Despite our love for the heroes, there have been a number of occasions when it’s the villain who steals the show. Some of the best performances in film have been portraying evil or villainous characters, but where do the inspirations come from? How does a good person act so evil on screen? The type of inspiration varies from character to character. Sometimes the character is written or created in the image of a real person, which is scary to think about. Other times the way a character is portrayed by an actor is based on a real-person. Some actors study the events, trying to emulate what they know about real person. Others watch tape, recreating mannerisms, style and attitudes. For the audience, knowing the truth behind the character changes our perception of them. So, here I am, changing your perception.
So who are they? What famous villains reminded you of someone else? A historical character, a real psychopath, another actor. While I could definitely go through and take my best guesses at who inspired who, I will only use examples of inspirations that are openly admitted to or just too obvious to ignore. Many of the characters on this list you know; I’ve avoided the obscure ones. How you look at the characters after knowing the inspiration is up to you. Does it lessen the performance or enhance it? Does it make the characters more disgusting knowing they’re grounded in reality or more hilarious knowing that some are based on “normal” people? Whatever it does for you, let’s get it started. Here are 15 Movie Villains Based on Real People.
15 Hannibal Lecter - Alfredo Ballí Treviño
The influence for Hannibal Lector has been attributed to several real life murderers including the ever-horrifying Albert Fish, but in 2013, the creator of Hannibal, Thomas Harris, revealed that Hannibal the Cannibal was actually based on real life physician and murderer Alfredo Ballí Treviño. Harris, like his character Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs, interviewed the madman about his crimes, specifically that of murdering his friend and lover and mutilating his body. Treviño was also suspected of killing and dismembering several hitchhikers in the 50s and 60s. The events of Hannibal’s crimes somewhat mirror these, and we can suspect that Treviño had some familiar traits as well. The more you know.
14 Ruth Chandler (The Girl Next Door) – Gertrude Baniszewski
In the gross-out film The Girl Next Door (2007), the villain Ruth Chandler, a woman who tortures and has her children torture a young girl in the basement, is based on a real life woman who did the same thing to a real life young girl. Gertrude Baniszewski, the Indiana woman who provided the inspiration for Chandler, tortured and murdered teenager Sylvia Likens in 1965. While the violence in the film The Girl Next Door is more brutal for shock value, the fact that both character villain and real villain used a red hot needle to carve words into a young girl’s stomach, shows just how horrifying people can be. Probably the most unknown villain on the list, the acts done by this psychopath are also some of the most frightening.
13 The Hills Have Eyes Family – Sawney Bean
Some weird murders took place somewhere in Scotland, sometime in the 13th century, or maybe it was the 16th century, actually we have no idea when it was. Come to think of it, we don’t really know if it ever was, but we’re pretty sure it happened—we’re a solid 40% sure that it happened. Either way, Ol’ Sawney and his incestuous cannibal family lived in a cave, ambushing, robbing, killing and then eating whoever crossed their path. Well, Wes Craven used this legend to create the creepy family from the movie The Hills Have Eyes, basing Papa Jupiter and his cannibalistic posse’s exploits on the Bean family. The Bean family also inspired a few other film families as well, like for example, those from Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses.
12 Gustave (Primeval) – Gustave
In the really brutal, but admittedly fun film, Primeval, the main villain Gustave is based on the famous Nile crocodile Gustave from Burundi. Rumors tell of Gustave’s exploits, apparently killing as many as 300 humans, which is just crazy talk. He is said to be 25ft long, 2000 pounds and green. Some people say that he is over 100-years old, but since he still has teeth, experts suggest that he is likely only 60 years old. In the film, Gustave kills pretty much everyone. At the end—SPOILER—Gustave is stabbed in the mouth, which they believe killed him because the protagonists apparently thought his heart was in his own mouth. When it’s revealed that Gustave is still alive after the credits, none except the super smart protagonists are surprised. I feel bad calling Gustave a villain because, if you’ve seen the movie and the numbskulls in it, you too were probably routing for Gustave to wipe them all out.
11 Annie Wilkes – Genene Jones
The horrifying character of Annie Wilkes from Misery, is said to be based on real life pediatric nurse and killer Genene Jones. Jones is said to have murdered between one and 46 infants that were under her care, which is a range that tells you we have no idea who killed what. Killing patients under their care is something that Wilkes and Jones share, a fact shown in one of Wilkes’ scrapbooks in the movie. It is said that Jones would inject young children with a paralytic with the intentions of reviving them and receiving praise from both parents and the hospital. In the movie Misery, Wilkes doesn’t inject Paul to paralyze him, she smashes his ankles with a damn sledgehammer. A sledgehammer in the ankles. It might be harder to think about Paul’s poor ankles than those kids. While author Stephen King has never confirmed the connection, the dates do match up, since Jones was convicted in 1984 and the novel was being written at that time (published in 1987). I’d say this is an open and shut case.
10 Bruce (Jaws) – Jersey Shore Sharks
While not your traditional character, the inspiration for the shark in Jaws (Bruce), was a real life great white shark that killed four people (and injuring one more) on the Jersey Shore coast in 1916. Within two weeks, the great white shark, or as Jerseyites would call it, a “yuge white shawk,” attacked five victims in nearby areas, leading to a shark hunt like we witnessed in Jaws. The 10ft, 300lb shark that was caught and blamed for the attacks was found with 15lbs of human flesh and bone in its belly. It’s unclear if Bruce used details of the events as inspiration for his performance, but, since he was a mechanical robot, it’s pretty safe to assume the answer is no. The attacks from 1916 were odd for the region and did trigger some local hysteria, but not nearly as much as the film Jaws did throughout much of the western world. It is said that, up until 2009, the events of 1916 were the worst thing to happen to Jersey Shore.
9 Mickey and Mallory - Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate
The married serial killers Mickey (played by Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (played by Juliette Lewis) from Natural Born Killers are said to draw their character inspiration from the real life teenage serial killers Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate. During a killing spree in late 1958 and early 1959, Starkweather and Fugate (though she claimed she was his hostage) killed a total of 11 people in Wyoming and Nebraska. Interestingly enough, the characters in Kalifornia are also inspired by these two teenagers. Who played the roles in Kalifornia? Why, none other than Brad Pitt and Juliette Lewis. In my opinion, these roles, Lewis’ portrayals of the Caril Ann Fugate villainess, are the best of her career. A character she has mastered through practice.
8 Cruella de Vil – Tallulah Bankhead
Created by author Dodie Smith, Cruella de Vil, was modeled after acting legend Tallulah Bankhead, a twisted, parody of Bankhead. Interestingly enough, Betty Lou Gerson, who first voiced Cruella in the 1961 Disney film The One Hundred and One Dalmations, unknowingly was also inspired by Bankhead, this time for her husky voice and larger-than-life demeanor. While I’m not entirely sure about Bankhead’s thoughts on the Canis familiaris, it’s pretty obvious to anyone who, like me, believes everything in life is a Hardy Boys mystery, that Bankhead must have surely hated dogs in real life. Don't get me wrong, I’m not trying to spread a rumor here; I’m just trying to get to the bottom of this.
7 Ursula – Divine
Disney revealed that The Little Mermaid’s primary villain Ursula, at least in looks, is based on the late and famous drag queen Divine. Divine is best known for his work in John Waters’ interesting films, such as Pink Flamingos. Ursula’s hair, mole, eyeshadow, build and jewelry are all inspired by Divine. We’re unsure if Divine’s legs looked like octopi limbs, but that may have been creative license. Even though Divine died shortly before The Little Mermaid movie was released, people close to him say that the Disney character would have made Divine very happy to see on screen. But that brings up an interesting question. Was Divine not asked if this was ok beforehand? I guess that would be a difficult question. “Hey, we want to base a villain off of you, a massive octopus queen who goes into a human-drag to steal the heroine’s man. That ok with you?”
6 Red State – Fred Phelps
It’s easy to base a villain on a real person when they make themselves such an easy target, and the horrible former human being Fred Phelps, the leader of the hate group Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), made it really easy for Kevin Smith to recreate him on screen in his film Red State. While, throughout history, there have been several fundamentalist groups and similar characters to the WBC and Fred Phelps, these are the most familiar to contemporary audiences and the easiest to draw a parallel to. Since so many contemporaries both fear and are disgusted by the WBC, it gives a villain in a horror movie a head start in making an audience more uncomfortable. It helps the plot become more believable as well, knowing that incomprehensible hatred like Phelps' really exists in real life.
5 Jabba the Hut - Sydney Greenstreet
In probably the most offensive entry on this list, it is said that Jabba the Hutt is inspired by actor Sydney Greenstreet, particularly from his role of Signor Ferrari in Casablanca. Really this stems from a story that George Lucas asked the designer of Jabba the Hutt to create Jabba the Hut as “a big blob, a huge mass of matter,” and naturally, the designer thought of Greenstreet. Like, what a story to tell. How humiliating. He might as well have said, “I modeled Jabba the Hutt after Greenstreet because I think he’s a disgusting slob,” that might have even softened the blow a bit. I guess it’s not so bad. Greenstreet’s first big role was in The Maltese Falcon as “The Fat Man,” and that seemed ok with him. It only really got awkward after Humphrey Bogart refused to call him anything but “fatty” and “fatty fat pants” on set. No, no. Don’t believe that. You can’t believe everything you read in print.
4 Keyser Söze – John List
The mythical villain of The Usual Suspects, Keyser Söze is based on the real life killer John List. List killed his family, his mother, his wife and his three kids in the year 1971. Though the murders went undetected for over a month, List’s crimes became some of the most publicized murders in the country. For Söze, the main inspiration was the idea that List was so successful in hiding his crimes and beginning a new life afterward. So It took 18 years for the police to finally apprehend him because he was so careful to cover his tracks. This is similar to the character of Söze (played by Kevin Spacey), who eludes police for so long and even hides right underneath their noses. Verbal Kint also tells police that Söze murdered his own family as well, which is nice.
3 Patrick Bateman – Tom Cruise
When Christian Bale was thinking of how to create the character of Patrick Bateman for American Psycho, he is said to have come across an interview of Tom Cruise. In the interview, Bale noted that Cruise was intensely friendly but with, seemingly, “nothing behind his eyes.” In other words, Bale was then noticing that Tom Cruise is basically an alien. That interview was in 2000, five years before Cruise went completely nuts on Oprah, ruining her furniture and yelling. Bateman is a recurring character in Bret Easton Ellis novels, but in American Psycho he’s a materialistic, yuppie serial killer who is about as fake as Tom Cruise’s excitement on Oprah as he squealed like a 12-year old who just found out about girls. I’ll never forgive him for that moment. I don’t even really care about Tom Cruise, but what happened on that stage that day can’t be unseen. Oh, that it could.
2 The Joker – Conrad Veidt/Alex DeLarge/Tom Waits
The classic character of The Joker is said to be inspired from Conrad Veidt’s character Gwynplaine in The Man Who Laughs (1928). Gwynplaine has a disfigurement that forces his face into a constant state of smiling, much like Tom Cruise and much like The Joker himself. Perhaps more interestingly, the version of The Joker that the late Heath Ledger portrayed is based partly on the gruesome character of Alex DeLarge from A Clockwork Orange. There are also suggestions that Ledger modeled his wonderful voice performance on a young Tom Waits. While this rumor is anything but confirmed, the similarities in voice and even mannerisms are uncanny. Ledger’s final film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, had Tom Waits playing the devil fighting for Ledger’s soul. Rumor or truth, that connection is neat.
1 Norman Bates/Leatherface/Buffalo Bill – Ed Gein
Almost every horror fan knows of Ed Gein because he’s inspired so many great horror villains and icons. From Norman Bates in Psycho, to Leatherface in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, to Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs, Gein was the model for some of the most disturbing villains in the history of film. His odd fetishes, his grave robbing, his skin-wearing, his relationship with his mother, his isolationist attitudes, all of these things make him interesting to portray on film, a character that makes us feel weird because he’s weird. In terms of story, it seems that Norman Bates has the most in common with Gein, but all three characters use elements of Gein’s oddball story to make them pop off the screen.