17 Historical Horror Movies That Prove History Can Be Terrifying

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Vote up the movies that turn ancient history into vivid nightmares.

History can be a difficult subject to bring to life. Ironically, many of the films on this list accomplish this task through the use of the undead. Horror movies are always more frightening when given cultural context audiences can relate to, and these releases set their terror during specific times and places in history.

Historical horror movies combine the period-accurate details of the past with the myths and monsters of folklore. By setting the fictional narratives alongside the realistic depiction of actual events from the past, these films are layered with referential meaning. In the same way the action elements are played up within the historical content of epics, these titles contain classic horror monsters integrated into events found in history books.

  • 1
    1,365 VOTES

    Bone Tomahawk

    The Historical Setting: Bone Tomahawk begins as a typical Western, taking place in the 1890s in the harsh elements of the frontier near what is now the border of Texas and New Mexico. Among the dangers found in the elements are threats brought by the Native Americans living near newly formed towns. When a tribe takes a prisoner from one of these towns, the sheriff (Kurt Russell) puts together a posse to bring him back.

    The Horror: While acknowledging the connections to classic Westerns like The Searchers, Peter Bradshaw argues that Bone Tomahawk is “more scary movie than horse opera.” As they track down the Native Americans responsible, the posse discovers they belong to a tribe of inbred cannibals named "Troglodytes." Not only are their cultural practices horrific, but the tribe also appears to have gained superhuman strength from their consumption of human flesh. What begins as a typical Western quickly evolves into horror once the "Troglodytes" gain the upper hand over the posse, leading to a notoriously brutal scene of violence popularly known as the "wishbone" sequence.

    • Actors: Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Richard Jenkins, Matthew Fox, Lili Simmons
    • Released: 2015
    • Directed by: S. Craig Zahler
    1,365 votes
  • 2
    1,022 VOTES

    The Historical Setting: The 19th century is the setting for Ravenous, which begins with a depiction of the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). Additionally, the plot revolves around cannibalism in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, recalling the infamous Donner Party. Screenwriter Ted Griffin has also cited 1870s prospector Alferd Packer as partial inspiration for the film; Packer was a Civil War veteran belonging to a group allegedly forced into cannibalism after becoming lost prospecting for gold in the Rocky Mountains.

    The Horror: After his cowardice is exposed during a battle in the Mexican-American War, Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce) is sent to a remote military outpost in the Sierra Nevada mountains as punishment. When a stranger calling himself F.W. Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle) arrives at the mountain outpost manned by outcasts and addicts, he tells a tale of his wagon train becoming lost in the mountains, forcing some to resort to cannibalism. The outpost’s Native American scout (Joseph Runningfox) warns the solders about the myth of the Wendigo, which gives those who consume human flesh superhuman strength while turning them into demons with insatiable hunger. He is predictably ignored with disastrous results.

    • Actors: Guy Pearce, Robert Carlyle, Jeremy Davies, Jeffrey Jones, John Spencer
    • Released: 1999
    • Directed by: Antonia Bird
    1,022 votes
  • 3
    1,335 VOTES

    The Historical Setting: Pan’s Labyrinth takes place during the summer of 1944 in Spain, five years after the Spanish Civil War and during the early Francoist period. The film depicts the severe actions carried out by a Falangist captain in his efforts to hunt down the Spanish Maquis rebelling against the Francoist regime.

    The Horror: As with his earlier film, The Devil’s Backbone, Guillermo del Toro balances the real-world horrors of historical events with a horror-fantasy narrative, complete with unique creature designs. As a 10-year-old girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) witnesses the cruel acts carried out by her new military commander stepfather (Sergi López) against republican rebels, she discovers parallels in the fantasy world of an ancient stone labyrinth containing a faun-like creature. Also like The Devil’s Backbone, the child protagonist of Pan’s Labyrinth becomes caught in the fight between rebels and the current regime, and the horror-fantasy elements provide her relief from this conflict.

    In the hauntingly beautiful Pan's Labyrinth, a young girl, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), steps into an eerie yet enchanting world of mythical creatures and perplexing tasks. A backdrop of post-Civil War Spain underpins her journey, as she navigates through Guillermo del Toro's fairytale-like universe to escape her grim reality with her sickly mother (Ariadna Gil) and brutal stepfather (Sergi López). The film, a masterful blend of fantasy and historical drama, won three Oscars and is widely lauded for its captivating visuals and compelling narrative.
    • Actors: Sergi López, Maribel Verdú, Ivana Baquero, Álex Angulo, Doug Jones
    • Released: 2006
    • Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
    1,335 votes
  • 4
    506 VOTES

    The Historical Setting: While many horror films feature wartime narratives, Deathwatch takes place within the horror of the conflict itself. Set during WWI, the film follows soldiers of the British 5th Battalion's White Company, who take refuge in an abandoned German trench after becoming lost following an assault on the enemy line.

    The Horror: When the lost unit of the White Company comes across a maze of trenches containing three terrified German soldiers, they think they have broken through enemy lines. As they spend more time in the trenches, the soldiers discover a supernatural evil surrounding them that prevents them from leaving. This unexplained presence animates the barbed wire, reanimates corpses, and creates phantom sounds of war to terrorize the soldiers. While the film presents its supernatural elements as terrifyingly real, the viewer can also read them as allegorical representations of PTSD for soldiers.

    • Actors: Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Matthew Rhys, Hans Matheson, Laurence Fox
    • Released: 2002
    • Directed by: Michael J. Bassett
    506 votes
  • The Historical Setting: Set in 1939 Spain during the last year of the Spanish Civil War, The Devil’s Backbone deals with the indirect impact of the conflict on the country's children. The negative effects of war are addressed by setting the film in an orphanage filled with children who have lost their parents in the struggle.

    The Horror: The presentation of horror in The Devil’s Backbone is initially subtle, at least in terms of the film’s supernatural elements. Director Guillermo del Toro presents the horrors of war far more overtly than the supernatural elements for much of the film, with an inert bomb dropped by the Nationalists sitting in the orphanage's courtyard as a constant reminder. The film follows young orphan Carlos (Fernando Tielve), who enters the orphanage after his father perishes in the conflict. While exploring the orphanage at night, Carlos comes across the spirit of a young boy haunting the grounds. The ghost story in The Devil’s Backbone resembles many films released in the US during this period, including The Sixth Sense (1999) and The Others (2001), in that there is more to fear from the living characters than the deceased ones. Although the image of the young spirit initially terrifies Carlos, he soon discovers that the real danger lies in the covert conflict between Nationalist and Republican Loyalist adults working alongside each other at the orphanage.

    • Actors: Marisa Paredes, Eduardo Noriega, Federico Luppi, Fernando Tielve, Irene Visedo
    • Released: 2001
    • Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
    716 votes
  • 6
    608 VOTES

    The Historical Setting: Set in 1348, the plot of Black Death is centered around the first outbreak of the bubonic plague in medieval England. When an envoy (Sean Bean) for the regional bishop arrives at a monastery in search of a guide to help reach a remote marshland village rumored to be untouched by the plague, a novice monk named Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) accepts the task.

    The Horror: Although Osmund initially believes the expedition is intended to discover what has kept the village safe from the plague's destruction, he eventually learns that a necromancer is thought to control the village, using dark arts to keep the sickness at bay. The group of soldiers have a plan to capture the practitioner of witchcraft for transport back to the bishop, followed by trial and execution. These plans are thwarted by obstacles along the way, including the continual threat of contagion and the inevitable horrors that await them in the remote village.

    • Actors: Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Carice van Houten, Kimberley Nixon, John Lynch
    • Released: 2010
    • Directed by: Christopher Smith
    608 votes