Is The Strangers a True Story? What's Real vs. Fake from Inspired Events

By Russ Milheim Posted:
The Strangers, Madelaine Petsch

With Lionsgate's new The Strangers remake on its way, some audiences are wondering if the events of the movie and its original counterpart are based on actual events.

The original 2008 film starred Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman as Kristen and James, a couple whose time alone in an isolated vacation home turns into horror not long after receiving a knock on their door.

The upcoming 2024 remake, titled The Strangers: Chapter 1, will be a close retelling of the same tale. This time, the poor couple in for a bad night are Madelaine Petsch and Froy Gutierrez’s Maya and Ryan.

Is The Strangers Based on Real-Life Events?

The Strangers movie poster
The Strangers

Back in 2008, the original The Strangers movie made waves by claiming that it was “based on a true story.” The bold claim worked and hooked countless audience members, convincing them the events unfolding onscreen had happened to somebody in the world.

However, that bold claim isn’t true, but it’s also not wholly fake.

Instead, The Strangers is only inspired by a handful of real-life events. None of those instances are directly translated onto the screen, however, including the titular characters, who are not based on any criminals.

Director and writer Bryan Bertino explained where he got the inspiration for the horror film in the original production notes released alongside the movie in 2008.

According to the filmmaker, the idea of strangers going around and knocking on people’s doors was born from a similar incident in his childhood, where “some people [were] asking for somebody that didn’t live there:”

"That part of the story came to me from a childhood memory. 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 that didn't live there."

Bertino elaborated that they eventually found out that those strangers would knock on doors, and if no one were home, they’d then break into the house—an opposite and less fatal version of events seen in The Strangers:

"We later found out that these people were knocking on doors in the area and, if no one was home, breaking into the houses. In 'The Strangers,' the fact that someone is at home does not deter the people who've knocked on the front door; it's the reverse."

In the movie, the titular group knocks on the couple’s door early in the morning, asking for someone named Tamara. While they don’t immediately break into the house, due to Liv Tyler’s Kristen answering the door in the first place, their reign of terror begins not long after their first knock.

When it comes to the strangers, their reasoning for doing what they did is simple and terrifying.

Later in the film, when asked by the victim why they were doing this, they simply stated: "Because you were home."

"Another inspiration for the film comes from the book 'There’s Blood on the Walls,' which chronicles the story of the Tate murders by the Manson family–heinous crimes in 1969 that saw the brutal slaying of actress Sharon Tate and several of her guests at their home."

The entire incident being a home invasion is what inspired the premise of The Strangers to be just that.

In the same press release from the original 2008 film’s release, Bertino shared how the details of those crimes caused him to become “really fascinated with telling the victims’ tale:”

"I was thinking about the Tate murders and realizing that these detailed descriptions had painted a story of what it was like in the house with the victims. But none of the victims knew about the Manson family or why it was happening to them. So, I got really fascinated with telling the victims' tale."

The filmmaker wanted to encapsulate the idea of a random crime and not giving viewers any background information on why it was happening:

"... And not filling it in with an FBI profile and not filling it in with finding out that somebody's grandmother beat them, and now they want to kill everybody. You read obituaries every day where someone is killed for a random reason. Yes, we may eventually find out why, but sometimes they don't."

Bertino said in a separate conversation with Shock Til You Drop that he "wanted to ground the film in as much reality as possible:"

"You read obituaries every day where someone is killed for a random reason. Yes, we may eventually find out why, but sometimes they don't. With 1801 Clark Road, people can look at that and say, 'Where is that address?' But the reality of it is, that's the address I grew up in. I just picked that address because I wanted to ground the film in as much reality as possible."

The filmmaker added that during the movie, he didn’t want his main character to do anything that he wouldn’t have been able to do at the moment:

"As a writer, there wasn't anything I wanted James to do that I felt that I [couldn’t] do. There was no amount of bravery. I tried to do a gut check. When we made the movie, Scott tried to do a gut check. Just how brave would I be? I didn't want this movie to be about what would you wish you would do as much as what would you do."

The Keddie Cabin Murders

Another set of murders that can be seen within the brutality of The Strangers is the Keddie Cabin Murders of 1981.

On April 12, 1981, Shella Smart was returning from a sleepover at her friend’s house only to find a gruesome scene at her family’s cabin at the Keddie Resort in Northern California. 

She ended up discovering her mother, brother, and one of her brother’s friends, all brutally murdered due to a mixture of strangulation, blunt-force trauma, and stabbing—and all also tied to chairs in their living room.

Shella’s sister was also missing, with her remains not being found until three years later.

The key similarities between the case and the movie are how the incident happened at a vacation home and that the victims were bound and killed in their living room, much like in the final act of The Strangers.

The biggest difference is that new evidence surfaced in 2016 which heavily implied there was a personal connection to the killers and their victims—whereas there is no connection at all in The Strangers.

What Makes This New Strangers Different

While this first film, Chapter 1, will be a remake of the original movie, two sequels are already set to debut afterward. This is where the franchise will change course from what fans know.

For many, the promises of Chapter 2 and Chapter 3 are controversial in that they’ll explore who the Strangers are and why they do what they do. That exploration, like it or not, goes against the idea of the original film—random people with no motive or connection to their crimes.

Hopefully, the new films will fulfill the studios’ ambitious hopes and dreams for the franchise. After all, they’re releasing all three in one year.

The Strangers: Chapter 1 hits theaters on May 17.

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- About The Author: Russ Milheim
Russ Milheim is the Industry Relations Coordinator at The Direct. On top of utilizing his expertise on the many corners of today’s entertainment to cover the latest news and theories, he establishes and maintains communication and relations between the outlet and the many studio and talent representatives.