13 Terrifying Based-On-True-Story Movies You Can Watch On Netflix Right Now

by Danielle Burgos
Warner Bros.

With Halloween on the horizon, it's time to get seriously spooky, and ghosts just aren't going to cut it. Sure, slasher films can scare the daylights out of you, but they're just mirror reflections of real terrors, so why not go for the actual stuff? For every teen in a Jason film getting run through with a harpoon, there are 10 nightmarish stories on disappearances, unsolved murders, and unsettling mysteries on the news. Nothing is creepier than the realization that a horror film could really, actually happen, and these 13 terrifying movies based on true stories available on Netflix prove just that.

In these films, there are serial killers aplenty, from the famous mysterious Zodiac to the lesser-known female murderer Elizabeth Bathory. In a disquieting reflection of recent reality, stories like Changeling and Next Time I'll Aim For The Heart deal with abuses of police power taken to their grimmest conclusions. Even the world of academia isn't free from it's own twisted tales — The Stanford Prison Experiment puts to screen one of Psychology 101's most infamous student experiments gone wrong. So hide your news feed, curl up on the couch, and maybe keep a light on, you know, just in case, because these are the hair-raising stories ripped from the headlines you'll want to watch ASAP.



David Fincher's sprawling film following one man's 15+ year obsession with solving the Zodiac killer's identity would be creepy enough on its own. Going into it knowing these are real people whose lives were upended and whose murders remain unsolved will leave you with a lingering unease.



This 1928 period drama is a terrifyingly timely examination of abuse of power and doubt of women's words. When single mother Christine Collins' 9-year-old son goes missing, public outcry against LAPD incompetence ensues. A few months later, the police find the boy, and stage a very public reunion (conveniently distracting from corruption charges against the department). The only problem — Collins knows this isn't her son, but no one listens to her. The story focuses on her determined search for her child, but this was just one facet of the true-life child abductions that shocked the nation. The details of the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders were so terrible, the town changed its name from Wineville to Mira Loma.


'Sunset Boulevard'

A film filled with in-the-know backstage gossip about Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard is an eerie and fascinating look at the real industry of the time. The part that went to William Holden was originally intended for Montgomery Clift; Vanity Fair reports that many say the real reason he turned it down was due to his relationship with an older woman being a little too close to Norma Desmond for comfort. The film Norma watches that recapturies her faded glory really does feature a young Gloria Swanson, and was directed by Erich Von Stronheim, playing her loyal butler Max. That movie, Queen Kelly, was famously never finished and nearly ruined both their careers.


'The Nightmare'

A documentary unusual in that it eschews expert commentary for lived experience, The Nightmare features sufferers of sleep paralysis, a terrifying state between waking and sleep, reenact their episodes. The result is a genuinely creepy, absolutely real document of something completely imagined. Shadow Men aren't real, until you're trapped in your bed.


'The Rite'

Though The Rite follows the fictional resurrection of faith in a young priest through exorcising his mentor, it's based on a nonfiction book, The Rite: The Making Of A Modern Exorcist. Investigative journalist Matt Baglio was intrigued by an exorcism class held by a group associated with the Vatican, and met a young priest in training who he followed on over 20 exorcisms, Time reports. Unfortunately the movie indulges ideas about exorcism the book tries to dispel, but that's Hollywood for you.



A dark comedy about cannibalism, Ravenous takes grim inspiration from the story of Alfred Packer. In 1874. Packer and five other men went into the Colorado mountains... and only he returned. He readily admitted to resorting to cannibalism, but said the others had killed each other, and he'd merely eaten their bodies to survive. His story was called into question and he was sentenced to death, though the conviction was overturned. What actually happened on the mountain is unclear, except that Packer absolutely, definitely ate his fellow travelers.


'The Childhood Of A Leader'

This is an allegorical tale set during the creation of the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I while setting the stage for World War II. The film remains opaque on exactly which leader's childhood we're seeing, though steeped in the era's mentality, it almost doesn't matter — the psychological zeitgeist would set the tone for fascism regardless. Though, in an interview with IndieWire, the director explicitly stated, "One thing I will happily tell everybody is that the character is not Hitler." So free your mind from that concern.


'The Stanford Prison Experiment'

A fictional dramatization based on a very real experiment of the same name, The Stanford Prison Experiment takes poetic license with its source material to mine tension. That doesn't make the story less harrowing, though. Six days into separating a group of students into "guards" and "prisoners," the psychology experiment was shut down. Not by Professor Zimbardo, who set it up and allowed it to continue after witnessing abuse, but by his graduate student Christina Maslach. Zimbardo and Maslach later married, even after this, which might be the creepiest real-life ending of all.


'Next Time I'll Aim For The Heart'

In this film, police are taunted by a serial killer's letters in 1970s France. As the murderous rampage against women continues, the case seems unsolvable... but that's likely because the main officer assigned to it is the murderer. It sounds insane, but so was the officer — he's still alive, locked up in an institution after his crimes were revealed. The movie's chilling title quotes him when he was informed a victim he shot had lived.


'Victim Of Beauty'

A surprisingly well-crafted made for TV movie, the film follows a beauty queen's sister as she acts as decoy to bring a serial killer to justice. The real story is even stranger — after Dawn Smith's sister Shari was murdered, the killer called the family's house eight times, usually speaking to Dawn, UPI reports. She ultimately got him to tell the family where her sister's body was, how she was murdered, and even heard him to confess another crime.



This film is a fictionalized account of the infamous Leopold and Loeb case, where two wealthy U. of Chicago students murdered 14-year old Robert Franks to prove their superiority and get away with the "perfect crime." As in real life, the movie version has them caught after one of the geniuses leaves their distinct glasses at the crime scene.


'Immoral Tales'

This saucy quartet features four short films on sex and taboos. The third has Paloma Picasso playing Elizabeth Bathory, infamous Hungarian noblewoman serial killer, who kidnapped village girls to bathe in their virgin blood, while the fourth focuses on Lucrezia Borgia, allegedly having sex with her male relatives.


'Murderous Affairs'

This one's a little bit of a cheat — a TV show based on true crime, it inverts the setup of all the previous films by recreating the incidents as loyally as possible based on evidence. Still, it's a popcorn-crunching peek into human depravity, as seemingly ordinary people are driven by lust and love to the worst sorts of crimes.

And there you have it: an eerie peek into the world we live in, filtered through a Hollywood lens. Who knows, that frightening article your friends forward today could become next year's biggest creepshow - truth is stranger than fiction, even around the year's most haunted season.