Usually, when audiences think of “scary” films, the horror genre comes to mind. One of the industry’s most popular (and lucrative) genres, audiences have signed up over and over again to be terrified by a great slasher villain, some poltergeists, or demons possessing the soul of a loved one. Through the confines of this genre, filmmakers are able to craft suspenseful tales that have the potential to haunt us well after the movie is over. But goblins and ghouls aren’t the only frightening things a film can showcase.
Throughout history, directors and screenwriters have mined the real-world fears that many people have to create a premise that rivals your typical paranormal pest in regards to scaring viewers to the point where the film changes their outlook on life (see: the number of people frightened of going in the water after Jaws). Often times, these movies are even scarier than a Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street due to their plausibility and horrifying implications. Here are Screen Rant’s 5 Terrifying Real-World Movie Premises (That Aren’t Horror).
If you think fictionalized astronauts floating in space is scary (a la Gravity), then a similar tale that actually happened should be even worse. Ron Howard’s cinematic telling of the failed Apollo 13 mission serves up plenty of tension and suspense – even if you already know how the captivating true story ends.
Making this (slightly) bearable is the fact that NASA is fully aware of the situation and their employees are hard at work to devise a way to get the astronauts home safely. Still, there are several obstacles Jim Lovell and his crew must overcome. The temperatures could freeze any of the crew to death and rising carbon dioxide levels are near-fatal. Due to the poor condition of their module, the protagonists are also unsure which systems (including the heat shield) are intact – making the reentry into Earth’s atmosphere an extremely frightening trip.
The crew goes through a lot of emotions during Apollo 13 and after watching the treacherous ordeal, non-spacefarers will be happy they’re on solid ground.
In this Oscar-nominated drama, James Franco stars as Aron Ralston, a lover of the outdoors who is always exploring the mountains in Utah. As he plans his latest weekend excursion, Ralston neglects to tell anyone where he is going. This crucial mistake comes back to haunt him when his arm gets trapped under a boulder and Ralston is left to his own devices as he struggles to survive over a period of… 127 Hours.
Anyone who has seen the film can attest to its scariness. Not only is the infamous arm-cutting sequence gruesome and unnerving, Ralston’s entire predicament is more than enough to fill anyone with fear. Danny Boyle’s shot selection, illustrating Ralston’s loneliness, is particularly unsettling and the character’s slow march towards his presumed death (punctuated by the emotional gut-punch of video messages to his family and friends) makes this one harrowing experience.
It’s a running theme on our list, but a person going missing is one of the most terrifying things that can happen – whether it is in a movie or real life. A great film example of this is Robert Zemeckis’s drama, Cast Away. Starring Tom Hanks as Chuck Noland, it tells the story of a FedEx employee whose world is turned upside down when he ends up stranded on a desert island following a plane crash (which, we should point out, is horrifying enough in it of itself). Even if you had the narrative spoiled for you in marketing, there’s no denying that the actual premise is still a gut-wrenching one.
The movie provides an interesting “what would you do?” scenario to the audience and the scenes of Noland adapting to his new life are truly fascinating. But when you boil it down, Cast Away is a horrifying film. Despite the best intentions of Wilson, Noland is very much alone during his stay on the island, which taps into one of our most basic emotional fears. With nobody knowing where he is, the resourceful Noland spends years enduring scorching temperatures, fierce rainstorms, and hunger (not to mention, a failed suicide attempt). You’ll want to rethink that island fantasy after seeing this film.
The only thing worse than being trapped on a desert island is crashing into the Alaskan wilderness and being hunted by a pack of relentless wolves. That’s exactly what happens to Liam Neeson’s Ottway and his crew in 2012’s survival-thriller The Grey.
Battling territorial wolves and a freezing climate, the group attempts to survive as they journey back to civilization. Scenes involving the wolves are particularly tense, but director Joe Carnahan makes sure there are other real-life dangers to deal with as well. The sequence in which the characters secure a makeshift line to pass through a canyon will make anybody afraid of heights cover their eyes.
Even if you eliminate the wolves, The Grey still works as a terrifying film due to the man vs. nature aspect. The cold weather would be enough to keep the stakes of this movie high, as it provides a great enough threat to kill any of the survivors.
If you’re a parent, the idea of losing your children is without question your greatest fear. That’s what makes 2013’s Prisoners so effective. Even those without any offspring can feel sympathy for the Dovers and the Birches after their young daughters go missing on Thanksgiving. The overwhelming feelings of hopelessness and grief can drive even the friendliest family man insane.
Thoughts of lost girls is usually more than enough to amp up the tension in a drama, but Prisoners takes it one step further with the added element of torture. Not only is the film scary for Hugh Jackman’s Keller Dover, Paul Dano’s Alex Jones goes through his own terrifying ordeal as he is kidnapped and locked up in a house while Dover does unspeakable things to him.
A title with multiple meanings, Prisoners mines the depths of what it is to be both terrified and the terrorizer.
As we’ve illustrated, a movie doesn’t need monsters, ghosts, or goblins to terrorize the audience – real life provides enough danger for any of us. Prestige pictures, contemplative dramas, and even worldwide blockbusters (like Titanic) can give any horror film a run for its money in the scare department – if the filmmakers place the characters in the right situations.
Our list (originally posted Oct 4, 2013) is not meant to be all-inclusive, so be sure to include your picks in the comments section below and let us know if you think a reality-based drama is just as scary (or scarier) than the latest horror hit.