What makes horror truly effective is its credibility and plausibility, hence why we gravitate towards true crime and the grisliest murder stories to ever grace the front page of any major publication. We crave what is tangible, and if a film is based on true events, it resonates with us longer since it can be documented and researched to great lengths, all based on factual and empirical evidence. These stories do not originate from a single writer’s mind, but rather from a collective consciousness based in a dark, grim reality.
While many films claim to be based on real events, it is hard to confirm its authenticity, often muddled in the oral tradition of storytelling, with each iteration mutating into a truly bizarre, and often fabricated tale of what once may have been slightly true. Exorcism films such as, you guessed it, The Exorcist or The Exorcism of Emily Rose claim to be based on real events of demonic possession, and while for our own guilty pleasure we wish these to be true, it cannot be measured reasonably enough to boldly state, “This is real.” It’s just more fun to lean into the idea that it could be true, thus upping its scare factor.
Serial killers often get the Hollywood treatment, unsurprisingly due to the warped psychology of their behavior, which lends itself nicely to a narrative structure. It’s the perfect arc for a character, from their formative years that may have shaped their behavior, to their horrific, sometimes carnal tendencies, to their final act, wherein they meet their demise either by death or incarceration. If we’re lucky, they escape and thus the sequel is born, which then could lead to a franchise, and the character development can go even further.
Ed Gein is arguably one of the most adapted modern serial killers on film, from Psycho, to Texas Chainsaw Massacre, to Silence of the Lambs. His story captures our curiosity, not because of the murders themselves, but the deranged mental state in which he was in. It’s never the how, but the why, and we wonder why serial killers, like Gein, did what they did. The skin suits, the masks, the obsession with his mother; that’s what draws us into this gruesome world of mutilation and the concept of “trophies.”
As mentioned, Silence of the Lambs took the concept of Gein’s crimes and transposed it onto (the very problematic character) Buffalo Bill, but the character is a composite of several other serial killers’ tactics, such as Ted Bundy’s use of a fake cast and Gary Heidnik’s use of a hole dug in his basement to keep victims. Needless to say, actor Ted Levine who portrayed Buffalo Bill/Jame Gumb was so disturbed by the serial killer research he conducted at FBI Headquarters that he swore off portraying serial killers and opted to appear in more family-friendly films, like Flubber and Wild Wild West.
Extrapolating the means of achieving their goal to a film adds another level of realism that resonates with the audience, as time and time again we see serial killers and the criminally insane use these same tactics. The memories are fresh, and remind us that this is real in some form. It’s hard to be frightened by a demon, since we cannot physically see its actions, but we can be frightened by the demons inside a regular person, who can commit atrocities such as imprisonment, torture, mutilation, and murder.
But as popular as Ed Gein, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy or even Jeffrey Dahmer are, we are in need of fresh, stories to consume, from deranged individuals that are relegated to a footnote in history, and not on the front page. Several underrated films take inspiration from obscure news stories, such as David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers, which loosely depicts Stewart and Cyril Marcus, two perverted twin brother gynecologists. As audiences crave horror films
based on real life events, the weirder, the more peculiar, and more importantly, not already part of the mainstream popular culture, these stories will play an important part in surprising and scaring us, and not be reliant on the same serial killer archetypes.
Though not based on any particular event, the marketing and design of a film can evoke realism in a way that makes it real and tangible, even though the story is completely fictional. The 1988 Dutch horror film The Vanishing has all the elements of a true crime: abduction, a glimpse into the mind of a murderer, and the obsession in finding the truth. Theatrical posters frame this film in a realistic context, with its stark black and white imagery to conjure up feelings and sentiments of believing that this woman is missing, and this was the last known photo of her.
As we enter a new decade, and horror and true crime media continue to be churned out, we look forward to hearing new, exciting, twisted stories of the depravity of humanity, and not just retellings of the same serial killers or horrific events that dominate the pop culture lexicon. And we want to hear the real stories, and we want to see them transformed into cinematic gems, to give us something visceral.