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17 Historical Horror Movies That Prove History Can Be Terrifying

Updated October 20, 2021 723 votes 152 voters 5.8k views17 items

List RulesVote up the movies that turn ancient history into vivid nightmares.

History can be a difficult subject to bring to life. Ironically, many of the films on this list accomplish this task through the use of the undead. Horror movies are always more frightening when given cultural context audiences can relate to, and these releases set their terror during specific times and places in history.

Historical horror movies combine the period-accurate details of the past with the myths and monsters of folklore. By setting the fictional narratives alongside the realistic depiction of actual events from the past, these films are layered with referential meaning. In the same way the action elements are played up within the historical content of epics, these titles contain classic horror monsters integrated into events found in history books.

Which of these horror films best use the historical context of their plot? Vote up your favorites.

  • The Historical Setting: Pan’s Labyrinth takes place during the summer of 1944 in Spain, five years after the Spanish Civil War and during the early Francoist period. The film depicts the severe actions carried out by a Falangist captain in his efforts to hunt down the Spanish Maquis rebelling against the Francoist regime.

    The Horror: As with his earlier film, The Devil’s Backbone, Guillermo del Toro balances the real-world horrors of historical events with a horror-fantasy narrative, complete with unique creature designs. As a 10-year-old girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) witnesses the cruel acts carried out by her new military commander stepfather (Sergi López) against republican rebels, she discovers parallels in the fantasy world of an ancient stone labyrinth containing a faun-like creature. Also like The Devil’s Backbone, the child protagonist of Pan’s Labyrinth becomes caught in the fight between rebels and the current regime, and the horror-fantasy elements provide her relief from this conflict.

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  • The Historical Setting: Set in 1939 Spain during the last year of the Spanish Civil War, The Devil’s Backbone deals with the indirect impact of the conflict on the country's children. The negative effects of war are addressed by setting the film in an orphanage filled with children who have lost their parents in the struggle.

    The Horror: The presentation of horror in The Devil’s Backbone is initially subtle, at least in terms of the film’s supernatural elements. Director Guillermo del Toro presents the horrors of war far more overtly than the supernatural elements for much of the film, with an inert bomb dropped by the Nationalists sitting in the orphanage's courtyard as a constant reminder. The film follows young orphan Carlos (Fernando Tielve), who enters the orphanage after his father perishes in the conflict. While exploring the orphanage at night, Carlos comes across the spirit of a young boy haunting the grounds. The ghost story in The Devil’s Backbone resembles many films released in the US during this period, including The Sixth Sense (1999) and The Others (2001), in that there is more to fear from the living characters than the deceased ones. Although the image of the young spirit initially terrifies Carlos, he soon discovers that the real danger lies in the covert conflict between Nationalist and Republican Loyalist adults working alongside each other at the orphanage.

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  • Photo: A24

    The Historical Setting: Set in the 1630s, The Witch follows a Puritan family living on a New England farm after they are banished from their colony over a religious dispute. When a series of incidents occurs on their farm, including the disappearance of their youngest child, the family becomes convinced an evil presence in the forest is to blame.

    The Horror: In Bell, Book And Camera: A Critical History of Witches in American Film and Television, Heather Greene describes The Witch by saying, “frame by frame, this is an American witch narrative complete with accusations, suspicions, spell work, and a missing baby.” She goes on to point out that writer/director Robert Eggers integrates multiple Western witchcraft myths, including fairy-tale imagery, the Baba Yaga, fear of the wilderness, Satan as a goat, and child endangerment. Set during the period of the first witch hysteria, 62 years before the Salem witch trials, the film provides the sense that viewers are witnessing the origin story for witch folklore.

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  • The Historical Setting: The 19th century is the setting for Ravenous, which begins with a depiction of the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). Additionally, the plot revolves around cannibalism in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, recalling the infamous Donner Party. Screenwriter Ted Griffin has also cited 1870s prospector Alferd Packer as partial inspiration for the film; Packer was a Civil War veteran belonging to a group allegedly forced into cannibalism after becoming lost prospecting for gold in the Rocky Mountains.

    The Horror: After his cowardice is exposed during a battle in the Mexican-American War, Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce) is sent to a remote military outpost in the Sierra Nevada mountains as punishment. When a stranger calling himself F.W. Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle) arrives at the mountain outpost manned by outcasts and addicts, he tells a tale of his wagon train becoming lost in the mountains, forcing some to resort to cannibalism. The outpost’s Native American scout (Joseph Runningfox) warns the solders about the myth of the Wendigo, which gives those who consume human flesh superhuman strength while turning them into demons with insatiable hunger. He is predictably ignored with disastrous results.

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