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CAUSE AND EFFECT: HOW REAL LIFE SERIAL KILLERS HAVE INFLUENCED THE HORROR GENRE

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Films do take their cues from real life, and events that happen throughout history do have an impact on cinema. So what happens when some very terrible events happen? It is reflected in films. As attitudes change, so does that the eyes of a director. I think this became very apparent during the 50s with sci-fi cinema very much reflecting the attitudes and events that were happening. The 80s had films like Miracle Mile reflecting the attitudes of Americans towards the end of the Cold War era.

So what happened with cinema when serial killers, and crimes that were so horrible to think about, were very much in the news? I think these events really gave birth and had filmmakers getting their ideas out through horror. Slashers really looked towards what was happening and incorporated elements into reflecting the feelings of the public, and they preyed on the fears that were very much present.

An actual news headline from Jack the Rippers killings.

An actual news headline from Jack the Rippers killings.

Jack the Ripper might be one of the most well-known serial killers, and the mystery of who he really was has haunted generations. Has his story been an influence on films that leave who the killer is a mystery? Someone who stalks women in the shadows? I would think so, and I do think this even has an influence today. That haunting feeling of not knowing, it works in a very frightening way with cinema. I would think the Zodiac would also be an influence for that, and I do believe it had some impact on films like Black Christmas where the killer is left a mystery and the audience is left haunted and wondering just who it really was.

I do believe these two killers are a huge influence, and masked killer films or the killer in the shadows would have taken cues from them. With Zodiac, he killed males and females and as slasher films became popular, no one was really safe and that was the fear with a killer like Zodiac on the loose. Jack the Ripper targeted women and with women being targeted in these films but also overcoming the killer reflects that need for a resolution and a way to take back power.

Vintage picture of some of the Manson Family.

Vintage picture of some of the Manson Family.

The crimes of Charles Manson and his cult of followers really impacted the 70s hard, as did events like the Vietnam War. Attitudes were changing and people realised that things weren’t as sweet as they might have once been. Wes Craven’s The Last House On the Left was very much a reflection of these times, and was heavily influenced by the Manson home invasions that left numerous people dead. These heinous actions had an impact on Craven, and you can see how when you watch the film. The actions of the gang are so despicable, they have clearly lost their own humanity, which is perhaps what Craven felt of those who committed the murders. Even though the film was loosely based off Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, he definitely look liberties and used the film to include his own feelings. I feel this film then became very influential, and many like it showed up.

When the crimes of Ted Bundy came to light, the fact that he was a fairly decent looking man who had managed to get away with murders, and almost go unnoticed for so long, certainly shook people up. Films did get influenced by that. The killer suddenly wasn’t in the shadows. He was that guy next door: the unsuspecting one. The fear of a killer being anyone is still very much something people feel, and that is a fear that gets reflected in cinema. Personally, that is the type of killer I find frightening, the person who could easily be a friend and you’d never suspect them. He’s been one that people have always been fascinated with and there are quite a few films about him. Dare I say that killers like Ted Bundy perhaps influenced films like Scream (and its sequels) where the reveals of the killer are characters who don’t seem overtly suspicious.

Charming until the end. - Ted Bundy being incarcerated.

Charming until the end. – Ted Bundy being incarcerated.

The influence of real life crimes are always very much there in cinema. The original Manic was no doubt a result of things that were happening around the time it was made, especially in and around New York. As I would say the remake was influenced by similar things and crimes that have taken place in and around Los Angeles. Both cities have their demons, and both films really show that. People do go stalking the streets and victims can be anyone. You can’t predict crime, just as you can’t predict what will happen in a film you haven’t seen – unless you’re a great detective of course – and the unexpected plays a big part in both of these films. The Maniac remake definitely plays to that Ted Bundy mentality with Elijah Wood playing the type of everyday person, unsuspecting because nothing about him gives off a killer vibe. There is a Jeffrey Dahmer influence as well. He would keep his victims and play with them and even eat them. Here the character keeps their scalps and makes them his own play things. In that regard there is a big similarity here. In the media and crime shows (both fiction and nonfiction), the killer takes trophies from their victims and this is their downfall, we have that element present with the trophy of taking the scalps.

Jeffrey Dahmer facing trail for the rape, murder and dismemberment of 17 men and boys.

Jeffrey Dahmer facing trail for the rape, murder and dismemberment of 17 men and boys.

It is interesting to wonder and to think about all the films that have been heavily influenced by such terrible crimes, and how these play into our own fears. Australia is no stranger to this either with the likes of Ivan Milat killing hitchhikers influencing Wolf Creek and that terror of being in the middle of nowhere and not ever being found. Then the infamous bodies in the barrel case, reflecting that certain areas in the country do have desperate and lonely people, life isn’t peaches and cream. This case is one that shows the darker side of this country and there are many films that show that dark side. It even has a film about the case called Snowtown, which in itself is rather disturbing and deeply affecting.

Real life certainly is a terrifying thing, and it is no wonder that film gets influenced by it so heavily, and the real disturbing things interest us in such a strange way. Horror films work really well when they do have something of influence and there is a meaning behind it. There is a lot to think about next time you watch a horror film. What influenced the different elements, is it playing to your own real life fears?

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