Welcome back to our continuation of the month of horror. The above painting was painted c.1560 as a reproduction of a 15th century portrait. The subject would partially inspire one of horror's most famous characters. Many horror books, films and even video games have at least some inspiration from real life people or events. This week I shall go through some of the real life inspirations for the media that have caused our nightmares.
Bram Stoker took inspiration from a real life figure when writing his 1897 novel Dracula. The aforementioned portrait is of the man who partially inspired Stoker: Vlad III aka Vlad the Impaler. Stoker had already formulated his novel by the time that he had read Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia with Political Observations Relative to Them by William Wilkinson but the book had a profound influence on Stoker. The book had a section on Vlad III who had been known for his cruelty in his wars against the Ottoman Empire, many of the tales of his cruelty come from Western sources however. He earned the title of 'The Impaler' for reportedly having between 40,000 to 100,000 people impaled on stakes. His other atrocities included razing towns to the ground, taking sadistic pleasure in torturing captives and mutilating women (we do know these atrocities did take place because Russian and German sources say the same thing although his enjoyment of the atrocities could very well be embellished). Some sources report that Vlad would stand under an impaled body and use a cup to gather up some of the blood leaking down the stake, when an enemy came close enough he would then drink from the cup (again this may be embellished). Stoker took inspiration from Vlad the Impaler's fondness for stakes, sadism and violence and implemented it into his novel. His vampire lord would come from Vlad the Impaler's home of Transylvania and his main antagonist went from being called Count Wampyr to Count Dracula, Dracula being the patronymic name of Vlad's family. Thus horror history was made.
Silence of the Lambs
Thomas Harris's novel and film adaptation are highly regarded as the best psychological horrors. The plot revolves around FBI agent Clarice Starling who must utilize the mind of cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter to catch serial killer and kidnapper Buffalo Bill. Harris has revealed that Buffalo Bill is an amalgamation of multiple serial killers. In both the novel and the film Buffalo Bill kidnaps women, starves them and then skins them in order to make a 'suit' for him to wear. This modus operandi is similar to that of serial killer Ed Gein who would exhume bodies and make trophies out of the body parts, even making a female skin mask. Buffalo Bill also pretends to be injured to get women to help him, the same method which real life serial killer Ted Bundy used to kidnap his victims. Bill killed his grandparents in the same way as Edmund Kemper did. After he kills his victims Buffalo Bill inserts a moth into their throat before throwing them into a river, just as the Green River Killer Gary Ridgway did to his victims. Bill is based on a further two serial killers but arguably the best known character from the series is based on a real killer. Hannibal Lecter made his debut in Harris's novel Red Dragon (and his film debut in Manhunter with Brian Cox playing the serial killer) and in 2013 he revealed that the inspiration for Hannibal Lecter came from Alfredo Ballí Treviño. Treviño was a doctor who had murdered a close friend and mutilated his body. Harris had years later interviewed him for Red Dragon.
Jaws by Peter Benchley is a mixture between a slasher film and Moby Dick with a small town sheriff hunting down a man-eating Great White shark. In 1975 Steven Spielberg adapted it and became one of the biggest summer blockbusters of all time. Although Benchley has denied this several people have claimed that Jaws was inspired by a series of shark attacks on the Jersey Shore in 1916. Over a period of just a few days a shark attacked five people, four of whom tragically died. Here it is easy to see why many believe that this influenced Jaws. Over the last fifty years sharks have been driven perilously close to extinction through hunting and now Peter Benchley is a leading campaigner for their conservation.
Nightmare on Elm Street
Nightmare on Elm Street is one of the best known horror movies of the 1980s and with the idea that you are not safe in your dreams it has had a terrifying lasting legacy. It was also inspired by real events. In 1981 eighteen Cambodian refugees tragically died in their sleep despite being of good health. The Atlanta's Center of Disease Control looked into Sudden Unexpected Death Syndrome for an answer and found that they had seemingly died thanks to a nightmare. Fourteen Times magazine has put this down to Bruanda Syndrome, an extremely rare genetic syndrome that can cause death in sleep that is triggered through extremely traumatic experiences. The refugees had this syndrome and had barely survived the Killing Fields which was one of the worst cases of genocide following the Holocaust. Wes Craven saw this in the L.A. Times and became inspired for a horror movie. Three years later Nightmare on Elm Street was released.
This 2008 horror movie revolves around three masked assailants who break into a couple's house and assault them 'because they were in'. This may seem far-fetched but it had inspiration from a real life event. Charles Manson had established a small cult-following and believed that an apocalypse was coming through a race war. In 1969 over a period of five weeks Manson and his followers went on a murder spree killing seven people including pregnant actress Sharon Tate. As of writing he is still serving a life imprisonment in Corcoran State Prison, California. Years later his actions would inspire this film.
William Peter Blattys's novel terrified the world over when it was released and when it was adapted to the cinema screen it terrified the world once again. The Exorcist remains one of the most heavily regarded and greatest horror novels and films. Blatty was actually inspired by a real exorcism. While studying at Georgetown University in 1950 he heard about a story of a young boy in Cottage City, Maryland the previous year. When he came to writing his novel the boy was changed to a girl and the setting was changed to Washington D.C. which is near to Georgetown University. Father Merrin is also based on a real life person. British archaeologist Gerald Lankaster Harding had done excavation work in the cave where the Dead Sea scrolls had been discovered. Blatty had later met him in Beirut and there Father Merrin was born.
The Last of Us
The Last of Us is without a doubt one of the greatest video games of all time. With great gameplay, visuals and characters it deserved every award that it got. The constant antagonists of the game are zombie-like infected humans with a taste for human flesh, all of whom are infected with a fungus. The game developers gained some of the inspiration for The Last of Us from a real life fungus featured on a David Attenborough documentary. The Cordyceps fungus is a type of fungi which infects an arthropod (normally ants) and grows inside them. It takes over their brain and eventually grows through the arthropods' body to infect another arthropod with its spores. Normally when the carapace bursts the unfortunate arthropod dies. The developers saw this and became inspired to adapt it for their zombie plague. Note as well in the opening you can see stock footage of the Cordyceps fungus infecting ants and other arthropods.
The Hills Have Eyes
The Hills Have Eyes was one of Wes Craven's first horror films and has been established as a cult classic. It revolves around a family who break down in the desert and are set upon by a patriarchal clan of cannibals. This is a unique entry on the list as it is the only one to have had major debates about its source of inspiration actually existing. Wes Craven was partially inspired by Sawney Bean. Bean was a the patriarchal head of a clan formed by multiple cases of incest and living in Bennane Head. They attacked travelers who crossed into their territory and cannibalized them; around 1000 people were supposedly eaten by the Bean clan! When James VI found out he ordered a manhunt for them and they were soon found, sent to Tolbooth Jail in Edinburgh and executed. Several historians have doubted the validity of the Sawney Bean story due to a lack of any reference in newspapers or letters at the time that it was supposed to take place.
Psycho, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, American Horror Story and House of 1000 Corpses
All of these films, TV shows and books have one character based on a real life serial killer. He also serves as one of the killers who inspired Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs. That killer happened to be Ed Gein. Gein inspired Leatherface (Chainsaw Massacre), Bloody Face (Horror Story), Norman Bates (Psycho) and virtually every antagonist in House of 1000 Corpses. His actions of making trophies from body parts exhumed from coffins, and the fact that he is known to have murdered two people, helped inspired countless of media's most terrifying villains.
Thank you for reading. There are many, many more horror franchises inspired by real life events (The Conjuring just to name another) that could keep this list going for a long time. I hope I'll see you next time for the last week in the month of horror!