Real-Life Inspiration Behind the World’s Scariest Stories

Real-Life Inspiration Behind the World’s Scariest Stories


When you ask horror writers where they get their ideas, be prepared for a very disturbing answer. Great novelists and filmmakers are often inspired by real-world killers, hauntings, and possessions. Although they might not be labeled “based on a true story,” these are the real tales behind some of the world’s greatest horror.

A Very Haunted Hotel

Stephen King was famously inspired to write The Shining by his overnight stay at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado. King and his wife, Tabitha, stayed at the hotel overnight at the very end of the season. They had the place to themselves, and the eerily empty hotel gave King a vision for the Overlook Hotel. You can see the influence very clearly in the Art Deco lounge, pictured above.

We covered the Stanley Hotel’s stories of hauntings in depth here.

A Notorious Serial Killer

This murderer inspired not one but two major horror franchises. In 1957, police suspected that Ed Gein might have been involved with the disappearance of Bernice Worden. What they didn’t expect was to find Worden’s body as well as a suit made of human flesh. Gein was only tried for two murders, but he confessed to digging up bodies of women who reminded him of his mother, too.

Gein’s crimes inspired Robert Bloch to write Psycho in 1959, a bestseller that Hitchcock turned into a classic film. Later, Thomas Harris created the character of Jame Gumb, AKA Buffalo Bill, using elements from the same true crime tale.

David Fincher’s fascination with serial killers didn’t end with Silence of the Lambs. His Netflix series Mindhunter draws on the work of real-world FBI agent John Douglas, who profiled killers such as Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, and Edmund Kemper.

A Killer Shark

I knew it wasn’t safe to go into the water! Peter Benchley based his bestselling novel Jaws on a true account of a shark attack. The inspiration came from the summer of 1916, when multiple people were killed by a giant shark off the coast of New Jersey. The shark was eventually caught, weighing in at 300 pounds–15 of which was undigested human flesh.

In addition, Quint’s famous monologue about his experience on the USS Indianapolis is also based on a true story. The camera stays fixed on Robert Shaw’s face during most of the scene, just as his audience can’t look away. What’s really fascinating is that, although the story of the doomed WWII sailors is absolutely true, it wasn’t widely known until Jaws premiered in 1975.

A Demonic Possession

Did you know that The Exorcist is inspired by a true story? William Peter Blatty studied the story of Roland Doe, who was allegedly possessed by a demon after using a Ouija board to communicate with his late aunt.

Doe–not his real name, obviously–began to change after his experience with the Ouija board. Not only did his personality become hostile and erratic, but there were also whispers of paranormal phenomena at his home. Eventually, the Catholic Church sent Father Raymond Bishop to exorcise the spirit. Blatty based his novel on Bishop’s diary, which chronicled the more-than 30 exorcism rites performed.