Five Frightening Films Based On True Events

5 Horror Movies Based On True Stories

What draws the audience into theater seats, tantalizing us as we eat our popcorn?  One idea is the phrase, “based on true events”. The statement that was notoriously used for the franchise, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  Tobe Hooper’s masterpiece was loosely based on serial killer Ed Gein, but of course, there’s no actual chainsaw-wielding maniac, or cannibal family in Texas(at least not to my knowledge).   However, the following are five frightening horror films that are based on actual events.

5. The Possession (2012)

In 2012 the Sam Raimi production The Possession was released in theaters. Directed by Ole Bornedal, the movie stars Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Natasha Calis, Matisyahu, and Madison Davenport.

When two sisters are spending the weekend with their father, they stop by a yard sale where an antique box entices one of the young girls. Her father buys the box for his daughter Emily, unaware of what lies inside. Once she opens the box, she releases the evil ‘Dybbuk’ spirit and it possesses her. Over the years much speculation and ridicule have surrounded the story that inspired the film.

In June 2004, writing for the Los Angeles Times, Leslie Gornstein wrote the article entitled, ”Jinx in a Box.” This brief story was based on a haunted box discovered on eBay called, The Dybbuk Box.   According to the eBay listing, the item was traced back to a Holocaust survivor who passed away in 2001. The seller, Kevin Mannis, had picked it up at an estate sale.

According to Mannis, the Dybbuk Box contained two 1920 pennies, two locks of blonde and brown hair, a statue(Dybbuk), a wine goblet, a dried rosebud, and a single candle holder with octopus legs. Mannis said according to Jewish folklore, a Dybbuk is a restless spirit that wants to inhabit the living.

After giving the box to his mother for her birthday, she immediately suffered a stroke. Scared of the box Mannis relisted it on eBay. A new owner was now in possession of the Dybbuk Box; a man named Jason Haxton had bought the item. He was a museum curator and collector of religious paraphernalia. During his time with the object, he wrote the book, “The Dybbuk Box” in 2011. As the book was being published, Haxton explains he began to experience frightful minutes of coughing. He would normally cough out blood and his skin broke out in hives. It is rumored that when talk of the movie was floating around, Haxton offered the box to Raimi, who refused.

It was later reported that weird happenings occurred on set, such as lights exploding, and most of the film props were destroyed in a warehouse fire. Finally, Haxton had the box blessed and sealed by a group of Rabbis. Haxton buried it underground until Zak Bagans of paranormal fame was interested in the Dybbuk Box and purchased it from Haxton.

After the acquisition of the box by Bagans and the film’s release, Kevin Mannis claimed he made the entire story up. That all of it was fake. Though both men, Mannis and Haxton made money off of the film, a bitter rivalry commenced. Haxton disagreed with Mannis and stated even if Mannis had engineered a fantasy story, the man probably cursed it himself using Kabbalah. In 2019, The Inquirer wrote their skepticism, showing screenshots of Mannis fully admitting the falsity of the story and how he, in fact, conjured the legend himself.  Haxton, however, made more public appearances and was always available to the media. He claimed, “Kevin Mannis was just background noise. Something is in that box, bigger than Kevin.”

On an episode of Ghost Adventures in 2018, the box affected one of Bagan’s friends musician Post Malone. In the episode, Zak Bagans opens the Dybbuk Box while Malone is in the same room. Though Bagans is touching the object, Malone had his hand on Zak’s shoulder.

You can see some of the video from the show above.  According to reports, two months later Malone had to make an emergency landing when his private jet’s wheels had become damaged in flight. Not only that, but he was in a car crash and an old residency of his was broken into. Bagans is reported saying, “I think there is so much more to the Dybbuk Box and regardless of its origins, it is very much cursed and evil.” Zak continues, “I’m not surprised that more controversy and conflict keep arising from it. The Dybbuk Box has always raised questions and intrigue. And this adds to its narrative.”

You can see the Dybbuk Box and decide for yourself at Zak Bagans Haunted Museum in Las Vegas, Nevada. I recommend the RIP tour. The captivating film The Possession, is available to stream on Prime, Vudu, Apple TV, and Google Play.

4. The Hills Have Eyes (1977, 2006)

In 1972, Wes Craven shocked audiences with his film, The Last House on the Left. His following film, The Hills Have Eyes, once again polarized theater goers.

The movie starred: Susan Lanier, John Steadman, Janus Blythe, the legendary Dee Wallace and the iconic Michael Berryman. In fact, Berryman was featured prominently on the film’s posters. In the film, a family is traveling across the Nevada desert on their way to California. After stopping at a seedy gas station, their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere. As the hours pass, violent savage cannibals begin to hunt them.

In 2006, a remake was greenlit. Alexandre Aja took over director duties and Craven oversaw the script. Ted Levine, Dan Byrd, Kathleen Quinlan, Aaron Stanford, Tom Bower, and Laura Ortiz all starred in this bloody, gut-wrenching retelling. The remake handled the source material with honor and upped the gore and violence. The only glaring difference in the two films is that in the ‘77 movie, the cannibal inbreds were not mutants from nuclear fallout. The 2006 film showcased the savages as mutated mine workers. But was there really an inbred cannibal family in the Mojave Desert? There was not, but there was a family in 1700 Scotland.

In 1719, Alexander Smith wrote, “A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen.” In this selection, there reads a tale of a husband and wife riding horseback through a new road by the North Channel. They were attacked by what the husband claimed to be wild savages. The wife did not make an escape, however, the husband survived. The Monarch sent out 400 men to try to find these savages. What they found haunted them forever.

Living inside a cave was a man named Sawney Bean with his wife, ‘Black’ Agnes Douglas. They had spawned up to nearly 50 family members who they raised, hunted with, and copulated with. The men who discovered them were terrified. Pieces of human flesh were hung around the cave drying as if tobacco leaves or hides of beef. Bones, along with gold and silver decorated the walls of the cave. Piles and piles of victims’ belongings were strewn in heaps across the ground.

Swords, rings, pistols, and other trinkets sat amongst the family. The women were playing with entrails and the men were drinking what looked like blood. After a brief confrontation, the group of 400 were able to round up the Bean family and return them to the Monarch for judgment.

When it was concluded that they were indeed inbred cannibals, the Monarch decided that Sawney Bean would be castrated and have his limbs removed. This included both feet and hands. The punishment would also befall all the men in the Bean family. Each man including Sawney bled to death. Agnes along with the women and children were all burned alive at the stake for what the Monarch deemed as “crimes against humanity”. But what then separated the actions and lifestyle of the Bean’s compared to the Monarchs rule? This was something that inspired Craven.

“But if you look at it, they weren’t doing anything that much worse than civilization did when they caught them,” explains Wes Craven in 1977. “And I just thought what a great kind of A/B of culture. How the most civilized can be the most savage and how the most savage can be civilized. I constructed these two families as mirrors of each other. I found it very interesting to look at ourselves, to think of ourselves as having the capacity not only for great good but for great evil.”

As the story of Sawney Bean continued to be researched and regurgitated, it was discovered that the clan had eaten at least a thousand humans before their execution. Other reports had been confirmed by the Monarch that many travelers of the past 25 years had gone missing. Was the brutal punishment justified? With such a bloody and disgusting tale for inspiration, both films live up to the true story of the haunted road in Scotland.

The Hills Have Eyes(2006) is available to stream on Tubi, Prime, Google Play, Vudu, and Apple TV.

The Hills Have Eyes(1977) is available on Prime, Tubi, and Apple TV.

3. Veronica (2017)

Director Paco Plaza’s captivating Spanish film, Veronica, launched on Netflix in 2017.  Many viewers were instantly hooked and terrified. Although the sequences mirrored the normal tropes of any possession movie, the atmosphere was dark; the acting gritty.

I myself became a fan as I could not look away for one second as the scenes played out before me. A few weeks after its release, many people took to Twitter hailing the movie as the scariest film on Netflix. Veronica stars the talents of Sandra Escacena, Bruna Gonzalez, Claudia Placer, Ivan Chavero and Ana Torrent. Written and directed by Paco Plaza, the film follows a 15-year-old girl (Veronica) in Madrid Spain as she starts to develop an interest in the occult. She brings a ouija board to school during an eclipse to try and help her friend contact her dead ex-boyfriend who perished in a motorcycle accident. After meddling and engaging in a seance, Veronica becomes possessed by a demon. It wasn’t until the release of the film, that American audiences discovered the true story behind the haunting.

In early 1990, in Spain, a young girl had her entire world turned upside down. Her name was Estefania Gutierrez Lazaro. She would become the most famous possession story in all of Spain. A young Estefania started to believe in the occult and showed a passion for it. Her parents decided it was just a phase, and did nothing to intervene, as she continued to play with ouija boards. One day in Spring, she decided to take a board to school to help her friend talk to her deceased ex-boyfriend.

As Estefania began the ritual, a nun interrupted the seance, breaking the ouija board and scolding the children. Friends of Estefania testified that a strange white smoke drifted from the broken pieces and that Estefania accidentally inhaled it. The following months proved to be terrifying for Estefania and her family. She began barking and growling at her siblings. A few times a week, she would fall into seizures and cry to her parents telling them of dark-cloaked figures walking in the hallways and corners of the rooms.

The Lazaros took their daughter to doctors and specialists, but no one could agree on what was troubling her. They knew there was something mentally affecting her, but had no answers for the family. After six months of haunting agony and many hospital visits, Estefania died in a hospital bed, cause of death unknown. As the family tried to come to grips with the tragedy, bizarre occurrences still plagued them. Terrible screams and loud bangs continued within their home. Estefania’s picture fell off a shelf and combusted on its own. This prompted Mr. Lazaro to call authorities. When police arrived they searched the Lazaro residence. In Estefania’s room they found her posters all ripped apart as if an animal had been present.

In their report, an officer claimed to see a crucifix fall off the wall and bend in an unnatural way. Another puzzling phenomenon occurred as they were leaving: a dark red stain began to follow them throughout the home. These official statements propelled Estenfania’s story into the public eye of Madrid. After a year of dealing with the chaos around them, the Lazaros moved. After they settled somewhere new, all hauntings completely ceased.

“In Spain, it’s very popular,” states Plaza. “Because it is, as we say in the film, the only time a police officer has said he has witnessed something paranormal, and it’s written in a report with an official police stamp. But I think when we tell something, it becomes a story, even if it’s in the news. You only have to read the different newspapers to know how different reality is, depending on who’s telling it.”

You can view the film for yourself on Netflix and Pluto TV.

2. The Exorcist (1973)

This film has been retold, spoofed, and talked about so much you might believe your own head is spinning in a complete 360. Yet, what actually catapulted this groundbreaking film in horror cinema to such heights? What was the true story that author William Peter Blatty based his horrifying novel on?

We must travel back to 1949 to a young boy named Ronald Hunkeler. Ronald lived in a normal Maryland suburb. Growing up in a German-Lutheran household, nobody would have ever thought something so sinister would happen to him. Roland had formed a deep attachment to his Aunt Harriet who claimed to be a spiritualist and medium. For his 13th birthday, shortly before her death, Harriet gifted Ronald a ouija board.

It is not documented or confirmed if this “gift” caused what happened next(although it has always been speculated). As Ronald began dealing with grief, he experienced paranormal happenings in his bedroom. He would tell his parents he could hear scraping on the walls, the floor creaking even though no one was standing on it. More interesting was the fact they saw his mattress move on its own. Worried, his parents sought out the guidance of their Lutheran minister, who sent them to talk to a Jesuit.

In February 1949, the first exorcism was attempted by Father E. Albert Hughes. He did in fact strap Ronald to his bed while the boy was having a fit. In a malevolent rage, Ronald broke a piece from the box spring of his mattress and used it to slash at the priest. The boy was able to cut a deep gash across the Father’s chest, leaving the exorcism incomplete.

Later that month Ronald’s body broke out in scratch marks. These bloody etchings formed the word “Louis.” The Hunkelers had family in St. Louis, Missouri and they decided that this was an omen to take their son to the Gateway of the West. Upon arriving, it was discovered Ronald’s cousin was attending St. Louis University. The cousin talked to the University’s president who was friends with the Jesuits. She explained her cousin Ronald’s turmoil, and two Jesuits were sent to inspect the young boy.

Father Walter H. Halloran and Reverend William Bowdern. The two holy men along with six assistants would attempt another exorcism. In March 1949, the men tried for a week. Nothing seemed to be working and everything was getting worse. Ronald spoke in guttural tones and objects in the room would float on their own accord. Bowdern and Halloran kept journals documenting the whole ordeal. Bowdern was astonished to see a bloody X form on the boy’s chest, leading him to believe that the child was possessed by at least 10 demons. On March 20th, the two priests gave up after the boy pissed himself and spat vulgar obscenities at the men. The two priests suggested admitting him to the Alexian Brothers hospital, which the family did.

Still, Ronald’s bizarre behavior only grew worse. He would now scream at any religious item or relic. He would curse those who worshiped God and yell about Satan’s power. The family along with the doctors and priests all had had enough. In the middle of April after a month-long battle, they tried one final time. The priests surrounded Ronald’s bed with crucifixes and rosaries. During the exorcism, Father Halloran called on Saint Michael to expel the dark forces harming the boy. Finally, after seven minutes, Ronald stopped seizuring and fell limp in bed. The priests confirmed it was over and Ronald reportedly said, “He’s gone.”

Though the terrifying event was over, Ronald’s story would be penned by William Peter Blatty in 1971. After discovering the two priests’ journals while studying at Georgetown University, Blatty reached out to Reverend Bowdern and received his approval to go ahead with writing a book. Released in 1971, the book became a bestseller and stayed on the list for four months.

To this day it is reported to have sold more than 13 million copies. In 1973, director William Friedkin approached Blatty about a movie, and Blatty wrote the script. Although both men took certain liberties with the film and book, the adaptations still frightened millions across the country. Linda Blair, Max Von Sydow, Ellen Burstyn and Jason Miller lead the amazing cast. However, the film caused hysteria and panic.

It was reported that theatergoers had epileptic seizures or would become sick and throw up. Religious zealots launched campaigns against Warner Bros and it is rumored that they had bodyguards around Linda Blair after the film’s release. But what happened to Ronald Hunkeler during this chaos?

According to the New York Post, Hunkeler went on to live what some consider a normal life. If normal meant working for NASA. That’s right…NASA. Though Hunkeler would not become an astronaut, he was among the group of men that patented the material to resist extreme heat for the Apollo missions of the 60s. He retired in 2001 and drifted into obscurity living a quiet life. It is believed he passed away in 2020.

You can watch this classic piece of horror cinema on Netflix and Google Play. *Last year it was reported that David Gordon Green(Halloween, Halloween Kills, Halloween Ends) is captaining a remake.

1. The Girl Next Door (2007)

No, this is not the Elisha Cuthbert comedy of 2004. Instead, the true story that inspired the novel by Jack Ketchum, and later the film, is quite simply horrifyingly evil. The Girl Next Door was released in 2007. It starred Blythe Auffarth, William Atherton, Blanche Baker and Kevin Chamberlin. The film was directed by Gregory Wilson, and based on Ketchum’s 1989 novel.

The following tragic true story is not suitable for young readers or squeamish individuals.

The year was 1965 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Two young girls were sent to live with a family friend. Their names, Slyvia and Jenny Likens. Their parents were carnival workers; at the time, their father was away on the East Coast for work. Their mother was in jail for shoplifting. In July 1965, Sylvia and Jenny went to live with Gertrude Baniszewski and her two daughters, Paula and Stephanie, who attended the same school as the Likens.

After Mrs. Likens was released from jail, she traveled to the East Coast to meet up with Mr. Likens and get back to work. Gertrude assured the Likens that the girls would be treated as one of her own and an agreement was reached that payment would be $20 a week for the girls’ care. This would be until the Likens returned home in November.

The first month seemed fine, payments by Mr. Likens were always on time and the kids were going to school along with Gertrude’s own children. Everyone appeared to be getting along, but things took a drastic turn once Mr. Liken’s payments started to arrive late. Gertrude began to beat Slyvia and Jenny. She would pull down their pants and beat their naked bottoms with various items. By the time August came, Gertrude had decided to solely focus her rage on Sylvia. She threatened Jenny with beatings and other punishment if she tried to snitch.

One evening Gertrude decided to let her own daughters punish Slyvia. Paula with Stephanie and a neighborhood boy, Randy Gordon Lepper, force-fed dinner to Slyvia until she vomited. Then they forced her to eat the regurgitated remains. Later in the week, at school, Slyvia retaliated by starting a rumor about the Baniszewski’s. She implied that both Baniszewski sisters were prostitutes. When Stephanie’s boyfriend Coy Randolph heard the rumor, he brutally attacked Slyvia after school. He punched her repeatedly and threw her against the walls of the Baniszewski home.

When Gertrude found out about the rumor, she decided to collaborate with the children and they devised ways of torturing Slyvia. They would whip and kick at Slyvia and neglect to feed her. Soon Slyvia could not hide the lacerations she was receiving and a neighbor phoned the school anonymously. He had seen Slyvia and her sister walking home from school, and caught a glimpse of the open wounds on Slyvia’s body.

The school sent out a nurse and a teacher, but Gertrude Baniszewski stated Slyvia had run away and always had poor hygiene. After the school officials left, Gertrude tied Slyvia up in the basement. Both Likens girls were now terrified and had no idea how to stop the torture they were receiving. With Slyvia tied up naked in the basement, Gertrude started charging the neighborhood kids and Paula’s friends a nickel to see the zombified, malnourished Slyvia.

Both Baniszewski sisters, along with their boyfriends and neighbors, would burn Slyvia with matches and cigarettes. They poured scalding water on her and raped her with foreign objects. Jenny fell into mortified silence as the kids used a hot poker to carve the words ‘I am a prostitute’ across Slyvia’s belly. At one point it was reported they fed the poor girl their feces. On October 25th, as Gertrude was changing her bindings, Slyvia tried to escape. She failed however, and Gertrude caught her before she made it to the backdoor. Ms. Baniszewski then subjected Slyvia to a scalding bath and repeated to beat her. The following day, Slyvia was unable to speak intelligently and lost movement of her arms and legs.

At age 16, Slyvia Likens passed away due to brain hemorrhaging and malnourishment.

Now in possession of a dead body, Gertrude Baniszewski realized she must call the police. Arriving on the scene authorities were told that Slyvia had run away with a group of boys and that they had returned her when the girl collapsed. However, Jenny Likens was able to mouth whisper to an officer, “Get me out of here. I’ll tell you what truly happened.”

The following day Gertrude Baniszewski, her son John Baniszewski, her daughters Paula and Stephanie, Coy Hubbard and his brother Richard were arrested for manslaughter. Five of the neighborhood children, Randy Lepper, Michael Monroe, Darlene McGuire, Judy Duke and Ann Siscoe, were apprehended on October 29th. They were later released to their parent’s custody and subpoenaed to testify in court.

They would do two years in a reformatory school. In May 1966 Gertrude, Paula, John and Stephanie were all convicted of neglect and of advocating the slaying of Slyvia Likens. Gertrude received a life sentence, although she was released on parole in 1985 and later died in 1990. Paula was found guilty of second-degree murder and released in 1972. John Baniszewski, Stephanie Baniszewski, along with Hubbard, only served two years for manslaughter before being paroled in 1968.

This disgusting case led Indiana to institute stricter child abuse laws and is considered the most evil crime in their state’s history. If you can stomach this film that Stephen King hails as, “The first authentically shocking American film since Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer,” it is available on Netflix, Vudu, Prime and Apple TV.

If you have survived these five films, which one scared you the most? Horror cinema will always have roots as long as the macabre blooms around us. Although we must be careful as we wander through this garden; mind your feet, stay off unknown roads and know your neighbors!