Features and Columns · Movies

The Real Story Behind ‘Scream’

Who was the “Gainesville Ripper,” and how did he inspire Wes Craven’s horror movie?
Dimension Films
By  · Published on October 21st, 2021

Real Stories is an ongoing column about the true stories behind movies and TV shows. It’s that simple. This installment focuses on the true story that inspired the horror classic Scream. 

In addition to being a fantastic horror classic in its own right, Wes Craven‘s Scream is a brilliant parody and critique of the genre and its impact on society. But casual fans may be surprised to learn that the horror at the center of the 1996 film is also based on reality.

Screenwriter Kevin Williamson took from a lot of past horror films, of course, but he also found inspiration in real events — one notorious case, in particular. Here is a quick look at the true story of the serial killer whose gruesome murders informed the conception of Scream:

Gainesville, 1990

In Gainesville, Florida, in 1990, a series of killings shocked local residents. Many will know Gainesville as the home of the University of Florida, one of the largest schools in the United States.

In August of 1990, the man who would come to be known as the “Gainesville Ripper” broke into an apartment shared by two students. He stabbed, tortured, and sexually abused the young women before eventually killing them. Then he posed the two bodies.

Less than two days later, the killer struck again. After spying on the young woman, he used a screwdriver to enter her apartment and hid there. When she returned home, he surprised her from behind and killed her. As with the first two killings, he posed the body before he left.

A little more than a day later, he broke into another apartment using the same screwdriver. As he attacked one of its residents, the other awoke. She got up, saw her roommate being murdered, and ran back to her bedroom and locked the door. But the killer busted through and killed her, too.

The Search for the Gainesville Ripper

As the search for the killer went on, parents began to withdraw their children from school. National media came on the scene, and outside investigators flew in.

They noticed one similarity between the murders: each home the killer targeted was near a wooded area that, as Miami Herald journalist Joe Donnelly told ABC News, “allowed the killer to operate, to get in without being noticed.” The killer also tended to enter these homes through the back door.

Eventually, detectives had a suspect in custody. But DNA tests showed he had a different blood type than the killer’s, which was discovered on the scene of one of the murders.

A Similar Series of Killings

Around that time, investigators also learned of a series of murders that took place in 1989 in Shreveport, Louisiana. The victims were found in poses similar to those constructed by their killer. And then they received a call that helped crack the case wide open.

A woman from Shreveport named Cindy Juracich deserves credit for bringing the Gainesville Ripper to justice, and it’s a wild series of events. In 1990, she happened to be on a trip in the Florida Panhandle when she heard about the murders. According to ABC News, she immediately recalled a man whom she and her family once knew: Danny Rolling.

The murders in Gainesville were “eerily similar” to a string of killings that had occurred in Shreveport. One night, while Rolling was still in Louisiana, he visited Cindy and her husband, Steven.

“He’d come over every night for a while, and then one night, Steven came in and he goes, ‘He’s got to go,’” Juracich told ABC News, referring to Danny. Rolling told Steven that he had a “problem.” “I said, ‘What kind of problem,’ [and Steven said], ‘He likes to stick knives into people.’”

Juracich’s intuition led to her calling authorities in November of 1990. She encouraged them to investigate the mysterious link between the two series of killings. One comment Rolling once made to Juracich stuck with her: “He always told us, ‘One day, I’m going to leave this town and I’m going to go where the girls are beautiful and I can just lay in the sun and watch beautiful women all day.”

Catching Danny Rolling

According to ABC, Danny Rolling made “a career of crime.” He spent time in the US Air Force and then most of the 1980s in prison after committing a series of robberies throughout the South.

Three months before the first of the Gainesville murders, Rolling, who was living with his parents, got into a serious argument with his father, who chased him out of the house with a gun. Rolling then returned and shot his father in the face. But his father survived. Rolling fled his home after police put out a warrant for his arrest.

Once police began to suspect Rolling in the Gainesville case, they looked into his past and saw his history of armed robbery. They were then able to piece together that a robbery had occurred on the same day as one of the murders. An officer tracked a suspect to a campsite, but the man escaped. Among the evidence gathered at the location? A screwdriver, a gun, a bag of money, and a stereo with a cassette tape inside.

The tape contained a man singing and talking. At one point, he sings, “Mystery rider, what’s your name? You’re a killer, a drifter, gone insane.” And then later on the cassette, the man says his name: “Danny Harold Rolling.”

Once they had the lead, it didn’t take long for authorities to locate him. Authorities detained Rolling about 40 miles south of Gainesville after he robbed a supermarket.

Rolling faced five first-degree murder charges. He pled guilty to all counts. On his death bed, Rolling also admitted to the killings in Shreveport. He received a lethal injection in 2006.

Kevin Williamson Gets Scared

As he watched television in 1994, Kevin Williamson, then a “struggling actor and screenwriter,” encountered the true story that inspired Scream. The Gainesville Killer was the subject of ABC’s Turning Point, an hour-long documentary news program that tended to focus on “sensational topics.”

In a 1998 interview with CNN, Williamson describes having watched the episode, which was hosted by Barbara Walters, and feeling “spooked.” He says:

“I was being scared out of my mind. During the commercial break, I heard a noise. And I had to go search the house. And I went into the living room and a window was open. And I’d been in this house for two days. I’d never noticed the window open. So I got really scared. So I went to the kitchen, got a butcher knife, got the mobile phone. I called a buddy of mine.”

Williamson’s friend, a man named David Blanchard, began to mock him on the phone. In the same CNN interview, Blanchard explains:

“He’s looking under the beds. He’s going out to the garage and looking in the garage. I’m like, ‘Well, don’t go outside. If you go outside, you’re going to go outside and the killer is going to sneak in the door while you’re outside.'”

Understandably, Williamson went to bed that night terrified, but some good came out of the terror. In the same interview, the screenwriter says:

“I went to bed that night so spooked I was having nightmares, and I woke up at like three or four in the morning, and I started writing the opening scene to ‘Scream.'”

Or, what was initially titled “Scary Movie” and later titled Scream, anyway.

Resonances of the True Story in Scream

The true story of the Gainesville Ripper doesn’t really sound like the fictional plot of Scream. After all, the film’s serial killer, a masked figure known as “Ghostface,” targets a high school, not a university (Williamson saved that setting for Scream 2).

But the horror itself is similar. Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), the film’s protagonist continually evades Ghostface but watches as they kill her friends and classmates. It’s as if Williamson imagined that fifth victim of the Gainesville Ripper getting away after seeing her roommate’s attack.

Rolling’s “surprise from behind” tactic also found its way into Scream. Ghostface often appears behind doors or in the corners of rooms before he kills. Who could forget when Ghostface lunges at Principal Himbry (Henry Winkler) from behind his office door. We know what’s coming, but like the many such moments in horror films, the moment still shocks and terrifies us.

Then there are the killers’ motives. In Scream, Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich) is one of two teens behind Ghostface. Among his motives for the killings is his home life. While he doesn’t seem to have an abusive parent, as Rollings did, Billy does admit his reason for assaulting and killing Sidney’s mother was because she had an affair with his father, thus breaking up his family.

The other killer behind the Ghostface mask is Billy’s friend Stu Macher (Matthew Lillard). He says in the film that his motive is “peer pressure.” An obsession with his own image was also among the motives cited in the Gainesville Ripper case. According to the Miami HeraldRolling said he committed the murders in part because he wanted to be a “superstar.”

The Phone Call that Inspired the Opening Scene

In thinking about the Gainesville Ripper’s preference for wooded areas, Scream‘s iconic opening scene comes to mind. Ghostface targets Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore) as she plans to watch a movie alone in her parents’ beautiful, secluded home.

He calls her on the phone, and she first thinks it is just some kind of creepy prank. But her boyfriend then appears at her back door, tied, beaten, and, eventually, murdered. It’s clear the “game” she is playing with Ghostface on the phone is all too real.

In a new interview featured on the Scream 4K UHD and Blu-ray release, Williamson recounts a phone call with a friend that sounds very similar to the one he described to CNN more than two decades ago. Williamson says he was house-sitting for a friend and noticed that a window had been opened. He continues:

“So I go and I get a butcher knife and I start walking around the house, and I call up my friend on the phone and [say], ‘I think someone’s in the house.'”

His friend began to mock him, and two began talking about famous horror characters, like Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers, who might be in the house. That moment, Williamson claims, served as the inspiration for the opening

“We got into this whole debate about serial killers,” he says of the extra, personal true story that inspired Scream. “And that was sort of the spark.”

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Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic, researcher, and video essayist, who has been a contributor at Film School Rejects since 2018. Follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter @willdigravio.