Horror films based on truth: how real life events have inspired scary movies throughout history

Posted by for Film

From the occult to radioactive mutants, horror movies have been influenced by true stories and real life events throughout the history of film.

Shakespeare famously said that art is a mirror held up to nature, and the wisdom of this statement is undeniable. After all, how often have we seen films and TV shows reflect the current state of the world back at us?

Over the years, the horror genre has proven particularly adept at this, although it would often take some time for society to process real life horrors and translate them into self-reflective entertainment.

Here, we take a look back at some of the key events that inspired the world’s most iconic scary movies. So buckle up, buttercup: it’s gonna be a wild ride.

A caveat

It’s important to note that this is a very broad analysis of a much deeper (and darker!) subject. Subgenres of horror have, of course, been bubbling away for years – and the themes that become mainstream are based upon what captures the imagination of the audience at that time.

Please remember, then, that there will always be exceptions to the rules laid out below.

The Literary Years

Horror was an incredibly new genre between the ages of 1900 and 1920, and so many filmmakers turned to tried-and-tested literary classics as source material. The first adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was released in 1910, as well as the first Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde (1908) and The Picture Of Dorian Gray (1910).

Horror movies inspired by true stories: Boris Karloff as The Monster in Frankenstein.
Boris Karloff as The Monster in Frankenstein.

This theme of basing horrors upon gothic literature continued to dominate right up until the 1940s, with filmmakers keeping the source of horror very removed from real life.

We had all the classics: vampires, werewolves, and mummies, oh my! And it offered a form of macabre escapism from the dread of looming and ongoing war. Most importantly, the genre kept its monsters just that: monsters. The man in the mask would come later.

The Atomic Bomb

On 6 August 1945, a five-ton bomb was dropped over the Japanese city of Hiroshima, reducing four square miles of the city to ruins and immediately killing 80,000 people. At least another 60,000 would be dead by the end of the year from the effects of the fallout. 

Horror movies inspired by true stories: The pyrocumulus, or firestorm-cloud, that engulfed the city of Hiroshima after the US atomic bomb attack on 6th August 1945.
The firestorm-cloud that engulfed the city of Hiroshima after the US atomic bomb attack on 6 August 1945.

Just a few years later, a string of horror films about radioactive mutants and the consequences of meddling with science (look out for villainous scientists) would hit cinemas. Think Them! (1954), the OG Godzilla (1954), and The Fly (1958), to name just three examples.

The Cold War

The Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union lasted for decades and the resulting anti-communist suspicions saw themes of paranoia and identity dominate the horror genre. 

From Invasion Of The Body-Snatchers (1956) to The Blob (1958), this fear of “the other” often translated into the sort of extraterrestrial monsters who observed their victims from afar, or completely assimilated them.

Ed Gein, the Mansons, and John Wayne Gacy

In 1968, Ed Gein – known in the papers as ‘The Mad Butcher’ – was found guilty of murdering at least two women, and mutilating the bodies of nine others. In 1969, the Mansons – a desert commune and cult led by Charles Manson – violently murdered seven people, including pregnant actor Sharon Tate in her own home. 

And, on 13 March 1980, John Wayne Gacy – aka ‘The Killer Clown’ – was sentenced to death for the murder of at least 33 young men and boys.

Horror films inspired by true stories: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, poster, British poster art, Gunnar Hansen, 1974. (Photo by LMPC via Getty Images)
A poster for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1974.

With so many serial killers in the press, it’s perhaps unsurprising that slasher movies became a popular trend among 70s and 80s audiences. People flooded to the cinemas to watch the frenzied murder scenes of Criminally Insane (1975), Halloween (1978), and Friday The 13th (1980).

And let’s not forget that the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, released in 1974, was actually inspired by Gein’s crimes, too.

It’s worth noting that, around this same time, special effects technology had added a whole new dimension to gore, allowing filmmakers to more effectively plumb the depths of depravity and deviancy.

As such, many horrors were banned for being too violent, and many had audiences convinced that they’d watched a real life snuff film.

Second-wave feminism

When World War II ended, the men who had left the workforce to go into the army returned – and the women who had taken their place were expected to go quietly back to their roles as housewives and mothers. 

Cue the advent of second-wave feminism, with women focused not only on achieving true equality, but also on reforming the negative and inferior image of women in popular culture to a more positive and realistic one.

Horror movies based on true stories: Drenched in pig's blood, Carrie White, played by Sissy Spacek, stares in shock at her ill-fated prom date, Tommy, played by William Katt, in Brian De Palma's horror film 'Carrie', 1976.
Drenched in pig's blood, Carrie White, played by Sissy Spacek, stares in shock at her ill-fated prom date, Tommy, played by William Katt, in Brian De Palma's Carrie (1976).

Naturally, this soon seeped into horror. From Carrie (1976) to Alien (1979), as well as the aforementioned Halloween, the women of the genre became something more than nameless victims. They were strong, they were powerful, and they were finally, finally steering their own stories.

The Satanic Panic

In what could very well be a case of life imitating art, Satanism became the subject of a moral panic following the release of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1973), and The Omen (1976). 

Taking hold in the USA in the 1980s, and spreading throughout many parts of the world by the late 1990s, it saw people assume, wrongly, that Satanic worshippers were lurking around every corner, and that their children were at risk via their boardgames (Dungeons & Dragons), music (Kiss), and books (Harry Potter & The Philosopher’s Stone).

Naturally, then, themes of the occult began to bleed back into the horror genre as a result. Child’s Play (1988) saw a serial killer use a Voodoo ritual to transfer his soul into an animated doll. The Blair Witch Project (1999) – incidentally one of the first found-footage horrors – saw a trio of young filmmakers explore the legend of a devil-worshipping witch. And Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (1999) explored a vengeful woman’s deal with the devil.

Third-wave feminism

By the 90s, the children of second-wave feminists were coming of age – and thus began the ‘Girl Power’ movement. This was the age of punk-rock, hip-hop, and the Spice Girls. It was a time for ‘zines, mobile phones, and the internet.

And it was also the era that redefined horror’s ‘Final Girl’, with many films doing away with those tired sexist tropes that came before. No longer were female survivors expected to be pure, virginal, and helpless. Instead, we had the smart and capable Clarisse Starling of Silence Of The Lambs (1991). We had ass-kicking Buffy Summers in Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1992). We had self-aware heroines Sidney Prescott and Gale Weathers of Scream (1996). And we had the outrageously intelligent Evelyn Carnahan of The Mummy (1999) movies, too.

Drew Barrymore in cult horror movie Scream, in 1996
Drew Barrymore in cult horror movie Scream (1996).

Women were smarter in these movies. Bolder, too. They swerved the obligatory “tit shot” seen in so many horrors before, and they fought hard not just to survive, but to save the lives of others and bring their horrors down.

Girl power, eh?

9/11

The events of 9/11 put a temporary halt to the horror genre’s darker side: people wanted to escape into fantasy worlds, such as The Lord Of The Rings and Harry Potter, and they didn’t want to confront the devastation of that day. 

Still, though, the attack on the Twin Towers’ influence can be felt across the genre. Steven Spielberg’s War Of The Worlds (2005) saw a nation come together to stand strong against an alien threat. Cloverfield (2008), too, saw New York City suddenly levelled by an unseen extraterrestrial horror – one which was seen exclusively from the perspective of people on the ground.

And Rec (2007) follows a TV host and her cinematographer as they attend a firefighter intervention at an apartment building in Barcelona, only to become trapped inside alongside an unexpected threat.

President Trump and “MAGA”

To many, it felt like a nightmare when Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. His promise to ‘Make America Great Again’ seemed to be the exact opposite, especially when you considered his stance on abortion, women’s rights, and race. And his toxic rhetoric created divisions across the country and the world, the repercussions of which can still be felt now.

Since that day, horror has largely been focused on telling terrifying tales about societal oppression and everyday injustices, focusing particularly on themes such as race, class, and gender. Some excellent recent examples of this include Get Out (2017), Us (2019), The Hunt (2020), and The Invisible Man (2020).

So what comes next?

We’ve already seen social media and webcam technology bleed into the world of horror via the likes of Unfriended (2014), Friend Request (2016) and Host (2020). 

It seems inevitable that the Covid-19 pandemic will eventually make its way to our screens, too – especially when you consider how many virus-inspired horrors have been born out of lesser outbreaks in the past.

But what else? We’ve had a year of protests, of enforced isolation, of overflowing hospitals. We’ve seen more people become aware of racial injustices taking place all over the world, too, as well as the impact climate change is having on the natural world.

And we’ve seen lockdown and social distancing change the way we make and consume media, so it’s guaranteed to have an impact on the most adaptive film genre, too.

Essentially, horror is a monster with a thousand faces. And it’s anyone’s guess which one we will see next.

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Images: Getty/Universal Pictures/Dimenson Films

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

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