Horror stories are like porn—no matter how grotesque, terrifying or tasteless, you can’t take your eyes away from the screen or page. Psychologists attribute this fascination to repressed thoughts and feelings that the ego needs to release, while adrenaline junkies like the thrill of the ride—from the initial terror we feel at seeing zombified evil, to the almost evangelical relief that sweeps over us when the story comes to an end.
While the likes of supernatural fiction can terrify you at the prospect of some disembodied creature floating your way a la Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, there’s something more paranoia-inducing about a tale that’s based on true events. After all, if it happened to someone else, it may happen to you.
We’ve already left out the classic, easy-to-find choices like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, and Jay Anson’s The Amityville Horror. The following stories are based on real incidents that will make you want to lock the doors, keep the lights on, and stay awake.
The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
Set in 1893 Chicago, this is the story of one of America’s first serial killers H.H. Holmes, who built his infamous ‘Murder Castle,’ a renovated hotel fitted with secret passages, staircases that led to nowhere, and windowless rooms. These made it easy for Holmes to chase down his victims and murder them via dissection or gas chamber, after which their skeletons would then be sold to science.
See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
This is a retelling of Lizzie Borden’s bloody rise to infamy in 1892, after she massacred her father and stepmother with an ax. The story is told from four different perspectives, including Lizzie’s, giving you a deeper look into toxic family dynamics.
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
It’s 1890, and Agnes Magnusdottir spends her last days after having been accused of murder. But this somber, introspective story only reflects the real-life story of Agnes, a farmhand who sought the help of a friend to butcher two men with an axe. She and her accomplice were eventually caught, tried, and executed by beheading.
The Demonologist: The Extraordinary Career of Ed and Lorraine Warren by Gerald Brittle
Paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren are the prominent husband-and-wife team behind terrifying incidents like the Amityville possession, Annabel the doll, and the Perron family haunting, which inspired the movie series The Conjuring. This book talks about most of the couple’s cases, which happened during the 20th century layered with centuries of horrific occult-based history behind them.
The Bell Witch: An American Haunting by Brent Monahan
This story is told from an eyewitness perspective of the Bell Witch possession, a malicious poltergeist that viciously attacked the Bell family for three years, ending in the death of John Bell, Sr. Hailing from Tennessee, this story combines fiction, folklore, and documented inexplicable events from 1817-1821.