It’s October – the season of the big-screen spookfest! In honor of the scariest month of the year, we’ve done a deep dive on the roots of some of the most famous movie monsters ever conceived.
Some are based in fact, with chilling real-life stories behind the characters that frighten us, and others are re-imaginings of ancient legends who have found new life on the screen.
Whether you’re a horror fan or a history buff, these spooky origin stories will surely get you in the spirit of Halloween!
Mummifying the dead is an ancient tradition, and while we’ve mostly moved on from the idea as a society, it still features heavily in film and TV, and the Mummy is one of the most iconic movie monsters as a result.
Most iterations of the Mummy actually stem from the Curse of the Pharaohs, a supposed curse on anyone who disturbs the remains of Egyptian rulers. The most well-known and wide-spread tale of the Mummy’s curse is that of Howard Carter and his team, the archaeologists who opened the tomb of Tutankhamun. After the tomb was opened, nine people involved in the excavation died or were injured, leading to stories of the curse.
Lord Carnarvon, who had financed the excavation, was the first supposed victim of the curse.
After Carnarvon was bitten by a mosquito, he accidentally slashed the bite while shaving. The cut became infected, and he died of blood poisoning shortly after.Two weeks before Carnarvon’s death, Marie Corelli had published a letter in the New York World magazine quoting an obscure book asserting that dire punishment would follow any intrusion into a sealed tomb. This, combined with Carnarvon’s death, led to a media frenzy that popularized the belief in the Mummy’s curse – and despite repeated studies attempting to disprove its existence, many still believe in the idea today.
The legend of the Werewolf pre-dates cinema by a considerable margin, with the earliest instances of lycanthropy appearing in folklore dating back over 2000 years.
While the notion of humans morphing into wolves is a bit of a stretch, there is a real life condition that was often the basis for stories of werewolves: hypertrichosis.
Hypertrichosis is a condition which results in excessive hair growth over the entire body. As stories behind movie monsters go, it’s a little tame, but there is one particular case of hypertrichosis that’s particularly interesting.
It’s not an easy one to substantiate, but there are stories of a man named T’ai Djin Su Kong, a 19th century Chinese man abandoned by his parents at birth and subsequently raised by Shaolin monks. He grew to be head of the Shaolin order after training for practically every waking minute of his whole life, and when his monastery was attacked, it’s said that T’ai Djin took to the high seas to spend the rest of his life hunting the pirates responsible.
Maybe the story of the so-called “Kung-Fu Werewolf” is harder to believe than actual lycanthropy, but there is some historical indication that T’ai Djin was real, and it seems that actual werewolves are sadly not.
One of the most well-known movie monsters has one of the most well-known real-life inspirations, but Vlad the Impaler was a pretty terrifying guy in his own right, earning him a spot on the list.
Vlad Dracula – as he’s sometimes known – was the ruler of Wallachia (an historical region of Romania) on three occasions between 1448 and his death in 1477.
Vlad had a reputation for cruelty, committing brutal acts such as (but not limited to): nailing the turbans of Turkish messengers to their heads when they refused to remove them in his presence, impaling monks in order to assist them in reaching heaven, and boiling people alive in giant cauldrons until their eyes melted out of their skulls. Y’know, real evil stuff.
It’s probably no wonder that Bram Stoker decided to use Vlad as the basis for his fictional Count Dracula, spawning a staggering amount of vampire-based fiction and almost ironically ensuring that Vlad the Impaler will live on forever in stories as a true monster.
The most obvious killer movie clown is Pennywise from It (itself based on Stephen King’s book of the same name), but the idea of clowns as villains was initially popularized by DC Comics’ character the Joker in the 1940s. However, there’s also older instances, with the opera Pagliacci also featuring a murderous clown.
Sometimes, though, life imitates art.
John Wayne Gacy is a name that will be familiar to many – and one that also springs to mind whenever someone mentions killer clowns. During his life, Gacy would regularly perform as Pogo the Clown at hospitals and charity events, but he also assaulted and murdered at least 33 young men and boys. Gacy buried the remains of 29 of his victims in his own home (the other four he dumped in the Des Plaines River).
Gacy was arrested in 1978, and was sentenced to death in 1980. He was eventually executed by lethal injection in 1994. He’s one of history’s real-life monsters, and his crimes put a major dent in the clowning industry.
In recent years, Zombie stories have spread across the mainstream in a massive way, capturing the imagination of audiences the world over. They were popularized in their most recognizable form by George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (and its subsequent sequels), but the actual concept is borrowed from Haitian folklore, in which corpses are said to be reanimated by means of witchcraft.
The zombies that populate modern fiction are reanimated corpses (usually by scientific means, such as a virus of some kind) who hunger for human flesh, and whose bite will turn the uninfected into another zombie, spreading the disease/virus/curse. The idea of hungering for human flesh clearly stems from real cases (there are too many documented to speak about any one in particular) of cannibalism. The blending of the Haitian belief in reanimating the dead and the very real (and disturbing) idea of cannibalism have resulted in the modern movie zombie, a shambling (or sometimes running) infected former member of the human race that desperately wants to take a bite out of the living.
Annabelle (The Conjuring Franchise)
The breakout star of The Conjuring franchise, Annabelle, actually exists in real life. The creepy porcelain doll originally featured in The Conjuring who later starred in her own spin-off film is actually based on a real doll. The real life Annabelle is actually a Raggedy Ann doll – whose appearance was changed both to make the doll scarier and to avoid having to obtain permission to use the Hasbro product in the film – and is supposedly possessed by a demon.
Ed and Lorraine Warren (fictional versions of which appear as the protagonists of The Conjuring and its sequels) investigated Annabelle, who supposedly was exhibiting malicious and frightening behavior to the student nurse that owned her. The Warrens removed the doll, and she came to find a place in the Warrens’ Occult Museum – much like her on-screen counterpart.
The real story behind Annabelle lacks any real concrete proof, other than the existence of a doll in the Warrens’ museum. Even though the real Annabelle looks decidedly less creepy than the porcelain doll in Annabelle, she is very much a real doll that many believe to be possessed.
Buffalo Bill, Leatherface & Norman Bates
What exactly do these iconic movie villains have in common, I hear you ask? Severe mother issues and an obsession with brutal murder and/or using human remains for masks, meat or clothing is what ties the three together, mostly. That, and that they were all inspired, in varying degrees, by real life murderer Ed Gein.
Also known by such lovely monikers as “the Butcher of Plainfield” and “the Plainfield Ghoul”, Gein is only considered responsible for two murders – far less than the body counts of the characters he inspired – but what makes Gein most interesting is his other extracurricular activities.
When the authorities searched Gein’s house, it became apparent that he enjoyed using human remains for decoration. Inside his home they found human bones littered around and human skulls on his bedposts, as well as bowls made from skulls. Gein had used human skin to fashion a wastebasket and a lampshade, as well as to cover the seats of numerous chairs. He had also fashioned a corset out of a female torso and a belt from human nipples. Gein admitted that he had spent approximately five years exhuming recently buried bodies in order to use them to create his paraphernalia.
It’s not hard to see why a man as frighteningly deranged as Gein would inspire numerous cinematic murderers, as his crimes were both stomach-churningly evil and utterly unique. Different aspects of his personality and crimes were incorporated into each character – his desire to be literally inside the skin of another person inspired Buffalo Bill, his creation of human “masks” using actual faces inspired Leatherface, and his murderous obsession with his own mother inspired Norman Bates.
Regan McNeil/Pazuzu (The Exorcist)
The Exorcist tells the story of the mother of Regan McNeil as she attempts to save her daughter from the demon Pazuzu who has inhabited her body. (Those who have listened to the Deathmatch at the Overlook Hotel episode of the podcast will have a better understanding of Pazuzu’s truly evil nature.)
While there are numerous historically reported cases of similar exorcisms taking place, William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist was actually based on the real-life exorcism of Roland Doe (obviously, that wasn’t his real name).
Roland was a 14-year-old boy from Cottage City, Maryland, who was the supposed victim of demonic possession in the late 1940s. A lonely only child, Roland was introduced to the Ouija board by his aunt, and soon his family reported supernatural occurrences such as strange noises, levitating objects, and furniture moving of its own accord.
During numerous attempts to perform exorcisms, it’s claimed that Roland slashed a priest’s arm with a bed-spring, violently shook his bed, spoke in low guttural tones, and broke another priest’s nose.
Supposedly, the last of these exorcisms was successful, and Roland then went on to live “a rather ordinary life”. As much of an anti-climax as that may seem, it did serve as the basis for one of the greatest horror films ever made, so it’s certainly a story worth telling.
And that’s the list – were these stories new to you, or are you a real-life horror connoisseur? Drop us a comment below to let us know!