7 real-life horror stories for those who don’t believe in ghosts
Halloween is a celebration of all things horror, a time for us to frighten or amuse ourselves with things that go bump in the night. Life’s scary enough as it is, so if you don’t believe in ghosts or are tired of torchlit campfire tales, here are seven real-life horrors that will truly get under your skin and haunt you for days after the credits roll.
Real-life horror: Infanticide
Ellen Pakkies is a woman who did the unthinkable – she killed her own son. This act of infanticide is brutal and horrific on the surface of things. How could a mother murder her own son? As the biographical drama Ellen unfolds, it becomes much easier to empathise with the resilient woman who was pushed beyond the edge of reason.
Ellen is a heart-wrenching and poignant drama with many recognisable moments for communities who have similar lives to those on screen. Drugs and violence have become normalised for many who can easily identify with the antihero that is Ellen. Wanting the best for her son, she witnessed him transform into someone else as school bullying and a tough neighbourhood forced the promising teenager to turn to tik. Try as she may to intervene, Ellen’s son became increasingly violent and unrecognisable as the addiction consumed him.
Starring Jill Levenberg and Jarrid Geduld as mother and son, Daryne Joshua’s raw, confessional drama features stirring performances and brave storytelling that weave together this powerful cautionary tale from the Cape.
IMDB rating: 8/10
Real-life horror: Being left for dead
It doesn’t get much worse than real-life horror documentary, Alison. Being left for dead, after being raped and stabbed more than 60 times, is a grisly and heinous act that in most circumstances would amount to death. Yet, Alison’s spirit and will to survive compelled her to drag her damaged body to a nearby road, where her triumphant recovery began.
Treating this hybrid documentary with a fairy tale motif, writer-director Uga Carlini tackles one of South Africa’s most infamous criminal acts and inspiring survival stories. Snapshots from Alison’s life in 1994 build up to visceral docudrama scenes that capture the real horror and emotion of the life-changing incident and its aftermath.
Featuring Alison Botha and starring Christia Visser, this documentary portrays the horror and trauma of that devastating night. The cinematic intensity of the event is captured while being embedded in the context of a documentary that offers some much-needed distance and relief in retrospect. In this tale of triumph, we get firsthand accounts from the many heroes in Alison’s road to recovery.
IMDB rating: 7.6/20
Real-life horror: Kidnapping a child
Children are innocent, impressionable, precious and vulnerable. This is only amplified when they’re our own flesh and blood, sons and daughters we want to protect from the harm and trauma that has shaped our own lives. They demand our attention, are dependent on us and need parents to keep a watchful eye at home and even more so in public spaces.
The real-life horror of a kidnapped child carries such emotional weight that it can be difficult to speak about, let alone watch. Prisoners captures the devastation and relentless pursuit of one such parent, whose girls become the victim of a calculated kidnapping. In a taut story where we play detective vicariously, we’re given a glimpse into the torment of uncertainty around such a soul-destroying moment.
Starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal, this intense and vivid mystery thriller from the mind of Denis Villeneuve captures the panic, desperation and heartache of a child kidnapping as a parent takes the law into his own hands.
IMDB rating: 8.1/10
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 81%
Real-life horror: Extreme discrimination
We are naturally designed to be creatures of community, which is why acceptance and love is so important to us. When we’re singled out, excommunicated or disenfranchised based on something we have no control over, it troubles the heart, mind and soul. Extreme forms of prejudice can lead to psychological trauma, aggravated even further by already hostile environments.
This is what makes Moffie so tense, as a young recruit tries to conceal his sexuality under the duress of a South African Defence Force boot camp designed to quash all forms of identity. Struggling against the conformity of soul-crushing mandatory conscription, the young man is subjected to the scrutiny of a homophobic and prejudiced military service.
Starring Kai Luke Brümmer as Nicholas van der Swart, this intense yet poetic biographical war romance drama is a tour-de-force from writer-director Oliver Hermanus. Provocative, bold and immersive, this bleak and haunting film examines the age with unsettling power.
IMDB rating: 6.9/10
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 90%
Gone Girl on Netflix
Real-life horror: Being falsely accused of murder
These days you can become famous or infamous in the space of an hour. A heroic act or dirty secret is all it takes to go from being unknown to the next viral sensation. While this can make this digital age exciting, it’s also geared towards virtual witch hunts at the mercy of the hot-off-the-press news and cancel culture social media.
Being elevated to the status of minor celebrity can be exhilarating when you’re being celebrated but has the reverse effect when you’re under suspicion. This trashy media circus world is explored in Gone Girl, a psychological mystery thriller from David Fincher about the disappearance of a woman and the ensuing investigation.
Starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, this surprising adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s mystery novel features a brilliant co-lead performance from Pike and epic twists and turns.
IMDB rating: 8.1/10
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 87%
Real-life horror: Family murder
Premeditated family murders were very rare in South Africa prior to 1983 but have become more prevalent among the Afrikaans-speaking white population. Studies point to a “misguided sense of duty as family heads” in the face of seemingly insurmountable financial and political threats. These family tragedies leave gaping holes in their communities with some capturing the media and public’s attention (and imagination) more than others.
Griekwastad has now become synonymous with one such “family murder” in 2012, where a lone survivor of an alledged farm attack became central to unlocking a highly publicised police investigation. Thorny questions arose in the aftermath of the mystery of the Steenkamp family’s grisly murders – was it part of a satanic ritual? A farm attack? Or something different, and darker?
Starring Arnold Vosloo, Jane De Wet and Alex van Dyk, this dark, pulsating and swirling crime drama thriller from Jozua Malherbe dramatises events following that fateful night. Based on the true crime novel Die Griekwastad Moorde, solid performances and a gripping cat-and-mouse story compel this chilling and gritty adaptation.
IMDB rating: 7.4/10
The Impossible on Netflix
Real-life horror: Natural disaster
The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and subsequent tsunami across Thailand, Sri Lanka and Indonesia literally sent ripples around the globe, causing one of the deadliest and most destructive natural disasters in recorded history. The 100-foot wall of water’s sheer power ripped through coastlines, taking 230 000 lives in an instant.
A monolithic force, this natural horror turned Boxing Day into a memorial for many families who lost loved ones. Focussing on a tourist family visiting Thailand’s idyllic shores over Christmas, The Impossible recreates the scenario with visceral sound and visual effects. Locals and tourists had little time to escape the onslaught of this unexpected natural phenomenon which made its presence known with a distant roar.
Starring Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor, this gut wrenching real-life horror captures the complete surprise, shock and awe of this moment in time, showing victims playing by the poolside and, in an instant, being engulfed in sheer terror. The Impossible immerses audiences in the disaster and captures a family’s gripping tale of survival against all odds.
IMDB rating: 7.6/10
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 81%