All the Real Killers in American Horror Story, Part 3

Season five has so many real killers in it, it gets its own post!

H.H. Holmes

The insane architect of the Cortez, J.P. March (played by Evan Peters) is largely based on a real serial killer: H.H. Holmes (real name, Herman Webster Mudgett).

Holmes built his “murder castle” just outside of Chicago in 1893, just in time for the Columbian exhibition. Like the Cortez, his hotel was a deranged masterpiece designed to confuse, kill, and dispose of its inhabitants. Like March, Holmes would fire contractors who saw too much or asked to many questions – though he would just fire them without pay, not execute them. Holmes’ murder castle had doors that opened onto brick walls, staircases then went to nowhere, sealed rooms with poison gas piped in (and a peep hole where he could watch his victims’ death throes), and a chute for delivering the bodies to the basement, where he could strip their flesh and sell their skeletons to anatomy schools.

The Devil’s Night Guest List

In episode 4, March hosts his annual Devil’s Night dinner, where real serial killers he’s mentored are invited back from the dead. The guest list includes:

  • Jeffrey Dahmer, played by Seth Gabel
  • The Zodiac killer, played by an unknown actor
  • Richard Ramirez, who actually stayed at the Cecil Hotel (see below), played by Anthony Ruivivar
  • John Wayne Gacy, played by John Carroll Lynch. Lynch has played serial killers before, including the main suspect, Arthur Leigh Allen, in the movie Zodiac and Twisty the Clown in season four. But as great an actor as Lynch is, I don’t think he really got Gacy was an outgoing, ambitious glad-hander – someone who recruited prominent men into the Jaycees and hobknobbed with politicians. Lynch portrayed him as a somewhat dull, almost childish character, more like Twisty than the real Gacy.
  • Aileen Wuornos, played by Lily Rabe. Rabe’s Wournos was incredible – maybe even better than Charlize Theron!
  • Gordon Northcott, the Wineville chicken coop murderer, played by Luke Baybak. As an aside, apparently Hazel’s son was one of his victims, as she reveals earlier in the episode. This was one detail that I found, well, off-key. What was the purpose of that scene? Why didn’t Hazel attempt some sort of revenge on Northcott at that evening’s dinner? This just doesn’t make sense!

The Cecil Hotel

Perhaps the most interesting “real killer” in season five is the hotel itself, which seems to be an amalgam of H.H. Holmes’ murder castle and a real hotel in LA called the Hotel Cecil.

The Cecil, also done in the art deco style, was built in 1925. It had 700 rooms and was very tony at the time. But the stock market crash of ’29 caused financial problems for the owners. Soon the neighborhood turned seedy, and the Cecil became a hostel for the shady and sick – much like the Cortez.

Over the years there have been not one, but two, serial killers who have called the Cecil their home. Richard Ramirez lived on the top floor while he was killing in the mid-1980s, and Jack Unterweger murdered three women while living there in 1991.

In addition, there have been 16 unnatural deaths at the hotel, including almost a dozen people who committed suicide and several others who attempted to. In 1962, one woman leapt to her death and landed on a pedestrian, killing him too. One man was fatally pinned to the building by a truck, and in 1994, a 19-year-old woman gave birth in the bathroom and threw the newborn out the window to his death.

Recently, in 2013, the Hotel Cecil tried rebranding itself with a renovation and new name, Stay on Main. But that was not enough to overcome the apparent curse of the Hotel Cecil. On Feb. 19, the naked, decomposing body of Elisa Lam was found in the hotel’s water tank after guests had complained of a foul odor and bad taste in the water. She had been missing for three weeks by then. The last images taken of Lam were hotel surveillance footage that showed her acting very strangely, as though she were afraid someone were following her, though no one else could be seen.

Though the cause of her disappearance and death was ruled accidental, questions still remain. For one, how could Lam have gotten onto the roof, when a locked door and fire escape are the only ways to access the hotel’s roof? The door, which only employees can reach, is also equipped with an alarm. Why didn’t it sound? The water tank itself is also extremely difficult to access, and authorities had a difficult time getting her body out. What really happened to Elisa Lam may never be answered.


Tune in next week for all the real killers in season six!


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!