Film discussion

The Strangers: Prey at Night – The True Crimes Behind The Film

WARNING: this article describes events that could be considered distressing.

The 2008 horror film The Strangers terrified audiences on its release a decade ago. Drawing upon very real and relateable fears about home invasion and isolation, the film relies on atmosphere and tension to frighten the viewers.

Perhaps the most terrifying thing about the film, however, are the real life events that it drew inspiration from, which we at Set The Tape decided to take a deeper, darker look at…

The Keddie Murders

Cabins in the woods have always filled people with dread, and often make for a setting in numerous horror films. The Keddie Murders are a real life horror story, one that is more frightening than many horror films, and has helped to inspire several.

In the tiny community of Keddie in California, a small cabin, Cabin 28, was being rented by single mother Glenna Sue Sharp (known as Sue), who had begun living in the cabin with her children five months before the murders took place. Sue lived with her five children, John (15), Sheila (14), Tina (12), Greg (10), and Rick (5).

On the night of 11th April 1981, Greg and Rick were sleeping in their upstairs bedroom with their friend Justin (12), John was in his basement room with his friend Dana Wingate (17), whilst Sue and Tina were asleep upstairs. Sheila, however, was spending the evening with her friend in the cabin next door.

On the morning of 12th April 1981 Sheila returned home, and found horrors awaiting her in her cabin. Inside the living room she discovered the bodies of her mother, John, and Dana. All three of them were bound with electrical cable, their hands behind their backs. Covered in blood, it was impossible for her to tell how they had died, but later medical examinations would reveal that they had been strangled, stabbed, and bludgeoned to death.

Sue had been hit repeatedly with a claw hammer, as well as stabbed with at least two different knives in her torso and throat. She had also been bludgeoned with a weapon that was later determined to be the butt of a Daisy Powerline 880 BB air rifle. She was found under a yellow blanket, wearing a robe, with her underwear shoved into her mouth, along with a ball of tape. The items were held inside her mouth by an extension cord that was also tied to her legs and feet.

John had also been hit with a hammer, as well as stabbed, though his throat had also been cut. Dana was determined to have been killed via strangulation, despite suffering several bludgeoning with a hammer that did not match the one used on Sue and John.

Sheila discovered that, despite the horrific scene in the living room, her two younger brothers, Greg and Rick, and their friend Justin, were still alive and well in their room, without any wounds. With the help of the neighbours, Sheila was able to remove the three boys from the cabin. Unfortunately, no sign of Tina could be found. It was later put forward by police that Tina was taken from the cabin rather than being killed there for the purposes of rape.

When police arrived on the scene they found several bloodied weapons within the cabin, including a knife that had used with so much force that it was bent at a twenty-five degree angle. Despite people staying in another cabin near by having been woken by what they determined to be muffled screams, the three boys left alive reported that they had slept through the entire attack.

Several suspects were named in the case, including Martin Smartt, Justin’s step-father, a former bank robber John Boubede, and Jim Rini, a former mob enforcer. Unfortunately, there was no evidence that indicated conclusively who committed these crimes, and no charges were made against anyone. Despite searching the surrounding area with police dogs, Tina wasn’t found. It wasn’t until three years later in Butte County, ninety-five miles away, that fragments of a child’s skull were discovered, which were later identified to be Tina.

Interestingly, police received a telephone call following the discovery of the remains in which the caller told them that they were Tina’s. This call was received before any testing had been completed, and before the police knew the identity. It is unknown who the caller was.

The cabin was demolished in 2004 along with several others after falling into disrepair. To this day the identity and motives of the killers remains a mystery.

The Tate-LaBianca Murders

The Tate-LaBianca Murders are one of the most shocking and brutal murders in the world, one that is known by thousands, though possibly not by that name. The Tate-LaBianca Murders saw the brutal killings of seven people (one of whom was pregnant) under the orders of Charles Manson.

Before the events of the Tate-LaBianca Murders, Manson, who was an aspiring musician, had attempted to enter into a recording contract with record producer Terry Melcher. Melcher had refused to work with Manson, something that left Manson feeling insulted.

On the night of 8th August 1969, Manson ordered four members of his commune, the Manson Family, to go to ‘that house where Melcher used to live’ and instructed them to ‘totally destroy everyone in it as gruesome as you can’. This was despite the fact that Melcher had moved two months previous and the current residents had nothing to do with what had happened.

Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, Lina Kasabian, and Patricia Krenwinkel travelled to Melcher’s former home, 10050 Cielo Drive, intent on killing anyone they found. At the house at that time were film actress and model Sharon Tate, wife of film director Roman Polanski, who was eight and a half months pregnant. She was joined by her friend Jay Sebring, a friend of her husband Wojciech Frykowski, his partner Abigail Folger, and Steven Parent, who was leaving the property after visiting the caretaker.

Arriving at the house, Watson and the others cut the telephone cables to prevent anyone from calling for help. As the four of them approached the house Steven Parent was leaving in his car. Watson stepped out into the driveway, forcing him to stop. Steven was slashed with a knife and shot four times, killing him on the spot.

At the house Watson cut away the screen from one of the windows and climbed inside the house, letting the others inside via the main door. Wojciech Frykowski was asleep on the living room couch and hear the intruders. When he asked them who they were Watson said ‘I’m the devil, and I’m here for the devil’s business’, before kicking him in the head.

Everyone in the house was gathered together in the living room, where Sharon Tate and Jay Sebring were tied together with rope. When Sebring complained about the treatment that the pregnant Sharon was being put through he was shot by Watson. As he lay wounded he was stabbed several times.

Frykowski managed to get himself free of the towel that had been used to bind his hands and ran from the house. As he made his way across the lawn Watson caught up with him and hit him over the head with the butt of his gun multiple times, breaking the grip of the gun in the process. Watson then proceeded to stab him fifty one times, before finally shooting him twice.

Whilst her boyfriend was being murdered on the front lawn Abigail Folger made a break for freedom, running out of the rear of the house to the pool area. She was pursued by Krenwinkel, who tackled her to the ground and stabbed her. When she was joined by Watson, who had now finished murdering Frykowski, the two of them stabbed Abigail 28 times, killing her.

In the house Sharon Tate pleaded with the attackers to let her live long enough to give birth to her baby, even offering to go with them as a hostage in exchange for the life of her child. Atkins and Watson ignored her pleas and proceeded to stab her 16 times. One of her breasts had been cut off, and an X carved into her pregnant stomach. The word pig was written on the front door in Sharon’s blood.

As the public reeled from the events at the Tate residence Manson was said to be displeased by the events, having found them to be ‘too messy’. Deciding that he needed to show his followers how he wanted things done, he joined them that night to perform another set of murders. Travelling through the neighbourhoods of Los Angeles, the group looked for a potential target. They eventually decided upon the home of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. A choice that was made completely at random.

The next day police entered the LaBianca home to discover both occupants dead. Leno was found in the living room, he had been stabbed twelve times, had several wounds caused by a fork, and had a knife lodged in his throat. The word ‘War’ had been carved on his stomach. Rosemary was found in the bedroom, with multiple stab wounds to her neck and chest. ‘Death to Pigs’ was written on the living room wall in blood, and the words ‘Helter Skelter’ were found on the fridge.

Despite being arrested for unconnected crimes several weeks later, evidence eventually came to light revealing Manson’s involvement in the murders, and he was eventually imprisoned, where he remained until his death.

Home invasion is one of the most frightening things that can happen. It’s the ultimate invasion of a space that’s supposed to be safe, of a place that gives you comfort. Whilst home invasions are often targeted, as you’ve seen here sometimes they can be completely random, with nothing more than chance leading those inside to suffer the ultimate horror.

This is what The Strangers draws upon. In that film there is no explanation, no reason. The killers appear and subject their victims to a living nightmare before murdering them simply because it gives them enjoyment. This is what makes the film so scary for a lot of people, the randomness of it, the chance that it could happen to anyone.

Whilst some would turn around and say that ‘it’s just a movie’ or ‘it’d never happen in real life’, the sad and frightening fact is that it has happened before in real life, and the cases described above are far from the only times. Perhaps this is why The Strangers still stands out as an incredibly dark and disturbing film, because it shows a frightening scenario that could actually one day happen to the viewer.

The Strangers: Prey at Night is now in cinemas. Let us know what you made of the movie.

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