Horror flicks are forever hits—they serve up the right blend of thrill and safety. After all, the ghastly stuff in movies can’t actually harm us—it’s not like films are reality, right? Even when a movie says it’s “based on a true story,” it’s mostly just to hook the viewers. But once in a blue moon, horror films seem eerily close to the truth. Dare to watch these movies again, and you might find yourself peeking over your shoulder, searching for the real spooks.
Alfred Packer in Ravenous (1999)
Meet Alfred Packer, or “Alferd” as he was mistakenly inked on a tattoo, arguably the most notorious man-eater in U.S. history. During a gold mine expedition in Colorado in 1874, Packer and five other gold diggers chose to brave the winter instead of waiting for spring. This choice proved deadly for everyone—except Packer.
Nobody really knows what happened when the men found themselves stuck in the snowy Rockies. According to Packer, Bell, one of his travel mates, went berserk, killing the others before attacking him. Packer says he killed Bell in self-defense. Others believe Packer murdered them all, pinning the blame on Bell. We may never know the truth.
What we do know is that Packer survived the winter and ended up at the Los Pinos Indian Agency in Colorado. When strips of human flesh were discovered nearby, Packer quickly became a prime suspect. He admitted during questioning, “I tossed the remaining strips I had, but I confess, it was with a heavy heart. I had developed a liking for human flesh, particularly the chest area.”
The black comedy horror Ravenous, directed by Antonia Bird, drew inspiration from this case. Colonel Ives, a character in the movie, is loosely based on Packer.
Joe Ball in Eaten Alive (1977)
In the 1930s, Joe Ball, a former bootlegger turned ladies’ man, ran the Sociable Inn in the quiet town of Elmendorf, Texas. To keep his guests entertained, Ball built a marshy pond filled with alligators behind his hotel. He would charge guests to see him feed live kittens and dogs to the gators. In hindsight, that should have been a red flag. The inn also had an unusually high employee turnover rate, with waitresses disappearing left and right.
Between 1934 and 1938, local women working for Ball, like Minnie Gotthardt, Dolores Goodwin, Hazel Brown, and Julia Turner, all vanished mysteriously. When the police were tipped off about a foul-smelling barrel behind Ball’s sister’s barn, they paid him a visit. Ball reacted by shooting himself in the heart with a gun from his cash register. Hotel handyman Clifton Wheeler later led the police to the remains of Hazel Brown, confessing that he’d helped Ball bury her. Rumors spread that Ball fed parts of the bodies to his alligators, though this was never confirmed or denied.
Despite the lack of physical proof, Ball’s tale quickly became infamous. Tobe Hooper’s character, Judd, in the film Eaten Alive, was inspired by Ball. The movie tells the story of a hotel owner who disposes of his love interests by feeding them to his pet alligator.
The Finniss River Attack in Black Water (2007)
So, you’re terrified of alligators now thanks to Joe Ball’s story. But what about crocodiles? Sorry, but it doesn’t get better.
On December 21, 2003, Ashley McGough, Shaun Blowers, and Brett Mann decided to rinse off
in Australia’s Finniss River while out riding ATVs. Brett got swept away by the current and Ashley and Shaun swam after him. Once they reached Brett, Ashley spotted a crocodile. Ashley and Shaun climbed a nearby tree for safety, but Brett was seized by the crocodile and pulled under.
The crocodile resurfaced shortly after with Brett’s body in its mouth, waving it around before disappearing again. It came back after five minutes and lingered at the base of the tree, effectively trapping Ashley and Shaun. They stayed there for 22 hours until a rescue chopper arrived. Brett Mann’s body was never recovered.
Black Water, a film by David Nerlich and Andrew Traucki, is loosely based on this event. The film follows three friends who are trapped in a tree after their boat is attacked by a crocodile during a river tour in Northern Australia.
Travis Walton in Fire In The Sky (1993)
Ever witnessed something inexplicable? Travis Walton claims he was abducted by aliens on November 5, 1975. Travis and his logging crew saw a UFO while driving home from work in Arizona’s Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. He claims that while getting a closer look at the UFO, he was zapped unconscious by a bluish-green electrical light. His crew members sped off, and when they returned, Travis and the UFO were gone.
Travis claims that he escaped from humanoid aliens and was dropped back on Earth five days later. His tale drew a lot of attention, and he took at least 12 polygraph tests about his alleged alien encounter. He failed the first test right after his return but passed the rest. His crew members also passed similar tests. Fire In The Sky is a film based on Travis’s memoir about his experiences, but with the usual Hollywood twists added in.
Adolfo Constanzo Borderland (2006)
Adolfo Constanzo, notorious for his dark arts, twisted an Afro-Caribbean faith called Palo Mayombe to include something unthinkable – human sacrifice.
In his dual role as a cult leader and drug kingpin, he masterminded the eerie ritualistic killing of 23 people in Matamoros, Mexico, from 1988 to 1989. Constanzo harvested the victims’ organs for his nganga, a type of iron cauldron, which he used to cast spells to shield his gang and keep their business thriving. His lady love and disciple, Sara Aldrete Villareal, admitted that his charismatic personality had her under its spell. The gang’s signature move? Crafting necklaces from their victims’ spines. Constanzo took his own life when he was cornered following the cult’s murder of an American student, Mark Kilroy.
The 2007 flick, Borderland, draws inspiration loosely from Constanzo’s gruesome acts, portraying the horrifying ordeal of three Texas college students who fall into the hands of a Mexican cult.
Father Gary Thomas The Rite (2011)
Exorcism is experiencing a surge in demand in America’s Catholic Church. A report by Washington’s Pew Research Center claims that a whopping 40 percent of Americans completely believe in the active presence of angels and demons in our world. Priests like Father Gary Thomas are stepping up to address these needs.
Thomas became an authorized exorcist after an apprenticeship at the Vatican’s Athenaeum Pontificium Regina Apostolorum in Rome under Rome’s chief exorcist, Father Carmine De Filippis. His encounters during exorcisms include witnessing rigid head movements, seizure-like episodes, and snake-like body contortions. His training is the foundation of the non-fiction book The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist by Matt Baglio, which led to Mikael Hafstrom’s film adaptation.
The movie features the journey of Father Michael Kovak (modeled after Thomas), a seminarian learning the art of exorcism from Lucas Trevant (inspired by Father Carmine). The film, touted by Thomas as the most realistic exorcism movie till date, had him as a consultant. He managed to assuage the fears of several actors who thought their roles could potentially “open doorways to the demonic.”
Wade Davis – The Serpent And The Rainbow
Zombie movies owe their popularity to films like World War Z. But who could have guessed that one of the first zombie films was reportedly based on a true event?
American anthropologist Wade Davis ventured to Haiti, drawn by a fascinating tale. In 1962, a local named Clairvius Narcisse was reported dead and was buried, only to return home mysteriously in 1980. Narcisse claimed to have been put in a death-like slumber using a “zombie powder” by a voodoo sorcerer, who later revived him to work on his plantation. When the sorcerer and plantation owner died, Narcisse walked back home.
Spurred by curiosity, Davis delved deeper into the story, discovering the powder was a blend of toxins derived from certain puffer fish and frogs. After coming out of the induced sleep, victims were given a paste made from datura seeds, causing a state of forgetfulness and susceptibility that mirrored zombification. Davis’s experiences in Haiti inspired his book The Serpent and the Rainbow, later made into a film by renowned horror director Wes Craven.
The Texas Slave Ranch Hoboken Hollow (2006)
In the early 80s, Walter Wesley Ellebracht operated a lucrative ranch on the outskirts of San Antonio, Texas. Along with his son
Walter Jr., and foreman Carlton Robert Caldwell, they also carved wooden keychains for sale. The dark side to this? They tricked drifters and hitchhikers into servitude to run their ranch and carve keychains.
As many as 75 unsuspecting wanderers were entrapped in this isolated ranch over four years, where misbehavior was met with cattle prods. One unfortunate worker, Anthony Bates, was subjected to prolonged torture after a chainsaw accident left him unable to work. Tragically, Bates succumbed to the torture in February 1984, his body callously burnt by Caldwell.
Following an anonymous tip-off, the infamous “Texas Slave Ranch” was raided by the police in March 1983. The ghastly tale was later captured in the indie horror flick Hoboken Hollow in 2006.
Chante Mallard And Gregory Biggs Stuck (2007)
This hit-and-run incident takes bizarre to a new level.
Chante Mallard, a nurse’s aide, was returning from a night of partying and substance abuse in Fort Worth, Texas, in the early hours of October 25, 2001. That fateful decision altered her life and terminated another’s.
Mallard ran into Gregory Biggs, a homeless local, who got lodged in her car’s windshield. Despite trying to remove him, Mallard drove back home with Biggs still stuck in the windshield.
Throughout the night, she checked on Biggs, apologizing but never trying to get him help or alert authorities. Eventually, Biggs bled to death. His body was dumped in a park by Chante’s ex-boyfriend and his cousin. Chante’s crime was eventually discovered, leading to her conviction and a 50-year prison sentence.
The chilling incident inspired the movies Stuck and Hit And Run.
John Justin Bunting Snowtown (2011)
John Justin Bunting amassed followers in the impoverished suburb of Salisbury North in Adelaide, Australia. Along with Robert Joe Wagner, Mark Haydon, and James Vlassakis, Bunting tortured and killed at least 11 residents. They stashed eight bodies in barrels hidden in an old bank vault in nearby Snowtown, leading to the moniker “the Bodies-in-Barrels Murders.” Bunting rationalized these horrific deeds as purges of pedophiles, homosexuals, “weak” individuals, and anyone he didn’t like.
The group’s first victim was Ray Davies, a mentally disabled man whom Bunting accused of pedophilia. Davies suffered torture before his death. The atrocities escalated as the body count rose.
The crime spree ended when the police intervened following the murder of Mark Haydon’s wife, Elizabeth. Even under surveillance, Bunting’s gang committed their final murder inside the infamous vault. After striking a plea bargain, Vlassakis testified against his fellow criminals.
The 2011 film Snowtown, later renamed The Snowtown Murders, gives a perspective of the killings from Vlassakis’s viewpoint.