The allure of true crime enhances the intrigue of any narrative, and the film industry has successfully leveraged the captivating drama that this genre offers for many years.
The unfolding of murders and mysteries on the cinematic stage never fails to enthrall audiences. While certain films are entirely products of imagination, introducing compelling fictional antagonists, others have delved deeper by basing their narratives on actual and unsettling events.
Presented here are ten films centered around missing persons, drawing inspiration from real-life disappearances.
10. Changeling (2008)
Arguably some of the worst missing persons cases are ones involving young children. Walter Collins was one of these unfortunate cases. On March 10, 1928, nine-year-old Walter Collins disappeared from his home in Los Angeles, California. His mother, Christine Collins, insisted the police search for her son, and later that year, a boy matching Walter’s description was found in Illinois and brought back to California. While the boy claimed to be Walter, Christine was adamant that he was not her son.
Christine continued searching for Walter, much to the chagrin of the police force. The case collected public intrigue for its unusual details—like its country-wide search. And nearly 100 years later, with the release of the case’s fictional movie counterpart Changeling, audiences would continue to be captivated by the strange story of Walter Collins
9. Without a Trace (1983)
Shining a spotlight on another disheartening case of a missing child, the 1983 enigmatic film “Without a Trace” takes center stage. The movie revolves around the perplexing disappearance of a young boy named Alex Selky, who vanishes while on his way to school. Fueled by a mother’s relentless determination, Susan embarks on a quest for answers, enlisting the aid of law enforcement, friends, and relatives in her search for her son.
While “Without a Trace” openly acknowledges its fictional nature, it intriguingly parallels the real-life vanishing of six-year-old Etan Patz in 1979. Echoing the movie’s narrative, Etan also went missing on his route to school on May 25th. Alarmed by his absence, his parents swiftly alerted the authorities, initiating a relentless pursuit. Spanning decades and garnering nationwide attention, the search for Etan concluded in 2017—nearly 40 years later. Notably, Etan’s visage became one of the earliest to grace milk cartons, etching his story into collective memory.
8. Agatha (1979)
One of the most celebrated figures in the realm of mystery writing is the notorious Agatha Christie. While she’s predominantly renowned for crafting enigmatic fictional vanishings, she found herself embroiled in an unusual disappearance episode firsthand. In an intriguing twist, Agatha Christie herself became the subject of a puzzling vanishing act.
In a fateful December evening in 1926, Agatha Christie departed from her residence, seemingly melting into the darkness of the night. Following a heated argument with her husband, Archie Christie, she abruptly left the house, entrusting their daughter to the care of a maid. The dawn that followed brought the discovery of Christie’s car miles away at the site of a crash, yet Christie herself remained inexplicably absent.
Her absence of nearly a fortnight propelled an international search, with suspicions initially directed at her husband and his youthful paramour, Nancy Neele. Ultimately, the perplexing event boiled down to a mere misinterpretation. However, the aura of drama and fascination surrounding the incident would later grace the silver screen, captivating audiences as the suspenseful mystery thriller titled “Agatha.”
7. Alive (1993)
Certain disappearances lead to harrowing trials that push the boundaries of all those involved. Such was the case with the vanishing of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571. In October 1972, a rugby team from Uruguay was en route to Chile for an exhibition match when their aircraft unexpectedly began descending. In a matter of moments, the plane crashed into the snowy expanse of the Andes Mountains. Despite initially having 29 survivors, their number dwindled to just 16 over the course of a grueling 72-day ordeal.
“Alive,” a film from 1993, recounts this tragic incident through the eyes of those who lived through it. The movie not only portrays the dire circumstances of the crash site but also delves into the agonizing choices the team was forced to confront in order to endure. While not a conventional mystery, “Alive” adeptly captures the same blend of trepidation and optimism that infuses movies of this genre, rendering it just as gripping and compelling.
6. Lost Colony: The Legend of Roanoke (2007)
Missing persons cases are nothing new to this time in history. In the case of Roanoke, a whole colony of people was thought to have disappeared. In 1587, 117 settlers arrived from England in what is now modern-day North Carolina. They were meant to form the second Roanoke colony. However, just three years later, the entire colony seemingly abandoned their settlement and disappeared.There were many theories surrounding the disappearance of the colony. A few included tensions between the English and the Native Americans as well as leaving the current area for one with better living conditions. Whatever the case, the Roanoke colony was never discovered again. And while there are more accurate accounts of what may have happened, there are also some stories with more creative liberties.One such alternative is seen in the case of Lost Colony: The Legend of Roanoke, originally titled Wraiths of Roanoke, which attributed the disappearance of the missing colony to fictional phantoms. Perhaps a far stretch from what really happened to those 117 settlers; however, we’ll never truly know.
5. Fire in the Sky (1993)
When an individual goes missing, the inclination to attribute the disappearance to supernatural factors such as alien abductions is rare. Yet, there exists a peculiar case that defies conventional explanations. In the year 1975, a man named Travis Walton was purportedly taken by extraterrestrial beings in an Arizona town. Walton, employed as a logger, encountered an intense luminance while on his way back from work. Intrigued, he approached the source of light, only to be forcefully knocked to the ground by an imperceptible energy. Fearing the worst, his companions, who were fellow loggers, hastily departed the scene. It would be an agonizing span of five days and six hours before Walton’s whereabouts became known once again.
“The Walton Experience,” authored by Walton himself, chronicles his baffling disappearance. In the book, he recounts the sequence of events involving his alleged abduction by aliens, a phenomenon he believed to have triggered his initial vanishing. In 1993, Walton’s account was adapted into the film “Fire in the Sky.” Presently, opinions diverge significantly regarding the true nature of what transpired in the case of Travis Walton, leaving many still divided on the matter.
4. Point Last Seen (1998)
In 1977, shortly before her high school graduation, Hannah Nyala entered into marriage with a young man she had recently encountered. Their years together resulted in the birth of two children. However, Nyala’s life was far from the picturesque ideal, as it was unveiled that her spouse harbored a streak of violence. Nyala’s entire journey, encompassing her attempts to break free from her husband’s grip and his eventual custody of their children, found its record in her memoir “Point Last Seen: A Woman Tracker’s Story.” This poignant narrative was eventually adapted into a feature film of the same title in 1998.
Distinguishing itself from other films centered around disappearances, “Point Last Seen” refrains from relying on intense action sequences or confrontations. Instead, it chooses a measured and suspenseful rhythm, allowing the narrative to illuminate how the emotional aspects of disappearances can be deeply profound and affecting.
3. Lost Girls (2020)
In 2010, the disappearance of Shannan Gilbert sent shockwaves as she made a frantic 911 call, expressing her fear of being pursued. This initial call and the ensuing police efforts would unveil a chilling series of serial killings occurring on Giglo Beach in New York’s Long Island. Over the subsequent year, while diligently seeking Gilbert, law enforcement would stumble upon the remains of four more young women who had gone missing. These women, all in their twenties and sharing a profession as sex workers like Gilbert, were tragically lost. Eventually, at the close of the following year, Gilbert’s own remains would be located.
The narrative of these interconnected women found its way onto the silver screen in the 2020 film “Lost Girls.” Going beyond a mere mystery, the movie delves into the shared grief and desperation for someone to champion these women’s cause. Stepping into a position of strength, Gilbert’s mother assumes a central role, persistently advocating for an inquiry and propelling the storyline with her unwavering determination.
2. Gone Girl (2014)
The well-received 2014 thriller “Gone Girl” delves into the intricate complexities of relationships that often transcend their outward appearances. Central to the narrative are Nick and Amy Dunne, whose seemingly content marriage conceals underlying intricacies. However, when Amy vanishes without a trace, Nick swiftly becomes the prime suspect in her enigmatic disappearance.
The film is an adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s novel of the same name, a work that draws inspiration from real-life instances of domestic turmoil. One of these sources is the unsettling vanishing and murder of Laci Peterson. Laci, who was pregnant, went missing on December 24, 2002, during her husband Scott’s absence from home. Scott’s apparent lack of concern for the unfolding investigation, coupled with the revelation of his extramarital affair, led the public to cast suspicion on him as the likely culprit behind his wife’s disappearance. Both Flynn’s fictionalized narrative and the true story of the Petersons compel viewers to confront the notion that distrust and betrayal can unearth the darkest facets within those we hold dearest.
1. Open Water (2003)
Sometimes a disappearance boils down to just one mistake. In 1998, Tom and Eileen Lonergan were scuba diving along Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. The couple was tragically left behind when their tour miscounted the number of people in the group and left the area. Over two decades later, there are still no definitive answers about what happened to the Lonergans after that terrible mistake.The survival movie Open Water was influenced by this very true story. And while the movie, at its core, aims to tell the story of what happened to the Lonergans, it capitalizes on the fear of being stuck in the middle of the ocean surrounded by the water’s most well-known apex predator—the shark. Like many other entries on this list, this real-life disappearance makes for a terrifying and thrilling movie.