As our own Brian Collins has written before, Bryan Bertino's The Strangers is a perhaps underrated slasher masterpiece, and one of the absolute scariest contemporary horror films – that's an impressive and increasingly rare feat, but one that Bertino pulls off in effortlessly savage fashion.
For the unfamiliar: The Strangers centers on a couple relentlessly and eerily stalked by a trio of masked killers with no apparent motivation, resulting in an impeccably suspenseful home invasion thriller that crawls under your skin with the precision of the shiniest, sharpest knife. What makes The Strangers so effective is the cold, uncaring facelessness of the killers and the absence of motivation. Bertino understands and embraces something that most successful slashers (particularly as they become full-fledged franchises) don't: the less we know about the boogeymen, the scarier they remain.
And really, what is more terrifying than the notion of a killer or killers pursuing you with no rationality, no purpose, no clear-cut motivation? What's scarier than being pursued by faceless antagonists who have carefully planned their attack, turning your own comfort against you and transforming your home into an inescapable nightmare? The killers are insidiously cunning, undermining the notion of a safe, familiar space as Bertino seizes on the invasive notion of home invasion.
Perhaps more disquieting than The Strangers is that Bertino's film was inspired by a few real-life events. The filmmaker has cited a childhood experience where strangers knocked on his door while his parents were away, asking for someone who didn't live there. He later found out that these people were responsible for a series of break-ins and robberies. Bertino also cites the obvious reference: the Manson Family murders.
But there's one lesser-known case that inspired The Strangers, and it's far more terrifying than Bertino's film. Known as the Keddie Cabin Murders, this horrific quadruple homicide took place in California in 1981 and remains unsolved to this day. Unsolved murders are fairly common, but the sheer brutality of the case makes this one particularly unsettling, even more so when you fall down the internet rabbit hole of police and investigative reports, crime scene photos, and rumors of potential culprits.
Every couple of years I revisit the Keddie Cabin story to see if there have been any new developments, and each time I find myself just as compelled and unsettled by the intensely disturbing case.
The murders took place on the evening of April 11 or the early morning of April 12, 1981 in Keddie, a small, defunct railroad town in Plumas County, California. Sue Sharp and her five kids had rented cabin 28 at the Keddie resort, where they had stayed since the previous November after Sue left her abusive husband. On the evening of the murders, Sue was home with her two youngest boys, Greg and Rick, who had their friend Justin over for the night. Sue's oldest boy, Johnny, came home later in the evening with his friend Dana. The eldest daughter, Sheila, was spending the night with a friend nearby, while the younger daughter, Tina, came home from watching TV with a neighboring friend sometime that evening.
In the early morning hours of April 12, Sheila returned home from her friend's cabin to retrieve some clothes so she could attend church with the friend's family – that's when she discovered the brutally murdered bodies of her mother, Johnny, and Dana. 22 feet of white cloth medical tape (which did not come from Sue's cabin) was used to bind the limbs of the bodies along with the extension cord from the television. A dull, flimsy table knife was found near Johnny's body, and a bloody hammer and butcher knife were found on a table – though the autopsy showed that the bodies had been bludgeoned by two different hammers. In addition to the bludgeoning, the Sue, Johnny, and Dana were found with multiple stab wounds on their body and their throats. Dana had been strangled, while Johnny had been bludgeoned by a rifle that was never found. A trash can at a nearby general store yielded another bloody knife.
While Sheila, Rick, and Greg all survived, Tina was still missing. Judging by the police reports, some believe that Tina's absence was not immediately recorded, nor was it given much consideration. In 1984, a human skull fragment was found about 29 miles from the Keddie resort, but it still took months before the police searched the area – and they only did so after receiving a call from an anonymous party who claimed the skull fragment belonged to Sue's missing daughter. A search of the area turned up several more bone fragments and testing confirmed that the bones belonged to Tina.
Adding further eeriness to the case is Justin, Rick and Greg's friend who was sleeping over at the time of the murders. In a statement given to police, Justin described a scene that reads as half-dream, half-reality, in which two men attack Sue on a boat that resembles the cabin's living room, with Johnny and Dana arriving home in the middle of the crime. The two older boys confront the assailants, but are ultimate subdued and restrained. Tina is awoken by the noise and walks in on the killers, who drag her away. Justin maintains that this was not a dream, but that he did witness the murders – or at least some portion of the events. Given his younger age (12) and the traumatic circumstances, it's easy to see how the details of the crime may have blended with a dream Justin was having as he woke.
The Keddie28 website is filled with police reports, accounts from neighbors, potential suspects, photos, and endless speculation. Perhaps more haunting than the crime scene photos that depict a quaint retro cabin streaked in blood are the candid photos of Sue and her kids taken before the murders. It's like looking at a series of banal apparitions.
For all the information that's been collected by amateur sleuths, all the photos and eyewitness and second-hand accounts, little-to-no progress has been made in finding the murderer(s) of Sue, Johnny, Dana, and Tina. Unlike Bertino's film, there was clearly some motive, but our inability to know or understand that motive makes the act just as terrifying.
There are, obviously, some similarities between the Keddie Cabin Murders and The Strangers: Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman's characters are mercilessly stalked in their summer home, and while Keddie was a defunct railroad town filled with disenfranchised residents, the idea of a cabin calls to mind a relaxing vacation. Bertino's film climaxes with the protagonists bound to chairs in the living room and brutally stabbed (in the early morning – a time we usually associate with visibility and safety), similar to what happened with Sue, Johnny, and Dana.
The most unnerving murders are those which cannot be explained, those which have no evident reasoning or motive, and ultimately those which remain unsolved. That these crimes (both in Bertino's fiction and Keddie's reality) were committed in the victims' homes makes them even more disquieting – it's horrifically invasive, turning someone's comfort into an intangible weapon. Ultimately, The Strangers remains so effectively scary because Bertino is faithful to the terror of the unknown and unknowable, and while horror films have long served as catharsis for our innate fear of death, Bertino's film yields only sheer dread – a dread that grows with the understanding of just how close to reality it is.
This post is sponsored by Chiller. The new original series Slasher airs at 9pm ET on Friday, March 4 on ChillerTV.