Not all scary movies are pure fiction. Many popular horror films are based on crimes that actually happened. True crime is a rising subgenre among the public, allowing readers and viewers to experience real-life crimes through the lens of fiction. Often, these narratives incorporate biographical details to help illustrate the psychological profile of prolific killers. Such films often include the process of investigators and prosecutors in solving the murders, showing viewers the behind-the-scenes of law enforcement. Although true crime depictions can’t always explain why a crime occurred, filmmakers strive to tell the victims’ stories. Writers - inspired by real events - may use a poetic license to tell a bigger story, even though sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. This list contains horror movies based on real-life crimes, of which some cases still remain unsolved.
In 1981, between the evening of April 11 and into the morning of April 12, a triple murder occurred in Cabin 28 at the Keddie Resort in California. Multiple unidentified assailants stabbed, bludgeoned, and strangled Sue Sharp, a 36-year-old mother of five, her 15-year-old son John, and his 17-year-old friend Dana Wingate.
Sharp's 14-year-old daughter Sheila discovered the bodies, finding her mother and brother bound with electrical wire and medical tape. They had been repeatedly stabbed with knives and beaten with multiple hammers. Examiners report only Dana died from strangulation. In the next room of the cabin, investigators found Sharp's two youngest sons, 5 and 10, and their friend unharmed. The three boys were still asleep. Plumas County police determined Sharp’s daughter Tina, 12, was missing. In 1984, on the anniversary of the murders, authorities uncovered Tina’s remains approximately 50 miles away.
The murders remain unsolved, and many accused the police of covering up the crime. The new sheriff, Greg Hagwood, reopened the case in 2013. As of 2018, investigators are examining new DNA evidence from the scene. The murders inspired the 2008 film The Strangers.
Actors: Liv Tyler, Scott Speedman
Directed by: Bryan Bertino
On November 13, 1974, Ronald “Butch” Defeo Jr. stalked the halls of his own home in a Long Island suburb. Armed with a .35 Marlin rifle, he shot both of his parents, his two brothers, and his two sisters. Reportedly, Defeo went to work following the murders. Defeo confessed, yet investigators speculate DeFeo didn't act alone.
Although he later claimed demons “possessed” him, Defeo initially told police the house spoke to him and instructed him to kill his family. The courts convicted him of murder and sentenced him to six consecutive life sentences in a New York prison.
In 1975, George and Kathy Lutz moved into the Amityville home and reported strange paranormal behavior. This was the basis for Jay Anson's 1977 book The Amityville Horror, which the Lutzs hired him to write. The Lutzs also agreed to the 1979 movie based on the book - The Amityville Horror. Soon, tales of the Amityville home became a pop culture phenomenon. There have been countless documentaries, TV shows, books, and movies written about both families and the mystery surrounding the house.
Actors: James Brolin, Margot Kidder, Rod Steiger, Murray Hamilton, Helen Shaver, + more
Directed by: Stuart Rosenberg
The Girl Next Door is a 2007 film adaptation of the 1989 true crime book of the same title. Both are based on the true story of the torture and murder of a 16-year-old girl in Indianapolis, IN. Media and locals consider Sylvia Likens’s death as “the most terrible crime ever committed” in the state.
In 1965, the migrant Likens parents left Sylvia and her sister, Jenny, in the care of Gertrude Baniszewski. Baniszewski, along with her children and some neighborhood boys, reportedly tied Sylvia up, scalded her with boiling water, put out cigarettes on her, and on at least two occasions, sexually brutalized her with objects like soda bottles.
Baniszewski told Sylvia’s parents the teen had run away, so police officers came to investigate the alleged runaway. Once in the safety of police custody, Jenny revealed the abuse at the boarding home. On October 26, 1965, police found Sylvia’s body. The medical examiners determined the official cause of death as brain swelling, brain hemorrhaging, and shock from the prolonged damage done to her body. The autopsy revealed approximately 150 wounds to the teen’s body. Jenny later testified against her sister’s killers.
The courts sentenced Baniszewski to life in prison and released her on parole in 1985, despite public outcry. She died of lung cancer in 1990. Authorities charged three of Baniszewski’s four children in the torture and murder of Sylvia. The eldest, 17, served seven years, while the 12-year-old served two. Two of the neighborhood boys also served two years for torture and manslaughter.
Actors: Catherine Mary Stewart, William Atherton, Mark Margolis, Jack Ketchum, Michael Zegen, + more
Directed by: Gregory Wilson
In January 1947, a Los Angeles pedestrian discovered a mutilated body in the Leimert Park neighborhood. The LAPD, in conjunction with the FBI, swiftly identified the victim as 22-year-old Elizabeth Short. An unknown assailant sliced Short’s face from ear to ear, then severed the body at the waist with “medical precision.” Medical examiners reported Short died of hemorrhaging from the lacerations.
The unsolved murder of the aspiring actress gained media attention. Short’s case is referred to as “The Black Dahlia,” and the 2006 film of the same name is based on her murder and the alleged conspiracies surrounding her death.
Most of the books and movies following Short's death focus on who may be responsible for her murder. In 2017, author Piu Eatwell released Black Dahlia, Red Rose: The Crime, Corruption, and Cover-Up of America’s Greatest Unsolved Murder, which maintains initial suspect Leslie Dillon killed Short in a conspiracy involving corrupt LAPD officers and notorious LA gang members.
Actors: Scarlett Johansson, Rose McGowan, Hilary Swank, Josh Hartnett, k.d. lang, + more
Directed by: Brian De Palma