Horror movies such as Halloween helped transform the idea of All-Hallows Eve from a night of ghosts, goblins and witches into something far more sinister. The 1978 film forever entered into the American psyche the notion that, rather than malicious mythical beings lurking on October 31, a nearly unstoppable psycho killer stalks fellow humans.
Halloween villain Michael Myers was inspired by a real experience of film creator John Carpenter, who’d visited a mental institution during a college class. According to Screenrant, it was there that Carpenter saw a young teen with what he called a “schizophrenic stare,” which inspired the black, lifeless eyes of his movie character.
The name “Michael Myers” is synonymous with gruesome on-screen Halloween murders, but in real life, those who have committed horrific murders on Halloween are a reminder that art sometimes imitates life — even the darkest and most perverse aspects.
Here are five of the grisliest real-life Halloween murders:
1. The So-Called Toolbox Murderers Raped, Tortured & Killed Shirley Ledford on Halloween 1979
Shirley Ledford was a 16-year-old California girl who was hitchhiking home from her job on October 31, 1979, when she accepted a ride from Lawrence Bittaker and Roy Norris.
She couldn’t have known the duo had already raped three girls and murdered four in recent months.
Bittaker and Norris met in prison, and when they were both out they decided to become literal partners in crime with a goal of kidnapping and raping young women, according to court documents.
They scoped secluded places to take their victims and bought a van they dubbed “Murder Mac” with a sliding door to make it easier to abduct girls, the case files say. In the end, they were convicted of the murders of five girls from ages 13 to 18. Ledford was the last.
Bittaker and Norris inflicted unthinkable horrors on all of the young women using tools one might find in a toolbox, hence the name “Toolbox Murderers,” according to CBS San Francisco. The convicts liked to photograph and record their sadistic attacks, which ultimately helped lead to their conviction.
They were known to push ice picks into the ears — and brains — of some of their victims, according to court documents. They used pliers and hammers on the young women and alternated sexually assaulting them.
In Ledford’s case, there was a 17-minute audio recording.
In 1981, the Associated Press wrote, “It was that 17-minute tape, of 16-year-old Shirley Lynette Ledford pleading for mercy as she was raped and tortured, that had the most effect on the jurors.” A partial transcript of the recording is posted on a True Crime chat room forum at Tapatalk.
The men took turns raping Ledford, but it was Norris who was in charge during that recording. According to the transcript, besides raping her and forcing her to perform oral sex, he used pliers in various ways on her genitalia.
Once she was damaged from those tortures, he moved on to beating her in the elbow with a sledgehammer as her hands were tied behind her back. He whaled on her elbow 25 times as her screams of agony and wailing prompted Norris to ask, “What are you sniveling about,” according to the transcript.
“The last words Shirley Lynette Ledford spoke at the end of her short life were, ‘Do it. Just kill me!'” according to the person who posted the partial transcript.
Then the recording is turned off before Norris strangled Ledford to death with a wire hanger.
While the men previously dumped bodies in remote locations, in Ledford’s case they decided to leave her battered body in “someone’s front yard so they could see the reaction in the newspaper. They put Ledford’s body in a bed of ivy in a suburban neighborhood, where it was discovered by an early morning jogger,” court documents said. The hanger was still around her neck.
Both men were convicted of the murders of five young women, but Norris testified against Bittaker to escape the death sentence. Bittaker was sentenced to death in 1981 but died of natural causes on death row in 2019, according to CBS San Francisco. In February 2020, Norris died in prison.
2. 17-Year-Old Johnny Frank Garrett Raped & Murdered a 76-Year-Old Nun in Her Convent Bed on Halloween 1981
The naked body of 76-year-old Sister Tadea Benz was discovered by other nuns in her room on the second floor of the St. Francis Convent in Amarillo, Texas, on Halloween morning, according to court documents posted on Justia. On November 9, police arrested 17-year-old Johnny Frank Garrett, charging him with her rape and murder.
According to the autopsy report, Benz sustained “contusions to the head, stab wounds to the chest, and excoriation and abrasive injuries to the front and back of the neck. …The autopsy also revealed evidence of forcible rape,” Justia reported. The cause of the nun’s death, though, was manual strangulation.
There was ample evidence leading to Garrett, including his fingerprints on the knife found in Benz’s room and on her headboard, according to Justia. He’d been seen running from the convent that morning, and another knife found in the convent driveway matched the knives at Garrett’s house. Eventually, he admitted to the crime but refused to sign a confession.
Garrett told investigators, “There was a nun in bed and she acted as if she was going to scream. I covered her mouth so she couldn’t make any noise. I started choking her until she passed out. I had sex with her. I left the convent the way I came in,” Justia reported.
Garrett was sentenced to death for the killing and was executed on February 11, 1992, according to Find a Grave, which reported his last words were, “I’d like to thank my family for loving me and taking care of me. And the rest of the world can kiss my ass.”
But some pushed back on the death sentence for such a young person, especially because by some accounts he was “brain-damaged; he was also quite mad,” according to the Sun-Sentinel.
In 1998, a reporter at the paper interviewed psychiatrist Dr. Dorothy Otnow Lewis, who had spoken with and studied Garrett during his fifth year on death row while she was looking into the origins of violence for a book theorizing that most people who commit horrible acts are abused as children.
This was true in Garrett’s case, according to the Sun-Sentinel. Lewis told the paper that she found a sworn statement from Garrett’s cousin after Garrett was put to death. The statement was meant for a clemency hearing. It claimed cruel abuse at the hands of their grandparents:
I will tell you the truth about how Johnny got burned. There was a gas heater in the bathroom and Grandma took Johnny in there and turned the gas heater up until the flames were touching the top. She waited until it got real hot and then she took off his pants and sat him down on the heater. She held him there for what seemed like a long time.
In another claim in the affidavit, the cousin wrote, “‘Grandma’ would dress Johnny up like a little girl and then Grandpa would sexually abuse Johnny.”
Those allegations brought Lewis to the conclusion that Garrett’s attack on the nun was not out of nowhere. According to the Sun-Sentinel, Lewis wrote, “The act had been programmed years before, in a house on North Hayes Street.”
3. On Halloween 1984 William Michael Dennis Wore a Wolf Mask to Knock on His Pregnant Ex-Wife’s Door Before Slashing Doreen Erbert & Her Unborn Child to Death With a Machete
Doreen Erbert was at home in San Jose, California, with her 4-year-old daughter Deanna on October 31, 1984. Her husband, Charles Erbert, had run out to the liquor store after taking their little girl trick-or-treating, according to case files on Find Law.
That’s when Doreen’s ex-husband, William Michael Dennis, knocked on her door wearing a wolf mask. According to case files, Deanna testified four years later when she was 8-years-old that she remembered going to answer the door with her mom. She said when Doreen opened the door, she told the person, “Get out of my house.”
The man replied, ”I’m going to kill you.”
Doreen told Deanna to hide behind the couch, which she did until her father got home. When Charles got back to the house, the scene was gruesome.
According to the case files, “When he opened the door, he saw Doreen lying bleeding on the floor at the entry to the living room. He saw the fetus in the living room and thought at first Doreen had miscarried. Then he saw Doreen’s hand lying in the living room along with part of the fetus.”
The description of the attack paints a picture of an enraged person fully unleashing on a woman he presumably once loved. Besides Doreen’s hand being severed, her body sustained a multitude of deep gashes all over, including one in the head that went 2 inches into her brain.
The case files describe a violent scene in which Dennis slashed at her 8-month-pregnant belly to the point that the fetus was expelled and died from the wounds. The weapon used was an 18-inch machete, according to the case files.
Doreen survived for a short time — long enough for her husband to come home and find her still alive — but she succumbed to her excessive injuries a short while later.
Several neighbors told police they’d seen a man wearing a wolf mask lurking around the Erberts’ home that night, according to the case files, and someone who knew Dennis had a photo of him wearing the mask the year before at a Halloween party. The mask was found in the Erberts’ home and did not belong to them, according to the case files.
Police were able to gather enough evidence to charge Dennis for the grisly murders, and though he denied killing his ex-wife, a jury eventually found him guilty of first-degree murder for killing Doreen and guilty of second-degree murder for the killing of her 8-month-old fetus, court files say.
Dennis’s defense argued that he’d become “delusional after his four-year-old son, Paul, drowned in Doreen’s pool four years earlier,” according to Find Law files. A psychiatrist said that Dennis fixated on his son’s death and wanted to kill Doreen and Charles because he blamed them for the tragedy.
Dennis, now 70, was sentenced to death and has been on death row at San Quentin State Prison in California since 1988, according to the Calfornia Department of Corrections.
4. William B.J. Liske Killed His Father, His Stepmother & Her Son As They Lay in Their Beds on Halloween Morning 2010
A 24-year-old man with a history of violence and mental illness was convicted of killing his father, William Liske Jr.; his stepmother, Susan M. Liske; and her 23-year-old son, Derek L. Griffin, in the early hours of Halloween in 2010 in the rural town of Martin, Ohio.
According to the Sandusky Register, Griffin was killed by blunt force trauma to the head consistent with being hit with a claw hammer. His body was found in his bed curled up facing the wall, and a bloody hammer was discovered in the house.
Bill Liske and his wife Susan were also in their beds, both shot to death at close range. Their bodies were discovered with a maroon comforter pulled over their heads, which were resting on blood-soaked pillows.
The Sandusky Register reported that Bill Liske “was shot five times in the head and face, at a range of about one to two feet. … Susan was sprawled more awkwardly as if she might have been moved, investigators wrote. She was shot three times, again at what investigators suspect was close range. The bullets were small caliber, likely a .22.”
Susan’s 16-year-old son was the one to find his mother and stepfather’s bodies on Halloween morning. He initially thought they were playing a Halloween prank on him but soon realized the nightmarish scene was real, according to the Ohio Times Reporter.
Police charged Liske for the killings, and he eventually pleaded guilty to the murders of his three family members in a deal that took the death sentence off the table.
Though Liske had documented mental illness and had been on and off medications for bipolar schizoaffective disorder, according to the Sandusky Register, he was deemed competent to stand trial in the case.
The Port Clinton News Herald reported, “Before his sentencing in September 2011, Liske apologized for killing his father, stepmother and stepbrother, blaming mental illness and Satan for his actions.”
Liske was sentenced to three life sentences with no chance of parole. On March 31, 2015, he was found dead in his jail cell from a “self-inflicted wound,” the Port Clinton News Herald reported.
5. Dawson McGehee Wore a Halloween Mask When He Stabbed His Mother to Death in Her Bedroom on Halloween 2011
Dawson Andrew McGehee had a demon in his head. That’s what he’d told friends and therapists in the months prior to being accused of murdering his mother, Kathleen McGehee, according to case files published on FindLaw.
McGehee also seemed to become obsessed with Halloween and horror. In the year before McGehee killed his mother, his brother, Colin, said the 26-year-old had taken to occasionally walking around the family home in the dark wearing a Halloween mask and coveralls when he was there to visit, according to the case files.
Another time, Colin testified that he and McGehee went to see a horror movie together and during the movie McGehee got up and was gone for a long time, so Colin looked around the theater for him. When he spotted McGehee, he was sitting alone “in a different row and off to the side, again wearing a mask,” according to the case file.
On Halloween in 2011, McGehee “dressed in a Halloween costume complete with a mask … (and) murdered his mother in the family’s northeast Manteca home. A reliable source indicated Manteca Police found a mask smeared with the blood of Kathleen Karen McGehee, 55,” the Manteca Bulletin reported.
In the aftermath, McGehee went to great lengths to hide his mother’s death from a sister, Katelyn, who still lived at the home. He made excuses for why Kathleen wasn’t coming out of her room while being extra friendly and chatty, which was uncharacteristic for him, according to the case files.
But by the end of the day when their mom had been locked in her bedroom all day and wouldn’t respond, Katelyn called 911 for a wellness check, the case files said.
First responders kicked in the bedroom door to find Kathleen dead. According to case reports, “McGehee stabbed his mother ten times in the neck, chest, and abdomen with a kitchen knife; eight of the stab wounds were independently fatal.” There was also evidence of “neck compression.”
Due to the evidence, which included Kathleen’s blood on a mask and a jacket belonging to McGehee, him being the only one home at the time she was estimated to have been killed, and his strange behavior before and after the murder, along with no signs of a break-in and nothing stolen, investigators zeroed in on McGehee.
In a video posted by the Oxygen Network of the now-convicted killer, he behaves as if he is mentally incompetent and says he doesn’t know what happened to his mother, yet he has the wherewithal to ask for an attorney before saying anything more.
Though McGehee’s defense argued that he suffered from mental illness, the court found him competent to stand trial. He was sentenced to 15 years to life in 2013 and is eligible for parole in April 2024, according to the California Department of Corrections.