Welcome to Behind the Screams! In this article, we will be taking a look at the true stories that inspired some of our favorite horror films. Each month, we will dive into the stories behind these films and see that, sometimes, the truth is far more horrifying than fiction.
Ten Years. It took ten years for the majority of us to see The Poughkeepsie Tapes. Ten long years of whispered rumors that never bore fruit. Ten years of reading the few reviews of the film that came out of Tribeca after its premiere. Some said that it was because it was too scary. Others said that it was because it featured scenes of extreme torture. There were even some who thought the film was real and was pulled due to lawsuits from the victims’ families.
None of this turned out to be true, but these stories built an aura of mystery around the film that still exists to this day. Like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer in the 80’s, the fact that The Poughkeepsie Tapes was held back from release created a vacuum where our worst nightmares could reside. Thankfully, Scream Factory released the film in 2017, allowing everyone (including myself) to experience the horror of the Water Street Butcher for the first time.
What we got was a simple, yet extremely well-done horror film that tapped into the primal fears of its viewers. There are few movies out there that receive the amount of “Nope” or “THE FUUUUUUUUUUUCK?” reactions from folks seeing clips for the first time. The Dowdle brothers (Drew and John Erick) crafted something that was universally, if not scary, then definitely unsettling.
So how were they able to pull this off? How did they take an idea for a fake documentary about a serial killer and turn it into one of the most fundamentally disturbing films of all time? In simple terms, they created a Serial Killer Chimera.
Other films have combined the characteristics of multiple real-life killers to create their monsters. Most notably, the Hannibal Lecter duo of Manhunter/Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs used several killer ingredients to make the Tooth Fairy and Buffalo Bill as terrifying as possible. The difference between those films and The Poughkeepsie Tapes is that the Brothers Dowdle didn’t stop with two or three strands of DNA to birth their creature.
“[The Dowdle brothers] created a Serial Killer Chimera.”
The Water Street Butcher is a masterful blend of every well-known serial murderer, allowing him to bore his way into the fear-center of every viewer’s brain. For me, it made the film all the more believable. For others, though, this amalgamation of psychopathy is what turned them off.
One of the complaints that I’ve seen about The Poughkeepsie Tapes is that it’s too far-fetched. Believe me, it isn’t. It has happened, and if the FBI’s statistics on serial murder are correct, there is a good chance that it’s happening right now. Be warned, we are about to dive head-first into some dark waters. These people, like the Water Street Butcher, are absolute monsters, but the monsters we know are far less frightening than the ones we don’t.
So, let’s take a look at some of the different aspects of the Water Street Butcher’s modus operandi and see if we can’t trace them back to their real-life counterparts.
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The tapes found in the closet of that small house in Poughkeepsie, New York, are the central plot point for the entire film. Without them, the authorities would never have known the extent of this killer’s crimes. While the “official” count of tapes numbers in the 800’s, if you actually sit and count the number that is shown in the hallway during that interview (which, like, don’t), the number is actually closer to 2,000.
The act of recording crimes, especially out in the open like his were, is pretty rare in the serial killer world. It usually necessitates an accomplice, and it makes the killer that much more conspicuous to witnesses. People rarely remember the man walking past them on the sidewalk, but if he’s holding a camera, they’re definitely going to take notice. So, in reality, to videotape your killings, you need privacy. This is the case for three of history’s most disgusting and horrifying killers: David Parker Ray and the evil combination of Leonard Lake and Charles Ng.
“The act of recording crimes, especially out in the open like [the Water Street Butcher’s] were, is pretty rare in the serial killer world.”
Ray, known as the “Toy Box Killer” was a sadomasochist living near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. He created, next to his trailer, a torture chamber where he and his accomplices (including his own daughter) would rape, torture, and murder multiple women (even though no bodies have ever been found, police believe him to be connected to 60 deaths in Arizona and New Mexico). In this soundproofed “toy box”, he had a gynecological chair installed where he would hold his victims captive. While they were immobilized, he would use saws, blades, whips, and even an electrical device to inflict maximum amounts of pain.
During these sessions, Ray would videotape everything. Police only found one video when they arrested him in 1999, but there are dozens more out there somewhere. In the video they did find, they used the footage to identify the woman, who ended up surviving the ordeal after Ray dumped her body.
Leonard Lake and his accomplice Charles Ng were also notorious for videotaping their crimes. Like the Water Street Butcher, they would try to break women down to be their “slaves”. They would lie, they would mock, and they would degrade these women, much like the killer in The Poughkeepsie Tapes. Every one of these crimes was captured on videotape for them to watch later and trade with other pornographers and fans of snuff films. One tape shows this chilling interaction between the duo and a woman named Brenda Bond, who was abducted along with her husband and their infant son.
Brenda: Are you going to let us go soon?
Lake: Probably not.
Brenda: Why are you doing this?
Lake: Because we hate you. Your baby is going to be taken away. There’s a family down in Fresno that doesn’t have a baby.
Brenda: You’re not taking my baby away from me.
Ng: It’s better than the baby is dead, right?
Lake: Your baby is sound asleep. Like a rock.
Ng: It’s done. Just take it whatever we tell you.
(Ng approaches her with a knife to remove her clothes)
Brenda: Don’t cut my bra off.
Lake: Nothing is yours. You are totally ours.
Brenda, looking at the spotlight on her: That light’s hot… It’s making me sick.
Lake: Suffer… Brenda, I have a lot of animosity towards you and I would just as soon start with a firm whipping right now to make you believe how serious we are.
What Brenda didn’t know was that, before this ever started, Leonard Lake put a bullet into her husband’s brain and Charles Ng placed her baby’s head between his legs and twisted its torso until its neck snapped. Monstrous brutality. Mind games. A desire for a “slave”. Videotaped torture for future viewing. These are all traits of the Water Street Butcher we see in The Poughkeepsie Tapes and, unfortunately, have seen in real-life killers.
One of the most unsettling scenes of the film comes when the killer enters Cheryl’s home and hides in her closet while she gets out of the shower. He watches, plague mask on, as they make love, eat ice cream, and fall asleep on the couch. He is inches away from them when they awaken, and he strikes the boyfriend when he heads to the kitchen sink. This is the part of the movie where my wife left the room and said curse words at me.
It might seem impossible that a man could go undetected like that in someone’s home, but it happens more often than you think. In the realm of serial murder, Dennis “BTK” Rader and Richard “The Nightstalker” Ramirez would both break into homes and wait, sometimes for hours, for the owners to get home.
One person who came to mind when watching this scene was teenager Daniel LaPlante. In 1986, LaPlante was caught inside the home of Brian Andrews and his two daughters. The girls had been complaining about paranormal activity in the house for months, but their father never believed them. They heard loud scratches and tapping, and they saw two messages written on the walls. Their father thought that they were making this all up as a way of acting out after the death of their mother earlier in the year.
“Dennis “BTK” Rader and Richard “The Nightstalker” Ramirez would both break into homes and wait, sometimes for hours, for the owners to get home.”
After one particularly scary incident, Brian rushed home from work and ran into the house to find LaPlante, wearing a wig and wielding a hatchet. The terrified father managed to escape and contact the police, who arrested Daniel inside the home. While there, they realized that he had been living inside the walls of the home for over two months, and all of the paranormal activity the girls experienced was him, crawling around and using the crawlspaces to watch them sleep.
After a few months in Juvenile Detention, Daniel was released and almost immediately went back to work. In December of 1987, he entered the home of Priscilla Gustafson, a schoolteacher who lived alone with her two children. When police were eventually called to the home, they found Priscilla dead in her bed and the two children drowned in the bathtub. She was several months pregnant at the time of her murder.
You see, the Water Street Butcher’s actions the night he abducted Cheryl weren’t outlandish or unrealistic at all. They were, in reality, pretty tame compared to what people have and will do to others. It makes the scene all the more terrifying upon second watch.
Water Street Boogeyman
Besides the videotaping and the home invasion, the killer in The Poughkeepsie Tapes pulls inspiration from dozens of other killers to commit his crimes.
Mutilation: When the Water Street Butcher attacks the couple in the car, he removes the husband’s head and surgically places in in his wife’s abdomen. This is reminiscent of the extreme mutilation seen at the hands of Jack the Ripper back in the late 1800’s. This same “theatrical” brand of mutilation was displayed by Jerry Brudos, or the “Lust Killer” who murdered several women in late-1960’s Oregon. After killing his victims, he would remove their breasts and attempt to turn them into taxidermy trophies for his garage wall. When this didn’t work due to the skin shrinking, he would stuff them with sawdust and turn them into paperweights for his desk.
First Victim: We see, in an extremely creepy scene, that the Water Street Butcher’s first victim was a young girl named Jennifer who was playing with dolls in her front yard. This isn’t an uncommon thing in the world of serial killers. A large part of their psychology has to do with feeling powerful, therefore they attack and kill vulnerable people. This includes runaways, hitchhikers, the homeless, the elderly, and sex workers. Unfortunately, many killers start with children before moving on to the more “challenging” prey.
It is widely believed, although it’s unproven, that Ted Bundy’s first victim was an 8-year-old girl named Ann Marie Burr. She was a close neighbor of Bundy’s in Tacoma, Washington when she disappeared in 1961. If it wasn’t Bundy, then her going missing is quite a coincidence, seeing as her and Ted, who was 14 at the time, knew each other pretty well. We all know that Bundy’s final victim was only 12 years-old, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he started with children.
“[…] what makes The Poughkeepsie Tapes so profoundly disturbing is its willingness to take facts from real killers and weave them into a terrifying tapestry of pain.”
There are dozens more instances that we just can’t get into here. We don’t have the space and I don’t have the mental strength to keep studying this shit. You’re more than welcome to look into it if you’d like. His torture and dismemberment techniques? Look up Dean Corll, Robert Berdella, or Richard Cottingham. His attempts to appear like a police officer? That’s Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, and Edmund Kemper. His dramatic use of masks? Look up Zodiac and the Texarkana Phantom. Even the scene where the FBI interviewed Bundy is an exact replica of something that happened in real life. Only, instead of the Water Street Butcher, he was talking about the Green River Killer. His advice was the same, though: Find a recent grave and stake it out, because he’ll return to it to have sex with the corpse for several weeks after burial.
As you can see, what makes The Poughkeepsie Tapes so profoundly disturbing is its willingness to take facts from real killers and weave them into a terrifying tapestry of pain. The scariest thing about the Butcher isn’t his torturous crimes, but rather the knowledge that this has all happened before, and it will happen again. Only this next time, it could be you chained to that wall.
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