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Some of the sickest killers and creepiest tales that cinema has seen have been inspired by real events. The infamous Ed Gein was the source of inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho as well as Texas Chainsaw Massacre's chainsaw-wielding Leatherface. The mysterious serial killer called The Monster of Florence was the basis for The Silence of the Lambs' Hannibal Lecter, and even this summer's hit The Conjuring recounts a true story of an out-of-hand haunting.
The world is full of mysteries, murders, and deeply disturbing true stories. So with Halloween just around the corner, here are ten true stories that seem perfect for a horror movie re-imagination of their own. Admittedly, some of these have gotten low-budget movie versions. But we think they deserve something a bit more substantial and deserving of their richly spooky roots.
H.H. HolmesThe Story: Often credited as America's first serial killer, Holmes's body count is thought to be somewhere between 27 (the number he confessed to) and 200 victims. How is such a thing possible? The simple answer is that Holmes built a hotel in a bustling part of Chicago in the 1890s, and designed it to be a perfect killing floor for his sick desires. Later called "Murder Castle," it was designed to be a maze of windowless rooms, making escape virtually impossible for those Holmes chose to trap. No one aside from Holmes knew the full layout of the place as he repeatedly hired and fired new builders to construct this killing castle in portions. Some of the weirder attributes of this hotel were doors only able to be opened from the outside, doorways that open on brick walls, a safe big enough to put a person inside (to suffocate them), and a chute that allowed him to dump bodies from the upper floors straight to the basement, where two massive furnaces and large supplies of flesh-stripping acid were stored.
The Pitch: Some version of Holmes' story is said to be in-development with Leonardo DiCaprio attached. But while we wait for news on that could-be project, let's imagine another. Typically, when it comes to serial killers, we don't center the film on them but on someone trying to escape them. For Holmes this would likely be a young woman who'd come to work at his hotel, as was the case with many of the victims he confessed to killing. She could be in Chicago for the 1893 World's Fair, and her story of smalltown girl gone to the big scary city goes dark as she tries to escape from the labyrinthine Murder Castle. Whether she does or not would be up to the screenwriter of course, but along the way she would learn the true depths of this respected entrepreneur's depravity.
The Winchester HouseThe Story: One of the strangest structures in the United States is the home of the late Sarah Winchester. The widow of gun magnate William Winchester, Sarah believed the ghosts created by her husband's Winchester rifles would come for vengeance. To protect her, she built a mansion in Northern California that was endlessly under construction for 36 years. It is said she believed that keeping it always in flux would ward off spirits who'd do her harm. But the construction is nonsensical at best. There are windows that look into other portions of the home rather than outside. There are doors and stairwells that lead nowhere. All told an estimated $75 million dollars by today's rates was spent on the house, which has been a tourist attraction since 1923, five months after she died of a heart failure at 83. Learn more about the house in the Ghost Adventures episode above.
The Pitch: Technically, the house has inspired a movie, but it was made by the dedicatedly low-budget schlock maker The Asylum. Instead, imagine the story of Sarah Winchester told in a gothic setting. It could begin after the death of her infant daughter in 1866, before leaping to the death of her husband in 1881. Then move ahead to her alone in the home and feeling lost. It could play out a psychological thriller, where the audience is kept on their toes about whether or not the house is haunted, or if Sarah is just deranged from so much grief. Tonally, think of The Others. In the end, Sarah would die as she did in life. Construction on the home would stop. And the final image could be her ghost wandering the halls of her home, looking for her lost husband and daughter.
Elisa LamThe Story: The unexplained death of Elisa Lam has been gone viral this month because of its bizarre circumstances. You can read a full rundown of what is known at Vigilant Citizen, but here are the key details. Early this year, a 21-year-old student named Elisa Lam was reported missing. Her body was later discovered by a maintenance worker in one of the rooftop water tanks of Los Angeles' Cecil Hotel, after guests had complained about the water tasting funny. Police found the above surveillance tape from the hotel's elevator, which may be some of Lam's final moments. You really have to watch it yourself to understand why it's been given so many the heebie jeebies and is inspiring paranormal activity theories. Keep in mind, no sign of alcohol or drug use were discovered in her autopsy.
The Pitch: Lam's strange demise is just one of stains on the Cecil Hotel's history. The shady locale has also played host two serial killers, including the Nightstalker, who is known to have murdered 13 women, and developed a reputation for being a hot spot for suicide from jumping out its windows. Basically, if I were going to make a movie of these events, it would be in the way of The Shining or American Horror Story: Murder House, where a location is essentially evil, driving those who stay there to commit incredible acts of violence. Maybe it could center on a detective, who is investigating a Lam-like case and begins to uncover the many skeletons the hotel has in its closets.
The Silent TwinsThe Story: June and Jennifer Gibbons were British twin girls whose bond became something ostracizing and dangerous as it drew them together, away from the world, and into trouble. As children, they spoke their own language, and rarely spoke to anyone else. But their love for each other sometimes curdled, resulting in one trying to murder the other and vice versa. As they got older, they went on a crime spree of theft and arson that got them branded as psychopaths. They were committed to Broadmoor Hospital for the criminally insane when they were just 14 years old. Later, they did finally begin to reach out to someone, journalist Marjorie Wallace. To her, they showed a remarkable self-awareness, admitting they could never be individuals as long as the other lived. Jennifer told Wallace, "I'm going to die. We've decided." And as they were being transferred to a lower security facility that would give them more personal freedom, Jennifer did just that. Though she is said to have died of a heart condition, it's a bizarre coincidence to say the least.
The Pitch: The Silent Twins have gotten a made for TV movie in the UK (trailer above), but their story is so unusual that it deserves something a bit flashier. It could be a deeply moody film that speaks to the pain of creating an identity apart from family. As June lives (free and seemingly mentally stable), it'd probably be best to center a film on her, and her struggle to love her sister while attempting to be separate from her. Imagine The Brothers Bloom, but darker. This is the kind of story I'd love to see We Need to Talk About Kevin director Lynne Ramsay handle. Can someone get on that please?
Death in the Dyatlov PassThe Story: There's a passage in Russia's Ural Mountains that's conditions are so harsh that its nearby peak is called Dead Mountain because of the lack of wildlife there. Why you'd want to go skiing in such a place is beyond me, but that's exactly what nine ski hikers did in February of 1959, never to return. The eventual search party discovered a tent ripped in two and all of the group's belongings--including their shoes--left behind despite the deathly cold temperatures. Following a trail of shoeless footprints that led to the woods, they soon recovered five of the bodies, some in their underwear. The rest were found two months later, when the spring thaw melted the snow that covered them. These were better clothed that the others, but unlike their friends--who were believed to have died of hypothermia--this foursome had strange fatal injuries that included major skull trauma, major chest fractures, and a missing tongue. The impact that could make this kind of damage is said to be that of a high-speed car crash, which has inspired many wild theories. You can see one of these in the History Channel piece above.
The Pitch: A recent low-budget thriller has imagined a found footage approach to tackling this tale, following five filmmakers aiming to retrace the steps of the ill-fated ski trippers. But I'd be more interested in seeing the original story explored as a monster movie, where something so big and horrible emerged from Death Mountain that it scared the hikers to abandon their tents in a rush, without proper weather protection. Perhaps a yeti or a terrible troll could be the creature at the center of this feature. Or considering the timeframe of the 1950s you could go the science-gone-awry path and have it be a beast of the atomic age, which would inspire a government cover-up.
The Disappearance Of Belle ElmoreThe Story: Belle Elmore was the stage name of aspiring opera singer Cora Crippen, unhappy wife of homeopathic Dr. Hawley Crippen. Sadly, her greatest fame was not achieved on the stage, but posthumously because of the bizarre circumstances surrounding her death. Despite her popularity in London's theatrical community, the Crippens did little together but quarrel, often publically. After a dispute at a party they'd thrown on January 31st, 1910, she went missing. Her husband insisted Cora had gone to California. But her friend, professional strongwoman Kate Williams, suspected foul play and went to Scotland Yard. Suspicion grew as Dr. Crippen invited his secretary, the pretty young Ethel Neave, to move in, and she began wearing Cora's jewelry and mink coat. When Scotland Yard turned up to his home to investigate, he was gone. But the coppers discovered a dismembered torso in his cellar, and the chase was on! Crippen and a cross-dressing Neave were spotted on a ship headed to Canada, and quickly caught upon their arrival.
The Pitch: Crippen's story is most often remember for being the first where a telegraph communication--in this case from a boat captain to Scotland Yard--was used to collar a criminal. Nonetheless, there's something deeply creepy about a man who'd murder his wife, wrap his lover in her clothes and happily live in their home until suspicion loomed too large. By all accounts, Crippen was not a bold man. He was typically described as mild-mannered, especially in contrast to his big and brassy wife. But clearly there was something sinister in his soul, inspiring him to poison his wife, hide the body, and effectively recast her with his doting assistant. Given the right screenwriter--say Peter Morgan--this intimate tale of betrayal and murder could be made into a harrowing domestic thriller for the ages.
The DoodlerThe Story: This was the deceptively mundane name given to an uncaught serial killer who terrorized the gay community of San Francisco's Tenderloin in the 1970s. From January 1974 to September 1975, The Doodler--also called The Black Doodler--was credited with murdering 14 men and assaulting three others. He got his name from his bizarre modus operandi that would begin at a bar, where he'd sketch a portrait of the target to break the ice. But if this flirtation led outside of the Tenderloin's gay clubs, things turned gruesome with The Doodler stabbing his victim to death, horrendously mutilating their bodies. But why with a trio of surviving witnesses did The Doodler remain at large? All of his victims are believed to be gay men, either openly or closeted, drag queens, leather daddies or more button down types. It's said that one of these was a diplomat and another a prominent entertainer, and neither would dare testify if it meant potentially outing themselves in a deeply homophobic society where their livelihoods and families could be threatened. The Doodler's identity remains unknown.
The Pitch: While there's plenty of lurid details in The Doodler case, I'd really like to see a chilling crime drama made from it in the vein of David Fincher's Zodiac--another San Fran-set murder mystery. In that film, Fincher managed to make the case of independent investigator Robert Graysmith's book while revealing the disturbing details of the Zodiac's crimes along with the cultural setting that they played such a role in. I think this very treatment could not only make for a fascinating film, but also might shine a light on the injustice his victims faced. With a society that sneered at their existence because of their sexual orientation, their murders have been nearly forgotten. But a thoughtful detective story--even a fictional one--could be at the very least a tribute to their memory if not a tool to renew interest in this unsolved mystery.
Doggy Suicides At Overtoun BridgeThe Story: The Overtoun Bridge in Dumbarton, Scotland, has been described as picturesque, overlooking a rolling valley, rich with vibrant forests. But it's a place that carries a dark legacy of doggy suicide. Over the past fifty years, fifty dogs have leapt--seemingly without warning--over the bridge's edge, many falling fifty feet to their deaths. Most of these suicidal leaps have happened from the same section of the bridge, on the right-hand side between its two final parapets. Even stranger, all of the dogs who have died this way have been long-nosed breeds like Labradors, collies, and retrievers. Some say the bridge is haunted, and insist it's this creepy catalyst that also spurred a local man to hurl his infant son--who he believed to be the anti-Christ--off its side in 1994. After all, Overtoun is Celtic for "the thin place," an area where this world and the next are said to be close.
The Pitch: This is one of those stories so strange it can't help but draw your attention. While this series of doggy suicides is a modern phenomenon in Dumbarton, I can see this story suited to a more Gothic setting of high collars and stiff upper lips. Think something in the vein of the wildly popular Woman in Black, wherein an outsider comes into a small town that is experiencing a bizarre phenomenon. At first this newcomer is cynical about the local lore, but upon seeing the strange events happen before his very eyes is forced to reconsider. Above you can see animal behaviorist Dr. David Sands demystifying the cause of these seeming suicides, but I'd prefer to see this play as the start to a cryptic ghost story.
Who Put Bella In The Wych Elm?The Story: A persistent murder mystery that has served as a bogeyman tale for generations to the locals of Hagley, England, began on April 18th of 1943 when four boys snuck onto the privately owned Hagley Woods to go hunting. While scaling a tree, they came across a human skeleton crammed in its trunk. Despite fear of retribution for their poaching, the police were called in, and soon the body was unearthed, raising more questions than answers. Found in a witch-hazel tree--mistaken by some to be Wych elm--was the body of a young woman the public took to calling Belladonna or Bella. Her body was whole except for a hand found buried nearby.
She's believed to have been killed roughly 18 months before, in October of 1941, and placed in the tree before rigor mortis had set in. Taffeta wedged deep in her mouth suggested she was suffocated to death, possibly on her own dress. With World War II raging, there was little time to solve this mystery of a murdered girl. But Bella, while gone, was not forgotten. In 1944, graffiti appeared in Birmingham demanding, "Who put Bella down the Wych Elm - Hagley Wood." Variants on this phrase continue to appear, including the one filmed above, which was spotted on August 18th, 1999 on an obelisk on Wychbury Hill. The current location of her skeleton is unknown.
The Pitch: It's a sad and strange story that has inspired a string of songs and apparently graffiti artists. Everything from witchcraft to German spies and wild American servicemen have been accused of leading to the death of this "Bella." Was she a victim of the black arts? Or as one letter to newspapers in 1943 claimed, was she a spy in league with the Luftwaffe? With so many years passing, and no clue where the bones are literally buried, we may never know. But the graffiti is an intriguing development, like someone is still calling out for justice for a fallen friend or sister. Imagine Bella's story spun into one of intrigue, where she is part of a top-secret group that ultimately gets her killed. Perhaps parallel her story with one of a contemporary agent who uncovers a secret about Bella--maybe how she was double-crossed--and now her own life is at risk. A gripping horror-thriller or intrigue, conspiracy and murder could definitely be spun from this unanswered English query.
The Most Haunted House In AmericaThe Story: This may well be cited as one of the inspirations for American Horror Story: Murder House as the goings on within the walls of the Congelier Mansion are totally spine-tingling. Once located on 1129 Ride Avenue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the sprawling mansion began its bad history with the coming of Charles Wright Congelier, his wife Lyda, and their servant girl Essie. The Congelier marriage was severed in the winter of 1871, when Lyda caught Essie and Charles in flagrante delicto, and responded by fatally stabbing him, and decapitating her. This was just the beginning of this house's horrors though. 1900 brought Dr. Adolph C. Brunrichter. He caused an explosion in the home that blew out windows, and brought police who uncovered his ghoulish experiments that involved attempting to re-animate the heads of dead young women. From there, stories of weeping ghosts arose, drawing the interest of Thomas Edison, who came to investigate, attempting to use one of his inventions to communicate with the dead. The house was destroyed utterly in 1927, when an industrial accident of the Equitable Gas Company blew a portion of Pittsburgh to smithereens.
The Pitch: As loaded with ghastly stories as this mansion was, there are lots of sources of dark inspiration here. But I'm actually most fascinated by the Thomas Edison angle. Imagine, a man we hold up as a grand inventor, a man of science, dabbling with a device to talk to the dead. There is a movie about his Current Wars feud with Westinghouse in development, but this is an intriguing new angle to the man who invented the phonograph, motion picture camera, and light bulb. We often like to pretend science and faith can't go hand in hand, but it'd be interesting to see a case of this playing out in a story about Edison confronting the supernatural, and possibly his own demons. For one example of Edison's skeletons, check out the video above.
Of course, there are plenty of spectacularly scary movies to choose from this holiday, and in the coming week we'll have more features that will suggest some of our favorites. So keep it creepy, and happy Halloween.