5 Horror Movies Related to Real Crimes
There’s no denying that life can often be more terrifying than any work of fiction. But nothing—not zombies, werewolves, vampires, or ghosts—is more horrifying than a serial killer.
Though Hollywood has whipped up some classic killers like Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, and Jigsaw, no amount of makeup or special effects can cover up the fact that cold-blooded murderers really exist…and sometimes they live next door.
The following list describes five horror movies that were directly or subtly influenced by unforgettable crimes:
JOHN WAYNE GACY / IT
It’s hard to imagine the world of horror without Pennywise the Dancing Clown lurking somewhere in the background with a fistful of balloons and a dagger-toothed smile. When Stephen King first published the novel IT in 1986, it forever scarred a small population of unfortunate souls who suffer from Coulrophobia—that is, those afflicted with an irrational or persistent fear of clowns.
IT was one of Stephen King’s most popular books, and it went on to inspire a short television series in 1990, and more recently, a two-part film released first in 2017, with the second installment scheduled for release in 2019 (if you haven’t seen the first installment yet, add it to your Halloween queue this year).
Part of the magic of IT lives in the idea that Pennywise is not the real monster, but simply one of many manifestations of a monster that is really (*spoiler alert*) an inter-dimensional shape shifting alien that existed before time itself, who, for some reason, chose to set himself up in a sewer beneath a small town in Maine (if that sounds confusing, you are correct).
What is suggested in this complicated analogy, however, is really quite simple: people are not always who they appear to be. That was the case with John Wayne Gacy, a man who shocked Chicago and the world with a terrifying series of murders in the 1970’s. The makeup he wore as Pogo the Clown acted as a mask concealing something much more sinister beneath.
The known number of murders committed by Gacy is somewhere around 33, though many officials at the time believed there to be more. Gacy worked hard to gain each victim’s trust before he deceived them, and focused his attention on teenage boys. He was latter dubbed the “Killer Clown” because he often donated his time dressed as Pogo the Clown for fundraisers, children’s parties, and other community events.
If this is beginning to sound familiar (Pogo/Pennywise), you’re on the right track. Though King claims there is no direct link between Gacy and any character in his book, it’s hard to imagine that the coverage of Gacy’s crimes didn’t penetrate the author’s mind while he was writing. And it’s equally hard to imagine that the readers who consumed the 1000+ page novel didn’t reflect upon the murders as well. Just as Pennywise has his rightful place in the pantheon of monsters, it’s hard to imagine the worst serial killers in history without John Wayne Gacy.
SYLVIA LIKENS / THE GIRL NEXT DOOR
Unlike IT, Jack Ketchum’s 1989 novel The Girl Next Door was more-or-less directly inspired by the 1965 torture of Sylvia Likens, a 16-year-old girl who was held captive and killed by the woman entrusted to be her guardian, Gertrude Baniszewski.
Though Baniszewski wasn’t a serial killer, the terrible nature of her crimes thrust her into a classification of psychopath all her own: this twisted woman actually recruited her kids and others from the neighborhood to inflict the torture.
Sylvia Likens was subjected to countless forms of shame and torture too demented to mention here, until she was eventually murdered by Baniszewski 3 months later. Ketchum’s novel and the subsequent 2007 movie also named The Girl Next Door similarly portrays the torture of a teenage girl named Meg in graphic detail.
Though the names, locations, and dates were all changed for the fictionalization of these tragic crimes, the movie doesn’t leap far from the source material. Baniszewski and the children who participated were eventually tried and convicted for killing Likens, but after at series of retrials, all of them walked away free…
DEAN CORLL / THE CANDYMAN
The connection between Dean Corll’s crimes and the 1992 movie Candyman is perhaps the loosest on this list, but the coincidence between the name of the movie and Corll’s nickname is uncanny. Dubbed “The Candyman” due to the fact that his parents owned and operated a candy factory and he was often seen handing out candy to neighborhood kids, Dean Corll was a twisted killer of the worst kind.
Convicted of killing 28 teenage boys around Houston, between 1970-1973, like Gertrude Baniszewski, Corll also used teenage accomplices to help carry out his crimes. But the connection between the movie and the killings draws closer than a nickname when you consider where Corll murdered and the victims he targeted.
Known to the local Texans as “The Houston Heights”, Corll’s killing ground was a place where few dared to tread. Originally a thriving part of the greater Houston area, the Houston Heights had fallen into disrepair by the time Corll began haunting the abandoned houses left behind. Corll preyed on local runaways, knowing that law enforcement would be less likely to look for teen runaways in a deserted part of town. In the movie Candyman, the mystical killer played by Tony Todd preys upon the vulnerable inhabitants of the Chicago projects, an area with an economic status similar to the Houston Heights.
Additionally, the Candyman in the movie is known to attack young people, much like Corll, the Candyman of Houston. Even the source material of the movie—a short story named “The Forbidden” in Clive Barker’s Books of Blood—places the Candyman in a slum in England.
Though nothing has been said by Clive Barker or the movie’s producers to substantiate the connection between the Candyman of fact and fiction, clearly, the killer with a sweet-sounding name lives beneath the rubble of our forgotten communities.
ED GEIN / PSYCHO / THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE
Psycho (1960) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) are only two of many, many more movies connected to the disturbing story of Ed Gein.
Director Tobe Hooper accredited Gein as the inspiration of Leatherface in his landmark 1974 movie, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Hitchcock based Norman Bates’s tumultuous relationship with his mother on Gein’s life, much like Robert Bloch’s book Psycho, written the year before. Made famous for the grotesque nature of his crimes and the scene discovered by local law enforcement in his country home, Ed Gein is perhaps the most famous killer on this list.
Convicted of killing only two women between 1954-1957 (which is a paltry number when compared to some of the other killers on this list), Gein is more well known for what he did with his victims remains, and the other human remains he stole from local graveyards. Sparing the details, Gein “decorated” his home with his murderous trophies and attempted to make a suit of human skin (reportedly so he could, like Norman Bates, remain “connected” to his mother).
Year’s later, when Thomas Harris published his best-selling book that inspired the academy-award winning Silence of the Lambs, he claimed the character of Buffalo Bill was based upon Gein’s obsession to make a human skin suit…
TED BUNDY / AMERICAN PSYCHO
Ted Bundy never worked as an investment banker in New York. And he definitely didn’t have the potential that Christian Bale showed in American Psycho to become the Dark Knight. But Ted Bundy and Patrick Bateman—the character played by Bale in American Psycho—had one thing in common: the ability to fool the world with their good looks and charm.
Ted Bundy confessed to kidnapping and murdering 30 women between 1974-1978, but the actual number is believed to be higher. Regarded as handsome and charismatic, the public was not ready to accept that such an intelligent and gifted young man could possibly be capable of the things he was accused of.
Bundy represented himself eloquently in his trial, serving as his own lawyer, and nearly escaped conviction by the courts and the public at large—until he escaped custody and proved to the world that he was painted with guilt.
Considering how detached the plot of American Psycho is from the facts of Bundy’s case, it may be hard to see the direct connection Bundy had on the film. But considering the callous and deceitful nature of Patrick Bateman’s character in the film, and the fact that many regarded Bundy as the most cold-hearted person one could ever meet, the shockwave created by the revelations of Bundy’s crimes must’ve been felt by the writers of the novel and subsequent movie. After all, Bundy is the definition of an American psycho.
We hope you’ve gained some new insights on the way horror movies mirror the darker side of humanity. Although movies “based on a true story” like The Amityville Horror and The Exorcist were purposefully left out of this list because they didn’t contain a crime, let us know if there are any other movies based on real criminal cases that we missed. And don’t forget to Let Your Geek SideShow!
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