In the debut season of SBS thriller Cardinal, detectives Cardinal (Billy Campbell) and Delorme (Karine Vanasse) are in a race against time to catch a serial killer. The show is based on the novels by Giles Blunt, who uses cases ripped straight from the headlines for inspiration. It’s an intoxicating genre if done right, especially if the rich vein of real-life serial killers is tapped effectively, as it was for these TV shows and movies.
John Wayne Gacy: IT (1990/2017)
As if Stephen King’s 1986 novel, IT, wasn’t scary enough (let alone the miniseries and movie), Pennywise the Clown is said to have been inspired by serial killer John Wayne Gacy.
Chillingly, Gacy performed at children’s parties as Pogo the Clown, and between 1972-78 murdered 33 teenage boys and young men at his Chicago home, most of whom he sexually assaulted as he tortured them to death. Most were found buried under Gacy’s house. He was convicted in 1980 and executed in 1994.
Ivan Milat: Wolf Creek franchise
One of the key inspirations for writer/director Greg McLean’s crazed outback serial killer Mick Taylor, so menacingly played by John Jarratt, was of course backpacker killer Ivan Milat. Milat became infamous for committing seven backpacker murders between 1989 and 1993 in Belanglo State Forest, and chillingly, police believe he could have been involved in more murders. The movie’s brutal torture scenes appear to have been inspired by those meted out by Milat.
Ed Gein: Psycho (1960) / The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) / The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
The deeply disturbing actions of Ed Gein informed three bona fide cinema classics in The Silence of the Lambs, Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Public service announcement: don’t be eating as you read the following.
In November 1957, police discovered a sickening scene inside Gein’s farmhouse in Plainfield, Waushara County, Wisconsin that would make the mild-mannered handyman famous. From above, hung the butchered corpse of local woman Bernice Worden. Below, were recently used soup bowls made from human skulls, chairs made of human bones, and wastebaskets and lampshades made from human skin. There was a box of noses and another of preserved female genitalia. Also, a belt made of nipples, and leggings, aprons and a vest made of human skin. On the wall were the faces of nine women. Any of this sound familiar?
All of this depravity perhaps reflected the warnings of his religious mother, Augusta, about “the lasciviousness of women”. Gein committed at least two murders, with the rest of the body parts gleaned from graveyards, or so he claimed. He was declared insane and committed to the Central State Hospital in Wisconsin, dying there in 1984.
Author Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel, Psycho, the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film, was heavily influenced by Gein and his obsession with his dead mother. Thomas Harris also used Gein to inform his supremely creepy cannibal character Jame Gumb aka Buffalo Bill when writing The Silence of the Lambs. And Leatherface’s skin mask in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre? Yep, that's Gein’s influence, too. Just imagine the royalties.
The Axeman of New Orleans: American Horror Story: Coven
Coven, the third season of Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy’s anthology series American Horror Story, incorporated the infamous Axeman of New Orleans, chillingly played by Danny Huston.
The Axeman, or The Cleaver as he was also known, made his first attack in the Big Easy in 1910, with his first fatality in 1911. Mysteriously, he disappeared for six years before resuming his brutal reign of terror between 1918-19, targeting Italian grocers. It’s believed he attacked around 12 people.
Bizarrely, the jazz scene that energised the city could, as lore would have it, also be its savior. In the Times-Picayune appeared a letter purportedly from the Axeman. The writer described himself as "a fell demon from hottest hell” who was also a jazz lover. He vowed to prowl the city the following Tuesday for his next victim and declared any New Orleanian listening to a jazz band would escape the axe. It almost sounds like some kind of ingenious ghost tour cross promotion, no?
Interestingly, no one was attacked that night, and the killer’s identity has never been discovered.
The Hwaseong Serial Murders: Memories of Murder
Visionary filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho (Okja, Snowpiercer, The Host) chose the gripping true crime story of the Hwaseong Serial Murders as the subject of his second film, 2003’s Memories of Murder (Salinui chueok).
The police procedural set in 1986 was inspired by the work of a killer still unknown to this day who raped and murdered 10 women aged 14 to 71 in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi Province, South Korea between 1986-91. The women were found bound and gagged, with most strangled by their own clothes. The cold case has been compared to that of the Zodiac Killer.
Watch Cardinal on Wednesday at 10:30pm on SBS. If you want to catch up on it from the first episode, the full first season is streaming now at SBS On Demand: