Was Godzilla inspired by an overweight stagehand? Does Count Dracula have more English actor in his background than Eastern European prince? And does Chucky trace his roots to a little boy and his creepy doll in Key West? We look at some of the legendary tales of real people behind fictional monsters.
Many writers are inspired by real people when developing their more monstrous creations. Wes Craven has said that Freddy Krueger came in part from Kraven's childhood memories of a disfigured homeless man, and John Carpenter claims that the seed for Michael Myers was planted when he visited a mental institution in college and was unsettled by way one of the teenage patients stared. Historical figures like Imhotep (of The Mummy fame) and the "vampiric" Elizabeth Bathory have inspired monstrous versions of themselves, loosely based on their real stories. And some actors have inspired monsters based simply on the way they look. Puppet Master director David Schmoeller modeled the puppet Blade after German actor Klaus Kinski. Rondo Hatton, who had unusual features due to his acromegaly, inspired his share of B-movie roles, notably the titular character in Universal Pictures' The Brute Man. That's before we get to the real-life serial killers who inspire so many slasher flicks, especially Ed Gein, who is said to have provided the basis for Psycho's Norman Bates, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre's Leatherface, and The Silence of the Lambs' Buffalo Bill.
When it comes to more fantastical monstrous villains of page and screen, real-life figures have sometimes been cited as the inspirations. In some of these cases, the connection between historical person and fictional monster is clear; in others, it's a bit shakier:
Robert Eugene Otto and his doll as the inspiration for Child's Play's Chucky: Lists of horror films "based on true stories" often reference Child's Play with an anecdote about Robert Eugene Otto, an artist connected to a creepy doll of his own. The story goes that Otto received the doll from a Bahamian servant who was displeased with Otto's family. Otto's family supposedly heard him talking to the doll (and the doll talking back) and they claimed that when Otto blamed things on the doll, the doll's expression seemed to change. Although young Otto himself may have been responsible for much of the alleged creepiness, the stories continue after Otto's death; a young girl who found the doll claimed that Robert the Doll, as the toy is known, moved by itself and even attacked her. These days, the doll serves as a tourist attraction, although visitors must ask politely before taking its picture.
Robert the Doll photo by Key West Wedding Photography.
Robert the Doll may have had an impact on some spooky doll stories, but Don Mancini, the screenwriter who created Chucky, has himself noted that killer dolls were a well-worn subject matter by the time he wrote Child's Play. A much more immediate inspiration was the Cabbage Patch craze. In interviews, Mancini has said that the consumer insanity over Cabbage Patch Kids inspired him to update the old killer-doll trope for the 1980s, and tell a tale about a product that turns on the consumer.
Sir Henry Irving as the inspiration for Bram Stoker's Dracula: The Wallachian Prince Vlad III of the House of Drăculești provided Bram Stoker's vampire with a name and a homeland, but many sources point to actor Sir Henry Irving as the larger inspiration behind the count. After writing a glowing review of Irving's performance in Hamlet, Stoker was invited to Irving's hotel room, where he felt the magnetism of Irving's personality. Subsequently, Stoker joined the Lyceum Theater, working under Irving as the theater's manager.
Illustration of Sir Henry Irving as Hamlet, via Wikimedia Commons.
In her biography of Stoker, Barbara Belford argues that the charming and egotistical Irving served as the primary model for Count Dracula. And certainly Stoker seemed enthralled by his demanding boss and friend, neglecting his wife as he worked long hours for Irving—perhaps a Renfield to Irving's Dracula. The actor was handsome and alluring, and attracted the attentions of people who didn't quite like him but were nonetheless fascinated by him. After a read-through of Dracula at the theater, Irving told Stoker that he found the book "Dreadful" and refused to play the title role. Some writers suggest that Irving recognized an unflattering portrait of himself within Stoker's pages. After Irving's death, Stoker would spill much ink on his former boss's actual history, penning a well-received biography of Irving.
What did Stoker himself say on the origins of Dracula? His first biographer, Harry Ludlam, reported that Stoker once claimed that the novel came out of a nightmare he had after eating "too much dressed crab."
Gilles de Rais as the inspiration for The Lord of the Rings' Sauron: Gilles de Montmorency-Laval, Baron de Rais is a notorious figure in French history, most famous for two rather disparate traits: he fought alongside Joan of Arc and he is reputed to have murdered dozens, perhaps hundreds of children. After serving a commander in the Royal Army during the Hundred Years War, Gilles retired to his estate and dabbled in alchemy and occultism. In 1440, he was arrested, tried, and convicted of heresy by an ecclesiastical court and the abduction, torture, and murder of numerous children by a civil court. He confessed under threat of torture—one reason many suspect Gilles wasn't guilty of the sensational crimes—and was hanged after showing apparent penitence. It's small wonder that his name is often connected with the bloodthirsty fairytale villain Bluebeard.
Image: Gilles de Laval, sire de Rais, compagnon de Jeanne d'Arc, Maréchal de France, via Wikimedia Commons.
But it's not the historical Gilles de Rais that some scholars of J.R.R. Tolkien's works connect to the fearsome Sauron. It is Gilles de Retz, a character based on the Baron de Rais, who appears in Samuel Rutherford Crockett's historical melodrama The Black Douglas. This version of Gilles is a satanist who has allied himself with a werewolf-witch and a pack of more-than-ordinary wolves—and he keeps the remains of murdered children in his charnel house. Tolkien most definitely read the book as a child, but scholars disagree as to how much of an influence it had on his writings as an adult. For example, in The World of the Rings, Jared Lobdell claims that the fictional character of Gilles de Retz is "the source of [Tolkien's] creation of Sauron," while in J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment, Dale Nelson points to a footnote in Tolkien's Letter 306, which in which Tolkien claims that he has not read the book since his school days, although he (Tolkien) did believe that he had derived Bilbo's encounter with the wargs in The Hobbit was derived in part from The Black Douglas. Still, Nelson acknowledges that in addition to Sauron's use of demonic wolves, Sauron's fondness for torturing his victims in towers might have its genesis in The Black Douglas' Gilles de Retz.
William Brodie as the inspiration for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: There is little question that Deacon William Brodie served as an inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson's tale of a scientist living a double life. To his neighbors, Deacon Brodie was a respectable cabinet-maker and Edinburgh city councillor, but he secretly worked as a burglar, in part to fund his gambling habit, mistresses, and illegitimate children. Being a cabinet-maker actually helped in this endeavor; he knew the secrets of his clients' cabinet mechanisms and made copies of their keys. In 1788, he was tried and hanged after a failed assault on the excise office in Chessel's Court on the Canongate.
Photo of statue of Deacon Brodie by Danny Nicholson.
Stevenson's father owned pieces of Brodie's furniture and before writing The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Stevenson co-wrote the play Deacon Brodie or The Double Life: A Melodrama in Five Acts and Eight Tableaux with W.E. Henley. As with Jekyll and Hyde, the activities between the virtuous tradesman and the nefarious burglar of Stevenson's play are divided into day and night. The first drafts of Deacon Brodie were written in 1864 and it was published in 1879, seven years before the publication of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The latter work is immersed in the sociology and science of the Victorian era, but Brodie's life represents one of Stevenson's key obsessions: the duality that exists within a single human being.
John Gray as the inspiration for Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray: A minorly monstrous figure compared to the others on this list, Oscar Wilde's ever-youthful cad was most likely named for the man who was, at the time of Wilde wrote the A Picture of Dorian Gray, the object of his affections. Wilde biographer Richard Ellmann described this particular tribute as "a form of courtship" aimed at the poet John Gray of the Aesthetic Movement and friend of Wilde's. The real-life Gray was an adonis with many wealthy admirers, and Wilde met him in 1889, just before accepting a commission from Lippincott's to write a short novel for serialization; The Picture of Dorian Gray was submitted in 1890. Among members of Wilde's circle, the connection was clear. John Gray was frequently referred to as "Dorian"—especially when Wilde conversed with his intimates—and on at least one occasion, Gray signed a letter to Wilde using the moniker. Biographers have drawn numerous parallels between Basil's relationship with Dorian in the book and Wilde's relationship with John Gray.
Photo of John Gray via Wikimedia Commons.
In 1892, a story appeared in the Star claiming that Dorian Gray was based on the young poet, but by then, John Gray had begun to distance himself from his fictional doppelgänger. He threatened to sue the Star for libel until it printed a retraction. Wilde even wrote a letter to the Daily Telegraph, falsely claiming that Gray was a very recent acquaintance and could not be the inspiration for the narcissistic character. This public distancing between the two Grays may have been linked to a falling out between Wilde and John Gray, which Gray wrote was "absolute" in 1893. In the wake of Wilde's trial for homosexuality, John Gray recommitted to his Roman Catholicism, and became an ordained priest in 1901.
Toho Stagehand as the inspiration for Godzilla: Godzilla was born out of the success of movies like King Kong and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, but a story has circled for decades that the beast himself was inspired at least in name by an overweight Toho employee who was nicknamed "Gojira" (a combination of gorira "gorilla" and kujira "whale") on account of his size. Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka and director Ishirō Honda were fond of repeating the tale. Not long before his death, Honda changed the unfortunate employee from a stagehand to a publicity employee, saying, "At the time there was a big—I mean huge—fellow working on Toho's publicity department. Employees argued 'that guy is as big as a gorilla.' 'No, he's almost as big as a kujira (whale).' Over time, the two mixed and he was nicknamed 'Gojira.'"
However, this legendary "Gojira" may not have existed at all. In a 1998 BBC television documentary, Kimi Honda, widow of Ishirō Honda, doubted the oft-repeated origins of Godzilla's name. "I expect the [monster's] name was thought up after very careful discussions between Mr. Tanaka, Mr. Tsuburaya and my husband. I am sure they would have given the matter considerable thought." And what of Tanaka and Honda's story? "[T]he backstage boys at Toho loved to joke around with tall stories," she said, "but I don't believe that one." No specific Toho employee has ever been identified as the monster's namesake.