The phrases “based on a true story” or “inspired by true events” are overused and often misleading marketing tactics. Frequently, movies that claim some true origin have very little to almost no basis in actual reality. But there are some memorable exceptions. In the following list, we highlight our top ten favorite horror films based on actual horrifying events. Note, we only included stories with verifiable facts and omitted any tales of the supernatural or paranormal. Read on to learn about the true horrors that inspired these great, lesser known horror films and learn what’s fact versus pure film fiction.
1. Cult of Death: The Sacrament (2013)
The Movie: The Sacrament is a found footage horror film directed by indie darling Ti West. The plot involves two journalists working for real-life media company VICE who, upon hearing that their employee Patrick’s sister has joined a secluded religious organization, decide to investigate. Arriving at the commune, known as Eden Parish, everyone seems welcoming and happy with their life on the commune. But things are not exactly what they seem. Concerns begin to mount as the group encounters the cult leader, the charismatic Father. The Sacrament was never marketed as a film inspired by true events, and nowhere in the beginning or ending credits does it ever allude to its historical basis. But it clearly takes as its subject the terrible tragedy at Jonestown in 1978, a fact which West has admitted in interviews.
The Real Life Horror: “Jonestown” was the informal name for the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project formed in Guyana by the Peoples Temple, an American religious cult led by the controversial preacher Jim Jones. It became internationally notorious when on November 18, 1978, over 900 people lost their lives in an apparent mass suicide. The cause of death for all but two was apparent cyanide poisoning, delivered via Flavor Aid drink (where the term “drinking the kool aid” comes from). In an audio tape recovered from the scene, Jim Jones and some of his members described the event as “revolutionary suicide”. However, much evidence suggests (including testimony from Jonestown survivors) that this was more of a mass murder than a mass suicide as it is usually described. All who drank poison did so under duress, and more than a third of victims were minors. It was the largest such event in modern history and resulted in the largest single loss of American civilian life in a deliberate act until September 11, 2001.
Fact or Fiction? The Sacrament uses the terrifying events of Jonestown the basis for a new tale. Although the story is fictionalized, it is a mostly historically accurate reimagining of the infamous Jonestown Massacre. At the end of the film, a title card announces that 167 people died in Eden Parish. That’s considerably less than the 918 who lost their life in the real tragedy, but the dramatization of the events makes a powerful impact. Suddenly, all those senseless deaths seem more real, and far more agonizing, then they were as mere history. The final moments of the film are very hard to watch, and West does not shy away from showing the cruelty and inhumanity of the forced poisoning, especially among the children.
2. Innocence Lost: The Girl Next Door (2007)
The Movie: The Girl Next Door is one of the most disturbing and difficult to watch films on this list. It’s about a teen who suffers horrible abuse at the hands of her caretaker, who also encourages the neighborhood boys to torment the girl. It’s based on Jack Ketchum’s novel with the same title, which was in turn based on the true story of Sylvia Likens, a young girl who was tortured and killed in 1965 in Indiana. The film is told through the perspective of a teenage boy named David Moran who befriends a 16-year-old girl named Megan Loughin and witnesses the girl’s terrible fate. Megan and her little sister (ten-year-old Susan) have just moved in with David’s next door neighbor, divorcee Ruth Chandler and her three sons. After a violent and dehumanizing incident at the home, Meg reports Ruth to the police. In retaliation, Ruth ties Meg up in the basement and tortures her with the help of her boys. The violence escalates leading to the rape, mutilation, and eventual death of Meg as a result of her torture.
The Real Life Horror: Carnival workers Lester Likens and Elizabeth “Betty” Grimes had 5 kids together. Sylvia (16) was the “middle” child. Following a bitter divorce, Sylvia and her sister Jenny (who suffered from polio) went to live with her mother. But she was arrested for shoplifting, forcing the girls to return to their dad. He in turn left them in the care of his neighbor, Gertrude Baniszewski, whom he agreed to pay a weekly fee for their care. Gertrude had 7 kids of her own, and the family lived in less than ideal conditions. When Sylvia’s dad was unable to pay Gertrude on time, she began to torture the girls by beating them with a paddle in the basement. Later, Gertrude would focus her anger solely on Sylvia. She would beat her up for no reason and even encouraged her kids and neighborhood teens to mistreat her. At times, she would lock Sylvia up in the basement for days, starving her and denying her bathroom access. On one occasion, she carved, “I am a prostitute and proud of it” on her stomach. One of the most disturbing things that happened at that time is when Sylvia was forced to insert a glass bottle of Coke into her vagina for the “entertainment” of the kids. After multiple tortures, Sylvia eventually died from internal bleeding, shock and malnutrition. Gertrude was caught, and went to prison, but she was released and not remorseful of her actions stating that “Sylvia needed to be taught a lesson.”
Fact or Fiction? Although a loose adaptation of the actual events, the core gruesome details of the case are painfully and horribly dramatized in this film. In the true story, there was no boy who witnessed the crimes and tried to help the teen girl. The film adaptation has a tragic but more satisfying ending as Ruth gets what she deserves by being beaten to death by David, while the boys are arrested. The true story is even more heartbreaking, as there was no real justice for Sylvia and no one there to try to help her or comfort her in her last moments.
3. Abuse of Authority: Compliance (2012)
The Movie: Compliance is an American thriller directed by Craig Zobel about a prank caller who, posing as a police offer, convinces the manager of a fast food restaurant to carry out intrusive and unlawful procedures on an employee. The film is based on the strip search prank call scam that took place at a Mount Washington, Kentucky McDonald's restaurant in Bullit County. At a fast food restaurant, the manager, Sandra, is having a bad day. Suddenly, she gets a phone call from a man claiming to be a police officer who has a complaint that one of her young female employees has stolen from a customer. At the orders of this authoritative sounding stranger, Sandra takes the apparent accused, Becky, to a back room to search her before she is picked up. Once there, the phone scammer manipulates the gullible personnel into participating in Becky's sexual humiliation that grows more twisted with every new sucker on the phone. Only when one final person has the conscience to revolt do they realize the crime they were tricked into, which the real police are hard pressed to solve.
The Real Life Horror: On April 9, 2004, a call was made to a McDonald’s restaurant. Assistant manager Donna Summers answered the call and spoke to a man who identified himself as a policeman. The caller gave Summers a vague description of a young woman suspected of theft. Summers believed the description provided was that of 18-year-old Louise Ogborn. The "police officer" demanded that Ogborn be searched at the restaurant because no officers were available to help. Ogborn was brought into an office and ordered to remove her clothes. When Summers had to return to work, the caller told her to bring in someone she trusted to assist with the investigation. She called her fiancé, Walter Nix Jr. Nix spent the next two hours on the phone, obeying increasingly humiliating and invasive orders from the fake cop, which eventually escalated into sexual assault. After three and half hours, Summers finally realized the call was fraudulent, released Ogborn and called the cops. The entire incident was recorded by a surveillance camera in the office.
Fact or Fiction? This is a ripped-from-the-headlines thriller that serves as a dramatic retelling of actual events. Nearly all the events in the film are true. A message displayed before the film starts refers to the Milgram experiment, and says that the story, inspired by real events, is so shocking it is hard to believe, but that nothing was exaggerated. The movie is extremely shocking and at times the actions of the characters seem too unbelievable to be true, but they are, which makes the movie all that harder to watch.
4. Massacre in Mexico: Borderland (2007)
The Movie: Borderland is a horror film written and directed by Zev Berman that is loosely based on the true story of Adolfo de Jesus Constanzo, a drug lord and the leader of a religious cult that practiced human sacrifice. Costanzo and his followers kidnapped and murdered University of Texas junior, Mark J. Kilroy, in the spring of 1989. The film was selected as one of the "8 Films to Die For" at the After Dark Horrorfest 2007. The story follows three recent Texas college grads (Ed, Henry, and Phil) who head to Mexico for vacation. Phil gets abducted by members of a dangerous cult. After noticing he’s gone missing, Ed and Henry begin to investigate but find the local authorities and townspeople uncooperative (as they are terrified of Phil’s captors). We learn Phil is being kept in a shack on a ranch and is to be part of a voodoo human sacrifice. The cult members, along with the leader, are eventually killed. The movie ends with a caption explaining that over fifty bodies were exhumed from a mass grave at the ranch and that several suspects remain at large.
The Real Life Horror: Adolfo Constanzo was a brutal and sadistic serial killer, and he built a cult of followers who were also happy to kill. In 1983, he moved to Mexico City and recruited his first disciples. He started offering his services as a witch doctor to gangsters, casting spells involving the sacrifice of animals that were supposed to give them magical powers and good luck. Eventually, Constanzo moved to human sacrifices — at first robbing graves but then quickly moving to murder. Constanzo would skin and/or dismember his victims alive, making sure to kill them in the most painful way possible. He tortured and killed at least 20 people during this time, possibly many more. He moved with his followers to Rancho Santo Elena, an isolated house in the desert. There he continued carrying out his human sacrifices undetected. The Mexican police never bothered to investigate them until Mark Kilroy, an American college student, disappeared. Under pressure from US authorities, the Mexican police found and raided the ranch. They found Kilroy’s brain along with other body parts. 15 mutilated bodies were unearthed at the ranch as well. When the police finally caught up with Costanzo, he ordered one of his followers to shoot him dead. His final murder count is uncertain, but some put it as high as 70.
Fact or Fiction? Although this is a fictional account, it is fairly accurate. The cult leader is clearly based on his historical counterpart. While many people may dismiss this film as derivative of torture porn films like Hostel, the movie’s real-world basis makes the story immensely more gripping and terrifying. The filmmaker also made a documentary (called Rituales de Sangre) which explores the true story that Borderland was based on.
5. Terror in Texas: The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)
The Movie: The Town That Dreaded Sundown is loosely based on the actual crimes attributed to an identified serial killer known as the Phantom Killer, who terrorized the residents in the small town of Texarkana, Texas. Ben Johnson stars as Captain J.D. Morales, the fictionalized version of real-life Texas Ranger Captain M.T. “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullas. The film is an early example of a slasher film — one of the earliest in the genre — having been released two years before Halloween (1978).
The Real Life Horror: The actual Phantom attacked eight people (five of whom were killed) between February 22, 1946 and May 3, 1946 in or near the town of Texarkana, Texas, which is on the Texas border with Arkansas. The attacks happened on weekends at night. The first two victims, a couple parked on Lover’s Lane survived. The first double murder happened four weeks later. The second double-homicide occurred exactly three weeks from the first murders. The Texas Rangers came in to investigate, including the famous M. T. "Lone Wolf" Gonzaullas. The murders sent the town of Texarkana into a state of panic throughout the summer. At dusk, city inhabitants heavily armed themselves and locked themselves indoors while police patrolled streets and neighborhoods. Several rumors began to spread. After three months of no more Phantom attacks, the Texas Rangers slowly and quietly left town to keep the Phantom from believing he was safe to strike again.
Fact or Fiction? The general outline of the murders largely follows the reality, with mostly minor artistic license taken. As in the film, the real killer was never identified nor apprehended. But the film is loose enough with the facts that one family member of a victim filed a lawsuit in 1978 over its depiction of his sister. The fabricated facts in the film have also caused rumors and folklore to spread for generations around Texarkana. The film's tagline claims that the man who killed five people "still lurks the streets of Texarkana, Ark.", causing officials of that neighboring city to unsuccessfully threaten the filmmaker over the ads in 1977.
Stay tuned next week for part two of this list, where we'll have five more horror films inspired by shockingly true events.