Art imitates life — even at its most depraved.
Consider self-styled pastor and serial killer Gary Heidnik, who’s left a twofold legacy: He’s one of Philadelphia’s most notorious criminals, and he’s also an inspiration for one of Hollywood’s creepiest mass murderers.
Heidnik — the subject of the Oxygen special “Monster Preacher,” which airs Saturday, January 16 at 7/6c on Oxygen — became infamous for his “House of Horrors.” His home earned that macabre moniker in the 1980s, when he raped and tortured six women in a tiny pit he designed and dug out in the basement of his Philly residence.
Survivors said he even fed them dog food mixed with human remains as a means of control, according to a 1988 AP story. Two women died while held captive.
Heidnik’s atrocities were so shocking they helped inspire the fictional monster Buffalo Bill, who leaves a trail of corpses in the 1991 Oscar-winning film “The Silence of the Lambs.” Quick plot recap: FBI rookie Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) gets help in a mass murder case from an unlikely source, Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter (Anthony Hopkins).
“What does he do, this man you seek?” Lecter asks Starling. “He kills women,” she says. They could have easily been discussing Gary Heidnik instead of Buffalo Bill.
Played by Ted Levine in the adaptation of Thomas Harris’ 1988 novel, Buffalo Bill, like Heidnik, kept his victims captive in a basement pit: When it comes to their dungeon torture chambers, Heidnik and Buffalo Bill had a similar hideous vision.
In a deep dive into the film that won seven Oscars, Rolling Stone reported that Harris “has never officially identified” Buffalo Bill’s inspirations, but telltale M.O.s of mass murderers reveal the character influences and inspirations.
“He is a composite of three killers who Harris learned about in a lecture,” said retired FBI mind hunter John Douglas in a 1999 Salon interview. That includes Ed Gein, a killer and graveyard body-snatcher who made a skin suit and inspired both “Psycho” and “Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” Ted Bundy, who, like Buffalo Bill, feigned injury to attract and then attack his victims, also got artistic creative juices flowing.
The “third one was a guy from Philadelphia, ” Douglas told Salon. “He kept women in a pit …”
That “guy,” of course, is Heidnik. Ask attorney Charles “Chuck” Peruto, who represented the torture-killer and pushed an insanity defense at his 1988 trial.
“People were constantly talking about the case,” he told Philadelphia magazine in 2007. “Eventually Gary’s story wound its way into ‘Silence of the Lambs.’ If you watch that movie, you can see a lot of Heidnik in the Buffalo Bill character. The way he has the girl in the pit.”
There is something indelibly terrifying about the idea of the pit. It’s cold, dark, and so confining you can barely move, making it the perfect fit for a horror movie. But far beyond the make-believe of film and TV productions, Heidnik’s surviving victims grapple with the life-changing impact of enduring Heidnik’s pit.
Between November 1986 and March 1987 when he was caught, Heidnik kidnapped six women — Josefina Rivera, 25, Sandra Lindsay, 24, Lisa Thomas, 19, Deborah Dudley, 23, Jacqueline Askins, 18, and Agnes Adams, 24. Lindsay and Dudley didn’t survive the ordeal.
When one died in his dungeon torture chamber one floor below the room in his Philly residence where he delivered his sermons, Heidnik allegedly cooked and fed her to the other captives, according to the special. It was a means of domination.
Buffalo Bill similarly terrorized his victims into complete submission. By the time the movie begins he’s already killed several people. Prisoner Catherine Martin realizes that she’s not the first captive when she sees a bloodied fingernail embedded in the wall of the pit.
Assessing her career, actress Brooke Smith, who played Martin, told Vulture, “I know I’ll forever be the girl in the pit.”
However, Buffalo Bill and Heidnik had very different motives.
The killer, a skilled tailor, wanted her soft and supple for fashioning a suit for himself from her skin. His motives are tied to his identity issues and a desire for transformation.
“It puts the lotion on its skin,” Buffalo Bill infamously commands Martin, a senator’s daughter, as she cowers in the cold, dark basement well.
Heidnik had an altogether different motivation for his heinous crimes. Surviving victims testified he said that he wanted the women to have his children. To sire his ideal family, he repeatedly raped the victims, according to the special.
“He wanted to have a perfect race of children from these women,” Peruto told WPVI in 2019.
In the end, Heidnik, 55, was convicted and executed by lethal injection. Buffalo Bill — spoiler alert – meanwhile, was, killed by Starling.
“I actually think that Heidnik’s real story is actually scarier than Buffalo Bill,” “Monster Preacher” showrunner Myles Reiff told Stephanie Gomulka, Oxygen Digital Correspondent, while discussing the similarities between the two. “Buffalo Bill had one girl in his pit who he was basically keeping alive because he wanted to kill her and take her skin off her body. Heidnik had six women that he was trying to create a baby farm and he was every day raping and torturing them.”
For more on Heidnik, watch “Monster Preacher,” airing on Oxygen on Saturday, January 16 at 7/6c.