Re-enactments and stories based on true psychopaths and serial killers fascinate us because it seemingly gives us a window into the mind and soul of the individual. Their motives, methods, and mystery make for highly entertaining books and cinema, which is why American Horror Story has become such a successful series, along with its spectacular storytelling. Beginning with AHS: Freak Show, there was quite a lot of inspiration drawn from factual events in history. Several of Coven’s principal characters are based on real-life murderous figures, and American Horror Story: Hotel is no different.
As an homage to the lovable psychopaths that AHS has honored throughout the seasons, we’ve compiled a list of characters who are based on real people, murderers, and stories.
Season 1: Elizabeth Short, aka The Black Dahlia
Mena Suvari guest-starred on the very first season of American Horror Story as Elizabeth Short, the woman who became infamously known as The Black Dahlia. Though parts of her tale were fabricated for the sake of television, The story of the Black Dahlia murder is very much a true one. Short was a 22-year-old aspiring actress who was brutally murdered in 1947 by an unidentified person. Her body was chopped in half, and her killer carved up the sides of her mouth, giving her what’s known as a “Glasgow smile.”
Season 1: The Nurse Murders and the Richard Speck Case
One of the story lines from the first season revolves around a couple of nurses who are killed in the Murder House. Although the nurses on the show aren’t based on individuals, Ryan Murphy (AHS screenwriter) has said their murders are inspired by the Richard Speck massacre in 1966. Speck, a seaman from Texas, broke into a Chicago dorm occupied by nurses and viciously tortured, raped, and killed eight of them in one night. The sequence in the show is pale in comparison to to what actually transpired.
Coven: Madame Delphine LaLaurie
Season three’s LaLaurie was a real Creole socialite who lived in New Orleans in the 1830s.
Like her “American Horror Story” equivalent played by Kathy Bates, the LaLaurie matriarch is best known today for her attic of horrors where she tortured and murdered her household slaves. When authorities arrived to quell a kitchen fire in 1834, they found a seventy-year-old woman chained to the stove by her ankle. Refused the keys to the slave quarters by the LaLauries, officers broke down the doors where they found “seven slaves, more or less horribly mutated; suspended by the neck with their limbs apparently stretched and torn from each other,” according to an archived article of New Orleans Bee.
Marie Laveau and Papa Legba, who are inspired by voodoo legend, as well as a rift on the real-life Axeman of New Orleans are also featured “Coven.”
Coven: The Axeman of New Orleans
Danny Huston’s Coven character, The Axeman, was a real person — though he still has yet to have been identified. Between 1818 and 1819, a series of murders were committed in the New Orleans using axes and straight-razors owned by the residents of the houses the killer broke into. As seen on the show, he would even threaten to kill anyone not playing jazz music on one particular night.
Freak Show: Jimmy Darling and Grady Franklin Stiles, Jr.
Though many performers with ectrodactyly, aka Lobster Claw Syndrome, were prevalent throughout freak-show history, Grady Franklin Stiles, Jr. is clearly a large influence for Jimmy Darling. Born in Pittsburgh in 1937, Stiles was part of a whole family of people who had the condition. He was forced to become a sideshow act at a young age and became an abusive alcoholic — which seems to be the direction Jimmy is headed. He murdered his daughter’s fiancé in 1978, and then Grady himself was gunned down by a neighbor in 1993.
Hotel: H.H. Holmes/James Patrick March
Often referred to as America’s first serial killer, Dr. Henry Howard Holmes arrived in Chicago in 1893 where he built himself a hotel that eventually earned the moniker Murder Castle.
The three-story boarding house was built with crime in mind and was full of booby traps and secret rooms intended to aid in Holmes’ murderous efforts.
The notorious killer was arrested in Boston in 1895, and he went on to confess to 30 murders — though many believe his body count is as high as 200. Holmes’s technique of hiding his victims in the walls of the building he was constructing. While Mr. March isn’t a direct portrayal, he’s certainly inspired by the killer.
Hotel: Aileen Wuornos
Series veteran Lily Rabe guest starred as Aileen Wuornos, the serial killer who was portrayed by Charlize Theron in the 2003 drama Monster. Wuornos killed seven men while working as a prostitute between 1989 and 1990. She was convicted and later executed by lethal injection in 2002.
Roanoke: Catherine May Wood and Gwendolyn Gail Graham/Miranda and Bridget Jane
Just like the nurses in the first season of AHS, the nurses in Roanoke are also based on real people. Miranda and Bridget Jane are inspired by nurses Catherine May Wood and Gwendolyn Gail Graham, lovers who murdered at least two (possibly up to eight) elderly people in the ’80s. They’re known as the “Lethal Lovers.”
Freakshow/Hotel: Twisty the Clown/John Wayne Gacy
Murderous clowns are no strangers to nightmares and bad dreams, but “Freakshow’s” Twisty the Clown was especially horrifying. This is perhaps, in part due to his real-life inspiration, John Wayne Gacy. Dubbed the Killer Clown, Gacy often sported a bulbous nose and face paint as his goofy character Pogo during local parties and fundraisers.
Between the 1972 and 1978, Gacy murdered and sexually assaulted at least 33 boys and men in Illinois. And while his clowning gig never directly tied into his murdering spree, the serial killer often painted himself as Pogo the Clown while he was behind bars. His television counterpart also goes on to show up in the following season — significantly less disfigured than his debut appearance in season four — as the ghost of Gacy himself. Clown mask in hand, he sits down with March and the other murderers during their frightful October celebration. He died by lethal injection in 1994, leaving behind a series of haunting self portraits.
Like Twisty, most of the freaks in season four — Dot, Bette, Jimmy and Pepper — are also based on real people.
Of all the characters based on real-life serial killers and psychopaths in the series, who is your favorite?