“What’s your favorite scary movie?”
And with that line Kevin Williamson found one of the greatest hooks in modern horror movie history – a slasher film about teenagers who grew up watching slasher films. Well, that’s box office gold, one which a practically penniless Williamson could never have foreseen when he banged out the first script in three days. He called it Scary Movie and created outlines for two sequels, hoping to sweeten the deal for any interested studio by not only offering them a new movie but an entire trilogy. The Weinstein Bros. outbid Oliver Stone for the rights. Wes Craven kept turning down the chance to direct until some snot-nosed kid at a convention accused him of having gone soft. Yada, yada, yada.
It’s now four films, one TV series and $604 million in worldwide ticket sales later. If not for real-life serial killer Danny Harold Rolling, though, it’s possible none of this would have ever happened.
On August 24, 1990, roommates Sonja Larson, 18, and Christina Powell, 17, were murdered by a masked man who broke into their apartment, raped one of the girls and posed their corpses in sexually provocative positions. A day later, Christa Hoyt, 18, was raped and murdered in her apartment. The killer placed her decapitated head on a bookshelf, positioning it so that it faced her naked body which was on the edge of a bed.
Whoa. That is some sick shit, yet it’s not completely unlike a slasher movie. For example, Jason Voorhees has repeatedly used decapitated heads for theatrical effect in the Friday the 13th movies. Those are just movies, though. Florida had a genuine serial killer on its hands, and he was dubbed: “The Gainesville Ripper.”
These killings happened the weekend before the first Monday of the Fall semester at the local colleges. Many were quick to notice Larson and Powell were University of Florida students while Hoyt had attended Santa Fe Community College.
Oh, crap. Was “The Ripper” targeting college students?
In a panic, hundreds of students left town.
Once Monday arrived, the authorities discovered two more victims: Tracy Paules, a University of Florida pre-law student, and her roommate Manny Taboada, a Santa Fe student. They were both 23-years-old and lifelong friends. Similar to the prior female victims, Paules was a petite, pretty brunette, but she was also a bit older. Taboada was a muscular guy. seemingly capable of putting up a fight. He’d been a football star in high school.
Suddenly, no one was safe.
This would have been shocking to any community, but the fact it took place over a 72-hour period (if you start from the point the authorities found the first victims) made it particularly traumatizing. At that point, Gainesville’s average yearly homicide rate was only in the single digits; suddenly, 5 homicides popped up in a 3-day period.
Thankfully, there were no additional murders, but everyone was understandably spooked. UoF students withdrew their enrollments or transferred to other schools. Those students still on campus were instructed to sleep together in groups if possible. All local gun stores quickly sold out their existing inventories. Authorities conducted the largest manhunt in Florida history, identifying 675 suspects and 18,000 pieces of evidence. Yet across their year-long investigation, they missed key evidence and wrongfully arrested an innocent, scarred schizophrenic UoF student whose face was plastered all over news reports.
The real killer, Danny Harold Rolling, had actually been in prison almost the entire time. He was arrested 40 miles outside of Gainesville after attempting to rob a grocery store a week after Christa Hoyt’s body had been discovered. He was already suspected of robbing a bank the same weekend as the killings, but they hadn’t pegged him as the killer yet. When he was arrested, they merely figured they had nabbed a pesky burglar.
It was only after DNA evidence exonerated their chief suspect in the killings, and they went back to square one that they realized a similar murder had occurred in Louisiana almost exactly a year prior. No arrest had ever been made in that case, but Louisiana authorities suspected a local drifter named Danny Harold Rolling who had disappeared from the state. The Gainesville task force suddenly realized they’d had their man the whole time, and once they found the campsite he’d used to hide in the woods they found all the evidence they needed to formally charge him with murder in November 1991. He pleaded guilty the morning his trial was set to begin in February 1994.
One of the investigators told The Discovery Channel that while he was working the case he’d “wake up in the middle of the night, check the doors, rattle the windows, make sure everybody was safe and secure.” That’s exactly what you’d expect from someone having to live and breathe such a disturbing case. Merely reading about it – or, in my case, writing about it – is kind of unsettling.
Now imagine you’re Kevin Williamson.
It’s March 1994. You’re living in Los Angeles, leaving behind potential acting jobs in New York to become a Hollywood screenwriter. It’s not going well. You’re making money through temp jobs and working as an assistant to a music video director, and you’ve yet to write your first script, still battling a lack of confidence after a teacher once warned, “You can’t spell, your grammar’s awful, and you’re from the hills of North Carolina-it’ll never happen!” You have to borrow money from a friend to attend a screenwriting course at UCLA, and when another friend offers you money to housesit for them you can’t say no.
So, you’re alone in a strange house, watching TV late at night and feeling a bit lost in life. You come across ABC’s hour-long documentary series Turning Point, the latest episode focusing entirely on the “Gainesville Ripper,” including dramatic re-enactments of how he used a screwdriver to quietly pry open the sliding screen doors of his victims’ apartments. The accounts of his killings and the terror they brought to an otherwise peaceful community sounds like something straight out of your favorite horror movie, Halloween. A 10-week trial is being conducted at that very moment to determine whether or not Danny Rolling deserves the death sentence.
Suddenly, any extra creak in the floorboard in the house sounds extra loud, and that mysteriously opened window letting the breeze come in freaks you the fuck out! You know it’s silly, but, then again, maybe it’s not. You call a friend to talk about the “Gainesville Ripper,” but instead you two quickly begin discussing your favorite scary movies.
What if you write a script that would be like When a Stranger Calls for the VCR generation of teenagers who really know their horror movies?
Williamson turned that into an outline, thinking of it as maybe a one-act play or short story.
Here’s where it gets a little muddled. In the telling of this story over the years the timeline isn’t always the same. Some sources say Williamson actually did all of that before he wrote and sold his first script, Killing Mrs. Tingle (which became the 1999 movie Teaching Mrs. Tingle), and only came back around and fleshed it out into Scream later. That’s the version of the story I ran with above.
Others say he’d already written Killing Mrs. Tingle and might have even already had his Scary Movie outline completed before he took a house-sitting gig in Palm Springs where he banged out the full script over three days. It might not have even been an episode of Turning Point he saw, as some have said, but instead a Barbara Walters segment.
Either way, it seems somewhat consistent that Williamson took his inspiration for Scream from allowing the details of a real-life murder case to spook him while he was in an unfamiliar place. He eventually crafted a narrative which somewhat mirrored the “Gainesville Ripper,” relocating the events and main characters to a high school rather than a college, which he knew he would use as a setting for a sequel.
His story, of course, owes just as much if not more to prior horror movies as it does the horrific events in Gainesville, Florida. It’s more like Williamson looked at the “Gainesville Ripper” case and wanted to recreate the paranoia which would overtake such a small town but fill the cast with cynical mid-90s teenagers who would only be able to view everything through the prism of film and TV.
Near the end of Scream, one of the killers argues, “Movie’s don’t create psychos, movies just make psychos more creative.” That was Williamson’s rebuttal to Republican Presidential candidate Bob Dole condemning “entertainment executives for debasing the nation’s culture” by making movies like Natural Born Killers and True Romance. However, in some small way, it was a real-life psycho, Danny Harold Rolling, who actually inspired the creation of Scream. Kevin Williamson allowed a true horror story to scare him, and he turned around and made a fictional horror story that scared the world over and over again.