This Is the Scariest Horror Movie Based on a True Story – Collider

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It may not be the one you expect, but it’s one that will stay with you.

Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis sitting together on a boat in Open Water
Image via Lionsgate

The Big Picture

  • While many horror movies are based on true stories, there is often a disconnect between the fictionalized version and the actual events.
  • Open Water
    stands out as a deeply disturbing film based on real-life events.
  • Open Water
    is a fictionalized version of the story of Tom and Eileen Lonergan, who were tragically abandoned while scuba diving, leaving their fate unknown.

No genre of film gets a reaction from its audience quite like horror does. Whether it’s a wholly original story or based on some tragedy from real life, horror makes us jump, cover our eyes, and even laugh as a way to let go of that anxious tension. When we leave the theater or turn off the TV, however, we usually feel some sort of release, because what horror does better than even comedies do is give us a way to work through our own troubles and leave them behind.

We can watch the latest Halloween or Scream installment and have fun with it. Let’s make rankings of our favorite deaths and killers! It’s exciting. Sometimes, though, a horror film comes along that is hard to celebrate, not because it’s horribly made or dull, but because it’s based on real life, and has such a tragic ending that we come out of the experience completely unsettled. There are no laughs or releases to be found. We sit in that nightmare and imagine what happened to those people in reality. We breathe a guilty sigh of relief that it wasn’t us, and then we hope we can sleep that night. No horror film based on a true story does this more effectively than 2003’s Open Water.

Open Water Poster

Open Water

Based on the true story of two scuba divers accidentally stranded in shark-infested waters after their tour boat has left.

Release Date
August 6, 2004

Chris Kentis

Blanchard Ryan , Daniel Travis , Saul Stein , Michael E. Williamson , Cristina Zenarro , John Charles


Main Genre

Chris Kentis

Lionsgate Films

The Best Horror Films Based on True Stories

Real-life events have influenced so many of our favorite horror movies, whether we realize it or not. We know, of course, that The Amityville Horror is based on an actual supposed haunted house. The Conjuring follows the actual Ed and Lorraine Warren (they also investigated the Amityville house in reality). There are also so many horror classics that you might not realize find their roots in reality. Kevin Williamson wrote Scream after watching a documentary about a serial killer. Real-life men dying in their sleep from nightmares influenced Wes Craven for A Nightmare on Elm Street. And Ed Gein, the serial killer who would skin and display his victims, is the starting point for Psycho, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and The Silence of the Lambs.

As creepy as that might be, there’s still a bit of a disconnect. Yeah, that house in The Amityville Horror is scary, but it’s been debated if the hauntings ever happened. Ed and Lorraine Warren actually lived and breathed on this Earth, but if you’re a skeptic, you can dismiss their supposed encounters with the supernatural. Scream and A Nightmare on Elm Street might get ideas from real life, but there was no real Ghostface or Freddy Krueger. Ed Gein is one of the most horrendous humans who ever lived, but Norman Bates, Leatherface, and Hannibal Lecter are fictional creations. Because we know this, we’re able to separate ourselves and know what we’re watching is entertainment. Then there are films based on actual events like Open Water that are so disturbing and real that enjoyment becomes impossible. Open Water is horror at its most primal.

‘Open Water’ Is Based on the Case of a Real-Life Couple

To understand Open Water, you must first understand where it came from. The Chris Kentis film is based on the last days of Americans Tom and Eileen Lonergan. In 1998, the couple took a trip to Australia for what should have been one of the best holidays of their lives. The plan was to go scuba diving and explore the Great Barrier Reef, one of the most beautiful sights in our world. They never returned home.

Many divers jumped into the ocean from the boat that took them to the reef on January 25, 1998. When the exploring was done, the divers got back on board and the boat left. There was a head count first to make sure everyone was there, but a mistake was made. Two days later, something impossible to comprehend was discovered. The belongings of Tom and Eileen Lonergan were found in a bag left behind on the boat. Somehow, no one else had noticed, but the Lonergans had never got back on the boat two days before.

They had accidentally been abandoned all alone in the ocean, and now 48 hours had passed. An extensive search was started, but Tom and Eileen were never found. The only proof of their fate was when part of Eileen’s ripped-up wetsuit washed ashore the next month. Either Tom and Eileen had died of dehydration, drowned, or were taken under in the shark-infested waters. No matter how they died, their last hours were spent lost and forgotten, staring certain death in the face.

‘Open Water’ Haunts Audiences With the Unknown

Five years later came a film about those events titled Open Water. It doesn’t aim to be one-hundred percent accurate. For one, the names of the couple are changed, going from a married couple to a boyfriend and girlfriend named Daniel Kintner (Daniel Travis) and Susan Watkins (Blanchard Ryan). Like the Lonergans, they go scuba diving, only to get left behind. When they come up from the water, the boat is gone, and they are all alone.

This is where the film has the impossible task of telling what happened next because we simply don’t know what happened to the Lonergans. Do they float in the ocean for days, finally succumbing to the elements or lack of water? Were they eaten by sharks after several days, or maybe even an hour after they were abandoned? What did they talk about? What did they do? We don’t know. Director Chris Kentis, who also wrote Open Water, can only guess. That’s what makes the film so scary. We imagine the Lonergans in this exact situation and wonder what happened to them but we can never know. There will never be closure for their loss and that knowledge is chilling.

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Most of the movie is like a stage play of sorts, with only two characters. There is no setting to interact with. Daniel and Susan don’t walk or do anything else while they speak. We see them from the neck up, floating, bobbing, drifting away from life, increasingly losing hope. It’s hugely claustrophobic despite taking place in the widest, most open of spaces. All the while, the killer is in the room with them. We know the shark is there under their feet. From time to time, the knife blade of a dorsal fin comes to the surface to tease them. It’s as if you were in a slasher movie where our characters are stuck in a room with Michael Myers. He hides beneath the floor, every now and then popping out. The only difference is, you can escape from a room; you can run away, and you can fight back. Daniel and Susan can’t run or fight in Open Water. All they can do is hope that the boat that left them comes back, or that their deaths are mercifully quick.

Will We Ever Find Out What Happened to Tom and Eileen Lonergan?

Susan (Blanchard Ryan) and Daniel (Daniel Travis) avoid a shark in Open Water (2003)
Image via Lionsgate

Open Water is brisk at only 79 minutes. Any longer and it would lose its welcome. There’s only so much an audience can take. Throughout the journey, Daniel and Susan go through it all: They go loopy from hunger. They fight. They’re hopeful, they’re resigned to their fate. They’re stung by jellyfish. They’re bitten by smaller sharks, making them bleed out into the water. They’re bitten by bigger sharks, with Daniel finally killed by them on a dark and stormy night. Susan is now all alone. She accepts that no one will find her. This is the end. She looks under the water. There are sharks everywhere. Calmly, she takes off her gear and lets herself sink beneath the waves. She never comes back up.

It’s an ending that stays with you, even if you first saw Open Water 20 years ago. It’s not just what we see on screen that makes it so frightening. It’s the empathy that gets to us. You can’t help but think about the Lonergans. Did they fight? How long were they hopeful of being saved? Did jellyfish get them? Did the sharks? Did they give up? No one will ever know. They took those answers with them into the depths of the ocean, a story with an ending that can’t be told. The best we could do was create a movie and try to make sense of it.

Open Water is currently streaming on Starz in the U.S.


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