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.
Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986) is not based on a true story. The book that inspired it, Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon, is not based on a true story. Both iterations (as well as the 2002 remake) are complete works of fiction, but they are inspired by real-life crimes and aspects of the human psyche that resonate throughout our subconscious to this day.
A lot of fictional tales draw from real-life to create their horrors. The Witch (2016) isn’t the true story of a young woman signing her name in the devil’s book, but it is a snapshot of a time where such fears were very present. The same could be said for films like Jaws (1975), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Psycho (1960), or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). None of these movies are directly based on true happenings, but it’s not difficult to trace their plots and inspirations back to actual events.
This is the plane of reality where Manhunter resides. The characters, whether it be Francis Dolarhyde, super-cop Will Graham, or the ultimate boogeyman Hannibal Lecter (spelled Lecktor in this film) were fully created in the mind of Thomas Harris. Some of these characters are based directly off of real people, and some are amalgamations of several different folks, but one in particular needs to be examined further to see the real terror that he represents.
The Tooth Fairy
Francis Dolarhyde is one of the most terrifying characters ever written or put to film. His combination of delusion, insecurity, cunning, and brutality are unmatched in the horror genre. He is a perfect version of a serial killer who was both born and made. Harris has stated in interviews that a big source of his inspiration for the character was a mysterious killer who had not yet been caught when the book was written. Let’s take a look at the similarities between Francis and this very real monster who terrified an entire community in the 1970’s.
The Garotte Phantom
At about 7 a.m. on the morning of January 15th, 1974, a killer broke into the home of the Otero family and destroyed a community forever. He bound all four members of the family that were home at the time (Joseph Otero- age 38, Julie Otero- age 33, Joseph Otero Jr.- age 9, and Josephine Otero- age 11) and went about exacting his fantasies. He wrapped a plastic bag over the head of Joseph Otero Sr. and secured it with cord. He then did the same to Mrs. Otero, taking the time to apply extra pressure to make her pass out. After leaving them to suffocate, he then applied bags and cord to the heads of the two children.
He was new to this, you see. He made mistakes. All four members of the Otero family woke up from their unconsciousness. They were “pretty upset about what was going on”, he later said. He went back to the parents and strangled them to death with rope. Joseph Jr. was dealt with next. The killer put a t-shirt over the bag he had already placed over the boy’s head and secured it again, this time more securely. After moving him into a different bedroom, the killer pulled a chair over to the boy and watched as he suffocated to death. Josephine, only 11 years old, was then taken to the basement where he hung her from a pipe. He stood in front of her, and watched as she, begging for her life, slowly died of asphyxiation. He never raped any of the members of the Otero family, but semen was found near the hanging body of Josephine.
This man, who would name himself B.T.K. in 1978, would go on to kill six other people over the next 17 years. When Red Dragon was published in 1981, he had broken into five homes in total and murdered seven people. He was getting better and better at what he did. He was, “getting a taste for it”, as Will Graham mentions in Manhunter. It would take another 24 years before Dennis Rader would be caught and charged with these crimes, and it will be another 161 years before he will be up for parole.
If you take into account the fact that the character was written, and Manhunter was filmed, before we knew who B.T.K. actually was, you can see the similarities. Here was a man who broke into homes, sometimes waiting for hours for the owners to arrive, and killed for sexual power and gratification. That’s where the similarities stop. Sure, we now know that Rader used his job at ADT as a way to choose and stalk his victims (very similar to Dolarhyde’s technique at the film processing plant), but at the time of filming, this wasn’t known.
So, even though the author and director themselves mentioned B.T.K. as their muse, there is very little in the way of direct inspiration for Francis Dolarhyde. To fill in the spaces left by the Wichita Strangler, we need to look at the type of killer Francis is.
Power. Control. God.
Francis Dolarhyde, as he is portrayed in Manhunter, is a fictional example of a Power/Control killer with Grandiose Delusional Disorder. He doesn’t kill specifically for the sexual gratification, but he does so to gain complete control over his victims. He feels that, because he is superior to them, they should look at him with awe and tremble in his presence. The only way he can make them do this, however, is by killing them first.
At one point in the film, Hannibal calls Graham and talks him through the thought process of the Tooth Fairy Killer. He says:
Hannibal: Did you really feel so depressed after you shot Mr. Garret Jacob Hobbs to death? I didn’t know you then, but I think you probably did. But it wasn’t the act that got you so down. Didn’t you feel so bad because killing him felt so good? And why shouldn’t it feel good? It must feel good to God. He does it all the time. God’s terrific. He dropped a roof on 34 of His worshipers last Wednesday night as they were groveling through a hymn to His majesty. Don’t you think that felt good?
Graham: Why does it feel good, Dr. Lecktor?
Hannibal: It feels good, Will, because God has power. If one does what God does enough times, one will become as God is.
You see, it wasn’t hedonistic lust, greed or thrills that drove Dolarhyde to commit his crimes. It was the fact that he was becoming a god. He was controlling and dominating his victims. Like Dolarhyde, these types of killers enjoy every aspect of the kill. They love the chase, the hunt, and the capture of their victims. Each aspect of their process gives them a sense of omnipotence and omniscience. A sense of godhood.
Francis fits this type of predator perfectly. He would watch his victim’s tapes in his home. He would sit in the trees and watch them as they lived their everyday lives. Even the mirrors in his victim’s eyes allowed him to believe that they were seeing him as he saw himself. Powerful, all-knowing, and unmerciful. His necrophilia is another trait shared by many Power/Control killers. Much like Edmund Kemper did in the early 1970’s, the way he felt god-like was to make his own creations, to create his own followers. Through his violence, he created dolls that were unable to reject him or make him feel anything but powerful.
Rader is a Power/Control killer, as well, but his lack of grandiose delusions makes him different than Dolarhyde. Yes, he felt like he was better and smarter than everyone else, but that wasn’t what drove his killings. Rader wasn’t becoming, as much as he was finally able to reveal what he had already become. He wasn’t a god (Rader, famously, was a devout man who was the president of his church congregation), he was using his power to satisfy his hedonistic desires. He didn’t crave power or control, he craved attention and notoriety.
Manhunter, for all its 80’s aesthetic and cheesy dialogue (not to mention the horrifically edited action climax), is a great film to watch for true-crime nerds. It not only gives us a fantastic fictional killer, but it also gives us a glimpse into the most horrifying parts of the human psyche.
Most horror villains can be avoided. All you have to do is avoid visiting Haddonfield on October 31st, don’t have sex at Camp Crystal Lake, or maybe don’t read from the weird skin book with a face on it. None of these slasher or horror villains make you lock your windows at night, but Dolarhyde does. Not because of who he is specifically, but because of the real-life darkness he represents.
You never know. That nice man who drives down your street could just be slowing down to admire your flower garden. The guy next door might be coming over just to check on the new additions to your family or to help you with the groceries. Sure, they might just be thinking about being a good neighbor. Or, they might be thinking about something else entirely.
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