How Horror Movie The Strangers Is – and Isn’t – Based on a “True Story”

The 2018 horror movie slate is already heating up. In addition to a fourth Insidious film that premiered in January and an epic Halloween reboot due out in October, we’re also getting a sequel to 2008’s The Strangers. In this next installment, The Strangers: Prey at Night, another evil trio torments a family in a trailer park. As far as we can tell, it’s not based on a true story. Which, actually, brings us back to one of the most contentious facts about the original film. Did you think The Strangers actually happened in real life? After all, the original teaser trailer posited that it was “inspired by true events.” Well, we’ve got some news for you.

In 2008, The Strangers, one of the most unsettling movies ever, hit theaters. It wasn’t so much that the film starring Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman boasted a unique concept; it’s your typical, bloody home invasion film. And though it’s a decent horror film, it’s not the execution that makes it so disturbing either. The real reason The Strangers freaks so many people out – my brother, a die-hard horror fan like me, calls it the scariest horror movie ever – is because of the way it was marketed. In addition to the whole “true events” aspect, the full-length trailer revealed the eerie phrase mumbled by one of the killers at the end of the film. When Tyler’s character asks the killers why they’ve spent 90 minutes terrorizing and brutalizing her and her partner, one of them answers, “Because you were home.”

These kinds of “true story” movies have a long history of stretching the truth, and The Strangers may be guilty of one of the biggest stretches ever.

That quote perfectly exploits a fear in the average person. We watch these three masked villains torture a young couple for no other reason except that they happen to be home. The jump in logic is easy: if a random group of murderers can pick a random house and kill a random couple because they’re randomly home . . . this could feasibly happen to anyone, anywhere. And since it’s “inspired by true events,” this whole “it could happen to me” scenario is that much more likely and that much scarier. Here’s the thing, though: these kinds of “true story” movies have a long history of stretching the truth, and The Strangers may be guilty of one of the biggest stretches ever.

According to the film’s production notes, The Strangers was based on an experience the director, Bryan Bertino, had when he was young. “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,” Bertino recounted. “At the door were some people asking for somebody that didn’t live there. We later found out that these people were knocking on doors in the area and, if no one was home, breaking into the houses.” So, really, the only thing the story shared with reality was a group of strangers knocking on a door to a random house and making a decision based on whether or not the owners were home.

In situations like this, the language of the statement is most important. This wasn’t “based on a true story;” it was “inspired by true events.” Bertino experienced something, and it inspired his fictional movie. Which, not to be rude, is the creative process for any kind of storyteller, filmmaker, novelist, or otherwise. It’s like that old, unattributed quote: “Write what you know.” The Strangers: Prey at Night is being touted as “based on true events,” but as far as I can tell, it still only draws from what inspired The Strangers. It might still be good, but I can’t help but think that will take away some of the impact.