American Horror Story is one of the most terrifying shows on TV. While many of its sick and twisted characters come from the dark minds of co-creators Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy, others are directly based on real-life killers and figures from actual criminal cases.
Here are nine AHS characters inspired by murderers who were all too real.
1. Dr. Oliver Thredson—Ed Gein (Season 2: Asylum)
In Season 2: Asylum, reporter Lana Winters is abducted by deranged killer Dr. Oliver Thredson. Thredson beheads and skins his victims, turning them into furniture, or using their skin and teeth to construct his “Bloody Face” mask. Thredson’s crimes echo those of the notorious real-life killer Ed Gein, who also inspired the fictional characters Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs and Leatherface from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. When police raided Gein’s property in 1957, they found, among myriad horrors, masks made from human faces and furniture made from body parts, including skin and skulls.
2. Miranda and Bridget Jane—Gwen Graham and Cathy Wood (Season 6: Roanoke)
In the last season of AHS, among the many terrors in Shelby and Matt’s home are the ghosts of two nurses, Miranda and Bridget Jane, who murdered elderly people under the guise of running a nursing home. These fictional nurses are based on the real-life duo of Gwen Graham and Cathy Wood. In the 1980s, Graham and Wood made the news for killing five women while working as caregivers in a Michigan nursing home. Like the Miranda and Bridget characters, Graham and Wood attempted to turn their murders into a game by having their victims’ initials spell out “MURDER.”
3. Twisty—John Wayne Gacy (Season 4: Freak Show)
One of the most terrifying characters in the entire AHS universe, Twisty the homicidal clown shows up in Season 4: Freak Show. Twisty was inspired by infamous American serial killer John Wayne Gacy. Gacy became known as the “Killer Clown” because he would dress up as character he called “Pogo the Clown” for children’s parties and other events.
4. James Patrick March—H.H. Holmes (Season 5: Hotel)
In season five: Hotel, we learn that the haunted Hotel Cortez, in Los Angeles, was founded by a man named James Patrick March, who used it to hide the evidence of his murderous crimes. March, as well as his Hotel Cortez, is based on real-life serial killer H.H. Holmes and his deadly World’s Fair Hotel, in Chicago, which became known as the “Murder Castle.” Like the fictional March, Holmes used his hotel to commit his murders as well as to hide the evidence.
5. Madame Delphine LaLaurie (Season 3: Coven)
Kathy Bates portrayed Madame Delphine LaLaurie, in season three: Coven. LaLaurie was a real-life socialite who lived in the French Quarter of New Orleans in the early 19th century. After her home caught fire, authorities entered the LaLaurie mansion and discovered a cavern of horrors. LaLaurie sadistically tortured her slaves: leaving them in cages for days, chaining them to ovens, and subjecting them to all sorts of harrowing torments. This is precisely what Kathy Bates’ LaLaurie does on the TV show, the difference being that she was then made to suffer for her crimes. The real-life LaLaurie escaped to France.
6. Grace Bertrand—Lizzie Borden (Season 2: Asylum)
In Asylum, Grace Bertrand is a patient committed for murdering her father and stepmother … with an axe. Clearly, Grace was modeled on the infamous Lizzie Borden, a real-life woman charged with and acquitted for murdering her father and stepmother with an axe.
7. The Axeman of New Orleans (Season 3: Coven)
In Coven, Jessica Lange’s character begins an amorous affair with the Axeman of New Orleans. In fact, the Axeman was a real-life serial killer, who was never caught. He terrorized the city from 1918 to 1919. On March 13, 1919, a letter supposedly from the Axeman claimed that he would kill that very night, sparing only those in buildings where jazz music played. That night, jazz clubs around the city were packed with nervous patrons, and hundreds of jazz bands played in private homes. No one was murdered.
8. Aileen Wuornos and the Table of Serial Killers (Season 5: Hotel)
The Halloween episode of Hotel featured an entire gathering of real-life serial killers, hosted by James Patrick March, in the Hotel Cortez. Lily Rabe is among the more prominently-featured killers, portraying Aileen Wuornos, but also in attendance at the soiree is Richard Ramirez: the “Night Stalker,” Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, the Zodiac, and Gordon Northcott of the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders.
9. Countess Elizabeth Báthory (Season 5: Hotel)
Lady Gaga won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of “The Countess,” a centuries-old vampiric creature residing in the Hotel Cortez, with a menagerie of children upon whose blood she feeds. Gaga’s character was loosely based on the Hungarian serial killer Countess Elizabeth Báthory, notorious for kidnapping and murdering hundreds of young woman in order to bathe in their blood—and thereby maintain her beauty.
Featured still from "American Horror Story" via FX. Photo of Delphine LaLaurie: Wikimedia Commons.