To many moviegoers, there’s nothing scarier than a fully fleshed monstrous villain terrorizing a given film’s main characters. Outside of the film universe, though, there are much more frightening things than movie monsters and madmen—for example, there are also the horrifying versions of these beasts that exist in the real world. No, Godzilla isn’t real, and giant monkeys aren’t wrecking havoc throughout New York City, but serial killers, murderers, and more run-of-the-mill violent maniacs do indeed populate the real world we all exist in each and every day.
In theory, a talented enough scribe might be able to come up with a menacingly chaotic villain entirely out of his or her imagination, and plenty of screenwriters have come up with their monsters pretty much from scratch. That said, some of the greatest and most iconic movie villains in history have been based either partially or fully on their real-life counterparts, changing some names and details to make things less visceral, and in some of the truly horrifying cases, more palatable or even believable for a mainstream audience.
Obviously, the actual terror experienced by the victims of violent crimes in no way compares to mere tension felt by people watching a movie facsimile of what they went through. Of course, some of these films were written by extremely talented men and women and acted out by the same, making them come too close for comfort in certain cases. Granted, to a fan of horror films, that might be the greatest selling point any of these flicks could have. Keep reading to learn about 15 iconic film villains you never knew were based on real criminals.
15. Leatherface From The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – Ed Gein and Elmer Wayne Henley
Upon its original release, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was considered so violent and terrifying that many mainstream theaters outright refused to show it. Part of the issue may have been that it was advertised as being based on a true story, which although only slightly true, was still an entirely new concept for horror films of the day. That Leatherface and his family of cannibals were especially frightening didn’t help, either, making it all the more shocking their crimes were in fact inspired by a lone real-life criminal: serial killer Ed Gein. Like Leatherface, Gein crafted a mask made of human skin from his victims, part of a full body suit he planned on making before his apprehension cut him short. Kim Henkel, one of the film’s co-writers, later claimed that another serial killer named Elmer Wayne Henley was also an inspiration for what was described as his “moral schizophrenia.”
14. Buffalo Bill From The Silence Of The Lambs – Ed Gein and Ted Bundy
Certain serial killers are so vicious only another serial killer can help track them down, a fact that serves as the basis for Jonathan Demme’s 1991 classic The Silence of the Lambs. The film revolves around FBI Agent Clarice Sterling’s attempts at tracking down Buffalo Bill, who terrorizes young women by keeping them in a hole in his basement, preparing them for death by mutilation. Bill’s ultimate goal is to skin his victims alive and create a female bodysuit for himself to wear, and as terrifying as this is, it was taken directly from the dreams and desires of Ed Gein. However, Gein was never that great at luring in his victims, so a second basis was needed to figure out how he could get those women in his basement, and this is where another notorious serial killer named Ted Bundy comes in. Just like Bill, Bundy’s method of picking his victims involved pretending to be hurt, immediately revealing his ruse and starting his terrorizing acts. Several other real-life criminals were involved in crafting Buffalo Bill, but rather than dwell on the minor details, let’s move on to the monster who helps track Bill down…
13. Hannibal Lecter From The Silence Of The Lambs – Alfredo Ballí Treviño
As iconic as Ted Levine’s portrayal of Buffalo Bill has become, the true villain and thus star of The Silence of the Lambs will always be the suave, sophisticated cannibal named Hannibal Lecter. For a long time, Thomas Harris, author of the novels where Hannibal first appeared, remained tight-lipped about where his most famous creation came from. Eventually, Harris revealed it had been Alfredo Ballí Treviño, a man he met while a reporter in Mexico at least a full decade before writing his books. Like Lecter, Treviño was an intelligent and sophisticated doctor with a serial dark side, murdering a close friend and removing several parts of his body, placing them in a small box. Unlike Lecter, Treviño was somehow released and resumed his medical practice, now focusing on providing care to the poor. Quite frankly, this hardly makes up for his crimes, although it would make for an interesting sequel should Lecter ever get the chance to grace movie screens once more.
12. Keyser Söze From The Usual Suspects – John List
Considered one of the best crime movies of all time, The Usual Suspects is all about a man audiences think they never see until the last five minutes, and then they realize he was the main character all along. Before revealing his identity, Keyser Söze hides in plain sight as Roger Kint and offers the suggestion, “The greatest trick the devil ever played was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” Until the big reveal, this is the only hint audiences or police realize Kint was Söze all along, and in the real-world examples, investigators didn’t even have that much. Although their actual crimes had almost nothing in common, Söze’s genius-level perfectionism at leaving the scene without a trace was based on John List, who murdered his entire family in 1971 and avoided capture for almost 18 years without police finding a single lead.
11. Mickey and Mallory From Natural Born Killers – Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate
In the years since its release, Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers has been maligned by certain parts of the media for glorifying violence and making it look fun. Of course, anyone who has actually seen the film should realize how hilarious this is, considering the entire point is that it was the mainstream media’s constant coverage of their crimes that turned spree murderers Mickey and Mallory Knox into ultraviolent folk heroes. Although that wasn’t quite the case when Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate committed a similar succession of murders between 1957 and 1958, the basic details of their story heavily inspired Mickey and Mallory’s relationship. Starkweather was a significantly older than Fugate, who would later become the youngest woman in the US tried for murder. One major difference in their stories is that Fugate was only an accomplice to Starkweather, while in the film, Mallory kills just as many people as Mickey.
10. Travis Bickle From Taxi Driver – Arthur Bremer
To this day, film has never witnessed a character quite as complicated as Travis Bickle, the lead in Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece Taxi Driver. In the film, Bickle’s love interest cites Kris Kristofferson and calls him “a mystery wrapped in a riddle,” naturally upsetting the man who, of course, hates riddles, and the notion he could be considered one. Despite this, the description is perfectly fitting, as Bickle ends the film considered a hero only moments after attempting an act of true villainy. When Secret Service notice Bickle preparing to assassinate a local Senator, he runs to a brothel and frees a number of underage prostitutes. Unfortunately, the real-world story features a less attentive police force, as character basis Arthur Bremer was a lot closer to success in his attempt to assassinate 1972 Presidential candidate George Wallace. Though Wallace survived, he was permanently paralyzed from the waist down, leaving Bremer the exact opposite of a hero.
9. Norman Bates From Psycho – Ed Gein
Anyone who somehow hasn’t seen Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho can still get shocked and terrified by some of the twists and turns in the film, up to and including the final reveal that mild-mannered Norman Bates was actually his serial-killing mother all along. Though audiences and his poor victim Marion Crane hear the two distinct personalities yelling at one another throughout the film, it later becomes clear Mrs. Bates died long ago, and she only lives on in her deranged son’s mind. This wasn’t quite the case with notorious killer Ed Gein, though his drive to commit atrocities likewise stemmed from issues with his mother. Gein and Bates also both had sealed rooms in their homes dedicated to their mothers, praising and preserving them long past death, in spite of or because of the violent-minded relationship they developed when she was still alive.
8. Annie Wilkes From Misery – Genene Jones
Truth be told, the connections between Misery villain Annie Wilkes and her real-life basis Genene Jones are more tenuous than any other on this list. That said, director Rob Reiner himself is the one who made the connection, so there’s no doubting the real-life serial killer inspired what is probably Kathy Bates’s most chilling role. In the film, Wilkes is a former nurse, although this detail is relatively minor in comparison to her true character trait as an obsessive reader and super fan of novelist Paul Sheldon. Upon meeting Sheldon, Wilkes abducts him and keeps him captive in her home, gradually revealing she was less of a fan than she let on by torturing him for writing works she didn’t find up to snuff with his earlier output. Sheldon also learns Wilkes had lost her nursing job due to the deaths of several infant patients, which is where Jones comes in. While the film presents Wilkes as escaping prosecution, Jones was tried and charged with the murder of two infants in her care, poisoning at least four others.
7. Tons Of Characters From American Horror Story – Tons Of Criminals
Pretty much from the moment it debuted, American Horror Story was a huge hit with fans of the genre mentioned in its title. Not every season gets equal praise, but fans have remained entertained over multiple murder mysteries, some of which have supernatural or otherwise bizarre elements tossed in for entertainment purposes. Several AHS tales were taken directly from real life with barely any names changed, like Kathy Bates’s Delphine LaLaurie or Danny Huston’s Axeman. Others, like Twisty the Clown, are merely based on a real-life killer (in Twisty’s case, it was John Wayne Gacy). Another example would be Dr. Oliver Thredson, yet another fictional monster based on Ed Gein, as seen in his ashtray made out of a human skull and his lampshade made of skin. Earlier, there’s also a character and a subplot based on the Columbine massacre.
6. Ruth Chandler From The Girl Next Door – Gertrude Baniszewski
No, we’re not talking about the romantic comedy about an adult film star moving in next to a teenager and falling in love with him (unlike true crime, that simply doesn’t happen in the real world). Slightly less famous was a 2007 film also named The Girl Next Door, based on the death by torture of 16-year-old Sylvia Likens by her babysitter/caregiver Gertrude Baniszewski. In the real world, Likens’ parents essentially abandoned her into Baniszewski’s care, while in the film, Meg Loughlin winds up with Ruth Chandler because her parents died in a car accident. Apart from those equally sad beginnings, Loughlin and Likens’s story go pretty much the same, with Chandler/Baniszewski then having her own real children bully, punish, and generally terrorize their adoptive child until she ultimately died from the abuse.
5. Mick Taylor From Wolf Creek – Bradley Murdoch and Ivan Milat
When most people think about Australia, they probably imagine a near paradise of sun and surfing, with only a few minor drawbacks in the terrifying fauna that seems to populate the island. In many respects, Australia seems like the perfect place for a group of young tourists to simply journey and explore, with countless beautiful locations and interesting locales ideal destinations for world travelers. By and large, the locals are also friendly, but this turns out to be the downfall for the heroes of Wolf Creek, and unfortunately, several actual backpackers in the early ‘90s and then in 2001, only a few short years before the film was released. As it turns out, some people don’t take too kindly to strangers entering their territory, like real-life killers Ivan Milat or Bradley Murdoch, who hunted and murdered tourists for daring to enter their territory. In the film, Mick Taylor does the same thing, although more frighteningly than in the real world, he somehow gets away with it.
4. Judd From Eaten Alive – Joe Ball
Easily the most obscure film on our list, Tobe Hooper’s Eaten Alive is hardly unknown for a lack of creativity. The main villain of the film, simply named Judd, is almost wholly unique in his method of feeding victims to a pet alligator, thus removing any trace of evidence for police to connect him with the crime. In some cases, Judd simply chases his victims into the water, letting his alligator do most of the work. Believe it or not, there was really a serial killer in Texas who owned at least one pet alligator, although any connection between his beast and his crimes remains unconfirmed. What’s known is that a man named Joe Ball owned a saloon called The Sociable Inn, very similar to the Starlight Hotel operated by Judd in the film. Another similarity is that Ball indeed kept a number of pet alligators in a swamp near his hotel, but again, whether or not they actually ate his victims is pure speculation.
3. Kit and Holly From Badlands – Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate
Not that most 15-year-old girls are known for their incredibly romantic insight, but Holly Sargis, the main character of Badlands, has an especially jaded view of the concept. The only thing that matters to Sargis is her boyfriend Kit Carruthers, more than ten years her senior and clearly a violent, psychotic man. This doesn’t really matter to Sargis, though, because Carruthers at least cares about her, and proves it by saving her from an emotionally abusive father. Before long, though, Sargis realized Carruthers was a bit meaner than he let on, watching him go on a killing spree as the film progresses. This was all quite similar to what Caril Ann Fugate must have felt when she watched Charles Starkweather do the same. That said, the real-life version got much more into the violence than Holly did, causing Fugate to serve jail time along with her boyfriend rather than walking free like her film counterpart.
2. Papa Jupiter From The Hills Have Eyes – Sawney Bean
The deserts of Nevada are the last place a person would want to end up for any great number of reasons. Long sandy plains are completely barren of life, there’s no food or water anywhere in sight, getting lost can leave a person stranded, and oh yeah, it’s usually in the neighborhood of 100°—at least. Throw in the idea of a murderous family of cannibals living somewhere in the mountains, and it might be better to avoid the desert entirely. Unfortunately, the characters in Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes didn’t take this advice, soon finding themselves held captive by the violently crazed Jupiter family. Papa Jupiter is the leader of the clan, based on Alexander “Sawney” Bean, a man from Scotland who trained his 48-plus family members to hunt and kill anyone unlucky enough to stumble into their territory. In all fairness, it should be pointed out that legends of Bean are somewhat apocryphal, suggesting he may not have actually existed. Either way, his visage definitely inspired the film, bringing his crimes to life in one way or another.
1. Hans Beckert From M – Peter Kürten
When a young child goes missing, it may be the parents who suffer most, but entire communities generally react with sympathy and do whatever it takes to find the poor kid. Should this happen a lot in the same area, the furor intensifies, as the sole logical solution is that some kidnapper and/or child killer is on the loose. Fritz Lang’s classic film M manages to achieve this feeling within its opening moment, immediately making it terrifying when mild-mannered Hans Beckert approaches a young girl early on. Naturally, we soon learn Beckert is a serial killer who claims he can’t control his urges, a fact for which the families of his victims rightly offer no sympathy. As the director of the film, Lang probably felt the same way, but he didn’t come to the conclusion lightly. In crafting Beckert’s character, Lang interviewed several real-life child killers, including Peter Kürten. Despite this, Lang tried to claim Kürten wasn’t a direct influence, citing other killers like Carl Grosmann and Fritz Haarman as equally relevant motivations.
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