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20 Horror Movies "Based on a True Story"

Fact vs. Fiction


We've all heard the tagline "based on a true story" applied to horror movies, but what are the real stories behind these scary films?

Psycho (1960)

Vera Miles stars as Lila Crane in the horror classic 'Psycho', directed by Alfred Hitchcock, 1960.
Archive Photos/Stringer/Getty Images
The Movie Story: Norman Bates is a psychologically disturbed hotel owner who has delusions this his dead mother, whose body he keeps in the cellar, wants to kill hotel guests. He develops a dual personality and dresses like her when he commits his murders.

The Real Story: The character Norman Bates was inspired by Ed Gein, a Wisconsin man who was arrested in 1957 for committing two murders and digging up the corpses of countless other women who reminded him of his dead mother. He skinned the bodies to make lamp shades, socks and a "woman suit" in hopes of becoming a woman. He was found to be insane and spent the rest of his life in a mental institution.

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The Exorcist (1973)

The Exorcist
© Warner Bros.
The Movie Story: A pair of priests attempt to exorcise a demon that has possessed a 12-year-old girl living in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC.

The Real Story: William Peter Blatty, screenwriter and author of the novel The Exorcist, was inspired by an article he read in college at Georgetown University about an exorcism performed on a 13-year-old boy in Mount Rainier, Maryland in 1949. The story's details have been muddled through the years -- perhaps intentionally so, in order to protect the family -- but the boy's actual home lay in Cottage City, Maryland, and the exorcism was performed in St. Louis. Evidence points to the boy's behavior not being nearly as outrageous or supernatural as was portrayed in the film.

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The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Texas Chainsaw Massacre
© Pioneer
The Movie Story: A group of young people traveling through rural Texas fall prey to a family of cannibals, including Leatherface, who wears a mask made from the skin of his victims.

The Real Story: Again Ed Gein (see Psycho), whose exploits also inspired the films Deranged and, in part, The Silence of the Lambs.

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Jaws (1975)

© Universal
The Movie Story: A 25-foot-long great white shark terrorizes the fictional Northeastern fishing community of Amity Island, attacking swimmers and boaters for several days during the summer.

The Real Story: Screenwriter and novelist Peter Benchley was inspired in part by a series of shark attacks that plagued the New Jersey shore in 1916. Over a 12-day period in July of that year, five people were attacked, four of whom died. A seven-foot-long great white shark was killed on July 14, and its stomach was found to contain human remains. To this day, there is a debate over whether or not that shark was the culprit -- some scientists argue that it was probably a bull shark -- but no further attacks were reported that summer after it was killed.

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Audrey Rose (1977)

Audrey Rose
The Movie Story: A couple's young daughter exhibits increasingly outrageous behavior, forcing them to consider the possibility that the soul of another young girl, Audrey Rose, has taken residence in her body.

The Real Story: Frank De Felitta was inspired to write the novel -- and later the movie script -- after he heard his six-year-old son, Raymond, who'd never taken piano lessons, playing music perfectly on the family piano. De Felitta consulted a Los Angeles occultist, who called Raymond's talent as an "incarnation leak," explaining that the boy had lived many lifetimes. The incident led to the author's personal belief in reincarnation.

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The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

The Hills Have Eyes
© Vanguard
The Movie Story: A family driving through the southwestern desert in an RV takes a short cut that leads them to run headlong into a family of violent cannibals who live in caves in the hills.

The Real Story: The movie was inspired by the legend of Alexander "Sawney" Bean, a Scottsman of the 15th or 16th century who reportedly headed a 40-person clan that killed and ate over 1,000 people, living in caves for 25 years before being caught and put to death. His life has inspired numerous stories and films worldwide, including The Hills Have Eyes and the British film Raw Meat, but most serious historians today don't believe that Bean ever existed.

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The Amityville Horror (1979)

AMityville Horror
The Movie Story: The Lutz family moves into a riverside house, the site of a mass murder the year before. They encounter a series of malevolent paranormal events that drive them out of the house after only 28 days.

The Real Story: Perhaps the most notorious horror movie "based on a true story," the film is based on a self-proclaimed nonfiction book describing what George and Kathy Lutz experienced during their four weeks in the house, including disembodied voices, cold spots, demonic imagery, inverted crucifixes and walls "bleeding" green slime. Most, if not all, of the events portrayed in both the book and the movie have been called into question by investigators, and it is widely believed that the entire incident was a hoax.

The Entity (1981)

The Entity
© 20th Century Fox
The Movie Story: Carla Moran, a single mother of three, is plagued by a supernatural entity that abuses and rapes her repeatedly. She receives help from paranormal researchers, who document the haunting and attempt to trap the spirit.

The Real Story: In 1974, paranormal researchers Kerry Gaynor and Barry Taff investigated the case of a woman believed to be named Doris Bither. Bither lived in Culver City, California and claimed to have been physically and sexually assaulted by an entity. Gaynor and Taff witnessed objects move in her house, captured photos of floating lights and saw a humanoid apparition, but they never saw it assault the woman and never tried to capture it. Gaynor stated that the attacks diminished when Moran moved.

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Dead Ringers (1988)

Dead Ringers
© 20th Century Fox
The Movie Story: Twin gynecologists Beverly and Elliot Mantle make a habit of sharing women. However, Beverly, the more sensitive of the two, falls in love with their latest conquest, but when she discovers their scheme, she rejects them, sending Beverly into a cycle of drug abuse and dragging his brother down with him.

The Real Story: On July 19, 1975, the decomposing, emaciated bodies of 45-year-old twin gynecologists Stewart and Cyril Marcus were discovered in their apartment. The cause of death was extreme withdrawal due to an addiction to barbiturates. It's unclear what led to their shocking state.

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Gothic (1986)

© Lionsgate
The Movie Story: In 1816, poet Lord Byron gathers fellow poet Percy Shelley and his soon-to-be-wife Mary, along with Mary's half sister Claire and Byron's doctor, John Polidori, at his Swiss mansion. They tell ghost stories and experience surreal supernatural encounters that are physical manifestations of their fears.

The Real Story: In the rainy summer of 1816, Percy Shelley and Mary Godwin (soon to be Shelley) visited Lord Byron at his Swiss villa. Due to the rain, they stayed indoors discussing the animation of dead matter and reading German ghost stories. Byron suggested they each write their own supernatural tale, and Godwin came up with Frankenstein, while Byron wrote what would later be adapted by Polidori into The Vampyre.

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