“Based on a true story” is an easy way for a horror movie to manufacture legitimacy. It’s also usually total BS. Sure, Leatherface was partly inspired by Ed Gein — who also partially inspired the Norman Bates and Hannibal Lector — but the assertion that Texas Chainsaw Massacre is based on a true story just because its killer also has a thing for human masks is just a cheap scare tactic.
What makes The Conjuring films so unique is that the stories it claims are true were heavily reported in the media at the time and investigated by real-life paranormal sleuths Ed and Lorraine Warren, played in the series by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga. Sure, the veracity of the claims has been hotly debated and the duo has been labeled hucksters for years, but there’s no denying that the cases depicted are based on real-life media sensations.
With this weekend’s third entry, The Devil Made Me Do It, James Wan’s series enters a rare tier of supernatural horror with a true-crime twist: It’s based on a very real court case in which a man logged demonic possession as a defense against a murder rap.
Anyone can composite a bunch of serial killers and claim their tale is based on real events, a la Wolf Creek. But pulling off a ghost story with verifiable real-world cases is tough in the age of Wikipedia. The following supernatural horrors take their cues from events well documented in courts and papers of record. Most are middling b-movies that play fast and loose with the facts. But they share a unique DNA in the horror pantheon for anyone who prefers to follow a “based on a true story” with supplemental nonfiction reading.
The Amityville Horror (1979)
Despite its inherent camp factor four decades after it was released, The Amityville Horror was a full-fledged phenomenon. Its ripped-from-the-headlines tale of a family tormented by the violently slain former occupants of their dream home captivated audiences. Never mind that the headlines behind the movie and book turned out to be BS, and that much of the horror endured by the Lutz family — bleeding walls, demonic possession — was fabricated. The crime that inspired the haunted-house stories was real, and the supposed haunting was enough to garner endless media attention and a visit from Ed and Lorraine Warren, who showed up with a TV crew and claimed to spot a demonic child with glowing eyes. True or no, the Amityville haunting inspired 21 movies, a Ryan Reynolds-starring remake and the chillingly effective opening of The Conjuring 2.
The Haunting in Connecticut (2009)
Like The Conjuring, The Haunting in Connecticut comes from the case files of the Warrens and concerns a family tormented by the restless spirits in a rental they later learn was once a funeral home. Despite its schlockiness, the film was a hit, even inspiring the confusingly named sequel The Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia. Unfortunately for its credibility, the author of the “fact based” book on which it’s based — written with the help of the Warrens — later said he was fed fed made-up stories by the Warrens to amplify what really happened to the Snedeker family in the spooky house.
It takes a special kind of misfire to score Dame Helen Mirren a Razzie nomination for worst actress, but Winchester is just that kind of horrible. But the story on which it’s based is one of the great American ghost stories. Sarah Winchester (Mirren) was the heir to the Winchester gun fortune, and believed she was being haunted by the ghosts of every single person slain by a repeater rifle. To keep the hundreds of thousands of ghosts at bay, she began never-ending construction on a gigantic California mansion designed to confuse the spirits, complete with shrinking corridors, hallways leading nowhere, hidden rooms and more. The real thing can still be visited in San Jose, and it’s one of the most remarkably preserved haunted houses you can legally tour in America. It’s well worth a trip, even if the movie it inspired isn’t worth a rental.
The Entity (1982)
Released to considerable controversy due to its intense subject matter, The Entity stars Barbara Hershey as Los Angeles mother who is tormented by the vile spirit of a rapist. The film also follows Hershey into the world of early ’80s psychoanalysis and medical probes as he’s labeled hysterical by a disbelieving scientific community. That second part tracks with the true story that inspired The Entity: Doris Bither was a Culver City mom who claimed to have been assaulted repeatedly by invisible forces, and her case was investigated by UCLA’s now-defunct parapsychology lab.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)/Requiem (2006)
The very real Anneliese Michel was a 16-year-old German girl suffering from temporal epilepsy, psychosis and depression — a combination led her family to the conclusion that she was possessed by a demon. After enduring 67 exorcism attempts, the child died of malnutrition and dehydration in 1976, leading to negligent-homicide charges for her parents and two Catholic priests overseeing the rituals. Dr. Strange and Sinister director Scott Derrickson transported the story to the US with decent results, but the acclaimed German take, Requiem, is the more intense and realistic version.
Usually when a horror film pulls out a Ouija board, it’s a recipe for cheap jump scares and eye rolling. Spanish film Veronica is a different animal, one that wrings endless tension from the tale of a Catholic school teen who awakens an ancient evil during a solar eclipse. Inspired by the fate of Estefania Guttierez Lazaro, a Madrid teen plagued with seizures and horrific hallucinations after playing with a supposedly cursed board, Veronica plays fast and loose with reality. But with his tense religious horror, Paco Plaza — creator of the classic [REC] series — manages something most of the films on this list only aspire to achieve: genuine fear.
For more scares, check out Time Out‘s top 100 horror films