11 Creepy Movie Characters Who Were Based On Even Creepier Real People
Watching movies (especially scary ones) can leave you feeling a little on edge afterwards, suspecting even the slightest shadows. Once the credits start to roll and we find ourselves back in reality, it can be comforting to remind ourselves everything we just watched was an invention specifically designed to spook us, a well-told story, nothing more. Unfortunately for those already peeking through their fingers at the screen, some of the freakier fictions are based squarely on reality, a place stranger than the inside of any screenwriter's head. These 11 creepy movie characters were based on real people, and woe to those who had the misfortune to run into them IRL.
It'd be a little too easy pointing out every script and screenplay inspired by a serial killer — of course the idea of someone going beyond murder to a level of sadistic planning and execution of their twisted fantasies is disturbing, and reality unfortunately provides too many ready examples to pull from. But not all the inspiration on this list are completely monstrous. Humans are flawed creatures even with the best intentions, and often a compelling story comes from examining those personal failings, like the twin doctors who succumbed to drug use inspiring Cronenberg to pen Dead Ringers. (More on that below.) So scroll on through and get ready to look over your shoulder next time you walk through a crowd; you might just find your own inspiration waiting.
1'Halloween' — Michael Myers
In a 2003 documentary, horror director John Carpenter revealed the main inspiration for Halloween's serial terror came from a class visit to a mental institution. He said, according to Esquire, "We visited the most serious, mentally ill patients. And there was this kid, he must have been 12 or 13 and he literally had this look" — a look referred to in the film as "the devil's eyes."
2'Dead Ringers' — Elliot & Beverly Mantle
The twin gynecologists of David Cronenberg's melancholy character study were based on real-life twin gynecologists Drs. Stewart and Cyril Marcus, who like their film counterparts, died of drug use in the 1970s. As the New York Times reports, some of the real doctors' quirks made it into the film, but ultimately Cronenberg and actor Jeremy Irons created their own indelible world.
3'Scream' — Ghostface
Complex has a detailed breakdown of the terrifying Florida serial killer that inspired Scream's iconic masked killer. For too long a time known only as the Gainesville Ripper, Danny Rolling was eventually caught, convicted of the brutal knife murders and mutilations of eight people, and was sentenced to death in 1994.
4'The Hills Have Eyes' — Papa Jupiter
The cannibal patriarch leading his inbred family in attacking a family of stranded travelers was based on, as 13th Floor tells it, legendary 15th century Scotsman Alexander “Sawney” Bean, a farmer who took a wife and absconded to a well-hidden shoreside cave. They supposedly created a large, incestuous brood and would slip out from the cave at night to murder, dismember, and eat unwary travelers, though History offers good evidence the entire story was likely salacious slander against the Scots.
5'Silence Of The Lambs' — Hannibal Lecter
Fans debated for years about who inspired Hannibal the Cannibal's genteel ultra-violence, but the question was finally put to rest by author Thomas Harris in a 25th anniversary reprint introduction to Silence of the Lambs. Surprising nearly everyone, Medical Bag reports the direct inspiration was little-known Mexican murderer Alfredo Ballí Treviño, a doctor who Harris had met and interviewed while doing research at Nuevo León's Topo Chico Penitentiary after the author saw him save the life of an inmate. It wasn't until Harris was leaving the prison and mentioned the doctor to one of the guards when he claims he found out that the doctor was one of the prisoners, convicted of slashing up his lover with a screwdriver into pieces small enough they fit into a small box.
6'Night Of The Hunter' — Harry Powell
Even if you're not familiar with the source, you know the knuckle tats. Turns out that the murderous preacher stalking children across the land in Night of the Hunter was based on real-life serial killer Harry Powers, aka the Bluebeard of Quiet Dell, as noted by podcast Based On A True Crime. Where his fictional counterpart drove around finding women to marry and murder, Powers reportedly lured women to his farm, where police eventually discovered five bodies, three of them children's.
7'Taxi Driver' — Travis Bickle
Scorsese's terrifying loner and his rant-filled diary were inspired by an actual would-be assassin who kept a diary of his own. Time reports the film was inspired by Arthur Bremer, who shot and paralyzed presidential candidate George Wallace at a rally in 1972. His diary was used as evidence against him at trial (he was found guilty and sentenced to over 60 years), and reads like a precursor to the "manifestos" left online by the delusional "incel" shooters of today.
8'All About Eve' — Eve Harrington
Posing as a star-struck fan and slowly worming her way into the world of her "favorite" actress Margo Channing, Eve Harrington is one of filmdom's great villains, and she was based on real-life theater haunter Ruth Maxine Hirsch, or so said the film's screenwriter Mary Orr, according to the Independent. Her actress friend Elisabeth Bergner became paranoid Ruth was out to get her, something Ruth denied, though Ruth's friends say she just switched her clinging from stage queens to opera divas.
9'Ace In The Hole' — Chuck Tatum
The darkest character in this black commentary on media circuses, ace reporter Chuck Tatum will stop at nothing to land a story that'll let him claw his way back into the big leagues... even if it means keeping a poor man trapped in a cave. According to Some Like It Wilder: The Life and Controversial Films of Billy Wilder, the director was inspired by the true story of poor stuck spelunker Floyd Collins, and Tatum's an amalgam of the many reporters who used the story for their own gain. To be fair, real-life reporter William 'Skeets' Miller, who won a Pulitzer for his coverage, actually tried to help, though squeezing in to deliver food also got him an exclusive with Collins.
10'Les Misérables' — Jean Valjean & Javert
It's improbable that one man could've inspired both noble prison escapee Jean Valjean and police officer with a psychotic sense of justice Javert, but JaneAusten.co.uk reports that Victor Hugo based both characters on Eugène François Vidocq, a well-known philanthropist who'd built himself up after escaping from prison. Vidocq was later officially pardoned, also saved one of his workers by lifting a cart off them, and to cap it off, the former criminal is known as the father of criminology for founding crime-investigation agency Sûreté Nationale, as well as leading the first known private detective agency.
11Pretty Much Everyone Else
When it comes to horror inspiration supreme, few top notorious necrophiliac and mama's boy Ed Gein. The direct inspiration for Psycho's Norman Bates and Silence Of The Lamb's Buffalo Billas noted by Mental Floss, as well as Rob Zombie's films House of a Thousand Corpses and The Devil's Rejects. But Texas Chainsaw Massacre's Leatherface is the one who apes Gein most closely, with an isolated family farm full of body parts and mask made of human skin
(Author's note: do NOT research Ed Gein right before a family holiday dinner if you want to have an appetite/avoid tossing out horrifying facts to your Nana.)
These are just some of the more disturbing real-world inspirations for some of the creepiest film characters ever. Let's be thankful the way most of us meet them is on the silver screen.