Many people are familiar with the classic horror movie icons, but the real-life stories that inspired their creation are often not as widely known.
With the spooky season upon us at last, many people like to get into the spirit of the season with some classic horror movies. A favorite of many is the aptly named “Halloween”, in which a seemingly unstoppable serial killer hunts and attempts to kill his sister. Or perhaps they turn to a classic such as Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”, a gripping tale of a disturbed motel owner brought to you by the master of suspense himself. What most people may not know is that both these killers were based on real crime sprees, in cases that were stranger than the fiction they inspired.
A glimpse into the world shows that horror is nothing other than reality.Alfred Hitchcock
The 1978 movie “Halloween” is considered one of the quintessential Halloween movies. The story revolves around Michael Myers, who returns fifteen years after murdering one of his sisters to kill the one that managed to survive. Along the way, multiple other people are killed by the masked murderer in a movie that exemplifies the slasher genre.
The character is not, in fact, a pure work of fiction. Director John Carpenter states that his original inspiration for the premise of “Halloween” came from an unsettling experience he had in college regarding a severely mentally ill little boy he met in a psychiatric hospital. He goes on in other interviews to describe the unnerving stare that the boy had. More of the character was fleshed out from there and conceived to be “human, yes, but also a force… a force that can’t be stopped and can’t be denied.”
Many “Halloween” fan sites also attribute the basic plot of the story to that of Stanley Stiers, a little boy that was abused by his family until he eventually went on a killing spree near his Iowa home in 1923. Specific details surrounding this case are somewhat fuzzy, as much of it has become an urban legend, but the similarities of the two stories are striking. That said, John Carpenter has never mentioned the Stanley Stiers case as a direct inspiration for his movie.
A classic horror movie with a far less ambiguous connection to a real killer is Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 movie “Psycho“. The plot revolves around the Bates Motel, visited first by a woman on the run after embezzling money from her boss, and then by the people investigating her murder. Through these events, a young man by the name of Norman Bates is shown to be the killer and also to be deeply disturbed by the loss of his domineering mother.
A man by the name of Ed Gein, later and better known as the “Butcher of Plainfield”, was also a deeply disturbed man mourning the loss of his domineering mother, he also murdered at least two women. Gein was arrested in 1957, and the media called what Plainfield police found in his house a “true house of horrors”. There were articles of clothing made from human skin, taxidermied body parts, and a long list of even more unsettling things than that. It is worth noting that many of the body parts found were the result of grave robbing, not murder, and Ed Gein was only ever linked to two murders including the one that led to his arrest.
After his arrest, the news blew up with the story of what was found within the Gein house. The story and trial were widely televised and reported on. In 1958, Gein was tried for the first time. While he was determined unfit to stand trial by reason of insanity, the craze surrounding his case lasted for some time after before dying down. Robert Bloch used the portrayal of Gein to craft the character of Norman Bates for his 1959 novel “Psycho“, which Alfred Hitchcock then adapted into his blockbuster movie. The instant fame of both is often attributed to the lingering shock of the Ed Gein trial.
Cases like these are not limited to 20th century killers, however. Historians speculate that before terms like “serial killer” were commonly-used, most killers became mired in superstition and folklore. While it cannot be proven, it is commonly thought that this was one of the early inspirations for creatures like the werewolf. This is believed to be the truth behind the case of Peter Stubbe, a German man in 1589 who confessed to making a deal with the devil in order to turn into a wolf so that he could kill and eat people anonymously. He was later caught and executed.
The 1941 movie “Wolfman” gives us our modern perception of a werewolf today. A normal human turns into a savage beast under the light of the full moon and terrorizes the countryside. In the morning, they are left with no memory of what they did, only the aftermath of their carnage. In the case of the movie itself, it is unlikely a specific real-world case inspired the plot of the movie. However, the components have ties to superstitions from our past
Lunacy, an outdated term for insanity caused by the full moon, was often attributed to people turning into werewolves. Superstitions around the world have held beliefs about the full moon causing people to change since our early history. Add to this that more people go missing at night, and it becomes a bit clearer how myths of werewolves started. There is also some evidence that impurities in grain throughout history also led do disassociation, but this is very difficult to prove. Most likely the myths are simply caused by serial killers being represented or spoken of as turning into animals as a way to understand their crimes.
So even in the case of classic movie monsters such as werewolves, the culprit is always humans. True crime continues to draw a large audience, likely feeding a certain morbid curiosity in us all. This same morbid curiosity inspires artists, writers, and filmmakers to create twisted monsters and unstoppable killers to capture the feeling of fear that they bring. This is far from an exhaustive list, and some of these individuals inspired multiple horror icons.