7 real-life murders that inspired horror movies

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Jun 19, 2020, 11:50 AM EDT (Updated)

Sometimes the scariest stories come from reality. After all, what's scarier than the truth? Plenty of horror films are fabricated from fiction and the inside of a writer's mind. But there are true stories so upsetting they inspired horror films.

Here are some real-life murders and the films they inspired.

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The Gainesville Ripper

The year was 1990. As the summer drew to a close, students flocked to the University of Florida in Gainesville to start classes. But some of them would never make it. The Gainesville Ripper was about to begin his rampage. 

The madness began Friday, August 24, when Danny Rolling killed freshmen Sonja Larson and Christina Powell. The very next day he killed his third victim Christa Hoyt.

When news of the murders spread through the city, students feared for their lives, many even leaving town. They made sure to sleep in groups and bewared their surroundings. Panic ensued as the media flocked to town to cover the murders. The next Monday, he killed again — this time, 23-year-olds Tracy Paules and Manny Taboada.

If this sounds at all familiar, it's probably because these terrible massacres were the inspiration for the 1996 film Scream penned by Kevin Williamson. In the film, a killer comes to town, terrifying students. Like Gainesville, the town of Woodsboro becomes overrun with media and fear while the killer is loose. The parallels are obvious. Of course, all of the facts in the case didn't make it into the film, but the general sense of panic and mayhem certainly did.

Rolling was arrested on September 7, 1990, and in 1994 pleaded guilty to all charges. On October 25, 2006, he was put to death by lethal injection in Florida.

exorcism of emily rose

The exorcism of Anneliese Michel

You might think of exorcism as a long-forgotten experience revived only in fiction, but the terrifying exorcisms in the horror film The Exorcism of Emily Rose are based on the true story of a girl named Anneliese Michel.

In 1952, Anneliese Michel was born in Leiblfing, Germany. She grew up in a very religious Catholic family and attended mass twice a week with her sisters and parents. As a teen, Anneliese began suffering from seizures and was diagnosed with epilepsy. But by age 18, her condition had worsened and she started taking drugs to help quell her seizures. While taking these medications, she began to see strange visions and hallucinations. By then, she was living in a psychiatric hospital for treatment of her epilepsy in addition to depression and suicidal thoughts. After years of no improvements, her parents became convinced she was possessed and began using exorcisms as treatment.

And why exactly did they believe she was possessed? Anneliese apparently refused to walk past an image of Jesus and would not drink holy water. Originally the Rite of Exorcism was denied twice but eventually, the Bishop approved the use of exorcism on Anneliese.

Over the course of 10 months, 67 rites of exorcism were performed on her. These were difficult on her body and she began to refuse food and water, but doctors were never called as Anneliese’s body continued to deteriorate. Ultimately, Anneliese died as a result of malnourishment and dehydration. She continued to suffer from seizures until her death.

In The Exorcism of Emily Rose, directed by Scott Derrickson, the point wasn't to analyze what exactly caused Emily Rose's afflictions but focus more on just how culpable those around her were for her death — a legitimate question.

After her death, an investigation was conducted and both Anneliese’s parents and two priests were found guilty of negligent homicide. The church later admitted they believed she was not possessed but had actually been suffering from mental illness. 

If you dare, you can listen to audio from one of Anneliese’s exorcisms.


Ed Gein aka The Butcher of Plainfield

Ed Gein grew up on his family's farm in Wisconsin. His mother kept him mostly isolated from kids his age and didn't allow him to make friends. After the death of his father and brother, Ed and his mother grew even closer. When she suffered from a stroke, he took care of her until her death in 1945.

Years later in 1957, a local woman went missing. Gein had been the last to see her. When the police went to question him, they found her body in his home along with disturbing items ranging from skulls to skin. Gein then told police the whole story.

Beginning in 1947, Gein visited local graveyards at night and exhumed bodies of women he thought resembled that of his mother. He used their skin to create a "woman suit" which he could physically get inside of and "become his mother." Yes, THIS IS REAL. In addition to the skin suit, he also used skin from corpses as masks and used other various body parts around his house. During questioning, Gein admitted to the murder of another woman and is suspected in the cases of other unsolved mysteries.

Ed Gein remains one of the most infamous (and disturbing) serial killers in history. The story of his murders was fictionalized in Robert Bloch's 1959 novel Psycho. Of course, the book was adapted into that Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name you've probably heard of. Gein is also said to have inspired the characters of Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs.


The Backpacker Murders

Between the years of 1989 and 1994, a murderer was loose in New South Wales, Australia. Young backpackers visiting the island had been disappearing without a trace — until September 1992, when the bodies of the first two victims were discovered. Two British backpackers, Caroline Clarke and Joanne Walters had disappeared a few months earlier. When their bodies were found, one had been stabbed 15 times and the other had been shot 10 times.

A year later, two more bodies were discovered. A month after that, another three bodies. All had similar marks and patterns. All were victims of the same man: Ivan Milat.

As a hunt for the killer began, a man reported having been offered a ride from someone named "Bill" who then proceeded to tie him up and attempt to abduct him. Luckily, the man escaped and reported the incident to police. Through a series of resources, the police were able to narrow in on Milat, who the man was then able to identify as his attempted abductor.

A 2005 horror film called Wolf Creek is based on these murders. In the film, three tourist backpackers are abducted and hunted in the Australian outback by a serial killer.

Milat was sentenced to seven life sentences. Police believe he may be responsible for the murders of even more missing backpackers.


The Phantom Killer and the Texarkana Moonlight Murders

In the spring of 1946, an unknown killer reeked havoc in the town of Texarkana, Texas. For 10 weeks, the killer preyed on couples killing a total of five people and injuring three others. His first two victims were attacked in their car in a deserted "lover's lane" area but survived. The next two weren't as lucky. 

From February through the summer, residents were in a panic, fearing sunset and dreading the next potential attack. Gun and ammo sales rose as residents began to arm and lock themselves inside. Some teenagers even tried to catch the killer themselves by using bait. The police patrolled neighborhoods but never arrested the perpetrator, who became known as The Phantom Killer. Ultimately, the killing spree ended in May with the death of a well-liked farmer and welder named Virgil Starks who was shot in the head in his living room. His wife survived the attack.

The 1976 slasher film The Town That Dreaded Sunrise was loosely based on the still-unsolved murders and actually shot in Texarkana and the surrounding area using locals as extras.


The Amityville Horror

In November 1974, the suburban town of Amityville, New York, was in shock after 112 Ocean Avenue became the setting of a real-life horror film. It started when Ronald DeFeo, Jr. rushed into a local bar yelling that his parents had been killed. When the police arrived, DeFeo's parents along with his two brothers and two sisters between the ages of 9 and 18 were all dead in their beds, victims of gunshots. DeFeo originally suggested a mob hit had been carried out on the family before ultimately confessing to committing the murders himself. In 1975, he was found guilty and began serving time for the six murders.

But the story only gets more interesting from there. In 1977, Jay Anson published a book called The Amityville Horror, which detailed the aftermath of the murders, when the Lutz family moved into 112 Ocean Avenue and began experiencing supernatural activity while living in the house. The alleged activity included waking up every morning at the time of the DeFeo murders, swarms of flies, nightmares, welts, and levitation just to name a few. Anson used taped recollections from the Lutz family as the basis for the book.

In 1979, the first in a series of horror films based on the book was released. Although the validity of the Lutz family's experiences are often called into question, one of the members of the family says the events of the book were "mostly true."


The Snowtown Murders

In May 1999, the South Australian Police uncovered a gruesome scene. They found six plastic barrels containing the remains of eight dismembered bodies in an old bank vault. They were ultimately able to tie the murders to the man renting the vault, John Bunting. Beginning in 1992, Bunting convinced two of his friends to assist him in murdering victims by saying they were pedophiles or gay, two groups of people he hated intensely since childhood. After killing them, Bunting and his friends then put the bodies of their victims in the barrels to avoid being caught.

In 2011, a crime horror film based on the murders called Snowtown was released in Australia. The film gives more background and insight into the life and motivations of the ringleader John Bunting.