If you’re looking for some really terrifying horror movies, you might want to check out a few horror movies based on true stories like those about serial killers on this list. Just be forewarned: it’s a lot harder to tell yourself “it’s only a movie” when you’re watching horror movies based on true stories like these:
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
This frightening flick based loosely on the life of Henry Lee Lucas is probably one of the most disturbing horror movies based on true stories I’ve ever seen, thanks mostly to the disturbing scene where Henry and his sadistic partner-in-crime watch themselves commit a horrific murder that they have videotaped. Michael Rooker and Tom Towles are almost too believable as Henry and Otis, and it’s their performances and what isn’t seen in this film that makes it almost harder to watch than horror movies full of buckets of blood and gallons of gore.
Henry Lee Lucas
His is also one of the most disturbing true stories about serial killers that have inspired horror movies, as the real-life Henry Lee Lucas did, indeed, kill his mother and get away with it. He claims that she was a very abusive woman who worked as a prostitute, often bringing her clients home. She allegedly liked to dress Henry up in girls’ clothing, and Henry had to start wearing a glass eye after an incident that happened when he was child when his brother stabbed him in the eye. Henry Lee Lucas did team up with another serial killer named Ottis Toole (thought know to be responsible for the death of John Walsh’s son) after being released from prison for his mother’s murder (due to overcrowding), and Ottis did have a sister named Becky. However, this girl that Henry Lee Lucas started a romantic relationship with was only twelve years old. Many investigators feel that Henry Lee Lucas murdered Becky, but, like many of the crimes he confessed to over the years, it was hard to find definitive proof of this. But whether he killed the 600 he claimed to have murdered or the 11 he was convicted of murdering, Henry Lee Lucas’ tale is one of the most disturbing true stories you’ll ever hear, and ‘Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer’ might just be one of the most frightening horror movies you’ll ever see due to the truth that can be found in it.
From Hell (2001)
Like many of the horror movies based on true stories here, this one about Jack the Ripper is highly fictionalized. Johnny Depp plays a clairvoyant inspector using his visions to try and hunt down the murderous madman that preys on prostitutes, while Heather Graham stars as his love interest (whose job working in the world’s oldest profession puts her directly in harm’s way). There’s a deep and dark conspiracy surrounding why Jack the Ripper has been targeting prostitutes that involves the Freemasons’ secretive society, and while it’s not one of the most frightening horror movies based on true stories here, there are still some explicitly violent and disturbing scenes haunting this thriller.
Jack the Ripper
Although it was thought to be a hoax, London serial killer Jack the Ripper was given his name after the media got hold of a letter signed with the headline-ready moniker. In fact, the movie ‘From Hell’ is actually named after the infamous “From Hell” letter that was sent to George Lusk (the head of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee, formed to patrol the streets in search of suspicious characters) along with half of a preserved human kidney (one of Jack the Ripper’s victims had been discovered missing one). It’s hard to know just how many women Jack the Ripper killed during his reign of terror, since violence against women wasn’t uncommon at the time and place his murders took place, but there were five murders that definitely stand out as the work of the Ripper, thanks to the slash wounds found on the throats and abdomens of the women, as well as the surgical removal of organs and facial mutilations.
Like Heather Graham’s character in ‘From Hell’, one of these victims was named Mary Kelly, but hers is one of the true stories here where the facts are far worse than the fiction presented (she was very possibly the final victim of Jack the Ripper). Many of the other characters in ‘From Hell’ are based on real characters; Johnny Depp’s Frederick Abberline was a real inspector working on the Jack the Ripper case, however he was not clairvoyant and didn’t kill himself after falling in love with a prostitute. Sir William Gull was also a real renowned physician of the time, but there is no proof connecting him to Jack the Ripper. And so, unlike many of the other horror movies based on true stories about serial killers here, we don’t really learn who the real culprit behind these killings really was, and we may never know the truth.
Deranged: Confessions of a Necrophile (1974)
If you’re like me and prefer horror movies where you can remind yourself that “it’s only a movie”, then you might want to skip this one based on the life of Ed Gein, a serial killer whose gruesome murders have been the subject of many other horror movies. Here Roberts Blossom is almost impossible to watch because he does such a good job portraying serial killer Ezra Cobb (a fictional character used in place of Gein). He’s a lonely and off-his-rocker sort that digs up his mother after quite a bit of time has passed since her death and starts robbing graves in order to patch her up. And of course it’s only a matter of time before he decides he needs to go after fresher victims. Despite being full of humorous moments, it’s still one of the harder horror movies based on true stories here to stomach, and even more so because of how horrendous Ed Gein’s crime spree really was.
Ed Gein wouldn’t technically be considered a serial killer, since he has only been tied to two victims. However, there’s a distinct possibility that he may have also murdered his brother (perhaps because he bad-mouthed his beloved mother), and the gruesomeness of his crimes often is enough to have him listed amongst some of the most well-known serial killers of all time. Ed Gein robbed the graves of women that he thought resembled his mother after she died, collecting body parts in his home and creating human skull bowls, human skin chair coverings, and human skin masks. He was also in the process of making a “woman suit”, desiring a sex change shortly after his mother’s death. He confessed to killing two women, whose heads and bodies were discovered in home. So in the case of Ed Gein, his is one of the true stories here that horror movies really haven’t needed to embellish, as knowing of the existence of such horror in the world is terrifying enough without seeing it played out on film.
The Secret Life: Jeffrey Dahmer (1993)
You’ll definitely need some mind bleach after this look at the gruesome murders of one of the world’s most notorious, sadistic serial killers. Sure the movie tries to explain Jeffrey Dahmer’s actions by showing that his killing might have come from his fear of his victims leaving him, but Carl Crew’s dead-on dead expressions as he commits his heinous acts makes the character far from sympathetic. And of course the methods of killing and body disposal (there’s a drill, axe, and vats of acid), as well as the cannibalism make this another that might be best left unseen by some of us.
Jeffrey Dahmer was a good-looking guy who killed 17 men and boys between 1978 and 1991. Early on in his young life, he started dismembering animals, and he was already an alcoholic by the time he graduated high school. After being kicked out of the army, it wasn’t long before he found himself in trouble with the law, being charged with indecent exposure and sexually assaulting a young boy. Shortly after this time, he started his string of murders, often having sex with his victims before killing them. He attempted to turn his victims into “zombies” by injecting boiling water and muriatic acid into their brains, keeping skulls as souvenirs and cannibalizing remains. It wasn’t until one would-be victim managed to escape and contact the police that he was arrested and the extent of his gruesome crimes revealed, as the police found photos of dismembered bodies on the walls, body parts stored around the apartment, and severed heads and other remains in the refrigerator. Later corpses in acid-filled vats would also be discovered. Jeffrey Dahmer’s life would end in prison after being beat to death by another inmate, but his horrifying legacy lives on as the families of his victims continue to cope with what he did to their loved ones, and we all continue to be shocked at the evil that can exist in the world.
The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)
This is one of the horror movies based on true stories here starring a lesser-known serial killer: the Phantom. In this creepy horror movie, residents of a the small town Texarkana are being terrorized by a hooded killer during the 1940’s. The killer would be dubbed the Phantom, and his killing spree called “the Moonlight Murders”, as he preyed upon people by night (hence why the town dreaded sundown). The movie is shot documentary-style and the story here hasn’t exactly been turned into a slasher flick, but the inept cops (who resort to dressing in drag in an attempt to snag the killer at one point) provide plenty of comedic moments to break up the movie’s more grisly scenes, such as a girl being bizarrely and brutally killed with a trombone.
This is another of the horror movies based on true stories here that’s notable for one big reason: the killer was never caught. The movie rightfully portrays the Phantom’s first victims as living through the ordeal, although the first female victim he attacked was sexually assaulted with his pistol, not bitten and chewed on as in the movie. Two more attacks on couples would follow, but these four victims wouldn’t be as lucky; they were all shot and killed on rural roads, with one female victim also being sexually molested before her death (the trombone scene in the movie was likely inspired by the fact that one victim had her saxophone with her at the time of her death). After these killings, the town of Texarkana went into panic mode, with citizens barricading themselves in their homes and staying in at night. The local police also began patrolling known lovers’ lane areas. However, the Phantom simply changed his tactics, next killing a farmer in his home by shooting him through a window. His wife was also shot, but managed to get out of the house to get help from a neighbor (this incident is portrayed fairly accurately in the movie). This killing made the Phantom’s possible body count six people, although some thought that the farmhouse shooting was not his work, since a different murder weapon was used and the modus operandi didn’t match. Also like in the movie, a personable Texas Ranger was involved in attempting to hunt the Phantom down, but he was never successful.
The main suspect in the case was a criminal named Youell Swinney, a man who had been in trouble with the law multiple times before with a record that included car theft, assault, burglary, and counterfeiting. His wife even confessed that he committed the Phantom’s crimes, but she kept changing her stories and refused to testify against her husband in Court. He was eventually handed a life sentence for car theft; he was released in 1974 after contending that he wasn’t represented by an attorney during his trial nor advised that he hard a right to one; and he died in 1993 without revealing if he was, indeed, the Phantom. While the Phantom didn’t kill as many as some serial killers, his is still one of the most frightening true stories here due to the dreadful thought that such a monster got away with these crimes.
So beware: you may find these horror movies based on true stories some of the hardest in the genre to watch, because while you can assure yourself that monsters like vampires and werewolves aren’t real, it’s impossible to escape the fact that those of the human kind do exist in the world.