All the Real Killers in American Horror Story, Pt. 2

I hope you liked last week’s rundown. Let’s take a stab at the next two seasons, shall we?

AHS Coven – Season 3

Season three might not have the most real killers, but it has the most recognizable.

The Axeman

The Axeman of New Orleans, played by Danny Houston, was a real serial killer who terrorized New Orleans in 1918 and 1919. He would remove his victims’ door panels with a chisel, enter their homes, then kill one or more of the residents with their own axe or straight razor. Nothing else would be taken from the home, besides their lives.

Most of his victims were Italian or Italian-American, causing some to believe the murders were ethnically motivated. His primary victims were women; he only killed men when they tried to protect women. This leads some modern criminologists to believe he was a sexual sadist.

On May 13, 1919, with a dateline from “Hell,” the Axeman (or someone claiming to be him) wrote a letter to “the esteemed morals of New Orleans.” Claiming to be a demon, he wrote that he would “pass over” New Orleans the following Tuesday at 12:15 a.m. and would spare anyone whose home was playing a jazz band in full swing. That night, every dancehall in the Crescent City was packed, and hundreds of professional and amateur musicians played. No one was killed that night.

The Axeman had killed six and injured a dozen, but was never caught.

The Savage Mistress

The other serial killer featured in season three was far more cruel and sadistic – and also never faced justice: Mad Madame LaLaurie, played by Kathy Bates. Madame Marie Delfine LaLaurie was born in 1787 into the New Orleans wealthy elite. She was known as kind and courteous to her social equals. She even freed two of her slaves.

Her third marriage was to the less wealthy Dr. Louis LaLaurie after she bore his child out of wedlock. Soon after their marriage, stories about her cruelty to her slaves began to emerge, and multiple complaints were filed against her for it. In an eerie reflection of Elizabeth Bathory, for whom she has been repeatedly compared, she flew into a rage when a 12-year-old servant girl named Leah (or Lia) pulled a tangle while brushing her hair. Fleeing from the furious, whip-wielding mistress, Leah jumped from the roof to her death. Witnesses later saw LaLaurie burying the girl’s mangled corpse, so she was fined $300 and forced to sell her nine slaves. But like rich people everywhere, she was able to buy her way out of punishment. Her family members simply purchased the slaves and sold them back to LaLaurie.

In 1834, the depth of her sadism was finally exposed for all to see. On April 10, 1834, a fire broke out in the LaLaurie mansion, set by a slave who had been chained to the stove and left to starve. She later confessed that she had set the fire as a suicide attempt to avoid being taken to the attic, because no one who was taken there ever came back.

As LaLaurie scrambled to save her valuables, townsfolk rushed in to help her. In the attic, they found “seven slaves, more or less horribly mutilated … suspended by the neck, with their limbs apparently stretched and torn from one extremity to the other.” They said they been imprisoned there for months. Details of the abuse have grown more fantastic over the years, including tales of slaves limbs being broken and reset an odd angles and other ghastly medical experiments. Though their conditions were torture by any standard, iron masks, collars with inward facing spikes, and beatings were actually common punishments used on slaves at the time.

Even in slave-holding New Orleans, however, this was more that they could tolerate. A mob of local citizens descended on the LaLaurie mansion and “demolished and destroyed everything upon which they could lay their hands.”

LaLaurie escaped with her slave driver to Paris, where she lived out the rest of her days in comfort and freedom. Her body was later exhumed and returned to New Orleans.

AHS Freakshow – Season 4

Season four, while being deliciously grotesque, doesn’t feature a lot of real killers. The most obviously inspired character is Twisty (played by John Caroll Lynch, no stranger to playing serial killers), a creature who is based on Pogo, the clown John Wayne Gacy would dress up as. Gacy would often entertain children dressed as Pogo, and, sometimes, he would dress as Pogo to assault and kill his victims.

There is one more serial killer that provided some inspiration for season four: Jeffrey Dahmer. In episode 5, “Pink Cupcakes,” Dandy begins choosing his victims by trawling the gay bar, just like Dahmer. Later, there is a scene at the bar where you can see a flyer in the background. It has a sketch of Dandy’s clown mask and says, “WANTED MAN.” This is also a callback to Dahmer. Many in Milwaukee’s gay community knew too many men and boys were going missing to be a coincidence. Thanks to the bigotry of the Milwaukee PD, the gay community had to try to solve the problem themselves, and to do so, they did put out flyers with some of the missing men’s photos on them. It’s a small detail, but it’s the kind of thing I love in this series.

Did I miss any? Let me know in the comments!

Join us next week when we’ll look at the real killers featured in seasons five and six.

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All the Real Killers in American Horror Story, Pt. 1

There are so many things I love about this series! I love how it moves around in time (I’m a sucker for anything vintage), the diversity of the cast, and the dark, intricate plotlines sprinkled with just a touch of camp. It’s absolutely delicious, like all the best nightmares are.

Another thing I love about American Horror Story is how Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and the other writers take characters and stories from real life. So in this series, I’m going to look at all the real psychos, sadists, and serial killers featured on the show.

AHS Murder House – Season 1

First, Tate Langdon (Evan Peters): he’s a troubled, moody loner, a teen who dreams of taking out his revenge on the classmates who shunned him. In episode 5 (“Halloween pt. 2”) we find out he actually did shoot up his school – then was himself shot – in the 1990s.

When most people think of a school shooting in the ‘90s, they think of the Columbine High School shooting in Littleton, Colorado, on April 20, 1999. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot and killed 13 people and wounded more than 20 others, then turned their guns on themselves. Like the character Tate, they wore black trenchcoats and listened to Goth music.

But that wasn’t the first school shooting in America. There have been many shootings at public schools over the years, going back to the 1700s. Most were acts of revenge, committed by one person against another at a school. Others were the result of a fight breaking out amongst armed students. The modern type of school shooting, where a student (or students) comes to the school and targets fellow students and teachers for the express purpose of taking as many lives as possible, is a relatively recent phenomenon.

The first mass murder (four or more fatalities) at a public school (not a college), where the shooter arrived with the express purpose of killing many others (as opposed to a fight breaking out or an act of revenge on a specific individual): that dubious honor belongs to Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Arkansas.

A year before the Columbine massacre, on March 24, 1998, Andrew Golden and Mitchell Johnson, aged 11 and 13, pulled a fire alarm then ran to a wooded area, firing on teachers and students as they exited. They killed five people and wounded 10 others. When police apprehended the boys, they found they had stocked a stolen van with food, clothing, and camping equipment as well as 13 fully loaded firearms and 200 rounds of ammo. At the time, it shocked the nation…yet only a year later, the Columbine massacre eclipsed it, setting off a very dark and deadly trend that unfortunately continues to this day.

Another real killer featured in Season 1 was Richard Speck – the murder of the nursing school students is nearly identical to his 1966 mass murder. The main difference is that in real life, Speck raped, beat, and stabbed eight women.

The final real killer in Season 1 has to do with maybe the most famous real-life murder victim, the Black Dahlia. In episode 9, “Spooky Little Girl,” she’s raped, then accidentally murdered, by a dentist while under sedation. When I first saw this scene, the story seemed familiar, but I couldn’t put a name to who the real murderous dentist was. So I Googled it. Turns out, it wasn’t just one dentist who would rape his patients while under sedation – many, many doctors of various specialties have been found guilty of this. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution did an excellent investigation into the problem and found it’s rampant in the medical community – they uncovered over 2,400 cases of doctors across the nation publicly sanctioned by medical authorities after being accused of sexually abusing patients. But many perps are never removed from medical practice. They just move away and start abusing patients again. Fortunately, unlike AHS’ Black Dahlia, their victims survived.

AHS Asylum – Season 2

The setting for Season 2 is Briarcliff Manor, an insane asylum where people were kept in horrible conditions, subjected to abuse and neglect … and treatments like electroshock therapy and forced lobotomies. It’s like something straight out of the pages of a horror novel. Actually, it’s from the pages of history books.

Insane asylums began in the late 17th century. Often the goal of these institutions was merely to keep the patients docile, so they were left in cell-like rooms, chained, put in straight-jackets, and later, drugged. Psychiatry was in its infancy, so mental illness was not well understood. Women, in particular, were labeled “mad” for nearly any infraction of the strict social code. Offenses like masturbating, defiance, or even not smiling enough could get a woman committed.

The most infamous of these was Bedlam (Bethlem Royal Hospital), the oldest institution for treatment of mental illness. It was built atop a sewer that frequently overflowed into the building. Patients were spun in suspended chairs, beaten, starved, dunked in ice baths, and other atrocities. Many didn’t survive. Edward Wakefield, a Quaker, exposed its abuses in 1814.

The character Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson) may well have been inspired by the intrepid Nellie Bly, (the pen name of Elizabeth Cochrane) who, in 1887, had herself committed to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island in New York City. She then exposed the filth, beatings, neglect, and torture there. She published a series of newspaper articles, “Behind Asylum Doors,” which were later collected into a book, Ten Days in a Madhouse. The exposure helped legislators increase the institution’s budget and the abuses stopped.

While Briarcliff was undoubtedly an amalgam of many of these awful places, the one that seems to track the closest is Willowbrook State Hospital. First exposed by newspaper reporter Jane Kurtin, the horrifying conditions of the hospital were aired by Geraldo Rivera in 1972 in a special called “Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace.” The “investigative report” done by Lana Winters is a thinly-fictionalized, nearly shot-by-shot remake of Rivera’s piece.

Probably the most obvious – and evil – real killer in Season 2 is Dr. Arthur Arden/Hans Grüper (James Cromwell). He is explicitly an avatar of the Nazi Angel of Death, Dr. Josef Mengele. Both did horrible, unethical, and cruel experiments – without anesthetics – on women, children, and twins in Auschwitz.  Both were deceptively kind, as shown in episode 4, “I am Anne Frank, pt. 1,” where the younger Grüper (John Cromwell) is shown giving treats to the children in the camp.

However, unlike Mengele, who lived out the rest of his days in Brazil, Arden’s fate was more fitting. As Executive Producer Ryan Murphy put it, “… the image of a Nazi doctor going into an oven is sort of a brilliant metaphor of him literally paying. Obviously, he’s a terrible character but I thought his end was very justified and somewhat poetic.” Perhaps not coincidentally, the character’s surname, “Arden,” means “they burn” in Spanish.

Bloody Face is a Frankenstein’s-monster mix of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Norman Bates, and Buffalo Bill. And who are all those fictional monsters based on? The Butcher of Plainfield, Ed Gein. Dr. Oliver Thredson/Bloody Face, like Gein, is obsessed with his mother and her skin. Like Gein, he made furniture and objects out of human remains – specifically, like Gein, a bowl made from a skull and a lampshade and mask of human skin.

There is one real-life killer ascribed to AHS that I don’t think holds up. Some are saying Grace Bertrand (Lizzie Brocheré) represents Lizzy Borden. She did murder her father and step-mother with an axe; but that’s where the similarities end. Borden was a stout, no-nonsense woman, used to getting her own way – nothing like the waifish, mewling Grace. She wasn’t French either.

Of course all this is a matter of opinion. I’m interested in hearing other theories! Let me know what you think in the comments. And tune in next week for seasons 3 and 4!