The crime genre is hugely popular these days, with countless movies and books to choose from - some less well-known than others. Often when crime is mixed with a bit of horror and jump scares, it makes for engaging entertainment. The only thing to change that is when we learn that our entertainment may not be complete fiction.
Some of the most compelling movies and books are actually based on true stories - and sometimes, the true stories are scarier than what we see on the screen. Read on to discover the true stories behind some of the most well-known crime stories out there. Be warned, though - major spoilers ahead!
Edgar Allen Poe’s poetry and stories are infamous for their dark and mysterious focus. He is especially known for his detective fiction, including The Mystery of Marie Rogêt. In this tale (published in 1842), someone murders young Frenchwoman Marie Roget.
Detective C. Auguste Dupin takes it upon himself to investigate Roget’s murder after her body turns up in the River Seine. Dupin considers various theories before ascertaining that a solo murderer was involved. At the end of the tale he claims he can solve the case; however, he doesn't name a killer. A prequel, of sorts, is The Murders in the Rue Morgue.
This tale is notable for being the first published murder mystery based on an actual crime. In this case, it was the murder of Mary Rogers, a beautiful young woman from New York, who was last seen leaving to visit relatives in New Jersey on July 25, 1841. Her remains were found in the Hudson River on July 28, 1841.
Accidental drowning was ruled out because Rogers's body appeared to have been beaten and her clothing torn. The coroner also noted that she was not pregnant. Her fiancé was initially suspected, but ended up having a solid alibi. He took his own life in October of 1841, seemingly unable to overcome the passing of his fiancée.
In October 1842, tavern owner Frederica Loss claimed Rogers perished due to a botched abortion and that the physician threw her in the river to dispose of the evidence. While unsubstantiated, many people accepted this story. Officially, however, the case remains unsolved.
In the novel Murder on The Orient Express by Agatha Christie (AKA the Queen of Crime and the Duchess of Death), Belgian detective Hercule Poirot becomes entangled in several mysteries while on a train en route to London. While primarily investigating a murder that occurred on board, Poirot also unravels the tragic mystery surrounding a young girl named Daisy Armstrong. who was kidnapped several years earlier.
She had been abducted for ransom but callously murdered, even though her family paid the agreed-upon money. Daisy's mother was so shocked by these events that she went into premature labor, losing both the baby and her own life. Daisy's father’s suicide quickly followed. Despite all the Armstrongs being gone, Poirot still pushes to solve the mystery and is able to do so while aboard the train.
Christie’s dark tale was inspired in part by what became known as “the trial of the century” - the kidnapping of aviator Charles Lindbergh’s infant son. The nation was shocked when the 20-month-old disappeared from his crib on March 1, 1932. The kidnappers left a ransom note on the nursery window that demanded $50,000. Despite the family adhering to this demand, Charles Jr. was found deceased a few months later.
Unlike Daisy Armstrong's parents, the Lindberghs did not take their own lives following the incident. However, the family maid Violet Sharp was extensively questioned, and later committed suicide. Police later determined she was not involved, and a carpenter named Bruno Richard Hauptmann was convicted and executed.
The Controversial Sam Sheppard Case Inspired Numerous TV Episodes, And Possibly A Hit Series
The Fugitive is the name of both a 1993 action thriller starring Harrison Ford and a 1960s TV series. In both versions, a doctor named Richard Kimble is accused, convicted, and sentenced to death for the murder of his wife. After his prison escape, Kimble embarks on a journey to discover who really killed his wife and clear his name.
According to series creator Roy Huggins:
I suppose connecting Kimble to [Dr. Sam] Sheppard makes a more sensational story. I wouldn’t care as much… except that’s not the way [The Fugitive] happened. [The news reports] are in reckless disregard of the truth.
Despite this claim, many parallels exist between the series, film, and Sheppard case. The case went as follows: On July 4, 1954, a pregnant Marilyn Sheppard was beaten to death in her home. According to the only witness, her husband Dr. Sam Sheppard, he was also attacked that day and therefore unable to help his wife.
Authorities quickly turned a suspicious eye on Sheppard once they discovered he had been having an affair, and he was charged with his wife's murder. Prosecutors claimed Sheppard wanted his wife gone so he could be with his mistress, while Sheppard’s defense team claimed that he sustained injuries that were only possible if an intruder had inflicted them. A jury found Sheppard guilty in December 1954; his sentence was life in prison.
While there was no subsequent escape plot and journey to find the killer in Sheppard's story, things didn’t end with him going to prison. Ten years after his incarceration, criminal defense attorney F. Lee Bailey took the case to the US Supreme Court, where after a second trial in 1966 he was found not guilty and set free. He passed in April 1970 at age 46, due to complications of heavy alcohol use.
Whether or not The Fugitive was inspired by the case, numerous other TV shows have created episodes based on Sheppard, including Law & Order and Cold Case.
In Gillian Flynn’s 2012 novel Gone Girl (and the film based on it), a couple's troubled marriage become center stage for the public when the wife goes missing. The story presents both the husband's and wife’s perspectives, and initially it seems that Lance Nicholas “Nick” Dunne is responsible for the disappearance of his wife Amy Elliott Dunne.
The plot twists and turns; readers eventually discover that while Nick was unfaithful and unhappy in the marriage, he didn’t have anything to do with Amy going missing. She had actually been planning to fake her own death and frame her husband as an act of revenge for his betrayal.
I definitely didn’t want to do anything specific. One could point to Scott and Lacey [sic] Peterson - they were certainly a good-looking couple. But they’re always good-looking couples. That’s why they end up on TV. You don’t normally see incredibly ugly people who’ve gone missing and it becomes a sensation. It could be any number of those types of cases, but that was what kind of interested me: the selection and the packaging of a tragedy.
Laci went missing on Christmas Eve in 2002, and her case became a media sensation - particularly after it came to light that Scott had been having an affair. He was eventually convicted of killing both Laci - who was 8 months pregnant - and their unborn son Conner.
Readers and movie-goers were quick to draw a connection between the Nick Dunne character and Scott Peterson, particularly after Ben Affleck was cast in the role. Flynn admitted in an interview:
He has got that vibe. [Nick] is certainly not Scott Peterson specifically. [But] the idea [is] that we are consumers of tragedy now, that we cast our heroes and our villains and we become very invested in them. And certainly Scott Peterson was one of those cases.
- Photo: Miramax Films
In the 1994 film Heavenly Creatures, two teenage girls form an obsessive bond that ultimately leads to murder. They become incredibly co-dependent, often spending hours in a fantasy daydream they’ve created. In an attempt to bring the girls back into reality and address the co-dependency, their parents plan to separate them, which pushes them over the edge. The end result is them fatally bludgeoning one of their mothers.
While the film seems far-fetched, it is based on a shocking set of events that took place in New Zealand in 1954. Just as portrayed in the film, two friends - in real life named Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme, developed an obsessive friendship. The girls created a fantasy world in which they spent countless hours dreaming of a future in Hollywood together.
Rumors began to circulate of a sexual relationship, and their parents grew concerned. When the girls received news of their imminent separation because Hulme's family would be moving to South Africa, they decided to take matters into their own hands. During an afternoon walk with Parker’s mother Honora, the girls beat her to death with a brick.
The subsequent trial was a media frenzy. The girls were found guilty and sentenced to incarceration in separate prisons. Each was released after five years, but they never saw each other again. Parker eventually settled in England, while Hulme moved to Scotland and became the mystery writer known as Anne Perry.
- Photo: Fox
The X-Files (which ran from 1993 to 2002), became a cult classic for all of its creepy subject matter and focus on government conspiracies. Among the many memorable episodes, one titled “Home” is particularly eerie, especially when one digs deeper into its background.
In this episode, agents Dana Scully and Fox Mulder investigate a deformed baby buried in a field. They learn that a nearby house belongs to a family living there since Civil War times. The home has no electricity or running water, and the family has been rumored to engage in inbreeding. The episode gets more disturbing from there, culminating in several deaths and Scully and Mulder’s discovery that the three male siblings living in the house were attempting to breed with their quadriplegic mother.
The real inspiration wasn't quite so disturbing. The episode was partially based on the Ward Brothers, whose story began in 1990 when one of the brothers, Delbert, was arrested for allegedly killing his younger brother William. Many odd details of the brothers' life came to light with the trial that ensued. The brothers lived in a run-down farm with no modern conveniences in Munnsville, NY. They all had very low IQs, were illiterate, and didn’t often interact with other townspeople. However, the people who knew the brothers rallied around them.
As the case moved along, Delbert was acquitted following details that the police had made him sign a confession despite his illiteracy and the fact he couldn’t read what he was signing. Despite the brothers being hermits, the town celebrated Delbert's acquittal.