Ever wonder how your favorite villains were created? A few were based on actual historical figures, while others were an amalgam of various ideas and events, culminating in the nefarious inception of terrifying anti-heroes who have had an enormous impact on pop culture.
Here are a few of the most fascinating creatures of all time, and how they came to be. Surprisingly, the reality is far more chilling and mind blowing than the eerie inventions they helped inspire.
1. Freddy Krueger from A Nightmare on Elm Street
A mainstay in horror films for three decades and running, Freddy Krueger first made his memorable appearance in Wes Craven’s iconic A Nightmare on Elm Street. A vicious character whose physical scars – unlike similar villains before him, such as Leatherface, or Mike Myers – were not masked, and likewise his Id ran amok, petrifying his victims in their sleep.
So how did Craven come up with such a twisted character? Well, according to well-documented oral history on the film, it seems that the prime source of inspiration was an L.A. Times article about a family that had survived the Killing Fields in Cambodia; one of the blackest markers of the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge regime. Nearly 2 million individuals who were brutally tortured are buried there in a mass grave, which to this day sees bones, clothing, and teeth occasionally surface on the grounds after torrential rains.
The family featured in the newspaper article had made their way to the United States, but one of the younger boys was haunted by terrible nightmares when he slept. He told his family that he was afraid that if he slept, the thing chasing him would get him, so he would try to stay awake for days on end. When he did finally fall asleep, the boys’ parents heard his screams in the middle of the night; by the time they got to him, he died … in the middle of a nightmare. The fact that someone so young died due to causes that the adults in his life denied, became a focal point in Craven’s film, and Krueger’s most deadly weapon: chasing the vulnerable in their sleep.
2. Norman Bates in Psycho – Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs – and Leatherface in Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Arguably, no other serial killer has held the cinematic imagination captive more than the notoriously deranged Ed Gein, who was finally captured in the 1950s. The Wisconsin born criminal helped inspire some of film’s most demonic creations, namely Alfred Hitchcock’s infamous Norman Bates character featured in Psycho. But other notable horror films, including Silence of the Lambs and Texas Chainsaw Massacre drew notably from Gein’s life.
Born to a fervently Lutheran mother, and raised on an isolated farm, both Gein and his brother were subjected to hours-long lectures on the evil of drinking, the innate immorality of women whom she believed were prostitutes by nature and instruments of the devil. The boys read aloud with their mother awfully graphic passages from the New Testament daily, and were not allowed to make friends.
In school, Gein was shy, and his colleagues remember him as being a bit of an odd duck, prone to random spasm of laughter, talking to himself, and so on.
While the exact timeline of Gein’s crimes as a serial killer is a bit muddled, it seems that his most insane episodes began when his mother died, and he began creating what was called a “woman suit” so that he could become his mother by literally crawling into her skin. So, in addition to being a serial killer, Ed Gein’s most notable crimes involved exhuming corpses from the nearby cemetery, to play with the skin and bones he found.
Upon Gein’s capture, local law enforcement found a ghastly accouterment of body parts in his home, all given various uses; bowls made from human skulls, a corset made from a female torso’s skin, leggings cut from human skin, masks made from the skin of female heads, and a lampshade made from a human face, amongst other horrifying creations.
Shortly before Ed Gein would take the stand in the criminal case against him, the local sheriff in charge of his case died of a heart attack; his family blamed the scarring images he saw as the prime reason behind his untimely death.
Dracula is undoubtedly one of the most influential characters of all time, and Bram Stoker’s version of the vampire remains the most popular. Stoker first told the story of Dracula on a stormy night during a summer visit with his friends, Mary and Percy Shelly, for entertainment. Of course, this is the same notorious evening that led to the birth of Dr. Frankenstein. Both characters came to be on that same night as the friends huddled around the fire, telling each other scary stories to prevent the evening from becoming terribly dull.
Dracula, as conceived by Stoker, was a mish-mash of ancient folklore and historic figures, namely Vlad the Impaler, the Romanian ruler who launched a brutal campaign against the Ottoman Empire, and plundered many of Transylvanian villages, impaling his captives. The most damning image of his reign is thousands of bodies impaled on sticks, flooding empty fields.
While this chapter of Romanian mythology was undoubtedly a huge influence on the creation of Dracula, a less sited historical figure should also be taken into account: Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed of Hungary, more popularly known as The Countess of Blood.
Born in 1560, she was a Hungarian noblewoman and one of history’s first documented female serial killers. She was accused of torturing and murdering hundreds of young women between 1585 and 1609 – some sources refer to a number as high as 650, but that is still debated.
The stories of her brutality are many, including mutilating the dead, imprisoning girls till their death, and her vampire-like tendencies, which included bathing in the blood of virgins in a bid to retain her youth. The murderous countess managed to escape state sanctioned death for her crimes due to her powerful family’s influence, but she was imprisoned in solitary confinement within a castle till her death.
The original myth of repeating ‘Candyman’ three times in a mirror and he will appear still forms the basis for the story. But what changed in the filmic version is that the Candyman’s horror is underscored by the tragedies of slavery.
Reportedly the son of a slave who wanted to become an artist, only to fall in love with a white woman and die at the hands of a lynch mob. The Candyman’s spirit haunts the projects of Cabrini-Green, and is responsible for a few horrendous acts, including the castration of a young boy.
Many horror stories concern the urban legend of a slave who died at the hand of a brutal lynch mob. But combined with the very modern American paranoia of ghetto life, and the harsh conditions of the projects, Candyman embodied a multitude of racial anxieties and arguments, which some believe may have done more harm than good in the discussion on race, gender, and the ghosts of slavery. Nonetheless, Candyman remains one of the most prescient and tragic villains in pop culture history.
5. The Amityville Horror
The house in The Amityville Horror is one of history’s most iconic villains, even if it’s not exactly a walking, talking character per se.
Amityville House was the setting for the book and film of the same name, released in the late 1970s. The horror in Amityville can be traced to the life murder case of Ronald DeFeo, Jr., who, in 1974, shot and killed all six members of his family in the house.
Nearly a year later, George and Kathy Lutz moved into the house, but left after twenty-eight days, claiming to have been terrorized by paranormal phenomena. Some of these horrifying incidents include Kathy finding red welts on her chest left by a dark figure levitating over her bed; the intertwined odors of perfume and excrement wafting inexplicably in various areas of the house; a demonic pig-like creature with glowing red eyes that befriends their 5 year old daughter; rocking chairs moving back and forth for no real reason; doors slamming; George seeing the image of a demon with half his head blown out while tending to a fire, which was then burned into soot at the back of the fireplace.
While many have argued against the validity of the Lutz’s story, and believe some elements may have been wildly exaggerated, the Amityville House – despite the district changing the name, street address, and making numerous renovations – remains uninhabited to this day.
Reality Stranger than Fiction
Of course, there are more horrifying truths behind the most infamous villains, including the creation of Frankenstein, the story of demonic possession in The Exorcist, and so on. Do you have a favourite real-life story spookier than fiction?