The horror genre never really goes away. We all enjoy and appreciate a good scare every once in a while, it seems. Some movie fans like the paranormal, some can’t get enough of zombies, some prefer slashers, and others hold out for the films based on real life cases of the creepy, dark and twisted. Hollywood loves to take bits of truth from real court cases and turn them into tales that have us sleeping every night with one eye open. As creative and warped as a well-spun story can be, truth really can be stranger than fiction. Read on for 10 movie boogeymen that were based on real-life cases of deranged killers that until their capture, fit oddly well into society and fooling everyone around them, including their own wives and children.
10 Texas Chainsaw Massacre: Ed Gein
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre films have appealed to audiences both in the seventies and today, in part because most people by now know that the films were based on a real-life serial killer, Ed Gein. But how much truth is there in the films? Well, for starters, Gein did wear a human’s scalp and face, similarly to Leatherface in the films. He also wore a vest of human skin, breasts and genitalia strapped to himself. Gein fought feminine tendencies and some say this explains his twisted desire to cut women up and collect bits and pieces of them in a sick display in his Wisconsin farmhouse. A key difference between the films and real life is that Gein never actually used a chainsaw to murder his victims, rather he shot them with a pistol. Other films loosely based on Gein’s bizarre murdering spree (only 2 victims were positively identified, but it is suspected there were many more) were Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs.
9 The Iceman: Richard Kuklinski
The thing that makes the James Franco-on-his-knees-praying scene in 2012’s, The Iceman the most chilling is that it apparently really did happen. Oftentimes Hollywood takes a lot of liberties in translating a true story over to the big screen, but this particular scene, according to the real killer, Richard Kuklinski, really did happen. The former mafia hitman, reportedly responsible for killing between 100-200 people, said in an interview that this was one of his most regretful kills, since this man was praying for God to save him. Kuklinski committed his first murder at the age of 14 and went on to become a stone-faced, heartless hitman that froze many of his victims to obscure their time of death, thus the name Iceman. Until his arrest in 1986, the killer was a married father who ushered Catholic mass and held backyard barbecues. In prison, he granted many interviews and soaked up media attention, bragging about the various ways he killed victims and the high volumes of lives he’d taken. Kuklinski would live out the rest of his days behind bars, dying in 2006.
8 Natural Born Killers: Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate
Natural Born Killers is one of those movies that stays with a person long after the credits roll, perhaps because of the intense and overwhelming amount of violence in the film. Truth is far from fiction in this film, as not only the couple’s name changed, but in the film they were married rather than just dating, which was the case in real life. The deaths were different, as were most parts of the story. It seems the movie falls more into the category of “inspired by true events” rather than “based on a true story.” So what was the real story that sparked Quentin Tarantino’s creative juices and inspired him to write the original screenplay? In the 1950s, Charles Starkweather and his 14-year old girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate, went on a bone-chilling crime spree that (in total) resulted in the deaths of eleven victims, including the family of Fugate. Her little sister was only 2-years old. The couple killed for the sake of killing, rather than to further any real purpose. When caught, Starkweather confessed and told cops Fugate was innocent, but then changed his story saying that she was “trigger happy.” Starkweather was sentenced to death and executed seventeen months after his arrest. Fugate was sentenced to life, but later released and is living out her old age in relative obscurity under a different name. Interestingly enough, Fugate’s (eventual) husband was killed in a car accident, which she was involved in, but not charged for.
7 A Good Marriage: Dennis Rader
The adaptation of a short story by Stephen King, A Good Marriage tells the story of a wife that learns her husband of over twenty years is a sadistic, cold-blooded serial killer. In interviews and on his website, King admits he drew inspiration from the case of Dennis Rader, a serial killer responsible for taking ten lives (including two children) between the years of 1974-1991. Rader, a Kansas family man, was a married to wife Paula for over 30 years when caught, with grown children, none of whom had any idea about the twisted secret life of their husband and father. Rader, coined the B.T.K. killer (for Bind, Torture, Kill) committed his last crime in 1991, but faced his undoing when he sought media attention in 2004 writing letters and reporting his crimes. In court, Rader recounted the gruesome details of the murders showing little, if any remorse. He was sentenced to serve 10 life terms, one for each of the murders.
6 Zodiac: The Zodiac Killer
As with many serial killers and sickos, more than one screenwriter is often “inspired” to make a film about their sordid lives, thus there are often several films based on the same killer. This is the case with the (still unidentified) Zodiac Killer. The 1971 Clint Eastwood film, Dirty Harry, was inspired by the Zodiac and so was 2012’s Zodiac, featuring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, and Robert Downey Jr. In real life, the Zodiac Killer was responsible for at least five murders in the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1960s. From 1969-1974, the killer taunted police with letters and clues, but then abruptly stopped contact. The case has never been solved.
5 The Girl Next Door: Gertrude Baniszewski
Any time a child is tortured, it takes horror to a whole new level of disturbing. That’s exactly what happened to poor Sylvia Likens back in the 1960s. Her parents got a divorce and could not take care of the teen, so they asked a neighbor, Gertrude Baniszewski, to watch after the girl and in exchange paid her $20 per week. When Likens’s Dad was late with the payment, the torture began. Baniszewski had seven children of her own and was a violent, mentally unstable woman. The other children, at their mother’s urging, helped to torture Likens, even going so far as to carve degrading messages into her stomach with a hot needle. Eventually the young girl died of internal bleeding, shock and malnutrition. Baniszewski was sentenced to life in prison, but eventually released and died of lung cancer in 1990. It is reported she never showed remorse for her crimes. Some of the children were convicted in the crimes against Likens, and some charges dropped altogether.
4 Son of Sam: David Berkowitz
Spike Lee's take on the Son of Sam murders in New York City during the summer of 1977 was another film inspired by a real-life psycho named David Berkowitz. During 1976-1977, Berkowitz murdered six people in New York City. That summer, panic spread through the city and the largest manhunt in New York’s history took place. Berkowitz was caught and sentenced to 365 years in prison. Berkowitz told police that he had been commanded to kill by his neighbor Sam Carr, who sent messages to him through Carr's dog. Berkowitz is rotting in prison to this day, having been rejected for parole in 2014. His case will be reviewed again in 2016.
3 The Green River Killer: Gary Ridgway
For a period of twenty years, the deranged serial-killer Gary Ridgway killed at least forty-eight prostitutes and dumped their bodies in Green River. The 2005 film profiled Ridgway for the sick creep he really was and still is as he serves a life sentence in prison, having escaped the death penalty by making a plea deal with police. Ridgway was a married father from Auburn, Washington when he committed these crimes, stating that he picked prostitutes because he knew they’d likely never be reported missing. In recent interviews, the killer has bragged that his death count was more like 75-80 women, but authorities aren’t certain if this is truth or a desperate attempt at more attention.
2 Cannibal: Armin Meiwes
Cannibal is perhaps the most shocking, not because the killer was real or even because he took part in the consumption of another human, but because the victim was a willing participant in his own death. The film is based on Armin Meiwes, a 42-year old German man who was a decent neighbor and an unassuming member of the community in which he lived. After he was caught, Meiwes admitted that he had met a 43-year-old Berlin engineer, Bernd Brandes, after advertising on the internet, and had chopped him up and eaten him. Apparently Brandes was a willing participant, even appearing on tape saying he was compliant with the arrangement. The two men, on the night the murder began (Brandes was finished off the next morning with a knife to the neck) went up to the bedroom where Brandes ingested 20 sleeping pills and half a bottle of schnapps before Meiwes cut off his penis and fried it for both of the men to eat. After Brandes’s death, Meiwes cut his body into pieces, froze the parts, and enjoyed them for dinner each night by candlelight.
1 Helter Skelter: Charles Manson
The 1976 film, Helter Skelter, focuses on the investigation and trial of the mass murders orchestrated by cult leader, Charles Manson in the late 1960s. Manson orchestrated a reported 35 murders, all carried out by his strangely devoted (and mostly young, female) followers. There wasn’t enough concrete evidence to convict on all thirty-five murders, but Manson still got life in prison. The most talked about murders were the ones involving pregnant actress, Sharon Tate, during a house party she was having with friends. Manson’s disciples wrote “pig” on the walls with the victim’s blood and apparently had a ball killing the innocent and unsuspecting men and women, one of whom was Abigail Folger, heir to the coffee fortune. Manson has received perhaps more notoriety in prison than any other serial killer in history. In 2015, Manson had a near-wedding that was called off when it was revealed his fiance only wanted his corpse to put on display.