter in their deaths, but was acquitted, presumably because there was no solid proof the Lonergans were actually dead.

As with a lot of missing persons cases, there are some crazy theories out there. Diary entires found from the couple have been released to the public and seem to show strain in their relationship, as well as evidence that Tom may have been suicidal. Because of this, some people theorized there’s more to the Lonergans’ story than meets the eye. Some believe they staged the disappearance to run away and start fresh — though there’s no clear explanation as to why they’d have to hide out to do this. On an even more sinister note, some people think this strain in their marriage caused one of them to commit a murder-suicide. While these theories don’t have much evidence to back them up, I think this story is interesting for that exact reason — we don’t know exactly what happened to them, and probably never will. While I think Open Water did a great job at speculating on the story and filling in the blanks, I'd love to see some sort of documentary on it. It’s a terrifying but fascinating case.

5. The Conjuring (2013)

I mentioned The Conjuring in my original post. Its prequel, Annabelle, claimed to be based on a true story but almost all the details were completely made up. But according to eyewitnesses, most of the events of The Conjuring are pretty accurate.

The story, in some ways, is a typical haunted house story. It follows the Perron family in 1971 as they move into a Rhode Island farmhouse. But as with all these stories, strange events soon begin, and the Perrons have to enlist the help of famed paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren to defeat the menacing entities that plague their home. The movie grossed $137 million in the U.S. alone and went on to spawn an entire cinematic universe — sort of like a really demented set of Marvel movies.

You probably know this already, but Ed and Lorraine Warren are real people. Ed died in 2006, but Lorraine served as a consultant on the movie and claims almost every detail is accurate. The only major change was the climactic exorcism performed by Ed — which Lorraine claims he would never do since he wasn’t a priest. Instead, they held a seance.

Just like their movie counterparts, the real Perrons moved into the famous farmhouse in 1971. The hauntings started pretty early on, but the family stayed until 1980 because they couldn’t afford to move out. Andrea Perron, the oldest daughter, also claimed most of the details of the movie were true. She published a book in 2011 that went into a lot of the goings-on. According to her, people who lived in the house before and after them experienced paranormal activity as well. Interestingly, in 2015, the woman who owned the farmhouse then planned to sue Warner Brothers because fans of the movie — and the story — would come to the property and disturb her. Remember kids…getting scared at ghosts and demons is all well and good, but trespassing is just not cool.

What are your thoughts on these movies? Were you surprised by any of the true stories behind them? Let me know in the comments.

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