FACT CHECK: Based on a True Story, “The Strangers”

Exploring the reality behind the “Real Events”.


There’s a phrase that gets thrown around a lot regarding films, especially horror movies: “Based on True Events”. The very idea that onscreen terror has “real life” roots is compelling and unnerving. If what we’re seeing is based on truth and not simply some fantasy—then the horror could actually happen to us!

Unfortunately, overuse of the “Based on True Events” claim has caused both malaise and backlash among horror fans when it turns out, more often than not, that any basis in reality is tenuous at best. Sure, we all understand that it’s a marketing ploy designed to fill theater seats (sell DVD’s, VOD, etc.), but does it amount to false advertising? Who validates claims of “truth” and should filmmakers be held accountable for misleading audiences?

To address these issues, I will be publishing a series of articles examining the truth behind horror movies that claim to be based on real events. If you are curious about a specific film, drop me a line; I’ll do my best to separate truth from fiction in a future “Fact Check”!

In this article, I’ll be delving into the “truth” behind the hit home invasion horror, The Strangers.


The Strangers (2008)

Produced on a budget of $9 million, The Strangers grossed $82 million worldwide, making it an undeniable smash-hit. But how much of the film’s success can we attribute to claims that it’s “Based on True Events”? And more importantly, is this an accurate claim?

Online theories abound; one of the most compelling conjectures about The Strangers is that the film is based on the 1981 Keddie Cabin Murders in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains: Sue Sharp and three of her children were found dead on the morning of April 11th. They had all be bludgeoned with a claw hammer and stabbed with a steak knife; the bodies were bound with medical tape and electrical cords.


While exposing hypothesizes is entertaining, any search for truth should begin with the filmmakers, specifically a movie’s writer and director; in the case of The Strangers, one man wore both hats: Bryan Bertino.   As to the factual basis of his film, Bertino claims to have been inspired by events he experienced growing up in Crowley, Texas.


Bertino: As a kid, I lived in a house on a street in the middle of nowhere. One night, while our parents were out, somebody knocked on the front door and my little sister answered it. At the door were some people asking for somebody who didn’t live there. We later found out that these people were knocking on doors on the area and, if no one was home, breaking into the houses

While such an occurrence certainly sounds creepy (terrifying if you’re a child) I personally don’t feel that a tenuous connection to a string of robberies is enough to claim that The Strangers is “Based on True Events”. These thieves didn’t wear masks, and no one was murdered as the crimes were being perpetrated.

When pressed, Bertino admits that his primary inspiration is the true-crime book Helter Skelter (written by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry) which chronicles the rise and fall of the infamous Manson Family, and specifically, the Tate Murders.


Late on the evening of August 8, 1969, actress Sharon Tate (and the time married to director Roman Polanski) and three of her friends were murdered in her posh mansion in the Hollywood Hills. The brutality of the crimes was only matched by their senselessness, when it was eventually discovered that the violence was almost completely random; the intruders were all… strangers.

Under the direction of “Family” patriarch Charles Manson, four young adults committed atrocities against a group of people they had never met. In addition to their youth, investigators were shocked by the fact that the perpetrators, Susan Atkins, Charles “Tex” Watson, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Von Houten, didn’t look like your stereotypical psychopaths; the women especially were nearly indistinguishable form hundreds of flower-power ragamuffins living in Los Angeles at the time—all of whom were considered completely harmless. Some historians even believe that the Tate Murders (and the LaBianca Murders which were committed the very next evening) essentially brought the hippy movement to an end.

Patricia Krenwinkel, Susan Atkins, and Leslie Von Houten

Patricia Krenwinkel, Susan Atkins, and Leslie Von Houten

While it’s easy to accept that Bertino was inspired by the Tate Murders when he created The Strangers, is it accurate to say that the film is “Based on True Events?” Bertino did succeed in creating villains that seemed eerily dethatched from the violence they’re perpetrating, perhaps attesting to the fact that they’re drugged and/or brainwashed. And I did get the feeling that the intruders in The Strangers were part of a hippy-cult, even though a backstory is never provided. When Kristen McKay (played by Liv Tyler) asks her attackers what she did to deserve their violence, the response is bone-chilling: “Because you were home”. While no one survived the murders at the Tate mansion, it’s easy to imagine someone asking the same question, and getting a similarly devastating response; because at the end of the day, there really wasn’t any reason (at least, not a reason any sane person would swallow).

Charles "Tex" Watson

Charles “Tex” Watson

Ultimately, though, the differences between the Tate Murders and the movie The Strangers are much more numerous than the similarities; for example: The Tate Murders had 5 victims and 4 perpetrators, whereas The Strangers has 3 victims and 3 perpetrators, Manson Family members never wore masks, and the Tate Murders were actually solved. Therefore, it is my opinion that The Strangers may have been inspired by actual events, the story itself is complete fiction (or, at best, conjecture). Only the perpetrators know exactly what happened at the Tate Mansion on August 8, 1969—and they, or course, cannot be trusted.

Conclusion: While the plot of The Strangers contains similarities to several documented murders (most notably the Tate Murders), claiming the film is “based on true events” (as opposed to merely “inspired by true events”) is misleading and, ultimately: False.

Last January, Rouge Pictures announced to Variety that a sequel to The Strangers (which faltered in pre-production in 2011) was back on track. Will we discover a Manson-esque cult-leader pulling the strings? Only time will tell.


What’s your opinion about the claim that The Strangers is based on true events? Sound off in the comments section!

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10 Comments on this post.

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  • Matthew Myers
    20 February 2015 at 7:31 pm - Reply

    The term is used loosely in a lot of films. A lot of writers and directors are inspired by an event but create something else out of it. Many people assume that the terms based on a true story and inspired by true events are the same thing, when in fact they are very different.

    • Josh Millican
      20 February 2015 at 7:47 pm - Reply

      Very true. Then again, isn’t 99% of fiction “inspired” by some kind of true event? Every home invasion movie since 1969 can claim to be “inspired” by the Manson murders because it’s ingrained in our national psyche.

    29 July 2016 at 9:22 am - Reply

    […] by true events.” What it doesn’t tell you is that those “true events” are a childhood memory of director Bryan Bertino’s life in rural Texas where a stranger knocked on his door and his […]

  • Debunking 10 ‘True Story’ Movies – MandatoryAll Breaking News | All Breaking News
    7 August 2016 at 8:43 am - Reply

    […] to see are "inspired by true events." What it doesn't tell you is that those "true events" are a childhood memory of director Bryan Bertino's life in rural Texas where a stranger knocked on his door and his sister […]

  • Debunking 10 ‘True Story’ Movies | International Reaction
    7 August 2016 at 8:01 pm - Reply

    […] by loyal events.” What it doesn’t tell we is that those “true events” are a childhood memory of executive Bryan Bertino’s life in farming Texas where a foreigner knocked on his doorway […]

  • Drew
    9 November 2016 at 6:13 pm - Reply

    Does anyone edit your posts before you hit submit? This post, while entertaining, is rife with misspellings and mistaken grammar. I like your writings but since I am a self-confessed grammar nazi (to my eternal detriment), the mistakes are distracting.

  • Barbara
    3 March 2017 at 9:18 pm - Reply

    I think they lump a bunch of true events together. Texas chainsaw was loosely based on ed gein. It also said the same claim. The strangers was the 1st movie to creep me out in a long while. Not so much the “masked intruders” but the premise of someone just randomly banging on your door in the middle of the night. Imagine being all comfy watch in tv or whatever & all of a sudden KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK! Well it got me anyway.

    • Julius Bates
      10 April 2017 at 11:36 am - Reply

      Exactly how I felt. Only movie to put genuine fear in me! That’s something that can really happen!!!

  • morris campbell
    19 November 2017 at 4:02 am - Reply

    people can research the film to see how much if anything is true dont they know that still the events in the film could happen to anyone looking forward to the sequel in march 2018

  • The 14 Best Horror Movies Based On A True Story
    21 May 2019 at 3:05 pm - Reply

    […] what famous murder cases could have inspired this gorefest starring Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman, director Bryan Bertino claims the inspiration was a group of mysterious strangers who knocked on the door of his childhood home […]