Who is Ghostface? It’s the question behind every Scream film, but who is the real man behind the mask? It’s not Jill Roberts or Billy Loomis but the very real Danny Rolling, the Jack the Ripper of modern America. Even though the 1996 film starring Neve Campbell and Courtney Cox shares very little in common with the original story, it borrows the paranoia that struck the sleepy college town of Gainesville as well as the sinister brutality of Rolling’s character.
The spine of the Scream films is its unique balance of self-awareness and ignorance taking place within the characters. The film itself is very self-aware. It knows the rules and cliches of horror movies and goes about dismembering them. It’s the actual villains though, in this case, Billy and Stu, who are lacking in this self-awareness as they seem blind to the reality of their own actions. At the end of their massacre, the duo reveals their individual motives, but it’s easy to see that they’re just excuses. They would have found any reason to kill and justify it with logic. Their real motives — Billy is just angry and psychotic, and Stu is a happy lap dog that doesn’t seem to know what’s going on half the time.
Put these boys together, and amp them up to the max, and you’ll get something close to Danny Rolling a.k.a. The Gainsville Ripper. Home to my home state (my aunt actually lived next door to two of the victims), Rollings was a serial killer who murdered five college students in August of 1990 over the course of four days.
Danny Rolling was born on May 26, 1954, to Claudia and James Rolling, two people who definitely weren’t meant to have children. James was a cop who consistently abused his wife and children, acting as if their very existence was a burden on his day-to-day life. He first started abusing Rolling when the boy was less than a year old when he’d beaten him for not crawling correctly. It only got worse when Rolling’s brother Kevin was born in 1955. There was even a time when James beat and handcuffed his son to the floor, calling the police and leaving him in a jailcell just for embarrassing him.
When Rolling started grade school, his mother had a nervous breakdown and was committed to a mental health clinic after a failed suicide attempt. After that, he quickly fell off the deep end, finding solace in drugs and alcohol and turning to music to chase away the demons, all the while absorbing pieces of his father’s hate and violence. He was actually a pretty good musician. If things had turned out differently he might’ve had a decent career in music.
The Gainesville Ripper
In the year of the murder spree, Rolling followed his mother’s footsteps in having a nervous breakdown. By this point, he’d built up a list of crimes including at least one sexual assault as well as multiple petty offenses that kept him jumping in and out of prison. In 1990, he finally snapped and attempted to murder his father, then 58, by shooting him twice in the face. The man survived but lost an eye and an ear in the attack.
Shortly after that, Rolling changed his name and started a new life in Florida. He was now Michael Kennedy Jr., but this new and improved version was just as troubled as the old and on August 24, 1990, the spree of the Gainesville Ripper officially began.
The first victims were Sonja Larson and Christina Powell, two incoming freshmen at the University of Florida that he followed home. He raped and murdered them both, mutilating their bodies post-mortem. The next day, he broke into the apartment of 18-year-old Christa Hoyt, whose murder would become the most infamous of the five. Similar to Larson and Powell, he raped and murdered Hoyt before cutting off her head and placing it atop a bookshelf, setting her decapitated body up on the bed so that they would face whoever discovered her.
By this point, fear had begun to spread across the campus. In just a few days, the University of Florida was suffocating in paranoia. Students carried weapons, they slept in groups behind triple-locked doors with someone keeping watch at all times. By the end of August, thousands of students left campus, and/or transferred schools. Even after it was over, there were hundreds who never came back.
The final day of the spree occurred on August 27 with the murders of Tracey Paules and Manuel “Manny” Taboada, both 23. He killed Taboada while he slept and chased down Paules when she heard the commotion in their shared apartment. They were the only victims he didn’t mutilate although he did pose Paules’s body in a sexual position
Capture and death
Rolling wasn’t actually arrested for the murders but on burglary charges miles away in Ocala on September 7. He was later connected to the murders when tools found in his car matched some of the markings on the victims’ bodies. Further investigation led to the discovery of a one-man campsite near the student apartments where a series of audio diaries featuring Rolling’s admitting to the crimes were discovered.
Similar to Billy and Stu who made excuses for their actions, Rolling gave his own preferred excuse at his trial. He claimed that he’d wanted to be a “superstar” similar to Ted Bundy, even though there were clear signs in his past of trying to fight the “urges” that compelled him to kill and having trouble with violence way before Bundy was even a thing during the 70s.
On April 20, 1994, Danny Rolling was given a death sentence that was carried out in 2006 by lethal injection.
Connection to Scream
Some of the greatest films of all time were inspired by crime and a lot of them, by violent crimes; Zodiac, Monster, My Friend Dahmer, Snowtown, Memories of a Murder, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, etc. We hate the crimes (sometimes) but love the art they inspire and thanks to an aspiring screenwriter who stayed up late to freak himself out on a tv documentary, the Wes Craven classic Scream can be added to that list.
In March of 1994, Kevin Williamson was watching a feature on the Gainesville Ripper on Turning Point and it gave him an idea. He sat down and wrote a script, completing it in just three days, about a masked killer that stalks kids in a sleepy town named Woodsburrow. He called it Scary Movie, a name that would eventually become Scream, incorporating the way that terror overtook an entire town in a short amount of time thanks to a deranged killer.
Of course, nothing about Scream reveals any obvious connection to Rolling. The story and characters are their own, and the ages were changed to high school years. Unless you know beforehand, there’s no way to tell that Scream was inspired by anything other than horror clichés. Although, the film does give a vague, brief, reference to the reality of its inspiration when near the end, a manic Billy shouts, “movies don’t create psychos, movies make psychos more creative.” The comment was screenwriter, Kevin Williamson’s own personal rebuttal to Republican Presidential candidate Bob Dole’s claim that violent entertainment was influencing crime. Dole cited Natural Born Killers (a film that criticizes the media’s glorification of violence) as “evidence” and this was Williamson’s way of saying that art imitates life and if life does imitate art, it’s because the cause is already there.
By the way who else can’t wait for Scream 5? I’m excited!