By Maria Lewis

As long as there have been human beings, there have been murders. It’s one of the defining elements of human nature: our desire and ability to harm each other. Whether that’s for money, for love, for revenge, the motives vary yet the outcome remains the same. Serial murder, however, is a different story. Historians argue about the first recorded accounts of serial murders and serial killers – H.H. Holmes for some, Elizabeth Bathory for others – but one thing is clear: IRL horror has always been a popular subject on the silver screen.

And if there were someone to collect the cheques, it would be Ed Gein. Except for the fact that he died from lung cancer in 1984, nearly thirty years after his arrest in the ’50s when local sheriffs discovered in his house clothing made from human skin, bowls made from human skulls, and female facial masks – made from actual faces. Such was the inconceivable and mad nature of the horrors found inside his home, Gein became the basis for several stories that made their way to the big screen over the years. Psycho, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, came the closet on the heels of the real life incidents in 1960.  The Texas Chain-Saw Massacre in 1974 was also based on his crimes, from the central baddie Leatherface through to minor plot details. The Silence Of The Lambs added to the pop culture pantheon in 1991, with villain Buffalo Bill borrowing heavily from Gein’s modus operandi: making people suits out of actual people. Due to the horrendous nature of his crimes and how little is known about Gein’s internal psyche, his story seemed most attractive to Hollywood because of how open to interpretation it was. Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer – based on the crimes of Henry Lee Lucas – is another example of that, along with Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek, which is a compilation of various backpacker murders in the Australian Outback.

That’s not to say tales that have followed more closely to real life events haven’t worked, because they have. Terrence Malick struck gold in 1973 with Badlands, based on the IRL spree killings of Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate. There was David Fincher’s Zodiac on the killer of the same name, and Texas Killing Fields, which was about as loose on the facts as Sam Worthington’s attempt at a Texan accent.  Perhaps most thought-provoking – from a gender and societal norms-busting perspective – was Patty Jenkins’ Monster, which followed the case of female serial killer Aileen Wuornos and won Charlize Theron an Oscar for playing her.

But what makes that so interesting from an audience perspective? And why do we keep going back to it again and again? Academic Julie B. Weist published a paper in 2002 that looked closely at the coverage of serial killers Son Of Sam, The Boston Strangler, and The Night Stalker in more than 190 articles. What she found was rather startling: serial killers were portrayed as heroes in the media’s storybook of murder and became something like celebrities. They were considered “better” than regular murderers – who had clear motives, while serial offenders did not – and the lack of understanding surrounding them helped create a folk hero-like status. “They perform murder ‘better’ than most other killers,” she writes. “They possess traits that are considered valuable and impressive in society: determination, skill, dedication, masculinity, strength, force and control. These stories are told in the same ways that other celebrities’ stories are in the media… Serial killers, through extensive news coverage, become superstars as big as the movie action hero, home run hitter or pop star.” So while our sports stars and pop heroes get movie retellings of their lives, it only makes sense that serial killers – if they’re held in the same esteem – receive similar treatment in the film sphere.

That trend certainly isn’t slowing down either. Rather, it has branched out from the big screen as television enters its renaissance period. Shows like Forensic Files and I Survived have always been TV true crime staples when it comes to one-off murders, close escapes and serial killings, but now long form docos like How To Make A Murderer, OJ: Made In America and The Jinx have found their footing. Law & Order always prided itself on taking its stories straight from the headlines: now there are shows like American Crime Story: The People Vs OJ Simpson and even the Wolf Creek series factoring themselves into the equation. And soon a man who’s considered a master of taking IRL horror to the big screen, David Fincher, is doing that on the small screen with Netflix original series Mindhunter. For those who loved Se7en, Zodiac and his The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo remake, the show’s first trailer was squeal-inducing. Then there’s Sarah Paulson film Lost Girls, based on the true crime book of the same name. It follows a mother searching for her missing daughter on Long Island when she discovers the bodies of four other girls. While we continue to be fascinated with the darker side of human nature – and assign serial killers elevated societal places – it seems there’s no slowing down when it comes to IRL horror on the big screen.

Maria Lewis is a journalist and author who can be seen on The Feed, weeknights on SBS Viceland. She’s the presenter and producer of the Eff Yeah Film & Feminism podcast. Her debut novel Who’s Afraid? was released in 2016 with the sequel – Who’s Afraid Too? – out now. You can find her on Twitter @MovieMazz.


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