Inspiration can come from anywhere. But when a songwriter pulls from the dark and sordid annals of history for lyrical inspiration, two things happen: You ask yourself, Are they singing about what I think they’re singing about?; and, you hope no one hears you humming about the contents of a psychopath’s crawlspace. We’ve paired some of the music world’s best songs about killing with great reads about the killers who inspired the ditty.
1. John Wayne Gacy, Jr.
John Wayne Gacy, Jr., by Sufjan Stevens
Ever wonder what goes on inside the mind of a serial killer? So did author Tim Cahill, who goes beyond the clown costume to channel the inner dialogue of American serial killer John Wayne Gacy Jr. for his book Buried Dreams. What begins as a glimpse inside the mind of the monster, who murdered some 33 boys and buried them under his house, morphs into a highly personal account—much like the titular song from indie folk singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens.
Startlingly intimate, Stevens’ piano-laced acoustic track off his milestone 2006 Illinoise album plays out like a dream—that is until you get wind of the painful, yet ghastly, slice of history he’s telling.
2. Ted Bundy
Ted, Just Admit It, by Jane’s Addiction
Everyone has a story, but not many have a tale to tell like that of Ann Rule. An operator for a Seattle crisis hotline in 1971, Rule writes in The Stranger Beside Me about her chilling experience of slowly realizing that the man answering calls next to her was none other than Ted Bundy. Yes, that Ted Bundy—the serial killer with the face of a Kennedy and the soul of Satan, who confessed to killing 36 women in the ‘70s. One of the confessions was delivered just two days before Bundy’s execution in 1989. That tape-recorded interview would supply the lyrics for the song that gave the Billboard-busting album, Nothing’s Shocking by Jane’s Addiction, its name.
3. Ian Brady and Myra Hindley
Suffer Little Children, by The Smiths
No one wants to read about children being tortured and killed; but, when the criminal minds behind their murders have stained the tapestry of a nation, it’s one’s historical duty to dig up the facts. Journalist Fred Harrison’s chilling true crime book Brady and Hindley: Genesis of the Moors Murders focuses on the case and those who were affected by the horrendous crimes of British couple Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. A pair of sadistically kindred souls, the two kidnapped and murdered five children in the ‘60s and buried the bodies in shallow graves amid the Saddleworth Moor.
It was around that same time that a young boy named Steven was coming of age in Manchester. Today, you know him as Morrissey, the lead singer of English rock band The Smiths. Affected by his town’s events, he did what any maudlin muser would do: He wrote a song about it.
Bonus: The iconic cover art for Sonic Youth’s Goo album is a drawing by Raymond Pettibon, based on a paparazzo’s shot of Maureen Hindley and her first husband, David Smith, both of whom were witnesses in the Moors Murders case.
4. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold
Holy Wood, by Marilyn Manson
On April 20, 1999, senior students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked into their Colorado high school, cocked their weapons, and forever changed an entire nation’s consciousness. Dave Cullen, one of the first reporters on the scene and the journalist who compiled case research for 10 years, has been credited with penning the definitive account of what actually went down within those walls. In Columbine, he not only breaks everything down, but he offers answers to the question that has haunted every single American since that first shot: Why? And, no, it has nothing to do with Marilyn Manson. Though society may disagree, as it was he—and his glam rock band—who took the brunt of the blame. They responded with not just a song, but an entire album. Critics call it a rock opera concept; Manson just calls it a declaration of war.
5. The Hillside Stranglers
Notown Blues, by The Black Lips
In 1977, while Los Angeles’ grooviest were spinning the sounds of disco, the hills beyond were alive with the sound of screams—women screaming to be exact. Over the course of four months, Kenneth Bianchi and his cousin, Angelo Buono, raped and murdered females between the ages of 12 and 28. In The Hillside Stranglers, award-winning writer Darcy O’Brien manages to craft a page-turning narrative that leaves no rock unturned.
Except when it comes to punk rock—leave that to the Black Lips. A modern garage band out of Georgia, they sport a “flower punk” sound that harkens back to the ‘60s, so we’re not entirely sure where the inspiration to spit a rhyme about the Stranglers comes from. That said, it still makes for one catchy earworm.
6. Gary Gilmore
Gary Gilmore’s Eyes, by The Adverts
Foul play and running from the law go together like Bonnie and Clyde. But in the case of Gary Gilmore and the two men he murdered in Utah, there was no mouse for the cat to chase. Gilmore, who surrendered to police after his short-lived killing spree, became internationally known as the American criminal who demanded the implementation of his own death sentence. To truly understand why Gilmore would campaign for his own execution by firing squad, one must go back to the beginning and learn about the violence, abuse, and dysfunction he endured in his childhood. Who better to tell the tale than Mikal Gilmore, Gary’s brother, who leaves out no detail in Shot in the Heart—including the fact that Gary requested his corneas be donated for transplanting. It’s a noble request, and strangely enough, the inspiration for the song that took The Adverts to the top of the British pop charts.
7. The Preppie Killer
Jenny Was a Friend of Mine, by The Killers
We’re a society that judges books by their covers and people by the labels they wear. So when Robert Chambers, a budding Manhattanite climbing the social ladder, turned out to be a pretty boy loser who was responsible for choking a happy-go-lucky co-ed to death and leaving her body under a tree in Central Park, well, let’s just say the nation was shocked. In Wasted, acclaimed journalist and author Linda Wolfe explores the boundaries of youth and privilege, and how Chambers pushed them way, way over the cutting edge.
Though if you want Chambers’ side of the story, we recommend The Killers’ “Jenny Was a Friend of Mine.” Inspired by The Smiths’ Morrissey to sing songs about killings, lead singer Brandon Flowers penned this synth-y rocker as the first in a trilogy of murderous melodies.
8. The Zodiac Killer
Gemini, by Slayer
In 1986, accomplished true crime writer Robert Graysmith published Zodiac, an account of the killings responsible for the widespread panic in San Francisco in the 1970s. The book was so thorough, even the lead investigator used it as a reference. In it, Graysmith called out the No. 1 suspect he believed was shooting Bay Area residents point-blank and leaving little notes etched with a Zodiac symbol for the cops. But in this account Graysmith only called the suspect out under a pseudonym. In his follow-up, Zodiac Unmasked, he reveals the suspect’s real name—something the rest of Zodiac-inspired pop culture has been unable to do. That includes thrash metal band Slayer, whose Undisputed Attitude closing track lets out a series of atonal riffs about the malice exhibited by the killer.
9. Charles Manson
Helter Skelter, by The Beatles
Heralded as the No. 1 best-selling true-crime novel of all time, Helter Skelter is one helluva a ride through the real-life horror that tainted what was supposed to be the “Summer of Love.” Written by the prosecuting attorney himself, Vincent Bugliosi’s masterwork takes readers behind the courtroom’s closed doors and into the case files concerning Charles Manson, the Manson Family, and nine high-profile murders that bathed the California desert in blood. Though Manson was ultimately the leader of a sadistic quasi-commune, he, too, couldn’t escape the effects of Beatlemania. Differing from the rest of this list, the killer’s “art” was inspired by the band, and not the other way around. One listen to the Beatles’ White Album, and he was hooked. “Helter Skelter”—interpreted by Manson as an apocalyptic war arising from racial tensions—became his mission.
Photos: (top) Bettmann / Getty; YouTube; Wikipedia; Cover of Buried Dreams: Open Road Media; Wikipedia; Cover of The Stranger Beside Me: Pocket Books; Open Road Media; Hulton Archive / Getty Images; Cover of Brady and Hindley; Open Road Media; Wikipedia; Wikipedia; Cover of Columbine: Hachette Book Group; Wikipedia; Wikipedia; Cover of The Hillside Stranglers: Open Road Media; Murderpedia; Cover of Shot in the Heart: Random House; Murderpedia; Cover of Wasted: Open Road Media; Wikipedia; Cover of Zodiac Unmasked: Berkley; Murderpedia; Cover of Helter Skelter: W. W. Norton & Company