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Top Ten Horror Films Inspired by Shockingly True Events: Part Two

Stephanie Malone

This is part two of our list of the top ten films which were heavily inspired by real life crimes and actual horrifying events. While many films use the phrases “based on a true story” or “inspired by true events” as a marketing gimmick, these films are the real deal. Read on to learn about the true horrors that inspired these great genre films. And click here to read about the first five films in our top ten list. 

6. Real Life Zombies: The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

The Movie: Directed by horror master Wes Craven, The Serpent and the Rainbow, tells the story of an anthropologist who goes to Haiti after hearing rumors about a drug used by black magic practitioners to turn people into zombies. In 1978, a Haitian man named Christophe mysteriously dies in a French missionary clinic and is buried the next day. Seven years later, Dennis Alan (an ethnobotanist and anthropologist from Harvard) is approached by a large pharmaceutical company looking to investigate a drug used in the Voodoo religion of Haiti. He travels to Haiti in the middle of a revolution, only to discover that Christophe is still alive after having been declared dead and buried. While in Haiti, Alan finds a witch doctor who has knowledge of the zombie drug and how to use it. After a series of events, including being tortured and threatened by the Haitian authorities, Alan finds himself the victim of the drug. He’s taken to a graveyard and buried with a tarantula. When he wakes up screaming in his coffin a few hours later, he is rescued by Christophe has been living in a cemetery thinking he is still dead.

The Real Life Horror: The film is based on the non-fiction book of the same name by ethnobotanist Wade Davis. In the book, Davis recounts his experiences in Haiti investigating the story of Clairvius Narcisse. In 1962, Narcisse felt unusually ill and checked into a hospital. He was soon pronounced dead and buried in front of friends and family. Clairvius later woke up in his grave unable to move. It appears his brother had poisoned him and induced a coma that looked like death. After the burial, he was dug up and help prisoner. The Voodoo Shaman gave him small doses of a toxic extract to keep him in a slow-witted zombie-like state. He was forced to work in a sugar plantation among other “zombies”. Two years later, he escaped but didn’t return to his hometown for fear of his brother. After news of his brother’s death reached him, he finally returned home to shocked loved ones. The extraordinary case caught the attention of the media and the scientific world. Time Magazine featured a big article on his case, prompting Wade Davis to visit Haiti to investigate. His findings and observations of Voodoo culture became the basis for his book.

Fact or Fiction? Wes Craven's film version is a more embellished and exaggerated version of Davis’ real life experiences. Davis was never arrested by the secret police or buried alive like the protagonist. But Craven does stay true to the book’s depiction of Haitian culture. Although some have questioned the voracity of Davis’ claims, he’s a widely respected member of the scientific community, and there’s enough evidence to suggest the reliability of a majority (if not all) of his claims.

7. Psychos in Love: The Sadist (1963)

The Movie: The Sadist (also known as Profile of Terror and Sweet Baby Charlie) is a black-and-white exploitation film written and directed by James Landis and made for just $33,000. The film is shot in real time and loosely based on the killing spree of Charles Starkweather, upon which the later films Badlands (1973) and Natural Born Killers (1994) were also based on. Three high school teachers on their way to a baseball game. The group’s car breaks down, and they are forced to pull off to a gas station/junkyard on the side of the road. They try to locate the shop’s owner but can’t find anyone. Soon, a large man wielding a gun named Charlie Tibbs enters with his girlfriend Judy. Charlie and Judy have spent the past several days on the run from the law, leaving a trail of corpses behind them, and they take great delight in mercilessly tormenting the three friends. 

The Real Life Horror: The character of Charlie is based on Charles Starkweather, a 19-year-old who went on a notorious killing spree in 1957-58. He murdered 11 people in Nebraska and Wyoming with his 14-year-old girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate. Charles was arrested in 1958 and put to death in the electric chair a year later. Caril Ann was the youngest female in United States history to date to have been tried for first-degree murder. She received a life sentence, but was paroled after 17 years. The killings started late on November 30, 1957 when Starkweather shot a service station in the head for refusing to sell him a stuffed animal on credit. On January 21, 1958, Starkweather went to Fugate's home when she wasn’t there. He killed her mother and stepfather with a shotgut, then killed their two-year-old daughter Betty Jean by strangling and stabbing her. After Fugate arrived, they hid the bodies and went on a killing spree. Murders included a 70-year-old family friend, two teenagers who tried to help them when their car broke down, and a wealthy couple and their maid in Nebraska. The couple was finally caught trying to escape in a stolen car.

Fact or Fiction? This is a completely fictionalized account, but the murderous young couple do have striking similarities to the real-life killers. The real-life Starkweather was born with misshapen legs and suffered from a speech impediment that led to him being teased mercilessly, characteristics that were faithfully adapted into the Charlie character of the film. The couple in the film are on the run following a killing spree, and the details of their crimes closely echo the real-life murders (although the specifics were altered for the film story). This was the first film adaptation of the case that would later be adapted in a half-dozen screen versions of their story and numerous other references in film and television.

8. Love Kills: Alleluia (2015)

The Movie: Alleluia is a Belgian-French drama film directed by Fabrice Du Welz. Lonely single mom, Gloria, meets the handsome and charming Michel online. He treats her to a passionate one-night-stand. But she soon learns that Michel is a con artist who seduces women and robs them of their money. Desperate to be a part of his life, she offers herself as an accomplice in his seductive crimes. With her posing as his sister, they target a string of single, wealthy women. But their plans hit a snag when Gloria's jealous streak turns violent, resulting in a series of brutal murders. The film is loosely based on the story of Raymond Fernandez & Martha Beck, aka The Lonely Hearts Killers, which allegedly killed 20 women between 1947 and 1949 in America. The 1969 movie The Honeymoon Killers and 2006’s Lonely Hearts were also based on their exploits.

The Real Life Horror: Between 1947 and 1949, "Lonely Hearts Killers" Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck killed several women across the US after Fernandez romanced them out of their savings. The deaths were reported to have been triggered by Beck's jealousy and quick temper. The pair were convicted of only one murder but were linked to 17 total and were executed in the electric chair in 1951. Beck and Fernandez met a young widow, Delphine Downing, and moved in with her and her two-year-old daughter. One night, Beck became agitated with the daughter and choked her, but didn’t kill her. Worried that Delphine would notice the bruising, Fernandez shot her in her sleep. The couple then stayed for several days in Downing’s house. But Beck once again became enraged by the daughter’s crying, this time drowning her in a basin of water. They buried the bodies in the basement, but suspicious neighbors reported the Downings’ disappearances, and Beck and Fernandez were caught and arrested.

Fact or Fiction? While some of the specifics were altered, the movie is a pretty faithful representation of the two twisted killers. The movie doesn’t go as far as to show the murder of a young child, but the deaths of the women in the film are exceptionally brutal and consistent with Beck’s rage-fueled attacks. The filmmaker stays true to many other real life details, including the couple’s sexual perversity, as well as Fernandez’s brain injury and his penchant for black magic.

9. Family Blood: The Stepfather (1987)

The Movie: This psychological horror thriller was directed by Joseph Ruben and features one of the most chilling opening scenes of all time. Henry Morrison is an identity-assuming serial killer who remarries a widow with a teenage daughter. After previously killing his family and changing his identity, his killing spree continues after his 16-year-old stepdaughter becomes suspicious about him. This film, along with the 2009 remake, is loosely based on the life of mass murderer John List.

The Real Life Horror: John List was a convicted multiple murderer and long-time fugitive. On November 9, 1971, he brutally killed his wife, mother, and three children in their home and then disappeared. While his children were at school, he shot his wife and his mother. When his 16-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son arrived home, he shot them both in the back of the head. He then went to his 15-year-old son’s high school to watch him play a soccer game. Afterwards, he drove the boy home, then shot him repeatedly in the chest and face. He had planned the murders so meticulously that nearly a month passed before anyone noticed that anything was wrong. A fugitive from justice for nearly 18 years, List assumed a new identity and remarried. He was finally apprehended in Virginia on June 1, 1989, after the story of his murders was broadcast on the television program America's Most Wanted. He was convicted on five counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to five consecutive terms of life imprisonment without parole. He died in prison in 2008 at the age of 82.

Fact or Fiction? This film is almost entirely fiction and takes its cues more from the popular slasher films of the time rather than real life. But the factual inspiration for the film is clear. The main difference between the film and reality is the real killer actually changed his ways and stayed hidden for eighteen years amongst his unsuspecting second family, while the killer in the film is portrayed as a serial killer who moves from one family to the next when his vision of the perfect family doesn’t materialize. As disturbing as this film is, it doesn’t hold a candle to the real life horror.

10. Cannibal Classifieds: Grimm Love (2007)

The Movie: Grimm Love (a.k.a. ROHTENBURG a.k.a. BUTTERFLY: A GRIMM STORY) is a psychological horror film inspired by the Armin Meiwes cannibal murder case. It follows an American student of criminal psychology (Katie) studying in Germany, researching a notorious cannibal/murder named Oliver Hartwin. Hartwin had killed and eaten a man he met over the internet. The student is pulled further and further into the killer's tale, ultimately discovering a videotape of the horrific events. The story is told in flashbacks as Katie researches these men and their pasts. This film was briefly banned in Germany after Meiwes complained that his personality rights had been violated. The German film Cannibal (2005) was also based on the same case and is a largely accurate depiction.

The Real Life Horror: At a fairly early age, Armin Meiwes started to fantasize about eating his friends so that they could stay with him forever. He was a very lonely child growing up, getting picked on regularly, and was an only child. To ease his loneliness, he made up an imaginary brother, who stayed with him his whole life. After his mother died in 1999, Meiwes decided to live out his fantasy. He went on internet chat rooms and message boards and placed an ad stating that he was looking for a willing victim that would give him the pleasure of allowing themselves to let him eat and consume them. After many attempts (perhaps as many as 200 potential victims), he found his willing victim in 43-year-old Bernd-Jurges Brandes, another man with a troubled past. Brandes allowed himself to be drugged and cut up for consumption, starting with his penis, which Meiwes cut off and ate while Brandes was still alive. The events were found to be recorded on a two-hour videotape, although it took Meiwes 10 months to consume the body. He was arrested and convicted of manslaughter in 2004 and again in 2006.

Fact or Fiction? Although it uses different names to maintain some separation from the real case, this film includes the major events in the Meiwes case. It’s billed as a horror film, but it could almost be labeled a true crime story as there doesn’t appear to be any stretching of the truth or altering of known facts. It’s not the most shocking or gory film on the subject of cannibalism, but the truth behind the film definitely adds to the disturbing nature of the story.


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