There is something about seeing that “Based on True Events” tag on a horror movie that adds a new little layer of sinister to it. When you watch a lot of horror movies, the only way that you survive the ones that really get to you is by being able to say, “But it’s okay because it isn’t real.” Much like when you wake up from a nightmare, you can tell yourself that it was just a dream. You can put that safe distance between yourself and what you’ve just experienced. As soon as that rational thought disappears, you’re pretty much screwed. The idea that something is real adds a whole new dimension to what scares us; after all, if it happened to someone else, what’s to stop it from happening to you?
For this list, I opted not to include any human-on-human horror, so no true crime stories on this one. Perhaps a list for another Friday….. Watching horror about home invasion and serial killers already has a bit of this feeling built in. When the story centers around what human beings can do to each other, there is a sense of dread that’s a little different than a story about spirits. There is a certain air of violation that people pick up on when watching human horror. Because we don’t have the same amount of personal experience (most of us, anyway) with ghosts, demons, werewolves and other things that go bump in the night, we can easily distance ourselves. But the promise that parts of what is on the screen have happened to a fellow human being brings us back to that feeling of having our world implode. And so, in the spirit of emotional scars, here are my top 5 paranormal movies based on true events.
5. The Exorcism of Emily Rose
This one featured what I thought was an awesome performance by Dexter‘s Jennifer Carpenter. A story about a college girl who allegedly becomes possessed by a demon who sucks the life out of her over the course of a year. The interesting thing about this one is that it is half court room drama, half demon possession movie; the priest performing the exorcisms was put on trial for homicide after the girl died from malnutrition.
4. An American Haunting
Based on the story of the Bell Witch haunting, this one is a surprisingly little seen film starring Donald Sutherland and Sissy Spacek as the parents of a girl haunted by a spirit in 1800 in Tennessee. This one cleverly combines both the haunting version and the version that people believe accounts for the claims, making it a cool blend of psychological horror and ghost story.
3. The Conjuring / The Conjuring 2
Obviously, you had to know that these would land on here. Based on cases investigated by Ed and Lorraine Warren, these have some very cool scenes and some genuine scares (I still remember that first trailer of The Conjuring with the hide and seek clapping game). Whether you believe the real-life Warrens or not, Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson totally kill it as this ghostbusting couple.
2. The Entity
I saw this one in high school and it definitely left an impression on me. This movie is a supremely disturbing story about a woman who claims that she was repeatedly sexually assaulted by an invisible being. Part of what makes this movie disturbing is that it gives a clear picture of a woman who has clearly had SOMETHING happen to her, and what that must feel like to have those claims dismissed by those around you like it was no big deal.
1. The Amityville Horror
The paranormal true story that set the wheels in motion on making “Based on a True Story” a thing. Everyone knows the story, I hope. In The Conjuring 2, there are the Warrens in the Amityville house, with a cursory explanation as to what happened there; knowledge of this movie and story are so engrained into popular culture that they really didn’t need to. While Amityville has become a franchise, the original remains the best. For extra insight into this one, check out the book of the same name by Jay Anson, which is surrounded to this day by controversy and claims of fabrication and exaggeration. I also recently watched a documentary called My Amityville Horror about one of the Lutz children today. Whether you believe that the house is haunted or that it was all made up, it is clear that what happened there and the subsequent media frenzy had a very sad, profound impact on his life today.