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We all know the story of the Scream franchise: killer stalks teens, massacre ensues, shocking twist reveals an unexpected twist hiding behind the Ghostface mask. There is no doubt that Wes Craven's 1996 masterpiece reinvented the slasher genre, taking the industry away from the silent Jasons and Michaels and more toward the smart-talking Freddy. You may think that Ghostface butchering Drew Barrymore, then carving his way through a bunch of sexy teens may all be fiction, but the terrifying story of the "Gainesville Ripper" is the real truth behind the Woodsboro massacre.
While what happened in Gainesville was only a loose inspiration for #Scream, it was enough to spawn the sixth highest-grossing franchise of all time and a legacy that is still going strong 20 years later. So, if you are ready, let's explore a crime-spree that rocked a Florida college town and the #truestory behind the #horror.
Back To The Start
It was late August 1990 and the police of Gainesville Florida were unaware that they were on the cusp of a murder spree. Once voted one of the most desirable places to live in America, and home to the sixth largest college campus in the country, Gainesville was a paradise for students.
In just one weekend, from August 24–27, the university town was left with the bodies of five students, a media circus, and a town gripped by panic. Students left in their hundreds, people slept in shifts, and the town sold out of guns.
The nightmare began when the bodies of 18-year-old Sonja Larson and 17-year-old Christina Powell were found slain in their apartment. The girls had been sexually assaulted and then arranged in provocative positions. Just nine hours later, the body of 18-year-old Christa Hoyt was found in her apartment and the police realized this was more than a coincidence.
While Hoyt's parents only knew that their daughter had been found murdered, The Gainesville Sun revealed the gruesome Gale Weathers-eque truth behind her murder. Hoyt had had her breasts cut off, been slit open, and then had her decapitated head placed on bookshelf in her apartment to face those who would eventually find her. To add further sadness to the story, Hoyt was a local file clerk with the police, meaning that the officers who eventually found her were those who had worked with her.
The Murders Continue
The national media descended on Gainesville, but it still didn't stop The Ripper's final two murders. On August 27, the Ripper managed to break into the apartment of 23-year-old Tracy Paules and 23-year-old Manuel Taboada. Despite weighing 200 lbs., Taboada was stabbed over 30 times before succumbing to his injuries, while Paules, just like the other women, was aggressively assaulted before her death. There seemed to be an MO with the attacks, with all the victims profiled as small-framed brunettes with brown eyes.
So began one of the most extensive manhunts in the state's history. A task force of over 150 agents hunted the Gainsville Ripper, with over 6,500 leads and 1,500 pieces of evidence. The police were in over their heads.
Guilty Until Proven Innocent
While you can already see the similarities between this and Kevin Williamson's story, the tale of Liev Schreiber's Cotton Weary and his wrongful arrest from the Scream saga also came straight from the real life story. With the Gainesville murders now at five and attracting media attention, authorities were keen to stop the murders and the hype.
They arrested 19-year-old student Edward Humphrey and the murders coincidentally stopped. Humphrey was a schizophrenic who had stopped taking his medicine and was arrested for assaulting his grandmother after she had become concerned by his erratic behavior. It was seemingly written as the perfect cinematic red herring, Humphrey had a scarred face due to a car accident and "looked the part," so the media plastered his face everywhere.
Humphrey was held for 24 hours with no attorney and his bail was set at an unreachable $1 million. Little did the authorities know, they had the wrong man. Evidence from the crime scenes showed that the Ripper had type B blood and Humphrey did not. Even though he was proven not to be involved in the Ripper case, Humphrey was still kept behind bars for 22 months on a minor assault charge — no formal apology was ever made.
The Killer Exposed
Despite the crimes ending as soon as they had arrested Humphrey, it turned out that it was because they had the real killer in custody. 36-year-old drifter Danny Rolling had previously evaded police capture, inadvertently leading them to his campsite, which was close to Christa Hoyt's home. Arrested on a burglary charge, Rolling's belongings were thrown into storage. Little did the police know, they were sitting on a locker full of evidence for the Gainesville Ripper.
On later inspection, Rolling's items included souvenirs from the murders, a roll of duct tape, which had been used to restrain the women, a screwdriver to break into their homes, a Ghostface-esque ski mask, and most worryingly a tape recorder.
The tape placed Rolling in Gainesville at the start of the murders and described in great detail how to butcher a "deer." The tape ended a chillingly ominous message:
"Well, I'm gonna sign off for a little bit. I got something I gotta do."
It took three years to gather evidence against Rolling and his trial was widely publicized with almost all the families of the victims attending. Rolling had originally pleaded not guilty, but realizing that all his vile acts would be exposed, Rolling changed his plea just before in hopes of leniency. While he was later diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, and paraphilia, Rolling was sentenced to death by electric chair on February 15, 1994.
R.I.P. To The Ripper
After many an unsuccessful appeal to the Supreme Court, Rolling did manage to get his life extended and his method of execution changed to lethal injection, but never his freedom. For the next 12 years Rolling waited. Just weeks before his death, he admitted to three murders in Louisiana going back to 1989; a home invasion that took the life of William Grissom, his daughter, and his 8-year-old son.
Rolling was executed on October 25, 2006, to the largest execution audience since his hero Bundy. His last "feast" was reportedly lobster tail, butterfly shrimp, a baked potato, strawberry cheesecake and sweet tea, of which he ate "every last bite."
While the idea of the unhinged boyfriend, the two killers, and the rules of surviving a #horror all came from fiction, the idea of Scream was very much set in the reality of Rolling, who said he wanted to be as famous as Ted Bundy — an idea that was used for killer Mickey in Scream 2 and Jill Roberts in Scream
We all know that Scream became an overnight success when it debuted, but Kevin Williamson's imaginative script came when watching a TV show about the Gainesville Ripper while home alone.
By the time we got to the mid-'90s, the horror movie was all but dead and buried, so as for Williamson's retelling of the tale, there was a tragic irony that Rolling's crimes couldn't have come along at a better time for the aspiring writer. Williamson remembers:
"I was so desperate when I wrote it. I couldn't pay my bills and my car payment was due, and I was three months behind on my rent."
Williamson took a job house sitting for a friend when he reportedly heard a floorboard creak and saw an open window, prompting the idea for a cast tormented by a home invasion creep gone mad. Williamson spent just three days writing a 15-page screenplay for the film, which he imaginatively titled "Scary Movie." It also included two five-page treatments for possible sequels and became a bidding war for various studios. Determined to write it from his love of films like Halloween, but saying that no one was writing anything like it, Williamson brought the horrors of Rolling to life.
Just like the Scream films immortalized the fictional town of Woodsboro, Rolling's Ripper will etch the name "Grisly Gainesville" in history. By the time of his execution, Scream had wrapped its "original" trilogy, and while it was never recorded whether Rolling had seen any of the films, it is chilling to think that his crimes live on in a legacy of film.