In honor of Halloween (and the end of spooky season), it’s another list!
After covering the spooky origins of movie monsters earlier in the month, it seemed only fitting to take a closer look at some of the movies inspired by real events. Not those ones that everyone knows about (or the ones already covered in The Corner of Film Podcast Minis) – no, these are the lesser known true stories that inspired horror films.
Some of the following are more high profile than others, and some of the films are more high profile than the rest, but the spine-chilling thread that runs through them all is: they’re all true.
Child’s Play (1988)
Inspired by: Robert the Doll
Having written about the real life origins of Annabelle in a previous list, it might seem that another story of a haunted doll is something like overkill – however the story of Robert the Doll is too creepy to pass up.
Purchased as a gift for young Robert Eugene Otto in around 1904, Robert the Doll cuts a pretty terrifying figure (even by the standard of early 20th century dolls, which is saying something). He’s usually pictured wearing a white sailor suit, believed to have once belonged to Otto himself, and holding a slightly deformed stuffed toy. Pictures alone are enough to elicit nightmares, but Robert has a pretty terrifying legend attached to him.
Robert supposedly had the power to move, change his facial expressions, and – worst of all – make giggling sounds. Young Robert Otto would treat Robert the Doll as if he were a real person, and often talked about him in the first person, as thought he and Robert shared one identity. Otto then began to blame mishaps on Robert, which many dismissed as normal childhood behavior – although it might have been wishful thinking.
In the years since Otto’s death in 1974, there were numerous reports of Robert moving around of his own accord. He’d be left locked in one room or another, and Myrtle Reuter (who had purchased Otto’s house and inherited Robert along with it) claimed to regularly hear footsteps and giggling from the attic, where Robert was originally kept. Some believe that Otto and Robert were so connected that Otto’s spirit is somehow tied up in the doll, and others believe that Robert was brought to life by a voodoo curse. There are still others who believe that Robert the Doll is nothing more than an inanimate object, but even they will admit how creepy he is.
Robert did have a lesser known film based more directly on his creepy supernatural exploits, but he also reportedly served as the one of the many inspirations for Chucky, the quintessential creepy doll from Child’s Play – a film about a killer who is able to transfer his soul into a child’s doll, which an impressionable young boy makes a strong bond with. Sound familiar?
The Girl Next Door (2007)
Inspired by: The murder of Sylvia Likens
Not to be confused with the 2004 teen comedy of the same name, The Girl Next Door is actually based on Jack Ketchum’s 1989 novel (also of the same name), but it’s all based on a true story (except, presumably, the 2004 teen comedy).
The Girl Next Door isn’t a well-known film, but it is infamous for its brutal portrayal of a truly heinous crime. Without going into too much detail, it documents one boy’s discovery that his crush and her sister are being subjected to abuse, which then escalates into rape and torture as he’s forced to watch, all at the hands of their aunt.
If you’re not squeamish, it’s one to watch, but the worst part is that the events depicted in the film are, by and large, true. The Girl Next Door was based on the real life murder of Sylvia Likens in 1965.
Sylvia and her sister Jenny were temporarily taken in by Gertrude Baniszewski, who lived alone with her seven children. When Lester Likens, Sylvia’s father, began paying Baniszewski late for the girls’ boarding, she began beating the girls. Shortly after, she began starving them, too.
From there, the abuse continued to escalate in ways that are too unpleasant to document here. If you’re interested in reading about some of the most disgustingly violent abuse ever documented, it’s all readily available elsewhere, but be warned, it’s not an easy read.
The events of the film, in many ways, are less disturbing than Sylvia Likens’ abuse, as The Girl Next Door distils it all into 91 short minutes. The film is dedicated to Likens’ memory.
Open Water (2003)
Inspired by: Tom and Eileen Lonergan
Open Water isn’t the most well-known horror movie. In fact, it’s not even the most famous shark-related horror movie, although it’s definitely in the top five for the latter category. The 2003 survival horror tells the cautionary tale of an American tourist couple who go scuba diving. Predictably (it is a horror film, after all), they find themselves stranded miles from shore and menaced by sharks when they’re left behind by a neglectful scuba crew.
The basis of any good horror is plausibility, and Open Water has that in spades. Not only are its monsters – sharks and good ol’ human error – very much real, but its story is heavily inspired by the real-life disappearance of a scuba diving tourist couple.
Tom and Eileen Lonergan went on a group scuba diving trip off the coast of Australia in 1998. Not only were they left behind, but the crew didn’t notice their absence until two full days later. Search efforts began immediately, and personal effects believed to belong to the Lonergans were recovered, but the couple were never recovered. After the recovery and inspection of some of the Lonergans’ diving gear, it was surmised that they weren’t likely victims of an animal attack, but their most likely cause of death was drowning, caused by dehydration and exhaustion.
Inspired by: The Gainesville Ripper
Back in 1996, Wes Craven reinvented the slasher genre with Scream, which has since gone on to spawn its own massively popular franchise. Scream‘s ability to perfectly emulate slasher movies while simultaneously satirizing them sets it apart from other horror films, which is why its real-life inspiration is so much more surprising – particularly as the killer who inspired Ghostface is actually fairly high profile.
In 1990, Danny Rolling murdered five students in Gainesville, Florida over a period of four days. He later admitted to killing another three people earlier that year. What captured the imagination of Scream writer Kevin Williamson, though, was the way in which Rolling killed his victims. Each of them were murdered in their own homes with the same weapon – a knife – and then posed their bodies in odd ways in order to provoke shock.
Williamson was reading a news piece about the murders, when he noticed that he’d left his own window open. The two combined for a realization that it would be incredibly easy for someone to break in and harm him, and that is what inspired him to write a film about a masked killer terrorizing and infiltrating people’s homes in order to provoke fear and shock in the community.
Inspired by: Adolfo de Jesús Constanzo
Despite favorable reviews, Borderland isn’t one of those horror films that ever gained much of a following. That’s a shame, not just because it has a solid reputation, but also because it’s based on the very real and horrific crimes of Adolfo de Jesús Constanzo.
Constanzo was a drug lord, serial killer and cult leader (the bad guy’s holy trinity) who led the Narcosatanists, a gang/cult who were involved in numerous ritualistic killings in the ’80s.
Despite being raised a Catholic, as Constanzo grew he became fascinated with Haitian Vodou, and went on to practice a religion called Palo, which involves animal sacrifice. After spending much of his life sacrificing animals and impressing all the wrong sorts of people, he made connections with Mexico’s most dangerous criminals, and soon got involved with drug cartels. He began using human remains for his spells, which before long, turned into sacrificing human lives. The cult killed more than twenty people before Constanzo decided he needed the brain of an American student (perfectly logical, I suppose), and abducted Mark Kilroy from outside a Mexican bar. The cult murdered him, and this, combined with the fact that they were all certifiably insane, led to their eventual deaths/capture. (Constanzo ordered one of his followers to kill him so that he wouldn’t be arrested.)
The full history of Constanzo and the Narcosatanists is pretty gruesome (and interesting), and Borderland does a good job of translating the real horrors they inflicted on their victims to the screen. It’s not a direct dramatization of the established crimes of the Narcosatanists, but their horrific deeds heavily inspired the film.
The Strangers (2008)
Inspired by: The Manson family murders (& others)
The Strangers isn’t the most obvious contender for this list, as it doesn’t have one concrete real-life inspiration. It does make use of the “based on a true story” branding, though, so it’s worth exploring.
The film follows the events of one couple’s traumatic evening when their home is invaded by masked criminals intent of terrorizing them. The Strangers was most heavily inspired by the Manson family murders (particularly that of Sharon Tate, as talked about in the Production Horror Stories episode of the podcast), and the idea of stranger-on-stranger violence. The Manson family murders are well documented, but the idea that this gang of unhinged, drug-fuelled lunatics could just appear at your door and gruesomely murder you and your loved ones is pretty horrifying, and it’s pretty obviously a solid basis for any horror story.
However, The Strangers was also reportedly inspired by a series of break-ins that occurred in writer-director Bryan Bertino’s neighborhood as a child. There have also been similarities drawn between the films events and the Keddie cabin murders that occurred in 1981, although this has never been confirmed as an actual inspiration for the film.
It almost makes it worse that The Strangers isn’t just based on any one true event. That the film has three real life crimes linked to its conception actually makes it both more plausible and more terrifying.
Wolf Creek (2005)
Inspired by: Ivan Milat/Bradley Murdoch
Another bone-chillingly plausible horror movie, Wolf Creek is also based on more than one real-world precedent.
Its plot follows three backpackers who are abducted, tortured and hunted in the Australian outback. Its depiction of its violence is brutally realistic, which is made all the worse by the fact that it’s based on the real crimes of two separate Australian serial killers.
Ivan Milat (also known as the Backpack Killer) committed seven murders in the late ’80s and early ’90s. He would approach hitchhikers along Australia’s Hume Highway and offer them transport, then incapacitate and murder them.
Bradley Murdoch was convicted of a similar crime to Milat – namely, the murder of Peter Falconio in 2001. Murdoch had Falconio and his girlfriend Joanne Lees – a young British couple travelling through Australia – pull over their car on the Stuart Highway, claiming sparks were coming out of the exhaust. He then killed Falconio, and tried (but failed) to kidnap Lees. Lees escaped, and Murdoch was later identified, charged with Falconio’s murder, and sentenced to life in prison.
These two horrendous criminals inspired Mick Taylor, Wolf Creek‘s sadistic killer – whose crimes closely mirror those of both Milat and Murdoch. Knowing the real-life inspiration for Taylor’s brutal treatment of his victims actually makes Wolf Creek even harder to watch.
The Birds (1963)
Inspired by: 1961 event in Capitola, California
Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds is an absolute classic of the horror genre, demonstrating exactly why the director was deserving of the nickname of “The Master”. While it’s famously based on the 1952 story of the name name by Daphne du Maurier, it’s not as well known Hitchcock’s film was also based on a real event that happened after du Maurier’s story was written.
In 1961, the seaside town of Capitola, California was plagued by hordes of seabirds. The birds were dive-bombing homes and buildings, crashing into cars, vomiting everywhere, and otherwise causing general havoc among the town’s community.
A similar incident three decades later led to the discovery that the behavior was caused by the birds ingesting toxic algae, but at the time, the event was mysterious and unexplained, inspiring Hitchcock in the making of his classic film.
Hounds of Love (2016)
Inspired by: The Moorhouse murders
One more Australian horror to round out the list. 2016’s Hounds of Love is another lesser known horror film also afforded some critical acclaim, and it too is based on a true story.
Hounds of Love follows teenager Vicki Maloney as she is abducted by a deranged suburban couple intent on killing her. The couple from the film is actually based on Catherine and David Birnie, the perpetrators of what came to be known as the Moorhouse murders.
The Birnies tortured and murdered at least four women in their house in the ’80s, and attempted to murder a fifth. Their intended fifth victim, Kate Moir, was able to escape their home and alert the authorities. She was able to give such a detailed account of her abduction and assault, as well as having hidden a drawing in the house as proof of her presence there, which ultimately led to the Birnies’ arrest and conviction.
While Hounds of Love draws similarities to a number of real life cases, the story ultimately marries best with the Moorhouse murders – especially the part where the intelligent young victim is able to get away from her captors.
And that’s the list. Yes, there are dozens more that could have been included, but honestly, these things take time to write – so why not drop your favorite real-life inspirations for horror movies below in the comments?