Horror movies always become exponentially creepier once you know they’re based on a true story. In fact, some of the scariest horror films ever made have been rooted in real-life cases of the unexplained. Films like Fire In the Sky or The Conjuring have managed to bring the terrifying true events behind their paranormal activity to frightened audiences who would forever ask, “what if it happens to me?”
As they say, the truth is stranger than fiction, so we’ve compiled a list of the top 5 scariest horror movies based on real paranormal events, and detailed the spooky history behind the true stories that inspired them. You might never watch scary movies the same way again.
When it first hit the big screen in 1973, William Friedkin’s horrifying film The Exorcist scared the pea-soup out of just about everyone who saw it. What made it all that much more terrifying was the fact that Friedkin’s nightmare-inducing flick had been based on real events which occurred in the quiet town Cottage City, Maryland sometime in the late 1940s.
The real exorcism that inspired The Exorcist involved a 13-year old boy known only as “R”. His real identity has never been divulged, though he’s often referred to as Roland Doe. Roland was a rather unexceptional kid with very few friends, and for the most part, he kept to himself. His quiet life changed, however, the summer his aunt bought him a Ouija board.
After a few weeks of playing with the spirit board, Roland’s aunt suddenly died, and with that, strange activity began to manifest in his home. In the beginning, the activity consisted of odd knocks and bangs, but quickly spiraled into something much more alarming. The chandelier in the living room began to swing violently by itself, disembodied voices whispered in the darkness, and perhaps most concerning, was a painting of Jesus which began banging itself against violently the wall. The activity came to a tipping point one night when the bed that Roland had been sleeping in began shaking and rattling against the floor. But while the physical activity continued to grow more and more extreme, the young boy’s behavior also began to change dramatically.
Eventually, Roland’s personality changed so much that a therapist was brought into the home to give a professional diagnosis, but when they were unable solve the issues behind his violent outbursts and sudden change in personality, Father Hughes from the local Catholic Church was brought in as a last resort. That’s when all hell broke lose.
What followed fits the picture of the chilling battle with demonic forces made famous by The Exorcist. Held to a bed in a room stripped bare of decorations, Roland began spitting, swearing, screaming, vomiting, while a variety of strange paranormal events manifested around him. Father Hughes performed the difficult exorcism over the course of seventy-two long hours, but on the third day, unfazed by the priest’s chants, Roland managed to his arm from the restraints, and with a bare hand, ripped a metal spring out of the bed and sliced Father Hughes’ forearm from wrist to elbow. The ceremony came to a grinding halt.
With the rite of exorcism abandoned, the family found themselves with nowhere to turn, and decided to take the boy to get medical help in Saint Louis. Things only got worse from there. When the terrifying activity refused to cease, the family pleaded with a new priest, Father Bowden, was brought in to finish Roland’s exorcism once and for all.
During another lengthy battle with demonic forces in the psychiatric wing of the hospital, Roland’s body began to manifest physical marks that formed the words “evil”, “hell”, and a litany of vulgarities. It took three priests to conduct the exorcism, during which Roland’s hospital bed shook and one priest’s nose was broken. This ritual, though, proved successful. After the ceremony was completed, the priests claimed it was an intervention by Saint Michael the Archangel himself who was finally able to exorcise the demon from the young boy.
Roland went on to lead an ordinary life, but his story lives on in The Exorcist, arguably the scariest horror film ever made.
The Amityville Horror is one of the of the most famous of all the horror movies based on a true story, partly because what transpired behind the walls of 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville, New York were some of the biggest, most incredible claims to ever accompany a reported case of paranormal activity. Blood dripped from walls, phantom children were photographed, and even claims of a demonic pig-creature named Jodie were just some of the phenomena the Lutz family reported, but it all stemmed from a horrific murder committed a few years earlier.
On November 13, 1974 Ronald DeFeo murdered his entire family with a shotgun, gunning down his mother, father, two brothers, and two sisters while they slept. Afterwards, he drove to Brooklyn to get rid of the evidence, and went to work like it was any other day. Later that night, he burst into the local pub screaming that someone had broken into his home and his family. For omeone who was attempting to cover his tracks, he made the strange mistake of leaving both the shotgun shells and the murder weapon in his room for the police to find. DeFeo was charged with six counts of murder, and still incarcerated in the New York Correction Facility to this day.
Enter: the Lutz family. The George and Kathy Lutz snatched up the now-infamous murder site at 112 Ocean Ave for a steal, because who wants to live in a place where a family was massacred, right? The low price came a high cost, though, because according to George and Kathy, frightening phenomena began to manifest within days of moving into their “dream home”. Fowl odors drifted through the halls, ghosts were photographed, and a strange goo resembling coagulated blood dripped from the walls. It was around this time that their daughter developed an imaginary friend in the shape of a demonic pig. She named her friend Jody, which coincidentally had been the name of one of the DeFeo children.
After just 28 days in the house of horrors, the Lutz family fled, leaving all of their belongings behind. In the days that followed, the media would dub their experience “The Amityville Horror”.
Living offsite, George Lutz called in demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren, who wasted no time investigating their spectacular claims.. and adding some of their own to the mix. After a live televised seance, during which the cameras captured the famous “Amityville ghost”, Ed and Lorraine declared that the house was absolutely haunted and that the basement was, in fact, a literal portal to hell. A book written about the event spawned the film we know today, complete with half a dozen sequels, a 2005 reboot, and dozens of documentaries.
There’s a lot of debate about how much of the “true story” was some Hollywood-style exaggeration, but the chilling testimony of Ronald DeFeo blaming the murders on demonic voices, the long run of bad luck experienced by George Lutz in the years that followed, and the terrifying residual hauntings that stem from one of the Amityville house’s wooden planks to this very day, makes the Amityville Horror one of the the paranormal’s most mysterious unsolved cases.
The bizarre true story behind the incident that turned the little town of Point Pleasant, West Virginia into the scariest Richard Gere film ever made dates back to a November 15, 1966 newspaper headline that read “Couples See Man-Sized Bird… Creature… Something.”
The first sighting of the Mothman occurred on November 12, 1966 when five men digging graves in the town of Clendenin spotted a large, man-shaped creature flying through the nearby trees. Just days later, on the 15th, two couples – Roger and Linda Scarberry, and Steven and Mary Mallet – told police that they had been chased by a “large flying man with ten-foot wings”, who flew above their car as they sped down a dirt road past a WWII munitions storage site.
After the headline hit the papers, more locals came forward to tell reporters that they too had seen the giant, red-eyed creature flying over the town, abducting pets, peeking into windows, and generally spreading panic throughout the community, All of these sightings seemed to be a precursor to the tragic event that followed.
On December 15, 1967, the Silver Bridge collapsed during rush hour, killing 46 people and devastating the small community. After the tragedy, the Mothman was never seen again.
Some believe that the Mothman was a so-called “doomsday monster”, appearing merely to warn the town’s residents about the upcoming tragedy. Others believe he was part of a government experiment, a thought-form willed to life by mass hysteria, or an undiscovered creature akin to Bigfoot. Of course the skeptics think it was just a sandhill crane.
Regardless of what you believe the Mothman was, Point Pleasant’s brush with the unexplained left a lasting impression on the community. To this day, a giant silver statue of the creature sits in the center of town, right next to a museum dedicated to his brief visit, and every year, thousands of curious visitors flock to Point Pleasant to attend the Mothman Festival.
The Entity both captivated and terrified audiences when it hit the big screen in 1983. It re-told the story of Doris Bither, a single mother of four whose entire family was being tormented by spirits haunting her California home. Not only were the violent ghosts pushing, scratching, and punching Bither’s children, they were sexually assaulting her while she lay in her bed, unable to move.
In serendipitous twist of fate, Dorris overheard paranormal researchers Kerry Gaynor and Dr. Barry Taff in a bookstore. They were talking about a haunted house they were currently investigating, when Doris interrupted them with a plea for help. The two men reluctantly agreed to visit her home, but after experiencing a multitude of paranormal activity, they decided to take on her case.
Dr. Taff eventually organized a team of professional photographers and scientists to help document the activity, and though the investigators all witnessed unexplainable phenomena like free-floating balls of light and even green fog that took on the shape of a human torso, the only piece of evidence they were able to capture were several photographs that appeared to show a strange light arc that would sometimes follow Dorris.
With the researchers unable solve Doris’ paranormal problems, the Bithers fled their haunted house. Though the paranormal activity seemed to cease for a time, it seemed that Doris herself was haunted. The ghosts once again caught up to her, and she continued to be sexually assaulted by the unseen forces for years to come, even going so far as to say she had been impregnated by the entities themselves.
Fire In The Sky psychologically scarred roughly 80% of the people who saw it when the film first came theaters back in 1993. The movie tells the terrifying story of Travis Walton, who on November 5, 1975, was abducted by beings from another world, taken about a flying saucer, essentially tortured.
The film was based on Travis’ own book The Walton Experience, who at the time of his abduction was working at a Arizona logging company with his best friend Mike Rogers. The contract which the pair been working for was about to expire, so the entire crew worked from dawn till dusk to finish. According to Walton, as the crew drove home after a long night, they watched in awe as a bright light hovering in the sky drifted closer, revealing itself to be what could only be described as a “flying saucer”. When Rogers stopped the truck, Travis sprinted madly from the vehicle and towards the gigantic floating object, only to collide with a bright beam of light that lifted him off the ground and tossed him ten feet into the air like a rag doll.
Like the world’s worst friends, the crew inside the car hit the gas and Walton to his fate, only to reconsider their actions a short drive down the road. They returned to scene of the abduction, but found nothing. There was no UFO, no beam of light, and worse, there was no Travis.
The group phoned the police to explain what had happened, and the town’s Sheriff, Marlin Gillespie, demanded that the group go back and continue looking for their friend. By morning, their bizarre story had reached the newspapers, and the entire town of Snowflake, Arizona was turned into a media circus.
Days went by with no sign of Walton, prompting the authorities to believe that his coworkers had murdered him, concocting an elaborate story about aliens and UFOs to in an attempt to hide the truth. But when each of the eyewitnesses were given a polygraph test, police were surprised to find that not one of them failed.
Five days after Walton was allegedly abducted by aliens, Travis’ brother-in-law woke to a 2AM phone call. The voice on the other end of the line was Travis, who said he was in a phone booth along the highway, scared and confused. Walton was discovered unconscious in a gas station phone booth, muddy and thin, wearing the same clothes he had been wearing the night of his abduction.
When he regained consciousness, Walton recalled finding himself in a sterile, hospital-like room, surrounded by three short, bald creatures with “terrifying eyes”. After being studied for a time, another being in a helmet of some kind led him to another room, where a mask was placed over his face before he blacked out. The next thing he remembers was walking along a desolate highway, flying saucer sailing off into the sky. He had no idea he’d been missing for nearly a week, believing the experience to have only lasted a few hours.
To this day, Travis Walton has stuck to his story, so traumatized from the experience that he refused to revisit the site of his abduction until 2014.
Let’s be honest, whether you’re a fan of the Warrens or not, there’s no way this list would be complete without adding The Conjuring. Based on the so-called “true case files of the Warrens”, The Conjuring follows Ed and Lorraine as they investigate the now-infamous Perron farmhouse haunting in Harrisville, Rhode Island. It’s also one of the most terrifying horror films in a decade.
In the real-life case that inspired the film, Roger and Carolyn Perron had already been living in the haunted farm house with their five daughters for nearly ten years, and according to them, the paranormal activity in their home was occurring on a daily basis. Both the Warrens and the Perron family believed there were numerous spirits haunting the secluded property, the worst of which was a witch named Bathsheba.
Bathsheba Thayer lived in the home during the early 19th century, and was local legend had it that she was a witch who had sacrificed her baby to Satan after impaling his head with a sharp object. Bathsheba died on May 25, 1885, emaciated, and as the coroner put it, “seemingly turned to stone.”
While she might have been dead for nearly a hundred years by the time they moved in, to the Perron family, Bathsheba was still very much present. The house would often fill with the unexplainable smell of rotting flesh, beds would hover off the ground, and small objects would move around the home by themselves.
By the time the Warrens began investigating the Perron case, they already believed that Carolyn had become possessed by the spirit of Bathsheba. Convinced that Ed and Lorraine’s meddling had only made their bad situation worse, Roger Perron demanded that the Warrens leave their home. With the activity worsening, the family eventually ended leaving the farmhouse themselves, with no real resolution to the case.
Today, Roger and Carolyn’s daughter, Andrea Perron, continues to share her experiences about growing up in a haunted home in a series of books that provide the real story behind The Conjuring.