Just about everyone loves to gather around a campfire late at night swapping scary stories about ghosts, demons and other monsters that go bump in the night. There’s something about the unknown monster under our beds that both scares and thrills us to no end – which is why an endless stream of horror-themed books and movies are released every year.
It’s no secret that writers and filmmakers look to various (sometimes surprising) sources for inspiration when coming up with ideas for their stories. Popular TV shows such as Criminal Minds and Supernatural pull from real-life current events or established centuries-old folklore to put the scare into viewers. While movies, such as Fire in the Sky and You’re Next, feed off audience’s fear of the aliens and violent crime to put a scare-induced adrenaline rush into their hearts.
While the creation of some characters in this post were inspired by real life people or events, other characters were original concepts whose creators were simply inspired by the often gruesome and macabre items around them during the design phase. What inspired your favorite horror character? We’ve looked into the Real Life Inspiration Behind 11 Horror Movie Icons and they aren’t all exactly what you might expect.
The Jigsaw Killer – Saw (2004)
Inspiration: Possible Brain Tumor
James Wan (Furious 7) and Leigh Whannell (Insidious) were two aspiring filmmakers on a tiny budget who wanted to make a film. So Whannell conceived the idea of two men chained to opposite bathroom walls with a dead body in the middle of the room. After a few modifications to the concept, the mystery thriller/horror film Saw was born and would eventually turn into a seven-film franchise. However, the idea of a character Jigsaw wouldn’t come around until months later.
Whannell, convincing himself that he had a brain tumor (he did not), went to a neurologist for an MRI – he conceived the idea of Jigsaw while in the waiting room. During an interview with The AV Club, Whannell said: “What if you were given the news that you had a tumor and you were going to die soon? How would you react to that?” He molded that idea into a cancer-riddled psychopathic killer with only a couple years to live, but who puts his victims into a similar life-or-death situation with only a few minutes to decide their outcome.
Freddy Krueger – A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Inspiration: Series of mysterious deaths in California/Wes Craven’s childhood and cat
“One, two, Freddy’s coming for you…” – those twisted words of a popular childhood rhyme have instilled a sense of dread in audiences ever since they were first spoken in Wes Craven’s horror film A Nightmare on Elm Street. They, of course, refer to child murderer-turned-unkillable demon Freddy Krueger – a horror icon who easily ranks in the top ten scariest characters of all time.
The late Wes Craven drew from several sources of inspiration when creating Freddy and the film but has said the main inspiration for the film itself came from “a series of articles in the LA Times, about men from South East Asia, who had died in the middle of nightmares.” While it’s believed (but not confirmed) that Craven named Freddy after a childhood bully, he has stated an encounter when he was 11 with a homeless man helped shape the character horror fans know today. The iconic razor glove Freddy wears was actually conceived after Craven watched his cat claw the side of his sofa.
“Bruce” the Great White Shark – Jaws (1975)
Inspiration: 4550 pound shark caught in 1964
The title character in the movie franchise Jaws – a story about a Great White shark who terrorizes a small seaside resort town on the shores of Long Island ,New York – is one of the most well-known horror icons on this list. It’s a common misconception that both the film and novel it’s based on, Jaws, was inspired by the Jersey Shore shark attacks of 1916 – an event that saw 4 people killed and dozen more injured by a series of attacks – something novelist Peter Benchley has denied.
Truth is, Benchley actually held a fascination with sharks since his boyhood fishing trips to Nantucket with his father. He had long wanted to write “a story about a shark that attacks people and what would happen if it came in and wouldn’t go away.” However, it wasn’t until 1964 when he read a story about real-life shark fisherman Frank Mundus (himself the inspiration for the character Quint) reeling in a more than 2-ton Great White shark off the shore of Montauk Point, Long Island, New York that he actually wrote the novel Jaws.
Leatherface – The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Inspiration: Killer Ed Gein
The chainsaw-wielding maniac Leatherface – along with Freddy Krueger (A Nightmare on Elm Street) and Jason Voorhees (Friday the 13th) – is considered to be one of the big three horror icons from modern slasher films – for good reason. Through each of the franchise’s eight films (the latest installment, eponymously titled Leatherface, will be released in 2016), Leatherface terrorizes his victims with his multi-toothed instrument of death, until ultimately killing, dismembering, wearing and cooking them.
While the promotional material for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre billed the movie as “based on a true story”, the film is actually entirely fictional, with only a few elements drawing inspiration from people unrelated to the story. The iconic character of Leatherface was loosely based on the insane killer from the late-50s, Ed Gein. Gein has been the basis for several characters – Norman Bates (Psycho), Buffalo Bill (Silence of the Lambs) – but it’s Leatherface who scares audiences the most. Like his real life counterpart, Leatherface wears a mask made from the female skin of his victims.
Pinhead – Hellraiser (1987)
Inspiration: Punk culture/Catholicism/S&M Clubs/Book on African Fetishes
By the time Hellraiser hit theaters in the late-eighties, audiences already have plenty of horror icons keeping them awake at night – Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, Leatherface – but after Pinhead and his fellow cenobites made their appearance, they took fear to a whole new (and painful) level. Clive Barker and Doug Bradley first conceived of the supernatural inflicter of extreme pain in Bradley’s 1973 play Hunters in the Snow, but Barker refined the idea for his novella The Hellbound Heart, upon which his film is based.
For the character’s clothing and motivation, Barker was inspired by punk fashion, the Catholic belief in purgatory and some S&M clubs he visited in New York and Amsterdam. As for his unique look, Barker actually drew inspiration from a book on African fetishes he once read, where tribes would carves skulls from wood then place dozens, even hundreds, of needles in it. Fun fact: Barker actually hated the name Pinhead (a nickname given to the character on set), and didn’t want the character named, referring to him only as “lead cenobite” or “priest” in the script.
Michael Myers – Halloween (1978)
Inspiration: 12 year old boy in a Kentucky mental institution
Of all the horror characters on this list, serial killer Michael Myers might be the most relentless and unstoppable – and that’s just how famed horror director John Carpenter intended him to be. Since his first appearance in 1978, he’s been stalking Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her family through ten films. Carpenter wanted to create a character that was the very embodiment of evil: an unkillable, almost supernatural force that destroyed anyone its path – Myers would be that character.
Carpenter said he was influenced by a college trip to a Kentucky mental institution where he made it a point to visit “the most serious, mentally ill patients.” It was there he came across a preteen boy who had a “schizophrenic, evil stare,” which the director found to be “unsettling, creepy, and completely insane.” That encounter would inspire Dr. Loomis’s (Donald Pleasence) description of Myers in the film: “I met this six year old child with this blank, pale, emotionless face, and the blackest eyes; the devil’s eyes. I realized what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply…evil.”
Xenomorph – Alien (1979)
Inspiration: H.R. Giger’s print Necronom IV/Dan O’Bannon’s “dream”
Although not their intention, Alien screenwriters Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett helped launch the career of actress Sigourney Weaver and start a billion-dollar franchise that would span six films, two crossovers, two prequels, as well as, several video games and comic books. The design of the alien from the film (which would come to later be known as a xenomorph) was a concept that O’Bannon dwelled on for some months while writing the script.
Early on, he was struggling to come up with a way to have the alien board the Nostromo until he suddenly woke up inspired from a dream. He talks about the process in documentary Alien Evolution saying: “…the monster screws one of them, planting its egg in his body, and then bursting out of his chest. [It’s] a movie about alien interspecies rape.” O’Bannon then came across the work of Swiss surrealist H. R. Giger, specifically his book Necronomicon, from which director Ridley Scott choose the print Necronom IV as the basis for the creature’s design.
Count Dracula – Dracula (1992)
Inspiration: Lesbian Vampires/Sir Henry Irving
European tales of creatures that drink the blood the of their victims to maintain life have been around since the early 1700’s, though the term “vampyre” wouldn’t be coined until the 1800s. Irish author Bram Stoker would spend seven years researching folklore before penning his gothic horror masterpiece, Dracula. Though Stoker’s version of Count Dracula would eventually become the most commonly known, it was neither the first novel on the subject nor the first time the titular character was depicted as an aristocrat.
Stoker was influenced by the 1871 novel Carmilla – a lesbian vampire who preys upon unsuspecting women – by gothic author Sheridan Le Fanu. However, when describing Count Dracula, Stoker used the mannerisms and dramatic personality of his friend, actor Sir Henry Irving, to serve as inspiration. Irving and Stoker worked together at the famed Lyceum Theatre in the late-1800s and though the character was written with Irving in mind, he never agreed to portray Dracula on stage.
Chucky – Child’s Play (1988)
Inspiration: Cabbage Patch Kids/Robert the Doll
Chucky, from the Child’s Play franchise, is a Good Guy Doll that contained the soul of serial killer Charles Lee Ray, which was placed in there during a failed a voodoo ritual. While the original killer’s name was inspired by real-life murders Charles Manson, Lee Harvey Oswald and James Earl Ray, there’s been some conflict as to what actually inspired the doll used in the film. Screenwriter Don Mancini claims he modeled the dolls after Cabbage Patch Kids, while director Tom Holland stated the Good Guy Dolls were a parody on Hasbro’s My Buddy toys.
Also rumored (but never confirmed) to have influenced the creation of the Chucky is a “haunted” toy named Robert the Doll. Robert was the childhood toy of Florida painter Robert Eugene Otto and the doll is said to have been cursed by a servant girl familiar voodoo practices. Currently, the doll is trapped behind a glass display at the East Martello Museum in Key West, Florida. You can read a thorough backstory on Robert – HERE.
The Pale Man – Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Inspiration: Francisco de Goya’s “Saturn Devouring His Son”/Guillermo del Toro’s weight loss
Despite what his box office numbers show, writer and director Guillermo del Toro remains one of the most prolific creators of original horror-inspired creatures in Hollywood. Those original design ideas are in full display in the Spanish film El Laberinto del Fauno (literally translated “Labyrinth of the Faun”), but is better known to American audiences as Pan’s Labyrinth. From the wood fairies, to the faun itself, all the designs are grotesquely beautiful and haunting at the same time, but none more so than the Pale Man.
While del Toro has stated his inspiration for the Faun came from his childhood dreams of seeing a goat-like creature step from behind his grandfather clock, the inspiration for the Pale Man hit a little closer to home. The Pale Man (portrayed by Doug Jones) was heavily influenced by two things: del Toro’s bout with dramatic weight loss and Francisco de Goya’s disturbing painting “Saturn Devouring His Son”. Much like the Pale Man feeds on the flesh on children, de Goya’s painting depicts the god Saturn eating one of his own sons to gain their power.
Man-eating Crocodile – Primeval (2007)
Inspiration: “Gustave” the Nile Crocodile
Unlike other films on this list, Primeval is the only movie that never received a theatrical release, instead being released direct-to-video in 2007. However, that doesn’t make its main antagonist, a vicious and prolific man-eating crocodile, any less deserving of a mention. The movie stars Dominic Purcell (Prison Break) and Orlando Jones (Evolution) as a journalist and cameraman, respectfully, on a team who travel to Burundi intent on filming the notorious killer croc.
While the B-horror movie takes many liberties with the story, it is indeed inspired by the real life events of a giant Nile crocodile nicknamed “Gustave”, who is more than 6 meters (19.6 feet) long and is thought to have killed more than 300 people along the banks of the Ruzizi River and the northern shores of Lake Tanganyika. The 2000 pound predator has never been caught but an attempt to capture him on film actually happened for the documentary Capturing the Killer Croc, which aired on PBS in 2004.
Did we miss any other real-life inspirations for your favorite horror movies? Let us know in the comments!