In the hands of a skillful filmmaker, a violent movie goes beyond sensationalized blood and gore—it’s a story that rings true, giving audiences the illusion of a front-row seat to real criminal behavior.
But there’s another reason movies can feel so true to life: because the stories are often stolen from real psychopaths, and real events.
A&E Real Crime spoke with Harold Schechter, author of Ripped from the Headlines!: The Shocking True Stories Behind the Movies’ Most Memorable Crimes to get clarity on how sensational murders translate to the silver screen.
There have been many high-profile crimes over the years, but only a fraction have been successfully translated into film. What does a true crime need to make it into the Hollywood canon?
That’s a very good question, and one I’ve given a lot of thought to. I got into true crime because I was writing a book about movie special effects, and when I got to the horror chapter I discovered…that both Psycho and Texas Chainsaw Massacre had been inspired by the same case: that of Ed Gein.
So I became very interested in how real crimes become mythologized, and why certain very headline-grabbing sensational crimes seem to fade from public memory very quickly, while others become an enduring part of our communal mythology.
There are a number of reasons for that, but one is that it’s not just the gruesomeness of the crime. The crime has to have a certain number of ingredients that are the same ingredients that go into the making of a best-selling novel or a successful movie.
It has to have a compelling protagonist or antagonist—a compelling central figure. And there has to be some mystery involved in terms of the motivation of the person or the solution to the case.
Let’s start with Ed Gein, convicted of murdering two people in the 1950s, and of digging up corpses and mutilating them in his home. Not only is Gein the basis for villains in the movies you mentioned; he also inspired the serial killer character in Silence of the Lambs. Why does he get so much on-screen recognition compared to other more prolific murderers, like the Green River Killer?
Well, first of all, the nature of his crimes—particularly when they occurred—was so grotesque. It was the middle of the balmy Eisenhower era in the heartland of America, and this farmer was committing these very bizarre rituals.
One of the things that interests me about the Ed Gein story is how closely it resembles certain kinds of scary fairy tales—particularly fairy tales about some bizarre figure who inhabits a creepy home off the beaten track somewhere, and it turns out to be the abode of a monster. It appears in the Grimm brothers, in “Hansel and Gretel.” There are all these children’s folk stories.
I grew up in a Bronx apartment building, where there was one apartment on the sixth floor where a creepy old lady [lived], and there were all these folk stories [about her]. Now, in my childhood, she was just an idiosyncratic cat lady. But in the Gein story, it turned out to be true. This seemingly unremarkable dilapidated farmhouse really was a house of horrors. That story resonates so deeply with all these primitive beliefs that are just built into our imaginations.
What about the Zodiac Killer? Because he was never caught, he lives only in the imagination—and in film, notably in David Fincher’s Zodiac and as the basis for the villain in Dirty Harry. Why has he stuck around?
I think it’s largely the enduring mystery of who he was and what motivated him.
When there’s a serial killer on the loose—for example, when the Son of Sam was on the loose in New York City—it stirs up these very primal fears about some supernatural monster. It really turns an adult back into a little child, quivering under the bedsheets.
If the guy is caught like [the Son of Sam, David] Berkowitz, then it just turns out to be this crazy pudgy postal worker. But the thing with [never-caught] Zodiac is he maintains that quality, especially with the incredibly creepy mask he wore. There’s something larger-than-life about that. He becomes a comic book supervillain.
And these [mysteries] generate cottage industries theorizing about who it was.
Which true crimes, in your opinion, didn’t play out their potential on-screen?
There are movies in my book, like Eaten Alive [by Tobe Hooper, director of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre]. It’s a ridiculously bad movie. The case it was based on was one nobody knows: Joe Ball, an owner of a Texas roadhouse who kept pet alligators out back and killed a number of women. No one knows if he actually fed them to the alligators, but you could’ve potentially made a much better movie about the Joe Ball case.
But in a way you’re talking about apples and oranges. Because the thing about the actual crimes is that as compelling as they might be, in and of themselves they don’t necessarily form a compelling narrative.
Take something like Fritz Lang’s M, which is based on one of the most horrific serial killers of the 20th century: Peter Kürten. He went around committing these horrendous acts, and when you read the facts of the case, it’s very gripping. But you look at what Lang made of that as a piece of cinematic art—the way it was edited; the way it was shot; the choices he made as an artist in order to create the incredible impact; the opening sequence where you don’t see anything except this creepy guy picking up a little girl, giving her a red balloon and taking her off.
If you put the raw material into the hands of a second-rate artist, you’ll get second-rate art. If someone else had written about the Clutter family massacre, it would’ve been a cheap paperback. You give it to Truman Capote and it’s one of the great masterpieces.