originally published August 14, 2013
If delightful, family-friendly romps are your thing, you could probably do a lot better than Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. On the other hand, if you’re looking for your dreams tonight to be peppered with gruesome imagery and psychotic thematic elements, this might be the perfect movie upon which you can slap your brain and sizzle ‘til it hurts.
Surrounding this ultra-violent film about two young lovers on a murderous spree (the satirical media plotline – what I feel to be the most interesting part of the film – was added by Stone at the last minute) is a whole lot of real-life murder and bloodshed. The list of copycat murders that emerged after Natural Born Killers’ 1994 release is staggering. But the blood flows in both directions – the film was based loosely on actual events.
Prepare to have your stomach turned, courtesy of young Charles Starkweather and his 14-year-old girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate.
Charles Starkweather was your typical bullied kid who turned to bullying others once his physical prowess allowed him to do so. Having been born with a mild birth defect which rendered his legs to be slightly misshapen, and having lived through a speech impediment that earned him heaps of schoolyard teasing, Charles developed a streak so mean it would have made Charles Manson nauseous. After dropping out of high school at age 18, Charles fell wildly in love in 13-year-old Caril Ann Fugate, whose sister was dating one of Charles’s buddies. It was a match made in the dankest armpit of hell.
The two were inseparable. Charles taught Caril Ann to drive, and his dad had to pay for the damages when Caril Ann smashed his 1949 Ford into someone else’s car. This caused Charles’ dad to toss him out of the house. By this time, Charles had accepted the fact that he didn’t fit in with regular society, and he’d developed an outlandishly wonky self-loathing-infused inferiority complex. He found one role model who spoke to him from the movies.
Unlike James Dean’s Jim Stark character in Rebel Without A Cause, Charles had taken ostracism to a gruesome extent – he threw away his respect for human life and allowed his most vile nihilistic urges to drive his actions. On the evening of November 30, 1957, some final raveled thread in Charles’ mind snapped apart.
It all started with a stuffed animal at a gas station. Charles wanted to pick one up on credit, possibly as a gift for Caril Ann, or maybe because Charles really needed a stuffed monkey in his life. Service station worker Robert Colvert wasn’t accepting “I’m good for it” as payment, and he sent Charles away empty-handed. When Charles returned, those empty hands were full of shotgun. He took $100 out of the cash register, then drove Colvert to a remote area to shoot him in the head.
In a later reflection, Charles would say that the moment he took Robert Colvert’s life was when he transcended his old self and achieved a new plane of existence. He was an outlaw now, the shackles of society lying broken at his feet, his spirit free to step around right and wrong. All that mattered now was himself. Himself and Caril Ann Fugate.
Almost two months passed, and Charles had not been pinned to the murder. On January 21, 1958, he stopped by Caril Ann’s house to see her. She wasn’t there, but her mother and stepfather were, and they outright told Charles to stay away from their daughter. They knew something wasn’t right with this guy.
It was at this point that Charles decided to throw his and Caril Ann’s chips onto the table in one bold move. He retrieved his rifle, then used it to murder his girlfriend’s mother and step-father, then even stabbed and strangled her two-year-old half-sister to death. When Caril Ann came home, the two disposed of the bodies and set up their own little domestic haven in the Fugate house.
They lasted in the home until January 27, when Caril Ann’s grandmother got suspicious and called the cops. Charles and Caril Ann hopped in the family car and drove from Lincoln, Nebraska to nearby Bennett, where they stopped at the home of Fugate family friend, August Meyer. Charles shot Meyer in the head with his shotgun, though he’d later claim it was self-defense. Why he killed Meyer’s dog, I have no idea.
Once again the couple was on the road. They accidentally steered into a patch of mud and got stuck. Luckily, a pair of high school sweethearts were passing by, and they stopped to help (people used to do that kind of thing in the 1950’s). Not so lucky for the teens though – Charles thanked them by shooting the boy in the head, then trying to rape the young girl. Who wound up shooting her is anyone’s guess – they both claimed the other pulled the trigger on that one.
Next they were back in Lincoln, cruising around a wealthy neighborhood. The couple forced their way into the home of industrialist C. Lauer Ward, murdering his wife and maid. When Ward himself came home, Charles shot him, then loaded up Ward’s Packard with as much jewelry as he could carry. Charles and Caril Ann were exhausted, and eager to get the hell out of Nebraska.
By the next day, the Nebraska National Guard was going door to door, searching for the killers. Charles and Caril Ann needed to ditch the Packard. They chanced upon travelling salesman Merle Collison sleeping away the early morning in his Buick just outside of Douglas, Wyoming. Charles shook Merle to wake him, then when his shotgun jammed, Caril Ann finished the job with the rifle. They hopped in the car and sped away.
Or they would have. But Charles was thrown off by the push-pedal emergency brake, and the car stalled. A passing motorist stopped to help, then so did a deputy sheriff. Caril Ann lost it – she ran to the cop and yelled, “It’s Starkweather! He’s going to kill me!” This led to a frantic high-speed car chase between Charles and local police. A bullet flew through the windshield, and the flying glass drew some of Charles’ blood. Convinced he was shot and bleeding to death, he pulled over and surrendered.
In the film Natural Born Killers, a prison riot allows the two lovers to reunite a year after their crimes, then to crawl through another spout of violence and gore in order to live happily ever after. Not so in the Starkweather/Fugate story. The two wound up testifying against one another, with Charles being found guilty for the murder of Robert Jensen, the high school boy who had stopped to help when the car was stuck in the mud. One murder conviction was all they needed – Charles was sent to the electric chair on June 25, 1959 at the age of twenty.
Caril Ann Fugate was the youngest woman in American history to be tried for first-degree murder. She landed life in prison, though her model behavior earned her early parole in 1976. She is still alive today, though she was seriously injured when her husband drove their SUV off the road near Tekonsha, Michigan last week. Her husband didn’t survive the accident… or was it an accident?
Some killers are, after all, naturally born that way.