Dracula / Sir Henry Irving
Apart from Vlad the Impaler, it’s believed that the other inspiration behind Bram Stoker’s bloodthirsty Count comes from friend and co-worker Sir Henry Irving. Stoker worked at London’s Lyceum Theatre as a business manager, alongside actor-manager Irving—whose dramatic sensibility and mannerisms formed the basis for Dracula. Stoker had been drawn to the actor ever since he reviewed Irving’s performance in a production of Hamlet.
Godzilla / A Toho Studio Stagehand
It’s long been suggested that Japanese kaiju icon Godzilla was inspired by a burly Toho Studio stagehand, whose size mirrored that of the giant monster (the name originates from “Gojira” aka “Gorilla Whale”). But no one has ever come forward to validate the tale. “I expect the [monster’s] name was thought up after very careful discussions between Mr. Tanaka, Mr. Tsuburaya and my husband,” stated Kimi Honda, widow of director Ishirō Honda, about the folklore surrounding the creature. “I am sure they would have given the matter considerable thought. The backstage boys at Toho loved to joke around with tall stories.”
Jaws’ Great White Shark / The Jersey Shore Shark Attacks of 1916
America’s first blockbuster has a bloody point of origin. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, based on Peter Benchley’s book of the same name, looked to a series of real-life shark attacks in New Jersey during the summer of 1916. Four people were killed, but dozens more were injured. Seaside mass hysteria followed, which first led to the popular public opinion about sharks being seafaring serial killers.
Gilles de Rais / Sauron
The ocular antagonist of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (and Peter Jackson’s films), Sauron, was a throwback to a literary villain that fascinated the author as a child (from Samuel Rutherford Crockett’s The Black Douglas). The baddie also happened to be based on real-life child killer Gilles de Rais—who fought alongside Joan of Arc and led the French army in battle. After a frustrated dalliance with the occult, De Rais graduated to obscene and gruesome acts with children—for which he was eventually tried and hanged.
Jekyll and Hyde / William Brodie
Cabinetmaker, trade deacon, and Edinburgh city councilor William Brodie led a double life. By day, he was respected for his craft and political prowess. But by night, he was robbing the richest members of Edinburgh society blind. He used his position of power to plot his burglaries. Greed got the better of him, and Brodie was hanged in 1788. His dual nature captured the teenage imagination of Robert Louis Stevenson for the author’s story (originally a play) about a mad scientist, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—which was popularized in dozens of films.
Leatherface / Ed Gein
Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein has influenced the creation of countless movie villains (including Hitchcock’s Norman Bates in Psycho and Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs), but the most terrifying personification of his gory misdeeds can be seen in Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Main antagonist Leatherface, a mute man-child who wields a wicked chainsaw, wears a mask made from human skin. Gein also fashioned horrifying masks made from the flesh and body parts of his victims—gruesome trophies from his serial slaughterings.
Chucky / Robert the Doll
Child’s Play director Don Mancini has spoken about a few different inspirations behind his killer doll character, Chucky. One possible influence is a real-life cursed doll named Robert. In Child’s Play, a serial killer uses voodoo to transfer his soul into a toy. Reportedly, a Jamaican nurse performed a little voodoo magic herself, cursing a toy she gifted to the child of her employer. As a young boy, Key West painter and author Robert Eugene Otto would talk to the doll, which was blamed for his night terrors and the missing objects in his room. The doll was left behind when Otto passed away, and its new owners experienced similar “attacks.” Robert is now a star and is displayed in the Fort East Martello Museum (which hosts ghost tours featuring the creepy doll).
Blade / Klaus Kinski
A lesser-known monstrous doll amongst mainstream movie audiences is Blade, a sadistic puppet in David Schmoeller’s 1989 film Puppet Master. “Killers Come in All Sizes,” read the tagline for the film about a puppeteer’s living arsenal of strange puppets with murderous intent. Schmoeller based his design for the gothic, expressionist-style Blade on his favorite actor, Klaus Kinski. Fun fact: Schmoeller directed Kinski in 1986’s Crawlspace—about a lunatic Nazi doctor.