The term “horror movie” first appeared in the writings of critics in response to the release of Universal’s Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931). The term has since come to describe any film that strives to elicit the emotion of fear, disgust, and shock. A large collection of classic scary movies have screenplays that are based on real life events. Some of the most popular fictional serial killers and horror movie franchises have been inspired by people. This article will examine ten historic events that were used in scary movies.
10. Sawney Bean
Inspired: The Hills Have Eyes
Sawney Bean was the head of a 48-member clan that lived in Scotland during the 15th or 16th century. He was reportedly executed for the mass murder and cannibalization of over 1,000 people. The story of Sawney Bean appears in The Newgate Calendar, a crime catalogue of the Newgate Prison in London. Legend says that the family came to include eight sons, six daughters, eighteen grandsons and fourteen granddaughters. The group lived in the mountains and thrived on ambushes and murder. The victims were brought back to their cave, dismembered, and cannibalized.
One evening, the clan ambushed a married couple and the man was able to fight off the group with a sword and pistol. He escaped and reported the events to the authorities. It wasn’t long before King James VI of Scotland (later James I of England) led a manhunt into the area with a team of 400 men. The group discovered the Beans’ cave in Bannane Head. It was rife with human remains, having been the scene of hundreds of murders and cannibalistic acts. The clan was captured alive and taken in chains to the Tolbooth Jail in Edinburgh, then transferred to Glasgow where they were promptly executed without a trial. Some historians look back on the story and believe Sawney Bean never existed.
In 1977, Wes Craven directed a horror film titled The Hills Have Eyes. The movie tells the story of a large family on a road trip that becomes stranded in the Nevada desert. After meeting a group of people, the family is hunted by a clan of deformed cannibals in the surrounding hills. Craven wrote the screenplay based on the legendary tale of Sawney Bean. He decided to place the clan in the American desert and made them into a cult. In the movie the killers include dozens of incestuous family members, similar to the Sawney Bean story.
9. Star Jelly
Inspired: The Blob
Star jelly is a gelatinous substance, which, according to reports, is deposited on the Earth during some meteor showers. It is described as a translucent or grayish white gelatin which tends to evaporate shortly after having fallen. Explanations for star jelly have ranged from a natural byproduct to a paranormal substance. Since the 14th century, star jelly has been reported in various locations around the world. Ancient civilizations used it as a medicine. Star jelly doesn’t have a scientific classification. However, one possible explanation is slime moulds, which appear suddenly and exhibit a gelatinous appearance.
In 1950, four Philadelphia, Pennsylvania policemen reported the discovery of “a domed disk of quivering jelly, 6 feet in diameter and one foot thick at the center.” When the men touched the substance it dissolved into an “odorless, sticky scum.” In 1958, the story inspired a collection of filmmakers to develop an independent movie named The Blob. The Blob is a horror/science-fiction film that depicts a giant amoeba-like alien that terrorizes the small community of Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. Irvine H. Millgate is credited with the story. Millgate was a friend of producer Jack H. Harris. He was inspired after reading a 1950 article about the Philadelphia star jelly incident.
The Blob (1958) was Steve McQueen’s debut leading role and also starred Aneta Corsaut. The movie was a box office success and earned $4 million on an $110,000 budget. The film has had a lasting impact on the genre of science fiction and cult horror. A number of great storytellers have identified The Blob as an inspiration for their work. A comedy sequel to the movie was made in 1972, titled Beware! The Blob, directed by Larry Hagman. In 1988, a remake was released directed by Chuck Russell. Star jelly is also thought to have inspired themes in the film Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). In the movie, alien spores fall to Earth in a rain shower and form blobs of jelly that produce alien seed pods.
8. Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate
Inspired: Natural Born Killers
Charles Starkweather was born and raised in Lincoln, Nebraska. At the age of 18 Charles was introduced to a 13-year-old girl named Caril Ann Fugate. The following year he entered the Crest Service Station in Lincoln, Nebraska, robbed the store, took the clerk hostage, and executed him in a remote area outside the city. On January 21, 1958, Starkweather murdered Fugate’s mother, stepfather, and 2-year-old sister. According to the testimony given at Fugate’s trial, she did not take part in the murder of her family, but did help bury the bodies around the house. After hiding for a week, the couple went on a killing spree across Nebraska. Starkweather and Fugate murdered eleven people in a two-month span. They were eventually captured in Douglas, Wyoming in early 1958.
Upon their arrest, Starkweather claimed that Fugate had nothing to do with the murder spree. However, he later changed his story and testified against her. Starkweather said that Fugate committed half of the murders. He accused her of having a happy trigger finger. In 1958, Charles Starkweather received the death penalty for the murder of Robert Jensen. Fugate received a life sentence for her role in the crimes. Caril’s jail time was eventually commuted, which allowed her to be paroled in June 1976. She remains the youngest female in United States history to have been tried for first-degree murder. Charles Starkweather was executed by way of the electric chair in Lincoln, Nebraska, on June 25, 1959.
Since his death, a collection of films have been inspired by the Starkweather-Fugate murder spree, including The Sadist (1963), Badlands (1973), and Natural Born Killers (1994). Natural Born Killers is a movie directed by Oliver Stone. It tells the story of two traumatized children who become psychopathic serial killers. The film is notorious for its violence and was named the 8th most controversial movie of all time by Entertainment Weekly. Natural Born Killers was promoted with the tagline: “A bold new film that takes a look at a country seduced by fame, obsessed by crime, and consumed by the media.”
7. Robert the Doll
Inspired: Child’s Play
Robert the doll is a toy once owned by the Key West painter and author Robert Eugene Otto. The doll was given to Robert in 1904 by a Jamaican nurse who was skilled in black magic and voodoo. She was displeased with her role in the Otto family. After the doll was created, it soon became evident that it was cursed. The family reported that Robert would have conversations with Eugene Otto when he was a child. Neighbors claimed to see the doll moving from window to window when the family was out. They said that Robert would emit a terrifying giggle.
While he slept, Eugene Otto would often scream for help. When his parents came into the room they would find furniture knocked over and Robert sitting close by. When Eugene died in 1974, the doll was left in the attic of his house until it was sold. The new family included a ten-year-old girl, who became the doll’s new owner. It wasn’t long before the girl began to talk with Robert. She would often scream in the middle of the night and claimed that the doll moved about the room and even attempted to attack her on multiple occasions. More than thirty years later, the woman still says that Robert was alive and wanted to kill her.
Today, the doll can be found in the Fort East Martello Museum in Key West. Robert is featured in a number of ghost tours. He is dressed in an early 20th century white officer sailor suit and clutches a stuffed lion. If you wish to take a picture with Robert, according to legend, the person must ask the doll politely, and if he doesn’t agree (by tipping his head to one side) then you must pass by. If you don’t, the doll will curse your family.
In 1988, the first Child’s Play horror film was released. The movie was written by Don Mancini and was inspired by the story of Robert the Doll. The film features a killer doll named Chucky. Chucky is a Good Guy Doll that is given the soul of a serial killer named Charles Lee Ray. The movie has spawned a series of sequels and has been successful at the box office. Similar to Robert the Doll, the character of Chucky can move and talk. Chucky is a popular fictional serial killer and has scared millions of children around the world. Sources have indicated that a remake of the original Child’s Play film might be released in 2012.
6. Jersey Shore Shark Attacks of 1916
Jaws is a 1974 novel written by Peter Benchley. It tells the story of a great white shark that preys on a small resort town, and the voyage of three men to kill it. After reading the book, film producers Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown bought the film rights. They helped raise the novel’s profile and when it was published in February 1974 Jaws became a great success, staying on the bestseller list for 44 weeks. Benchley was inspired to write the story of Jaws by several real-life incidents. The two most noted are the Jersey Shore shark attacks of 1916 and the exploits of shark fisherman Frank Mundus.
In 1964, Benchley read a news article about a fisherman named Frank Mundus who caught a great white shark weighing 4,550 pounds (2,060 kg) off the shore of Montauk Point at the eastern end of Long Island, New York. The size of the creature shocked Benchley. In 1916, a series of shark attacks were reported along the coast of New Jersey between July 1 and July 12. Four people were mauled and killed in the attacks. They occurred during a deadly summer heat wave and polio epidemic in the northeastern United States. The local and national reaction to the attacks involved a wave of panic and shark hunts. Resort towns responded by enclosing their public beaches with steel nets to protect swimmers.
The film adaptation of Jaws was directed by Steven Spielberg and released in June 1975. The movie became the highest grossing film in history (in 1975), and is regarded as the father of the summer blockbuster. Jaws caused many people to fear sharks, beaches, and the ocean. The film sparked a similar panic as the 1960 film Psycho did with showers. After Jaws was released, it reduced beach attendance around the world. The movie has had a lasting impact on the portrayal of sharks in the media. It ranked number one on Bravo’s list of The 100 Scariest Movie Moments.
5. Sudden Unexpected Death Syndrome
Inspired: A Nightmare on Elm Street
In the Philippines, the sudden death of a person while sleeping is known as bangungot, while in Japan it is pokkuri. In other areas of the world it has been labeled sudden unexpected nocturnal death syndrome (SUNDS). The strange disorder kills 43 per 100,000 young Filipinos. Most of the victims are young males. In Thailand, it is believed that the disorder is linked to eating rice cakes. Filipinos believe that ingesting high levels of carbohydrates before sleeping causes bangungot. The history of Asia has a rich culture brimming with folklore about nocturnal demons and lethal nightmares.
Victims of bangungot have been found to have no organic heart diseases or structural heart problems. However, cardiac activity during SUNDS episodes indicates an irregular heart rhythms and ventricular fibrillation. The victim will survive the episode if the heart’s rhythm goes back to normal. Older Filipinos recommend wiggling the big toe of people experiencing this to encourage their heart to snap back to normal. Some cases of bangungot have been linked with acute hemorrhagic pancreatitis. In Thailand and Laos, bangungot is theorized to be caused by Brugada syndrome.
In the early 1980s, reports surfaced in United States that perfectly healthy young Asian men were complaining of horrific nightmares and refusing to sleep for days on end. The teenagers became convinced that their dreams were being invaded by a demon. They started to drink coffee and use other stimulants in an effort to stay awake. The articles caught the attention of a young Wes Craven and he incorporated the theme into his 1984 horror film A Nightmare on Elm Street. The fact that Freddy Krueger can enter dreams and kill his victims was written by Craven after reading about sudden unexpected death syndrome. The concept is chilling and has helped drive the horror movie franchise.
4. The Stanley Hotel
Inspired: The Shining
The Stanley Hotel is a 138-room neo-Georgian hotel in Estes Park, Colorado. It is located next to the Rocky Mountain National Park and offers a panoramic view of the mountains. The structure was built by Freelan O. Stanley of Stanley Steamer fame and opened on July 4, 1909. Since that time, the hotel has accommodated a collection of rich and famous individuals, including Titanic survivor Margaret Brown, John Philip Sousa, Theodore Roosevelt, the Emperor of Japan, and a variety of Hollywood personalities. The hotel was originally equipped with running water, electricity, and telephones, but lacked heat as it was designed as a summer resort.
Over the years, many people have reported ghostly phenomena in the hotel. It has been a hotspot for unexplained activity and strange noises. The majority of sightings occur in the large ballroom. The kitchen workers at the hotel have reported loud music, dancing, and conversation in the ballroom, only to search the area and find nothing. People have heard the hotel’s pianos playing at odd hours and a large number of apparitions have been cited.
Around Halloween 1974, author Stephen King and his wife Tabitha decided to take a mini-vacation to the Stanley Hotel. On October 30, 1974, the couple checked into the Stanley. They were almost denied admission, as the hotel was closing the next day for the season. They checked into room 217, which was said to be haunted. Stephen and Tabitha had dinner in the grand dining room totally alone. After dinner, Tabitha decided to turn in, but Stephen took a walk around the hotel. He ended up in the bar and was served drinks by a bartender named Grady. “That night I dreamed of my three-year-old son running through the corridors, looking back over his shoulder, eyes wide, screaming. He was being chased by a fire hose.”
In 1977, Stephen King published The Shining, which quickly became a bestseller. King used his experiences at the Stanley Hotel for the backdrop of the plot. In 1980, a film adaptation of the book was created by Stanley Kubrick. The exterior scenes in the movie were filmed at the Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood in Oregon. King originally was displeased with the decision not to shoot in the Stanley, but his animosity towards Kubrick’s adaptation has dulled over time and he has recognized the film as great piece of art. In 1997, Stephen King supervised a television adaptation of his original novel, which was filmed at the actual Stanley Hotel in Colorado and was aired on ABC as a miniseries. Today, the Stanley Hotel shows the uncut R-rated version of Kubrick’s The Shining on a continuous loop on all guest room televisions.
3. Vlad the Impaler
Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia (posthumously dubbed Vlad the Impaler) was a three-time Voivode of Wallachia, ruling mainly from 1456 to 1462. Vlad spent much of his life fighting a war against the Ottoman Empire and its expansion. During battle, Vlad would capture his enemies and impale them with a stake. The technique was extremely violent and gave him a reputation for brutality and torture. In 1459, the area of Wallachia was claimed by the Ottoman Empire under Sultan Mehmed II. In response, Mehmed sent 10,000 cavalry to make peace or eliminate Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia.
Vlad was informed of the maneuver and launched a surprise-attack against the Ottoman soldiers in a narrow pass north of Giurgiu. Vlad captured almost all of the Turks’ and had them impaled. In the winter of 1462, Vlad crossed the Danube and devastated the entire Bulgarian land in the area between Serbia and the Black Sea. He disguised himself as a Turkish Sipahi and infiltrated Ottoman camps. Vlad roamed the countryside, lived in extravagant castles, and impaled everyone he deemed an enemy. The total number of his victims is estimated to be in the tens of thousands.
In response to the violence, Sultan Mehmed II raised an army of around 60,000 troops and 30,000 irregulars and in 1462 captured the capital of Wallachia, which was Târgovi?te. After the invasion, Vlad organized a series of attacks and ambushes on the Turks. One example is The Night Attack when 15,000 Turks were killed. Using the elements of surprise, Vlad III defeated Ottoman commanders such as Iosuf Bey, Omer Bey Turahanoglu, and Evrenos Bey.
In 1897, Irish writer Bram Stoker published the novel Dracula. The book tells the story of a vampire named Count Dracula. The character was inspired by the life of Vlad III. Numerous film adaptations of the novel have used the life of Vlad III as the fictional past of the Dracula character. Some examples include the 1973 film Dracula starring Jack Palance, the 1979 BBC production Dracula starring Louis Jordan, and the 1992 film Bram Stoker’s Dracula starring Gary Oldman. In history, more than 200 films have been made that feature Count Dracula, second only to Sherlock Holmes.
2. 1949 Case of Demonic Possession
Inspired: The Exorcist
In the late 1940s, a series of articles appeared in US newspapers which examined the case of a possessed child. On August 20, 1949, the Washington Post published an article titled “Priest Frees Mt. Rainier Boy Reported Held in Devil’s Grip.” The article told the story of a 14-year-old Mount Rainier, Maryland boy who had been saved by a Catholic priest through the ancient ritual of exorcism. In 1971, a man named William Peter Blatty published a novel titled The Exorcist. It was inspired by the same 1949 case of demonic possession. In 1973, the novel was adapted into a horror movie directed by William Friedkin.
The Exorcist tells the story of a possessed young girl and the attempt to cure her through the ritual of exorcism. The movie is based on the life of Robbie Mannheim (or Roland Doe). Roland Doe is a pseudonym that was assigned to the boy by the Catholic Church per standard procedure. Most of the information surrounding the case comes from a diary kept by the attending priest, Fr. Raymond Bishop. Around the time of the event, there were several newspapers that printed articles on the subject.
Some of the articles suggested that in the presence of Roland Doe people experienced strange phenomena. This included hearing the sound of squeaky shoes, marching feet, and other noises. It is claimed that furniture moved in the boy’s room on its own accord, and that ordinary objects, including vases, flew or levitated. Some sources suggested that forty-eight witnesses came forward to substantiate the incidents. The family of the child turned their attention to the Lutheran clergyman Rev. Luther Miles Schulze. After being examined by a group of priests, the boy underwent an exorcism. During the exorcism, he inflicted a wound upon the pastor that required stitches. As a result, the ritual was stopped.
As the story goes, Roland Doe’s hospital bed shook during the exorcism and words such as “evil” and “hell,” along with other various marks, appeared on his body. The boy often shouted in an abnormal tone of voice and cursed the priests. In total, the exorcism was claimed to have been performed thirty times over a period of two months. When the final exorcism was complete, it is alleged that there was a loud noise and the boy declared “It’s over. It’s over.”
After the exorcism was over the family of the child was no longer troubled. They moved back home and the boy became a successful, happily married man. The movie adaptation of The Exorcism was so influential that it has spawned a large collection of websites that suggest they have discovered the true identity of Roland Doe. A man named Ronald Edwin Hunkeler. After graduating from high school in 1954, Hunkeler went on to become a scientist with NASA. It is claimed that Hunkeler helped develop the heat-resistant coating used on unmanned vehicles entering Mars’ atmosphere.
1. Ed Gein
Inspired: Norman Bates, Leatherface, and Jame Gumb
Ed Gein was an American murderer and body snatcher. His crimes were committed around the small town of Plainfield, Wisconsin. In the 1950s, it was discovered that Gein had exhumed a large number of corpses from local graveyards and fashioned trophies and keepsakes from their bones and skin. In 1957, police found body parts in his house. Gein confessed to killing two women. One was a tavern owner named Mary Hogan in 1954 and the other a Plainfield hardware store owner named Bernice Worden in 1957.
Ed Gein’s mother was named Augusta. She was a fervent Lutheran who preached the innate immorality of the world to her children. Ed loved his mother and tried to make her happy, but she was rarely pleased. After Augusta died on December 29, 1945, Gein remained in the family house and supported himself with earnings from odd jobs. He boarded up a large number of rooms used by his mother, including the upstairs, downstairs parlor, and living room. He left them completely untouched and lived in a small room next to the kitchen. Ed Gein became interested in reading death-cult magazines and adventure stories.
On November 16, 1957, Plainfield hardware store owner Bernice Worden disappeared and police had reason to suspect Gein. They searched his house and found Worden’s decapitated body in a shed, hung upside down by ropes at her wrists, with a crossbar at her ankles. They also discovered four noses, nine masks of human skin, bowls made from human skulls, ten female heads, human skin covering several chair seats, a belt made from female nipples, and organs in the refrigerator. When questioned, Gein told investigators that between 1947 and 1952, he made as many as 40 nocturnal visits to three local graveyards to exhume recently buried bodies while he was in a “daze-like” state. He dug up the graves of middle-aged women he felt resembled his mother.
Shortly after his mother’s death, Gein decided he wanted a sex change and began to create a “woman suit,” so he could be a female. On November 21, 1957, Gein was arraigned on one count of first degree murder in Waushara County Court, where he entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. He was found to be mentally incompetent to stand trial and sentenced to the Central State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Gein spent the rest of his life in a mental hospital and died in 1984.
Ed Gein has had a lasting impression on western popular culture. The Alfred Hitchcock film Psycho is adapted from a book by Robert Bloch. Bloch lived just 40 miles away from Ed Gein and the novel is inspired by his life. The television character of Norman Bates is largely based on Ed Gein. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a 1974 American independent horror film directed and produced by Tobe Hooper. The movie follows a group of friends who fall victim to a family of cannibals in a small town. The character of Leatherface and other small details in the script are inspired by Ed Gein.
One of the most chilling fictional serial killers in history is Jame Gumb (Buffalo Bill). Buffalo Bill is the main antagonist in the 1988 novel The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris, and its 1991 film adaptation. Jame Gumb’s desire to become a woman and his morbid fantasies to create a human-skin suite are based on the life of Ed Gein. In fact, Buffalo Bill is based on six real-life serial killers. They are Gein, Jerry Brudos, Ted Bundy, Gary M. Heidnik, Edmund Kemper, and Gary Ridgway, who like Buffalo Bill dumped his victims in rivers and inserted foreign objects into their corpses.
Inspired: Moby Dick
The Essex was an American whaleship from Nantucket, Massachusetts. The ship was captained by George Pollard Jr. and is remembered for being attacked and sunk by a sperm whale in the southern Pacific Ocean in 1820. Before the ship’s final voyage, it had been refitted, but at 87 feet (27 m) long, and weighing 238 tons, the Essex was small for a whaler. The vessel left Nantucket on August 12, 1819, for a two-and-a-half-year voyage to the whaling grounds off the west coast of South America.
On November 20, 1820, the crew of the Essex noticed a large sperm whale acting strangely in the waters. The creature was around 85 feet (26 m) long. It was seen laying motionless on the surface of the water with its head facing the ship. It then began to pick up speed and rammed the vessel. The impact knocked the whale unconscious, but it soon recovered and swam several hundred yards away. The whale then rammed the bow of the ship driving the 283-ton vessel backwards. After a couple seconds, it disengaged its head from the shattered timbers and swam off, sinking the Essex. At the time of the event, the ship was 2,000 nautical miles (3,700 km) west of South America.
After spending two days salvaging supplies, the twenty-one sailors from the Essex set out in three small lifeboats with inadequate food and fresh water. The crew managed to find the uninhabited Henderson Island, which was luckily not populated by cannibals. On Henderson Island the crew found a small fresh water spring and food. However, after one week, the resources were exhausted and one by one the men began to die. On February 18, 1921, three crew members were rescued by the British whaler Indian. The men were found in a lifeboat 90 days after the sinking. Five days later, two more men were recovered in a second boat. Eventually three more shipmates were found alive on Henderson Island. All of the eight survivors resorted to cannibalism in order to stay alive.
News of the sinking reached a young man named Herman Melville, who worked on the whaler Acushnet years after the event. The sinking of the Essex served as the inspiration for Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby-Dick. The novel is similar to Jaws in that it is about a dangerous sea creature. In the story, Moby Dick is ferocious. Melville’s book and the subsequent movie adaptations tell the story of a sailor named Ishmael and his voyage with Captain Ahab to find Moby Dick. In the end of the story Captain Ahab manages to harpoon the whale, but the unfolding line catches him around the neck and Ahab is dragged into the depths of the sea. A large number of movies have examined the story of Moby Dick, most notably films released in 1926, 1956, and 2010.