Michael Myers, the face of the Halloween franchise, may be a work of fiction but he was inspired by urban legends and a couple of real-life serial killers, Stanley Stiers and Ed Kemper.
John Carpenter’s Halloween regenerated the horror genre when released in 1978. It struggled to get off the ground at first, with producers not familiar enough with the plot to consider it a safe bet, but someone took a leap a faith and it ended up becoming the surprise box office hit of the season. With a budget somewhere between $300,000–$325,000 it made over $70 million in ticket sales, making it one of the most profitable horror movies of all time. It created an entire franchise made up of eleven films, with its most recent one released this month.
The villain of the franchise, Michael Myers a.k.a “The Shape”, has become one of the most famous faces in horror and a popular costume to wear on October 31.
Carpenter didn’t intentionally want a franchise starring Myers. His original idea was to create a film anthology series surrounding the holiday of Halloween. He got his chance with Halloween III: Season of the Witch, but a disappointing box office performance and audience reaction brought Myers back from the grave in Halloween 4: Return of Michael Myers. The white masked serial killer has hung around ever since. Why is this character so famous? What was it about the movie Halloween that made it so popular?
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Halloween was a change of pace in America when it came out. Prior to the film, Hollywood wasn’t big on slashers. October themed films leaned towards more child-friendly themes that put focus on the joyous aspects of Halloween, like candy and costumes.
Then, Halloween the film came along and reminded the world that All Hallows Eve was a night meant to be feared. Instead of scaring people off, they couldn’t get enough. Finally, a film that allowed people to dive into the dark sides of human nature and not feel guilty.
The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs
One of the more obvious inspirations for Halloween was an urban legend that was still popular when the film started production. One that involved a lone babysitter and an unnamed stranger watching her.
Babysitting is no longer a common job for teens to have, but once upon a time, it was what almost every young girl did for extra cash. A young girl alone in a stranger’s house at night is a frightening setting, and apparently other people thought so, too.
“The Babysitter and The Man Upstairs” is an urban legend that started somewhere in the ’60s, most likely inspired by the murder of Janett Christman in 1950. The basis of the legend is a babysitter waits at a couple’s house for them to get home when she gets a strange call. She picks up the phone but no one’s there. It rings again and again, and so on until the person on the other end asks, “have you checked on the children?” She calls the police, they trace the call and discover that it’s coming from inside the house. At the end of the story, she gets out, but the children have all been murdered because she didn’t check on them.
This legend has been used in several films, including the short film, The Sitter in 1977, When a Stranger Calls in 2006, and inspired some of the phone call conversations in Wes Craven’s Scream in 1996. Halloween is so entwined with this legend that Carpenter’s original screenplay was named “The Babysitter Murders,” even though Michael Myers never calls anyone on the phone. The name was changed when the producer suggested Carpenter set the film on Halloween night instead of a random day.
The babysitter horror story may have served as the inspiration for Halloween‘s setting, but how about the masked man stalking the babysitters? Where did he come from?
Edmund Kemper a.k.a. “The Co-ed Killer”
Some might only know Ed Kemper from the Netflix series Mindhunter. Played by Cameron Britton, Kemper appears for three episodes and serves as a subject of extreme fascination for the series protagonist, Holden Ford, and symbolizes a level of measurement of profiling in the series; if his mind can be understood, then so can anyone’s.
As someone who studies criminology as a hobby and studied it for a year in college, I’ll admit Kemper is a mind that’s hard not to be intrigued by. Intriguing only in the field of criminology, though. Outside of it, he’s a stomach-churning sicko.
Born to be a killer, at a young age, Kemper would decapitate his sister’s dolls and even stalked his second-grade teacher with a bayonet. He never dressed like a clown, ate his victims or was gifted with good looks and charisma so he was overlooked in the presence of Gacy, Dahmer, and Bundy.
Nicknamed “The Co-ed Killer,” Ed Kemper was a 6’9″ giant and a certified genius with an IQ of 145. His parents pretty much ignored him, until his father left and his mother, Maude Matilda, started locking him in the basement out of fear that he might harm his two sisters. I’d say she had good reason to think he might after discovering the body parts of their dead cat in his closet.
His first human kill was his own grandmother when he was 16, who he shot with a .22 caliber rifle after an argument. His next was his grandfather, who he killed not moments after as he was walking up the driveway. According to Kemper, he killed him just so he wouldn’t have to discover his dead wife. He then called his mother to ask her what to do, and following her advice, turned himself in.
When he was released in 1969, he started on his infamous murder spree consisting of young hitchhiking women. He’d murder them, commit necrophilia, then dismember the bodies. In 1973, Kemper moved in with his mother on the UC Santa Cruz campus where she worked and began murdering college students when he could no longer resist his urges, which he called his “little zapples.”
At this point, Kemper had reached his frenzy stage where most serial killers tend to fall apart in, his kills became more gruesome and his actions more erratic. He buried one of the decapitated heads of his victims in his mother’s garden, facing upward towards her bedroom because, according to him, his mother always wanted people to look up to her. All this is horrendously disturbing, but it was his next series of actions that labeled him one of the sickest men to walk the earth.
(I hope no one is eating while they’re reading this). On April 20, 1973, Kemper bludgeoned his own mother to death with a claw hammer, then decapitated her and raped her severed head before using it as a dart board. He cut out her tongue and larynx and placed them in the garbage disposal as well. If this said anything, it was how much he hated to hear her speak. Why else would you throw someone’s tongue in the garbage disposal? His body count was up to 10 by the time he was arrested.
Unlike Kemper, Stanley Stiers’s story is a mysterious one that started in tragedy. In 1912, two baby boys were born in the same hospital on the same day. One belonged to the Stiers family who were thrilled with their newborn baby, and another belonged to an unnamed family, who were also happy with their precious boy. However, unbeknownst to them, there was a malevolent nurse working in the nursery ward who swapped the babies for fun. The two unsuspecting families took the wrong children home but on the way home from the hospital, the unnamed family was in a car accident. The entire family, including the real Stiers baby, was killed.
By the time the Stiers learned the truth, it was too late and their son was dead. In their minds, there was only one way to handle the situation and that was taking it out on the impostor. The Stiers couldn’t see Stanley as anything other than a boy who wasn’t theirs and began to resent the mere sight of him. They became violent alcoholics and begun abusing the boy, locking him in his room, and punishing him for no reason.
The couple then had another baby, a girl named Susie, who became their pride and joy. She was their little sunshine as opposed to Stanley, their little shadow. Susie picked up on the favoritism and began to treat Stanley poorly as well, often physically abusing him. I think we can all see this story isn’t going to end well and on October 30, 1923 it didn’t.
Stanley was 11 years-old and all he wanted to do was go trick-or-treating. As expected, he was denied, and his sister got to go to a Halloween party while he stayed home. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back, seeing his sister getting all the love and attention he never got and able to enjoy a simple holiday finally broke him.
When Susie got home, Stanley got a butcher knife and stabbed her repeatedly. He then killed his parents while they slept and even attacked the family dog. The next day on October 31, he went trick-or-treating for the first time and continued his massacre. That night, when he spotted the bullies who made his life as miserable at school as it was at home, he killed as many as he could. He even went into one of their houses and murdered their entire family. By the time the cops came, he was supposedly smiling on a swing set and cheerfully eating his candy. He was taken to a private psychiatric institution, where he was studied for the next 13 years.
This is where the somewhat believable part of the story ends. The rest of Stanley’s story is strange and what’s even more strange is, there’s no record of him. Rumor is, the government covered it up. Why would they bother with such a thing? Maybe that’s a question better left unanswered if you want to believe that this story is 100% true.
Apparently, the facility wanted to know what would make a boy snap as he had, and what gave a pre-adolescent child the strength to kill so many people. They looked for everything, even paranormal factors, but found nothing. 13 years after that fateful Halloween, on October 31, 1936, Stanley was 24 years-old and stood at a staggering 6’4”. A couple of hospital orderlies started harassing him (they must have been morons) and Stanley snapped their necks. He then walked right out of the hospital like it was no big deal. The cops met him in the parking lot where he was hit with several bullets but kept on walking.
Some stories proclaimed that he possessed unnatural strength, and that he killed some federal agents by throwing a car at them. Some claimed he felt no pain, and that the agents were killed the moment Stanley got his hands on them.
A 12-year-old with “evil” eyes
Most likely Stiers is his own urban legend based on a Halloween murder that occurred decades ago or a widely expanded story of a young boy who snapped. If Stiers is a fictional story, he’s the most untraceable one yet. One thing is certain though, the story of the murder child hit a nerve when John Carpenter saw who he thought was another Stanley Stiers in the works.
While Carpenter attended Western Kentucky University, he enrolled in a psychology class where they took a field trip to a mental institution to see the most serious of mental disorders. At that hospital he saw a child who just touched him the wrong way. In the 2003 documentary, A Cut Above the Rest, Carpenter said
"“We visited the most serious, mentally ill patients. And there was this kid, he must have been 12 or 13 and he literally had this look. It’s a schizophrenic stare, is what it is. It’s a real evil stare. And it was unsettling to me. It was like the creepiest thing I’d ever seen, just because it’s a stranger… he was COMPLETELY insane.”"
This “look” was later used in his film when Dr. Loomis describes the “look” of a young Michael Myers.
"“This blank, pale emotionless face. Blackest eyes. The devil’s eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him and then another seven trying to keep him locked up, because I realized what was living behind that boys’ eyes was purely and simply evil.”"
More likely, this boy had another type of psychosis since it’s rare for schizophrenia to occur before the age of 16, and to progress into an “evil stare” at such a young age is strange. Most children with schizophrenia are confused, not angry or “evil”. What this boy was committed for or whatever became of him is unknown.
The inspirations from Kemper and Stiers have never been confirmed by Carpenter but fans have taken it upon themselves to connect the dots. Whenever questioned, Carpenter usually admits that a lot of things went into making Michael Myers, including urban legends and real-life psychopaths. The differences between Myers and Stiers are almost non-existent, they might as well be the same person. There is no existing record of anyone named Stanley Stiers so it’s impossible to tell.
Ed Kemper is a real man, that much is a definite, and there are clear similarities between Myers and him. Both started killing at a young age, wanted to harm their sisters, both grew to be of huge body size, and had “evil eyes.” Kemper was an awkward young man, and grew to be a reserved older man, at least in conversation. He was called charming and polite by his arresting officers, but Kemper was never much of a talker. He only targeted women he was attracted to who he killed because he knew they wouldn’t ever date him. Though Myers never shows any sexual attraction towards the women he murders in the first Halloween film, he tends to primarily target young females the same age as his sister was when he killed her.
Halloween starts off with Judith Myers getting fondled by her boyfriend on the couch before they go upstairs and have sex. Michael waits until the boyfriend leaves before entering his sister’s room and killing her while she’s sitting topless in front of her dresser. The film portrays Michael as an emotionless child who kills his sister because he’s evil, but him waiting to kill her after she has sex and to do it while she’s topless says something.
Later in the film, he sees Laurie Strode, who looks similar to Judith, and stalks her. Those he seeks out are always women, and like Kemper, Myers seems to also lack proper social skills.
Michael Myers is coming home. (Photo credit: Miramax)
Myers was definitely inspired by multiple people and legends, a melting pot of one too many frightening things, but he’s not directly based on anyone. Myers was inspired by Kemper, Stiers and the stalked babysitters the same way Krueger was inspired by a Cambodian boy who died screaming in his sleep, the same way Jason Voorhees was inspired by the Lake Bodom massacre, and the same way Leatherface was inspired by Ed Gein. There are similarities, but the resulting character is completely different. Still, it’s fascinating, and a bit frightening, to discover that such stories actually happened. Horror movies are fiction but sometimes what happens in real life can seem like a horror movie.
Whatever Myers once shared with his possible source materials disappeared by Halloween II, and definitely by The Curse of Michael Myers when the “Curse of Thorn” was introduced. It figures though that the origins of Myers’s character is as muddled as the one they gave him in the movies.
Halloween is playing in theaters.