Weird History
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The True Story Behind 'Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas'

Updated October 17, 2019 21.5k views14 items

Over the course of his career, Hunter S. Thompson became one of the most influential, divisive, and important figures in the history of literature and journalism through his groundbreaking and pioneering creation of what he termed "Gonzo" journalism. Arguably his most famous work of all, Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream is both a fictionalized retelling of real events in his life and a brutally honest, revealing insight into both Thompson's psyche and the American counterculture at the beginning of the 1970s.  

Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas will forever be immortalized by the impressive film adaptation - featuring Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro and directed by Terry Gilliam - and it was a truly revolutionary work of unparalleled literary genius that swept over the American counterculture. The events behind the book's conception and the real legacy of its two main characters - Thompson and Chicano activist and attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta - are perhaps even more surreal than what Thompson penned. The Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas true story depicts what happened behind the scenes that led Thompson to write his version of the great American novel.

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  • Acosta Disappeared In Mexico In 1974 And Was Never Seen Again

    Acosta disappeared without a trace three years after he and Thompson went on their infamous Las Vegas trips. He vanished while traveling in Mazatlan, Mexico. It's believed that he might have either been taken out by dealers he associated with or by state agents as part of a political ploy, while others suggest he may have overdosed, but his ultimate fate is still unknown.

    In 1977, Rolling Stone received a bill from a hospital regarding a patient supposedly named Oscar Acosta who had been treated for a broken arm. The publication attempted to trace the bill but got no further than the hospital it came from, and they never found out who had actually been treated or if it was really Acosta.

    Thompson later penned a forward for the reprinting of Acosta's 1973 novel The Revolt of the Cockroach People, where he reflected on his former friend's disappearance, writing, "His birthday is not noted in any calendar, and his [demise] is barely noticed… But the hole he left was a big one, and nobody even tried to sew it up."

    Thompson later penned a memorial, of sorts, for Acosta in an article titled, "Fear and Loathing in the Graveyard of the Weird," published by Rolling Stone, where he explained how there have been reported sightings of the famed lawyer for years, similar to those of Elvis Presley. Thompson wrote:

    Ever since his alleged disappearance he's turned up all over the world... It might even come to pass that he will suddenly appear on my porch in Woody Creek on some moonless night when the peacocks are screeching with lust... Maybe so, and that is one ghost who will always be welcome in this house, even with a head full of acid and a chain of bull-maggots around his neck.

  • The Second Trip To Vegas Was To Cover A Legal Conference About The Dangers Of Narcotics

    When Thompson returned to Las Vegas a month after the first trip, again with Acosta by his side, he did so to cover the National District Attorneys Association's conference on narcotics. Thompson and Acosta attempted and failed to blend in among the cops and prosecutors as they listened to conferences and speeches about the problems with unlawful substances and their prevalence in the culture. Thompson later wrote about the experience in a letter to Jim Silberman, his publisher at Random House, recalling that those in law enforcement who attended the event "know nothing at all about the realities of the [substance] culture."

    "The whole conference [was] bogged down in 1959-style gibberish," Thompson wrote. "The whole thing was so dank and atavistic that I had no trouble dividing my time between the Vegas underworld and the National DA's conference."

    Thompson eventually gave up on the assignment, but not before being awarded a certificate of achievement "for his contribution to and participation in the [institute], dedicated to the purpose of preventing the nation's youth from succumbing to, and the rehabilitation of those already in, the abyss of [substance dependency]."

  • Acosta's Reputation Was Wilder Than Thompson's

    Thompson's addictions and wildly unsafe lifestyle is the stuff of legend, but in his Rolling Stone essay "The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat," Thompson reveals that Acosta's mode of operation was even more all-consuming than his own. 

    "Any combination of a 250 lb. Mexican and LSD-25 is a potentially terminal menace for anything it can reach," Thompson wrote of Acosta, who he later described as having "a head full of Sandoz acid, a loaded .357 Magnum in his belt, a hatchet-wielding Chicano bodyguard on his elbow at all times, and a disconcerting habit of projectile vomiting geysers of pure blood off the front porch every 30 or 40 minutes, or whenever his malignant ulcer can't handle any more raw tequila."

    Acosta was also a champion and controversial hero of the Chicano rights movement in Los Angeles, as well as an author. Acosta penned a widely praised memoir, Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo, and the celebrated novel Revolt of the Cockroach People, which fictionalized real events from his own life.

  • Thompson Brought 'Dr. Gonzo' Along On Two Separate Trips To Vegas

    When Thompson first made the long trek from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, Acosta was by his side. The Chicano activist and lawyer served as Thompson's source for his investigation into the Ruben Salazar incident, and they could freely talk while on the road and out of the state. The first night they were there, the pair drank, gambled, partied, and discussed the socio-political conflicts and racial tensions brewing in LA at the time. They stayed out the entire night before Thompson was supposed to cover the Mint 400.

    Inspired by some of his experiences and realizations during his three days in Vegas, Thompson began writing and soon had 10,000 words worth of a disjointed story that he knew could become a novel, though he was running low on motivation. When he got an excuse to cover another story in Las Vegas, he jumped at the opportunity and invited Acosta to join him once more.

    In the book Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, Thompson chose to call Acosta "Dr. Gonzo" - named after the style of journalism Thompson himself was credited with pioneering - and described him as "Samoan." In reality, he was of Mexican heritage and born in El Paso, Texas.