While many horror movies are thrilling and terrifying in equal measure, the majority of people who watch them are able to go to bed at night with a clear mind because they know that the terrors they’ve just seen are not real. But even though flesh-eating zombies and bloodthirsty werewolves have no real basis in reality, there are a fair few scary movies that are actually grounded in reality.
If you’re curious to know the real-life inspirations behind some truly fantastic and unforgettable horror villains, then take a look at the list below.
Here are 12 Movie Maniacs Based on Real People.
The Hills Have Eyes (1977 & 2006)
It doesn’t matter if you’re a fan of the gritty-yet-razor sharp Wes Craven classic or the gruesome, narratively elegant Alexandre Aja remake, the one thing most people can agree on is that the story behind The Hills Have Eyes is an unsettling one. The tale of the all-American family on a cross-country roadtrip getting ambushed, raped, murdered, and eaten by a family of cave-dwelling cannibals is as about as petrifying as it gets – with all the raw intensity that both incarnations possess, it’s truly criminal how under-appreciated both films are.
While there have been no known clans of cannibals to have lived out in the Nevada desert, the hill people (inbred in Craven’s film, damaged by nuclear testing in Aja’s) were modeled upon a fabled 16th century man-eating clan under the patriarch Sawney Bean. When Bean and his wife decided an honest living wasn’t to their liking, they moved to a cave out in Scotland where he took up a life of thievery and murder. In an effort to be economical with the resources at hand, the Beans got rid of the dead bodies by using them as a food source. After fourteen children and dozens of inbred grandchildren, the Sawney Bean family required quite a large number of dead bodies to stay fed.
For most people, the name Fritz Lang brings about thoughts of the grandfather of science-fiction movies Metropolis. While the futuristic yarn of class divides is the German auteur’s most famous film, Lang always considered his masterpiece to be the subtly titled M – Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder (“M – A City Looks for a Murderer”). Visually stirring though simple in plot, M follows the ghoulish nocturnal habits of Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), a man who enjoys whistling Edvard Grieg and killing little girls.
The premise of M is terrifying enough, but the scariest part about the fictitious Beckert is that he is actually a far tamer version of early 20th century German serial killer Peter Kürten, known unaffectionately as The Vampire of Düsseldorf and the Düsseldorf Monster because he supposed drank both and human blood. The victim of an abusive childhood, Kürten acquired quite the rap sheet before indulging in his infamous ten-month long string of sexual assaults and murders in 1929. After his arrest and trial (where he sighted his motive as sexual pleasure), he was executed by guillotine in 1931.
Eaten Alive (1976)
Eaten Alive takes a campy approach to the legend of Texas serial killer Joe Ball with a mentally disturbed facsimile named Judd (played by Neville Brand). Owner of the Starlight Hotel, Judd does not excel at human interaction. Inclined to kill anyone that upsets him, Judd’s only friend seems to be his pet alligator to which he feeds his victims. After dispatching a wayward prostitute, Judd receives a number of people looking for the woman’s whereabouts who end up meeting similar fates.
Crazed, backwoods redneck psychos have been such a common subject in the realm of horror movies that it has developed into a unique subgenre with cinematic champions like Straw Dogs and Deliverance. While most of film history’s terrifying hillbillies are the result naïve fear, the lesser-known Tobe Hooper film happens to be grounded in reality. Known in the world of Texas folklore as “the Alligator Man” and “the Butcher of Elmendorf,” Joe Ball was a serial killer convicted of killing two women and suspected to have slain twenty more during the 1930s at his home in Elmendorf, Texas next to a pond filled with six pet alligators.
Hostel: Part II (2007)
The second installment of the torture-porn series is absolutely an encyclopedia of twisted ways to kill people. Delving deeper into the world of “Elite Hunting,” Hostel: Part II follows three American female tourists whose lives are auctioned off to affluent sociopaths around the globe. The deaths are incredibly creative – having Cannibal Holocaust director Ruggero Deodata cameo as a client with a taste for eating people alive is brilliant – but most brutal killing befalls a poor girl (Heather Matarazzo) who is hung from the ceiling and sliced up by a naked woman (Monika Malacova) who lies beneath and bathes in her blood.
Though Eli Roth has demonstrated that his imagination is warped enough to have thought up such an atrocity on his own, he actually stole this gruesomeness right out of the history books. Named by the Guinness Book of World Records as the most prolific female serial killer in known history, Elizabeth Bathory was a 16th century Hungarian noblewoman who was put on trial for the murders of over 650 young women over a period of twenty-five years; she enjoyed a great variety of torture and death aside from blood-letting including biting, burning, freezing, and starvation.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
There are a lot of horror movie killers that take inspiration from the undeniably ghastly Ed Gein – very notably Psycho’s Norman Bates and Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (which will be discussed later in this list) and the cross-dressing, moth-loving Buffalo Bill of The Silence of the Lambs, played to creepy perfection by Ted Levine, happens to also be such a character. But the villain the most people never seem to realize also had true-life inspirations was evil psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter (played by Anthony Hopkins).
The craftiness and cunning of Dr. Lecter was largely designed by novelist Thomas Harris but the author did recently reveal that the character was modeled after a real person. For years people speculated that Lecter was literary manifestation of Albert Fish or Tsutomu Miyazaki, who were both convicted cannibals, but in a 2013 interview Harris revealed that Mexican surgeon and accused murderer Alfredo Ballí Treviño was the true influence for Lecter. Harris met Treviño in the 1960s during his time as a reporter and learned of how he killed and dismembered one of his victims and stuffed the body parts in a small box. While Treviño was initially sentenced to death, he was released from prison in 1981 and continued to practice medicine until his death in 2009.
The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)
Unless you’re a huge fan on 70’s era horror movies, you probably won’t be familiar with this campy pre-Halloween slasher flick by Charles B. Pierce. Taking place in the early months of 1946, the story follows the antics of a hooded man (Bud Davis) who holds the town of Texarkana, Texas in fear with a grisly string of assaults and murders. If you are familiar with the film or its recent 2014 remake, then you likely already know that it is based on the true story of the Texarkana Moonlight Murders.
Known only as the “Phantom Killer” or the “Phantom Slayer,” a hooded assailant who was never identified wreaked havoc on the Texas/Arkansas border town during the early months of 1946, just after the end of World War II. Reported in newspapers all over the country, the killer took the lives of five men and women and wounded another three between the months of February and May.
Paul Sheldon (James Caan) enjoys his life as a famed novelist and creator the popular Misery Chastain romance series, but grows weary of writing pulp and wishes to make a serious change in his career. But on his way home from finishing his final Misery manuscript in the middle of a Colorado winter, he ends up in a car accident. When he awakes, bedridden with two broken legs and a dislocated shoulder, he finds himself in the care of former nurse Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) who happens to be Sheldon’s “number one fan.” But as he gets to know Annie, he becomes keenly aware that she is incredibly unhinged and soon falls victim to her insanity.
Stephen King is well known for having his literary inspirations literary influences rooted in the real world. Most of the time he draws from his own fears and experiences, Misery psycho Annie Wilkes was loosely based upon child serial killer Genene Jones. The pediatric nurse was suspected of killing up forty-six infants (the exact number of victims is unknown), having injected them with paralytics with the intent of reviving them to receive praise from her patients’ parents and her medical peers. In 1985, she was sentenced to serve ninety-nine years in a Texas women’s prison, plus a subsequent term of sixty years, but is due for mandatory release in 2017 as a result of Texas laws in place to prevent overcrowding in prisons.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
There is a reason why Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, the first feature film by director John McNaughton, is widely considered among horror fans to be one of the scariest movies ever made – because Henry (played by Michael Rooker), for all intents and purposes, is the hero of the story. Instead of having the audience follow the sympathies of the victims of the murderer they are alternatively forced to play spectator the random killing spree of the main character and his roommate/accomplice.
The film is unabashedly directly inspired by the crimes of Henry Lee Lucas, who we get to follow as he travels across the country killing various victims at random by whatever method suited his fancy at the time. After his arrest, Lucas confessed to killing hundreds of people. He was only convicted of the murders of eleven people and simple math eliminated the possibility of many of the murders belonging to Lucas; at the same time, he also reportedly possessed knowledge of unsolved murders that only the perpetrator would have known, adding immensely to the mystery of the real-life horror story.
Wolf Creek (2005)
Liz, Kristy and Ben (Cassandra Magrath, Kesti Morassi and Nathan Phillips) are enjoying their time partying and driving through Australia. But during a stop in Wolf Creek National Park, the trio encounters unsuspected car trouble. When a local man named Mick (John Jarratt) offers to help, the group is reluctant but takes him up on his offer without realizing his true intentions. After being drugged, they awake to find themselves prey to a practiced killer.
The “Ocker-shocker” was not well received by critics due to its aggressive violence and gore, as the more raw horror films tend to be. While Mick is a fictitious character, be was actually an amalgam of real murderers. Bradley John Murdoch is believed to be one such influence, accused of murdering a British tourist and assaulting his girlfriend; because Murdoch’s trial was underway during the film’s release, the court placed an injunction on the film so to not sway the trial’s outcome. The other model for the movie’s antagonist is thought to be Ivan Milat, who was known for a string of seven killings called “the Backpacker Murders,” who beat, stabbed, shot, strangled, and decapitated his victims.
Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce) is a hero of the Mexican-American War, but when a disapproving General is put in charge of his promotion, Boyd is sent to the remote Fort Spencer in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. At the fort, Boyd encounters a man riddled with frostbite named Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle) who admits to having to resort to cannibalism to stay alive. Having heard that he almost instantly recovered from his frostbite wounds after being bathed, a Native American guide named George (Joseph Runningfox) warns Boyd that the Colqhoun might be a Wendigo, a man who becomes an immortal demonic creature after consuming the flesh of his fellow man. When Boyd goes to investigate the cave, he desperately wishes he had heeded George’s warnings.
Although Ravenous is a deeply weird and twisted black-comedy horror movie, there is nothing funny about writer Ted Griffin’s muse for his human-flesh craving antagonist. While partly inspired by the notorious Donner Party, Griffin took most of his inspiration from Alfred Packer, a prospector who confessed to surviving a Colorado winter trapped in the Rocky Mountains after cannibalizing the five men he was travelling with. Though initially convicted of murder, a retrial found him guilty only of manslaughter, which sentenced him to forty years in prison.
Natural Born Killers (1994)
Oliver Stone is a director that is familiar with controversy if for no other reason than making Natural Born Killers, a movie that seems to be as lauded as it is maligned. Based on a script by Quentin Tarantino, Killers regales the blood-soaked killing spree of lovers Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis). Plenty of critics villainized the satire as a glorification of gruesome crime, but the real fear should have come from knowing that the events of the movie are not entirely fictional.
Being a student of cinema, Tarantino was no doubt familiar with films like Badlands and Kalifornia, movies inspired by the killing spree of teenager Charles Starkweather and his young girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate. From December 1957 through January 1958, the nineteen year-old Nebraska native killed a total of ten people. Although he was only tried for the murder of one of his victims, Starkweather was found guilty and was executed seventeen months after his conviction; Fugate was sentenced to life in prison for being a willing participant in the crimes, but was released on parole after serving seventeen years.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Even though infamous murderer Ed Gein had only two confirmed kills, the investigation of the Wisconsin native’s home after his arrest showed he had a penchant for postmortem mutilation. Among the things police discovered made of human remains, there were leggings made from human skin, bowls made from human skulls, a box full of dismembered female genitalia, and a belt made of human nipples, just to name a few. After a trial, Gein was found found guilty and confined to a mental institution where he eventually died in 1984. With such a heinous reputation, it’s easy to understand why he happens to be one of the go-to inspirations in horror cinema, one of the most vivid being the butchering Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
A group of young people go on a trip to the country to tend to their grandfather’s grave and visit his home. But after an unfortunate encounter with a hitchhiker (Edwin Neal), the group’s luck starts to run out quickly as the circumstances bring them face to face with the chainsaw-wielding, cross-dressing psycho killer Leatherface. Sadly, after seven installments/remakes and an eighth film on the way, the celluloid fiend has been worn down almost to a joke. And yet, while the original Tobe Hooper classic isn’t the most gruesome of the franchise, there are few films today that hold a candle to movie’s natural intensity, made even more brutal with the knowledge of his real-life counterpart.
With this list of scary movies to look over, perhaps next time you watch them your nerves will be racked for a different reason. If we missed any terrifying horror maniacs inspired by a real maniac, let us know the comments section.