Most horror films have some basis in reality. Wes Craven, director of the famous Nighmare on Elmstreet series and Serpent and the Rainbow, has often cited real news headlines as inspiration for the films he creates, and undoubtedly a number of other directors do the same. Taking a bit of reality and crafting an entire alternate universe around it in order to play on the subliminal fears of the human psyche is a rare talent that few can pull off as masterfully as men like Craven or Clive Barker. While these movies can be scary, there is also the rational part of the viewer’s brain that realizes that the horrific things they’ve just seen are simply a work of fiction and couldn’t possibly exist within the real world, but what about the movies that have more than just a little truth behind them?
It’s fairly common knowledge among horror fans that some of the scariest fictional slashers and killers were based off of real world counterparts – Leatherface, Buffalo Bill, and Norman Bates (among a handful of others) were all based on Ed Gein, the legends of cannibal Sawney Bean inspired the movie The Hills Have Eyes – but even those films blended a little bit of truth with a whole lot of fiction. To me the scariest horror movies of them all are based on real life events, adding credence to our motto “The worst monsters are real”.
Today we’ll explore five of these films. While this short list is in no way comprehensive of the number of horror films that are actually based on true crimes, I specifically chose these movies because they aren’t as obvious as the whole line of serial killer movies – Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Dahmer, etc. – and because of the brutal and bizarre nature of the crimes that inspired these films.
The Strangers is one of several dozen films that fall within the budding “home invasion” horror sub-genre. A couple returning from a friend’s wedding go to stay in a remote cabin owned by their family. After an argument between the couple, a strange woman knocks on the door and things begin to get even weirder. A group of masked assailants show up to terrorize and torture the young couple, forcing them to fight for their lives. While other movies like The Purge and You’re Next may be some great works of fiction, The Strangers is unique in that it was based on the real life Keddie Murders.
A struggling cabin resort in Keddie, California had taken to renting out lodging to struggling low-income families as full-time living accommodations. Residing on the grounds was the Sharp family. Sue Sharp, a single mother of 5, had agreed to allow two friends of her son’s spend the night while her 14-year-old daughter Sheila spent the night at a neighbor’s house and her oldest son, Johnny, was out with some friends for most of the evening. The events leading up to the murders are unknown, but it’s been speculated that Johnny either came home as the murderer was attacking his mother or his hitchhike home lead the murderers to the family’s little cabin. Sue’s daughter Shelia returned home the next day to find her mother, brother Johnny, and Johnny’s girlfriend Dana Wingate restrained, stabbed repeatedly with a steak knife, and bludgeoned with a hammer. Sue’s son Justin and his two friends were found tied to a chair and still alive.
Three years later the skull of 12-year-old Tina Sharp was recovered at a camp site nearly 29 miles away from the town of Keddie. It’s been over 30 years since what’s been called the worst murders in Plumas County’s history occurred and the case still remains unsolved.
Admittedly, the movie Hoboken Hollow is not much to write home about. A drifter is picked up in Texas and suffers unspeakable torments by his captures. I apologize for the short synopsis, but that was the nicest possible way of describing the film without outright saying that it’s a steaming pile of crap. There’s a few over-the-top gore scenes that may excite the less seasoned horror fans, but for us vets it’s fairly unimpressive. While the movie itself is fairly unremarkable, the crime the film is based on was too interesting not to tell.
In 1984 a Texas ranch was raided by federal police after it was discovered that the people running it had kidnapped dozens of drifters, tortured them, and forced them to work as slaves. The most disturbing piece of evidence recovered were audio recordings of the torture and murder of a man named Anthony Bates. Bates can be heard screaming and crying in agony as his tormentors laugh. After the man was dead his body was cremated.
Although there were a number of weapons recovered from the ranch, none could be determined to be the murder weapon, and with no body there was no evidence aside from witness testimony and the audio recordings to convict the 3 men – ranch owner Walter W. Ellebracht Sr., son Walter W. Ellebracht Jr., and former foreman Carlton R. Caldwell – on murder charges. Instead Ellebracht Sr. was sentenced to probation, Ellebracht Jr. was allowed to walk free as his case went through the appeals process, and Caldwell served less than three years in prison.
The Town that Dreaded Sundown
The 1976 movie, The Town that Dreaded Sundown, is more or less an over-exaggerated version of the real life “Phantom Killer” that stalked and killed teenagers parked on lovers’ lanes in the town of Texarkana during the late 1940s.
The first known targets of the Phantom were Jimmy Hollis and Mary Jeanne Larey. Parked on a lovers’ lane located on the Texas side of town, the teenagers were assaulted by a strange man. The couple was able to escape their attacker and made their way to a neighbor’s home where they promptly reported the incident to the police.
Roughly two months later the mysterious attacker would strike again, claiming his first two victims. Like Hollis and Larey, Richard L. Griffin and Polly Ann Moore were attacked after parking down a secluded road. Both had been shot in the back of the head. When two more victims – Paul Martin and Betty Jo Booker – were discovered murdered
The attack of another couple within their own home was initially attributed to the mysterious Phantom Killer as well, but the case was later ruled to be unrelated and a suspect was convicted. By this time the whole town was in a state of hysteria. Over 400 suspects have been arrested over the years in connection to the Moonlight Murders, but due to a lack of evidence no one has ever been convicted.
The film Eaten Alive seems to blend two popular sub-genres of horror – creature features and serial killers – into one delightfully campy romp, with a style and flair that could only be produced in the 1970s. In the spirit of full disclosure I will admit that I am bias towards creature features, so this film is by far my favorite on the list. While I had a good time laughing at some of the cheesy “death” scenes and pointing out Mortica Adams and Freddy Krueger’s cameos in the film, I was pretty shocked to discover that the movie was based on the exploits of real life serial killer Joe Ball.
Nicknamed “The Alligator Man”, the Texas tavern owner drew a big crowd to his establishment, primarily because of his self-built gator pond in the back. Patrons enjoyed watching Joe feed his pet alligators, which included Joe tossing them live cats and dogs. Neighbors began to complain of the horrible smell coming from the pond, but Joe shut them up pretty quickly after threatening one neighbor with a pistol.
When some of the waitresses at the tavern began turning up missing, Joe was immediately questioned on their whereabouts. Joe claimed that the women had quit in order to find other jobs. 12 women that worked for the tavern were reported missing, along with 2 women Joe was married to. When investigators questioned the handyman, he cracked and confessed that he had helped Joe dispose of the bodies in the gator pits. Knowing he was facing the electric chair, Joe took his pistol and shot himself before he could be apprehended. The handyman that implicated himself as an accessory to murder served several years in prison. The alligators were donated to a local zoo.
While in Mexico for a little free spirited fun, a group of college students get mixed up with a group of Mexican cult members. After one of the students is kidnapped by these cult members, the rest of the gang investigates, only to find out that their friend is being held captive by the dangerous cult. It is revealed that the cult requires a human sacrifice in order to summon the powers of Nganga and make their drugs invisible so they can easily slip them past the borders.
It would seem that such a far-fetched story could never be true, or at the very least another case of satanic panic, however, Borderland was based on the known cult leader and serial killer Adolfo Constanzo. Growing interested in Voodoo and Santeria as a teenager, Constanzo studied under the tutelage of a Haitian priest, whom Constanzo claims gave him the ability to use his “powers” for profit. Taking up the life as a petty criminal and grave robber, Constanzo slowly became more and more delusional about his supposed “powers” and pledged his life to serving satanic forces.
Constanzo then traveled to Mexico City where he began to build his following. He convinced others of his powers, including cartel members and high ranking Mexican officials. He told them had the ability to make them invisible, allowing them to easily avoid detection by police or other enemies, and could predict the best times to make drug deliveries. Constanzo believed that his powers relied on ritualistic human sacrifices and began to mutilate people in order to throw their body parts into his magic cauldron.
Becoming angry with Calzada crime family, Constanzo and his followers murdered seven of their associates, after they refused to allow Constanzo to work with them. Becoming more involved in the drug trade, Constanzo and his followers would often choose rival drug dealers as their victims. After removing the necessary organs from the bodies, the rest of the body was dumped anywhere, including public streets to be discovered by children. When police busted several of Constanzo’s associates, many were all too happy to confess to the murders and implicated Constanzo as the ring-leader. Nearly 200 police officers surrounded the apartment building Constanzo was hiding. After a 45 minute shootout, officers discovered that Constanzo had killed himself and his lover. Twelve other cult members within the building were arrested.