Plucking Horror from the Headlines |

Plucking Horror from the Headlines

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My name is Carla E. Anderton. Thank you for joining me today.

By way of background, I’m the author of The Heart Absent, a novel about Jack the Ripper in love, which was my thesis novel. I’m also an “expert” on Jack the Ripper and his crimes. Interestingly enough, this is a traditionally male dominated field.

I’m fairly certain everyone here knows who Jack the Ripper was but, just in case, here’s a brief recap: “Jack the Ripper” was the moniker given to the serial murderer who brutally killed a number of prostitutes in the Whitechapel section of London in (and around) 1888. While scholars of the case disagree on exactly how many women “Jack” slayed, most experts believe he was responsible for what is called “the canonical five” victims.

Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols is first to meet her end at the hands of the “Ripper”. On August 31, she is discovered with her throat severely cut and multiple stab wounds to her abdomen in Buck’s Row.

Eight days later, Annie Chapman becomes the Ripper’s second victim. She is found around 6 a.m. by John Davis with her throat viciously slashed open, her intestines resting on her shoulder and her uterus missing.

The Ripper’s next victim, Elizabeth “Long Liz” Stride, suffers only the indignity of having her throat cut but she is no less dead. It is thought Jack was interrupted before he had a chance to mutilate her body like her predecessor Annie Chapman.

This theory gains credibility when the body of Catherine Eddowes is discovered roughly an hour later. Eddowes is the first of the victims with extensive facial mutilations. In the words of an old English proverb, Jack “cut off her nose to spite her face.”

Mary Kelly is murdered in her own bed on November 9, murdered most foul, virtually dissected in what should have been the safety of her own lodgings. It would take less time to mention what about her was intact than what wasn’t. The Ripper took his time with her, took the time he wasn’t able to take with the others. The end result is the stuff of nightmares. Gruesome as it is, her death perhaps marks the end of the terror. Or does it?

There are many suspects, and multiple theories as to why the crimes were committed, but despite the efforts of the police, the killer is never apprehended.

The legend of Jack the Ripper endures. Many decades before Charles Manson, O.J. Simpson or Casey Anthony, Jack the Ripper quickly becomes a media sensation, a century before the advent of Court TV. This begs the question: What medium is responsible for spreading the word?

The answer can be found in the answer to a simple riddle: What’s black and white and read all over?


Remember when people read newspapers? Physical newspapers you could hold in your hand? Let’s jump (back) into the Wayback Machine.

After all, these guys needed something to read on their morning commute, and the iPad hadn’t yet been invented.

It was a simpler time. Newspapers brought families together.

It was a more glamorous time.

In the newspaper business, there’s a phrase that pays: “If it bleeds, it leads.”

There’s no question the Jack the Ripper murders were a veritable goldmine for the press back in and around 1888, particularly after they began publishing the letters allegedly written by the killer.

And that same press can be a gold mine for you as a writer. Today, we’ll talk a little about other tragedies the press covered extensively, and how you can use those same terrible events as prompts for your creative writing.

I’m sure we have a few writers of historical fiction here today. One of the challenges of writing historical fiction is accurately depicting events in fiction as they actually occurred in fact. Readers of historical fiction are notoriously picky when it comes to attention to detail. Miss one detail, and you will feel their ire. Because of this, choosing to write historical fiction can be daunting.

Today, I’d like to focus on an alternative that can still result in fantastic results, idea and inspiration wise.

Plucking horror from the headlines. Taking inspiration from ONLY the headline and running with it. Don’t sweat the details. Those you can make up from scratch.

We talked about Jack the Ripper. Jack the Ripper was one of the first media darlings but he certainly wasn’t the last. Let’s look at some other horrible events, all of which have been chronicled extensively by other writers, and then we’ll look at some headlines for lesser known tragedies that you can (also) use in your own writing.

H.H. Holmes Murder Castle at the World’s Fair held in Chicago, crimes arguably more horrific than those of Jack the Ripper. I could teach an entire module on this but suffice it to say if you’re interested in learning more, definitely check out Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City.

The sinking of the Titanic has spurred more than just the flick starring Leo DiCaprio. It also sold a metric crapton of newspapers.

The Holocaust. Beyond The Diary of Anne Frank, there are so many stories to be told by and about victims and survivors.

The attack on Pearl Harbor, which led to the subsequent attack on Hiroshima by the U.S., in which we unleashed the atomic bomb.

The Kennedy Assassination. Pictured here is JFK but RFK was equally tragic.

The Manson Family. Helter Skelter. Need I say more?

The war in Vietnam, during which we were exposed to a new level of atrocities, all played out before our eyes in the newspapers and on the evening news.

John Wayne Gacy, the infamous Clown Killer, who brought a terrifying reality to the fear many of us have of clowns.

Ted Bundy, the Lady Killer. Ann Rule built a career on his back. True crime is a genre.

The death of Princess Diana. While this may not seem as tragic as some of the events we’ve covered thus far, it does beg the question of how many people have to die before we consider an event horrific.

And, finally, the September 11 attacks, for which many of us had no words for so long, and the “War on Terror” that followed in its devastating wake.

These are all well known tragedies that have proved to be fodder for writers of fiction and non-fiction alike.

Now let’s look at some headlines of lesser known events and, as we do, see if any of these headlines spark your imagination and get your creative juices flowing:

55 Horrible Subjects & Headlines

1)      H. H. Holmes’ Murder Castle

2)      The Sinking of Titanic

3)      The Holocaust

4)      The Attack on Pearl Harbor

5)      The Kennedy Assassination

6)      The Manson Family

7)      The War in Vietnam

8)      John Wayne Gacy – Killer Clown

9)      Ted Bundy – The Lady Killer

10)  The Death of Princess Diana

11)  September 11 Terror Attacks

12)  78 Entombed in Pit

13)  Stabbing disrupts class for anger management

14)  Baby café is mum’s cup of tea

15)  Is Bulger Killer my child’s dad?

16)  Big beetle attack hits city

17)  The Curse of the Black Widow Killer

18)  Boxer held over Ibiza Rampage

19)  My Ceiling Could’ve Killed Me

20)  Death by Xbox

21)  Dread disease germs destroyed by rays, claim of S.D. scientist

22)  Now it’s dog or cat in our curry

23)  Murderers: The Mail accuses these men of killing

24)  Flying pigs over Mansfield

25)  Freezing Weather Will Kill

26)  Haunted House Horror

27)  Hospital poisoner tries to murder 36

28)  Live model aids murder search

29)  Mob murder reopened, thanks to the babysitter

30)  Violent crime duo caught on video

31)  Savile was part of Satanic ring

32)  Men who roused schoolboy frenzy eighty years ago

33)  Serial killer loose in hospital

34)  Shotgun killer blasts man

35)  White water horror

36)  Witchcraft threat to children

37)  Workplace Rampage

38)  24 Hours of Terror

39)  Gaddafi on run with 40 Virgins

40)  Brutal and chilling execution

41)  Grenade launcher found in drug bust

42)  Katutura’s rampaging horny demons

43)  Jail of Death

44)  Kidnaped Girl Found Slain; Dismembered, Hid in Sewer

45)  The Killer Autograph

46)  Madman slays four person and then burns village

47)  Meat head resigns

48)  17 remain dead in morgue shooting spree

49)  Two slayings here and… The Neighbors Who Won’t Talk

50)  The People vs The Subways

51)  Baby Murders Faked!

52)  Murder: Cops probe sodomy angle

53)  Tarentella charged with murder

54)  I Told You I Was Ill

55)  Vikings are returning

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