The Real-Life Serial Killings That Inspired Scream

"Scream" is one of the most beloved horror franchises of all time. But did you know there's a disturbing true story that inspired it all? To be clear: there wasn't a real murderer stalking around in a Ghost Face mask, prank calling his victims and asking them about scary movies. But there were a very real series of horrifying murders that inspired screenwriter Kevin Williamson to pen his game-changing script (originally titled "Scary Movie"). 

In late 1989 and later during the summer of 1990, Danny Rolling murdered eight people, including five college students, in Shreveport, Louisiana, and Gainesville, Florida. The brutal killings earned Rolling the ominous, sensationalized monicker "The Gainesville Ripper." 

Later, a budding screenwriter named Kevin Williamson was housesitting one night when he happened to catch a TV special on the murders. The special, coupled with being alone in another person's house late at night, gave Williamson the creeps, and eventually sent the screenwriter's mind racing. All of this would culminate in the script that became Wes Craven's "Scream." 

The Gainesville Ripper

Danny Rolling grew up in an abusive home, subjected to torments from his father, who was a police officer. As he grew older, Rolling got in and out of trouble, eventually graduating to murder. In November 1989, shortly after being fired from his job, Rolling broke into a house in Shreveport, Louisiana, and murdered three people, including an 8-year-old child. While the crime was discovered, police would not connect it to Rolling until 2006, when Rolling himself confessed to the horrific acts. 

In 1990, Rolling attacked and tried to kill his abusive dad, with the fight resulting in Rolling's father losing both an eye and an ear. In August of that same year, Rolling embarked on a burglary and robbery spree in Gainesville, Florida. In the midst of it all, Rolling murdered five college students, often mutilating and posing his victims. The killings would continue throughout the month of August, with Rolling ultimately murdering 8 people. The grisly crimes earned the killer the nickname "The Gainesville Ripper."

On September 7, 1990, Rolling was arrested – but not for his murders. Instead, the man who would soon be revealed to be The Gainesville Ripper had been apprehended for robbing a supermarket. Eventually, investigators were able to connect Rolling to the murders as well, matching Rolling's type B blood to DNA left at the crime scenes. Rolling was officially charged with the murders in November of 1991. At first, it looked like the accused killer would plead not guilty, and everyone expected the case to go to trial. But before the trial could officially begin, Rolling plead guilty to all charges. As for why Rolling did what he did, his own accounts differ. At one point, Rolling went so far as to claim he was possessed by a demon named Gemini. Later, Rolling stated that he actually wanted to become a serial killer celebrity akin to the infamous Ted Bundy. No matter what the reasoning behind his horrible acts, Rolling was ultimately sentenced to death, and executed via lethal injection on October 25, 2006.

Alone in the House

So where does "Scream" fit into all of this? Released in theaters in 1996, "Scream" rejuvenated both the horror genre and its slasher subgenre. Slashers were becoming kind of predictable at that point, and they had never been held in much esteem to begin with. But "Scream," with its hip young cast and its ultra-cool, ultra-self-aware script by Kevin Williamson, changed all that. The film won critical praise, performed well at the box office, inspired a seemingly endless parade of knock-offs, and spawned several sequels – with a new "Scream" movie having just arrived in theaters this month. 

And according to Kevin Williamson, The Gainsville Ripper case is what helped inspire it all. In 1997, the Detroit Free Press reprinted an article from the Orange County Register in which Williamson recounted that inspiration. The exact timeline isn't the easiest thing to pin down, but at some point in the early 1990s, Williamson, then still a struggling screenwriter, took a gig as a housesitter. While housesitting, Williamson watched a "TV special on the gruesome campus murders in Gainesville, Fla." At some point during the night, he also noticed that he had left one of the house's windows open.

Williamson was apparently so freaked out by the combination of being alone in a strange house, watching a TV special on the murders, and finding one of the windows open that he became convinced someone else was in the house. Rather than flee the house – an idea that's humorously mentioned in the first "Scream," where Neve Campbell says potential slasher victims are always running upstairs when they should be running out the front door – Williamson grabbed a kitchen knife and began to check the house. He also picked up the phone and called a friend. While Williamson checked around the house, he and his friend riffed back and forth, with the friend playfully mocking Williamson by bringing up horror movies. As the article states, "Williamson was terrified, but he admits now that he was starting to enjoy the banter. The two friends discussed horror movies as Williamson searched [the house]."


And right about now, you've probably finally figured out how the ghastly, tragic Gainsville Ripper case connects to "Scream." Danny Rolling's actual crimes themselves didn't directly lead to the script, but the experience of being freaked out by a TV special on the murders, followed by Williamson and his phone-in friend joking about horror movies, set Williamson's mind traveling down a road that would directly lead to a script called "Scary Movie." 

Williamson first wrote an 18-page script treatment "about a young woman, alone in a house, who is taunted over the phone and then attacked by a masked killer." Williamson then tucked the treatment away in a drawer somewhere and wrote the script for "Teaching Mrs. Tingle," which would eventually become Williamson's directorial debut. Williamson was able to sell the "Tingle" script, but the project ended up in development hell somewhere along the way. 

This, in turn, resulted in Williamson going back to his "Scary Movie" treatment. He fleshed it out into a full screenplay and even wrote outlines for two sequels, with the hopes of selling an entire franchise as a package deal. By June of 1995, Williamson's agent had the script and managed to sell it to Miramax. Miramax brought in legendary horror filmmaker Wes Craven to direct, the title was changed to "Scream," and the rest is horror movie history