Warning: This list will test your faith in humanity... and your knowledge of obscure horror movies! Totally worth it.
Why do we watch horror movies? For that matter, why do the most compelling horror shows and true crime thrillers seem to be the ones based on true stories, grounded in reality? Here is a theory: Watching actors re-enact the worst actions and most tragic and gut-wrenching scenes actually committed by animals, humans and otherwise, throughout history is like that exhilarating rush of fear you get when you look down from your seat at the front of the rollercoaster car, at the massive drop you are about to experience and the handful of news stories about coasters falling to pieces (literally) and innocent amusement park-goers flying off the rails (literally) flash through your mind--you are 99% sure you will survive but that 1% possibility of becoming an unlikely and tragic headline keeps you coming back for more.
Similarly with watching the worst of the worst happen on the silver screen, we are 99% sure we will never meet the gruesome fates of the reality-based characters being slaughtered for our amusement, but there is that 1% chance we might make a wrong turn one day and end up living our worst nightmares, just as the people who inspired the most enduring horror movies either committed unspeakable acts or experienced highly unlikely and traumatic events, coming in contact with serial killers for example, it does happen, but going to the movies reminds us how unlikely we are to actually end up as fodder for the Hollywood script mill.
Horror is life-affirming, as long as you do not know too much of the truth behind the story; once you know too much, you realize the real horror show is right outside your door, where the human monsters are not held at bay by a projector screen. What we also know is the fifteen movies on this list are mostly obscure as are the horrendous stories that inspired them, so do not be surprised when you are surprised at the levels mankind and the entertainers who exploit its travails have stooped to.
On the big screen or off, these stories do not reflect anything good about our nature; so, enjoy, but not too much, or there is definitely something wrong with you. After all, statistically speaking, a certain number of people reading along with you right now are the future inspiration for a PTSD-inducing horror movies, some on the right side of the law, others, not so much.
15 Dead Ringers
Director David Cronenberg is an established master of horror, alongside Wes Craven (Nightmare On Elm Street) and Clive Barker (Hellraiser), best known for films like Videodrome and most especially Jeff Goldblum-catapult The Fly, but his resume boasts quite few other, increasingly bizarre films like Naked Lunch and Dead Ringers. The latter film tops the list only because the true story it is based on involves the fewest casualties and no victims, only self-inflicted death. Twin gynecologists, Stewart and Cyril Marcus, lose their minds and die due to complications arising from drug addiction. That's the insensitive impolitically correct paraphrasing of the actual headline that inspired this movie, about twin gynecologists who, in the process of losing their minds and dying from complications related to barbiturate addiction, also commit some blood-curdling acts on unsuspecting patients for cult fans of the film to enjoy.
14 The Mothman Prophecies
This film has the honor of being the only one on the list that yours truly has been able to sit through from start to finish, and in the theaters back when it came out in 2002 no less. The Mothman Prophecies follows the facts of the case that inspired it quite closely, though the facts of this case wherein several residents of Point Pleasant, West Virginia reported having visions of a death's head moth accompanied by a premonition of impending disaster for the town are quite sparse and leave much room for creative re-interpretation. In 1967, after about a year of "Mothman" sightings, a bride in Point Pleasant collapsed, killing 46 people, and the visions ceased. Collective hallucination or prophetic visions, we will never know, but as far as thrillers based off hearsay are concerned, this film, well-acted by leading man Richard Gere, is worth a watch.
13 Men Behind The Sun
If nothing else, World War II benefitted the human race by providing all number of atrocities to draw from our history books when we need to scare the socks off of one another. Unfortunately, there are numerous examples of the sort of nonchalant medical experimentation on prisoner populations that could have easily inspired this film about Japanese scientists during WWII trying to develop a strain of bubonic plague for weaponization through the use of Chinese POW test subjects. And do not think for a second these kind of atrocities are relegated to ass-backward nations on the other side of the map; there is legislation in the U.S. dictating the treatment of human research subjects that was put in place after only African-American airforce pilots in WWII were unwittingly exposed to syphilis in an alleged attempt to develop a vaccine. If this movie is any indication though, chances are the U.S. Air Force now have weaponized syphilis.
12 Brotherhood Of The Wolf
This movie is one of countless TV and movie productions based around the general story line of wolfish creatures killing animals and/or people, terrorizing villagers and such, that are eventually found to be something much more easily explained within our current understanding of physics and biology; but where did this plot line originate? Episode 169 of the modern run of Dr. Who was, like 2001's Brotherhood Of The Wolf, also inspired by reports of King Louis XV hiring soldiers and hunters to track down and kill a beast that was described as an oversized wolf with human-like murderous intent, a werewolf in other words, and to whom was attributed 113 deaths until the alleged culprit, an oversized wolf speculated in real-life to have been bred with a Great Dane and trained by the farmer (who eventually put it down) to kill those of the King's ilk.
Take Stephen King's Cujo and make it about lions and you have 2007's gore fest on safari, Prey. The real story: Kenya, 1898, the age of imperialism and cholera, the colonial powers are scrambling to carve up the map of Africa and the Brits are building a railway connecting the interiors of Kenya and Uganda. Several unfortunate incidences mark the history of this major stretch of railway, whose train eventually came to be called the Lunatic Express. One incident involved two lions, now dead, stuffed, and on display in Chicago's Natural History Museum, who due to a shortage of their natural food source developed a taste for railroad worker flesh and one-by-one dragged off some 135 workers from their tents in the middle of the night before they were eventually killed.
10 Eaten Alive
In the vein of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise, this film and the event that inspired it involve an eccentric, to put it mildly, loner who lures people into his place of business or residence and maims and murders them in a particularly bizarre fashion, for some time, before the locals catch on. Eaten Alive is based on an old time-y crime, meaning a crime that was committed when movies were still silent, black and white, and sped up, making everything seem comical to us looking back, but a crime with a timeless gag factor. In the 1930s, a Texas man named Joe Ball ran a speakeasy, behind which he also housed several pet alligators. As these were Prohibition days, everybody was on edge/much too sober, and thugs ran the nation; this particular thug fed the slew of female patrons he couldn't help but kill to his crocs (or alligators, you look it up) until he was found out and shot himself when the cops stormed his establishment in 1938.
This nail-biter is a film about a cult that kidnaps a tourist and sacrifices him and it is based on the 1989 news story about traveling college student, Mark Kilroy getting kidnapped by a group of deadly superstitious drug-traffickers whose demented leader told his gang to kill young Mr. Kilroy. The gang/cult followed through on their leader's request, though said leader eventually lost his life after an extensive manhunt culminated in a Mexico City-shootout. It is also easy to see how films like Man On Fire starring Denzel Washington and Dakota Fanning, or Taken were also at least indirectly inspired by this or fairly similar events.
8 The Town That Dreaded Sundown
Called the "Midnight Murderer", the "Phantom Killer" (and not because he was a professional ghost hunter) and the "Arkana Phantom" because, like the serial killer in the 1976 original true crime horror drama The Town That Dreaded Sundown and its 2014 reboot, the hooded killer who inspired this movie only came out to kill at night, the real-world killer preferring to strike on the full moon, snatching people off of rural backroads in the year after WWII ended, 1946. The movie plot and actual facts of this case mirror each other so much that the protagonist in the film is a Texas Ranger from Arkansas, while his foil in real life, the Arkana Phantom, was from the Arkana region of Texas. One absolutely vital difference (read sarcastically) between the two strange-as-fiction tales is the silver-screen killer for some reason plays a brass slide trombone.
7 The Stepfather 1 & 2
The plot: a man kills his family and disappears to be caught a decade later re-married and under a new name. The real story: a man kills his family and disappears to be caught a decade later re-married and under a new name. The major difference between the plot of 1987's The Stepfather and the harrowing details surrounding John List's meticulously planned-out 1971 murder of his wife, mother, and three kids is that the real-life killer actually changed his ways for the eighteen years he spent successfully hidden amongst his second family, while the killer in the film, played terrifyingly by Terry O'Quinn of Lost fame, is presumed to be contemplating killing his second family and moving on to a third family (perhaps in the aptly- titled sequel The Stepfather 2).
6 Romasanta: The Werewolf Hunt
Similar to the urban legends like the Chupacabra about mystery creatures with a thirst for the myth of the werewolf most likely originated with the story or stories like that which inspired Romasanta: The Werewolf Hunt about a man who went off the deep end at the tail end of a string of bad luck and framed local wild animals for the serial murder of a healthy number of victims by biting their flesh, post-mortem I hope. In the 1800s, Manuel Romasanta was a tailor who actually existed and out-existed his wife, whose passing left him broken and led him to go postal, first killing a sheriff, and then going for broke and on a nine-person murder spree before he was apprehended.
5 The Legend of Blood Castle
Most people are familiar with the fact that Bram Stoker's Count Dracula was inspired by former-Transylvania resident and figuratively blood-thirsty warlord, Vlad the Impaler, but only the strange few interested in medieval Hungarian history or who are fans of Norwegian, black metal band, Bathory, know of the Count's counterpart, the Blood Countess, Elizabeth Báthory (pronounced: baw-tory). The high-born daughter of a Prince of Transylvania who inspired this film is technically the first serial killer preceding Jack the Ripper by over two hundred years and exceeding his alleged body count by over three hundred corroborated corpses. The Italian-made cinematic retelling of Lizzy's story was originally entitled Ceremonia Sangrienta (Blood Ritual) because the legend had it the Countess bathed in the virgin blood of her expressly adolescent victims.
4 Ricky 6
While there are several movies (documentaries and dramatic reenactments) about the West Memphis Three, teenagers who were wrongfully incarcerated in 1993 (and eighteen years later exonerated in the face of new DNA evidence) for the supposed Satan-inspired torture and slaughter of some younger kids, there are fewer if any outside of this lesser known 2000 film based on the correctly incarcerated Ricky Kasso... or he would have been incarcerated if he had not killed himself before law enforcement caught on to his deranged and drug-addled, clearly Satanic ritual murder of a friend out in the woods.
3 Open Water
There is something about being lost out of eye-shot of land that is truly terrifying. The true story here is therefore one of the more tragic if not the most tragic and senseless deaths to inspire a movie on this list. To rip the Band-Aid off and sum up this harrowing tale in one sentence: Tom and Eileen Lonergan were part of a tour group scuba diving Australia's Great Barrier Reef who were left behind by their guides/group and disappeared in the big blue without a trace. Just typing that sentence makes me agoraphobic and claustrophobic at the same time, and whether or not the cast and crew of this indy film do a great job of conveying the panic of realizing nobody is coming back for you, this premise is a terrifying one on or off the big screen.
2 Wolf Creek
Unfortunately this one has nothing to do with wolves, this is based on the emotionally draining research that went into this (list + article =) list-icle I am starting to wonder if everybody is just one step away from moving to a cabin in the woods from whence they terrorize innocent people. Anyhow, this one is a pretty close re-telling of possibly two but for sure one Australian serial killer, dubbed the 'Backpacker Murderer' for very obvious reasons; he lived in the outback, where the animals kill and eat you as opposed to at the family-friendly chain of Outback Steakhouses, and between 1991 and 1993 kidnapped, tortured, and killed backpackers who were unlucky enough to stray his way away from the beaten path.
1 Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door
Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door is a far cry from the coming-of-age romantic (or at least steamy) comedy starring Emile Hirsch and heartbreaker Elisha Cuthbert, titled just, The Girl Next Door, and which preceded the true crime film by three years. The true story behind this movie made me rethink ever writing another list on this topic. Based on soul wrenching events that took place in 1965 in supposedly wholesome Middle America (Indianapolis, Indiana, to be specific), the movie and the court records describe the abuse, torture, and eventual death of Sylvia Likens at the hands of a trusted grown female babysitter and her sons and daughters, all of whom were eventually convicted of what one can only imagine was a laundry list of nauseating criminal acts.
I ask again, this time not rhetorically, 'Why do we watch horror movies (when we can just pick up a newspaper)?'