Ten Real-life Murderers More Terrifying Than Norman Bates

The gory truth behind the on-screen serial killers

Published on

Psycho is the daddy of all monster movies - a horror film-slash-thriller in which 'slash' is very much the operative word. That we know. What's less well known is that the inspiration for Norman Bates - as well as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre's Leather Face and Buffalo Bill in Silence Of The Lambs - was real-life killer Ed Gein. But how close did Psycho come to capturing his horrific crimes? And how close did David Fincher get to the truth of the Zodiac murders? We've taken our Taggart-like eye to analyse Hollywood's take on real serial killers. Step over our metaphorical yellow police tape to find out the real stories behind the screen killers...

Real-life inspiration: Ed Gein

Status: Died in Mendota Mental Health Institute, Wisconsin, July 26, 1984

Cause of death: Heart failure

What happens in the movie: Five teenagers go on a road trip through rural Texas to investigate the desecration of their grandfather’s grave. Of course, it's a terrible idea. On their travels they encounter chainsaw-wielding maniac Leatherface and his cannibalistic family.

_What happened in realit_y: The posters for Tobe Hooper’s horror classic read, “What happened is true”, but as usual an advertisement hasn’t told the complete truth. Ed Gein never left Wisconsin and he never caused a teenage bloodbath. Instead he killed two female pensioners without the help of a scary mask, a chainsaw and family of cannibals. But ‘The Wisconsin OAP Massacre’ doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. Ed Gein was a quiet, slim loner; nothing like the menacing, meat-platter-faced figure of Leatherface. However, the body of one of Gein’s victims was found hanging upside down from a meat hook, so the film’s most gruesome and unforgettable scene is grounded in macabre truth.

Real-life inspiration: Aileen Wuornos

Status: Executed at Florida State Prison, October 9, 2002

Cause of death: Lethal injection

What happens in the movie: She may resemble a Britney Spears who swapped fame for Twinkies, but Aileen Wuornos is definitely not all that innocent. Charlize Theron pulls an Oscar-winning performance out of a bag of blue-collar horrors as a lesbian prostitute who kills seven men after being brutally raped by one of her clients. She’s finally convicted of the murders when her lover Selby (Christina Ricci) tricks her into confessing.

What really happened: Monster depicts Wuornos as a victim who acted in self-defence rather than a cold-blooded killer, but forensic evidence suggests that the traumatic story of rape at the hands of her first victim couldn’t be true. The movie also shows that Wuornos couldn’t get a job due to her criminal record for prostitution when, in reality, her rap sheet included no prostitution-related offences but a lengthy record of armed robbery, grand theft auto and possession of firearms. These have to go down as fairly significant oversights when you consider that Aileen Wuornos shot all her victims, robbed them and stole their cars. Also, Monster portrays Selby as a teenage runaway. In reality, her name was Tyria Moore and she was in her mid-20s, overweight and toothless. Presumably Hollywood couldn’t allow two pretty starlets to rough it up for in the name of accuracy.

Real-life inspiration: Albert DeSalvo

Status: Died in Massachusetts Correctional Institution, Walpole, November 25, 1973

Cause of death: Stabbed to death by an unknown assailant

What happens in the movie: Frustrated detectives are on the manhunt for the serial killer known as the Boston Strangler (Tony Curtis). The audience shares the frustration of the baffled gumshoes, as the suspect isn’t revealed until an hour into the movie. The late Tony Curtis brilliantly portrays Albert DeSalvo as a multiple personality sufferer, who, when arrested for another crime, claims to be the wanted man.

What really happened: [Spoiler warning] Albert DeSalvo was never diagnosed with multiple personality disorder and was found to be legally sane. The film portrays DeSalvo as the murderer but, while he claimed to be the Boston Strangler, he was never convicted. There was insufficient physical evidence to link him to the crimes and he did not match any witness descriptions. The sole survivor of the Boston Strangler could not even pick DeSalvo out of a police line-up. Many believe he said he committed these horrendous crimes to gain notoriety and get a movie made about him, so Hollywood made his dream come true. The Boston Strangler has a happy ending – the murderer was captured and locked away – but the mystery remains whether the true crim was put away in real life.

Real-life inspiration: Henry Lee Lucas

Status: Died in prison in Florida, March 13, 2001

Cause of death: Heart failure

What happens in the movie: Is there one scene in this movie when somebody doesn’t get brutally murdered? No, there really isn’t. Henry Lee Lucas (Michael Rooker) is a man on a rampage and even murders his partner-in-crime Otis by brutally chopping up his body in a bath. He runs away with his lover Becky, but the chilling final scene where Lucas drives off alone, dumping a bloodstained suitcase in a ditch, leads us to believe that Becky didn’t exactly get the romantic break she was looking for.

What really happened: The problem with this disturbing movie is that it’s based on Henry Lee Lucas’ fantasies and confessions that were later proven to be impossible. Out of the 600 murders Lucas claimed to have committed, he was only convicted on 11. One of those was that of his girlfriend, who in real life was only 12 years-old. Henry Lee Lucas’ accomplice Otis, who was murdered and chopped up in the bath in the movie, was actually imprisoned in real life. So, unless he managed to miraculously survive and get himself sewn back together to appear in court, that gruesome scene never actually happened.

Real-life inspiration: The Zodiac Killer

Status: Unknown

Cause of death: Unknown

What happens in the movie: The film follows the detectives and journalists desperately searching for the San Francisco serial killer, the Zodiac, who gets a kick out of taunting his hunters with letters and cryptic messages. Political cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) is convinced that convicted paedophile Arthur Allen Leigh (John Carroll Lynch) is the wanted murderer.

What really happened: The filmmakers claimed that nothing would be included in the film that wasn't substantiated by police reports, but it seems they may have been telling fibs. An angry consultant for the movie even released a detailed scene-by-scene analysis and built a website, claiming that elements of the plot were fabricated. Zodiac clearly points the bony finger of guilt at Arthur Leigh, but recent DNA tests on the Zodiac letters suggest that Allen could not have been the Zodiac. If Allen hadn’t died in 1992, it’s debatable whether the film could have made the screens in its final form.

Real-life inspiration: Jack the Ripper

Status: Dead

Cause of death: Unknown

What happens in the movie: [Spoiler warning] Panic hits the streets of 19th century London after five prostitutes are brutally murdered in the jellied-eel part of the Old Smoke by a killer known as Jack the Ripper. Clairvoyant Inspector Frederick Abberline (Johnny Depp) discovers that a deranged doctor has been ordered to kill these five women as part of a cover-up by the Royal Family. The ripper’s final victim Mary Kelly (Heather Graham) wasn’t actually murdered and is able to secretly escape to lead a happy life. The same cannot be said for Inspector Abberline, as the pressure from the case causes him to overdose on opium. But the real Jack the Ripper is locked up in an asylum for his gruesome crimes.

What really happened: There are hundreds of theories about who Jack the Ripper was and what lay behind his diabolical crimes, but the idea of five prostitutes being the only guests at a secret royal wedding seems a little far-fetched. No-one has ever been convicted for these murders, so we will never know if the real Ripper lived a normal life or was locked in an asylum. There’s a very slim chance that Mary Kelly did find a happy ending but we doubt she ever spoke in that ridiculous Cockney accent. Inspector Abberline definitely did escape his movie death, though. In reality he lived to the ripe old age of 80 years old, though unfortunately without any known clairvoyant skills.

Real-life inspiration: David Berkowitz, aka Son of Sam

Status: Serving six life sentences in Sullivan Correctional Facility, New York

What happens in the movie: In Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer there was pretty much a murder in every scene. In Summer Of Sam substitute 'sexual tension' for 'murder'. Spike Lee’s drama focuses on the tensions and fear in an Italian-American neighbourhood during the Son of Sam murders in the summer of 1977, climaxing in a group attack on an innocent man. Berkowitz is a malevolent presence that hangs over the film like a toxic cloud, but his crimes rarely take centre stage.

What really happened: The film is different from most other true-crime movies as it focuses on the tensions that occurred during the Summer of Sam rather than the killer himself. However, the disturbed Berkowitz, who claimed to have been possessed by a dog when committing the murders, is brilliantly captured by Spike Lee in this movie with the rarely glimpsed Michael Badalucco lurking largely in the shadows. The real Berkowitz was eventually caught by Yonkers police in the summer of 1977, an event touched on in recap in the movie.

Real-life inspiration: Ed Gein

Status: Died in Mendota Mental Health Institute, Wisconsin, July 26, 1984

Cause of death: Heart failure

What happens in the movie: Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) steals $40,000, and, while on the lam to her lover’s home, checks into Bates Motel. *Big *mistake. She should have used the Travelodge down the road. Feeling sorry for the seemingly forlorn proprietor, Norman Bates, she discovers that he’s wedged under the thumb of his mentally ill, controlling mother. Then she steps into the shower and horrifically runs out of shower gel. Wait, hang on…

What really happened: Like Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Psycho was inspired by the Ed Gein murders, but while Hitch sticks closer to the reality of the crimes than Tobe Hooper’s lone star lunacy, he still doesn’t really tell Ed Gein’s story. The infamous murderer never owned a hotel or brutally butchered a pretty blonde in the shower while dressed as his mum; only Hitchcock could have come up with that. Gein may have been a cross-dressing mummy’s boy, but he didn’t keep his mother’s corpse around the house like Bates. Instead, he went digging up female bodies in graveyards in hope of finding one that resembled his mother. We are not sure which is actually creepier: the movie or reality?

Real-life inspiration: John Christie

Status: Died in Pentonville Prison, July 15, 1953

Cause of death: Hanged

What happens in the movie: Who would have thought Santa Claus could play a creepy serial killer? And not just any Santa, but the kindiest one in the history of Christmas. Richard Attenborough somehow manages it in his dark portrayal of Yorkshireman John Christie. He's the menace stalking Beryl (Judy Geeson) and Tim Evans (John Hurt), a couple who move into 10 Rillington Place with their infant daughter and discover that they’re expecting another child that they can’t afford. Christie, who has been luring people into his home and murdering them, offers to help by performing an illegal abortion. But when Beryl and her daughter are found dead, Evans is the one convicted of their murders.

What really happened: Richard Fleischer’s thriller sets out to suggest that Tim Evans was innocent of the murders and was actually framed by Christie. Evans was convicted and executed for the crime, only to be a granted to a posthumous pardon when fresh evidence came to light, a legal scenario officially termed ‘A fat load of use’. Christie admitted murdering Beryl Evans when his secret life as a serial killer was discovered. No-one will ever know exactly what happened to Beryl and her daughter, but 10 Rillington Place accurately portrays Tim Evans’ beliefs about the demise of his family. Christie was executed three years after Evans in the same prison.

Real-life inspiration: The Jersey Shore attacks of 1916

Status: In shark heaven

Cause of death: Unknown

What happens in the movie: Okay, he may not use power tools or cross-dress, but this killer could be the scariest movie murderer of all time. Come on, according to the sequels he even has vengeful relatives. Steven Spielberg’s classic sea movie follows sensible chief of police Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), put-upon marine scientist (Richard Dreyfuss) and slightly mad fisherman Quint (Robert Shaw) as they hunt for the shark that’s killed four people in seaside town Amity, all while stuck aboard a dimensionally-challenged vessel.

What happened in reality: The source material, Peter Benchley’s novel, was inspired by the Jersey Shore shark attacks of summer 1916. Four people were killed and one injured during a series of attacks by an unconfirmed species that may or may not have been a Great White but definitely wasn’t a porbeagle. While out fishing, a man called Michael Schleisser captured a humungous shark after it nearly sank his small fishing boat. The shark’s stomach contained human remains and was dubbed the ‘Jersey Maneater’. We can only hope Schleisser uttered the immortal words, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat”, while the shark slowly circled his vessel.

Just so you know, whilst we may receive a commission or other compensation from the links on this website, we never allow this to influence product selections - read why you should trust us