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Murder at the Movies: The true story behind “Wolf Creek”

It will come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog that I love to travel. Traveling is the best source of inspiration and rejuvenation for me–I couldn’t have written the GhostWriters series without it.

This great love of traveling made the movie Wolf Creek especially terrifying and hard to watch for me. In the movie, three twenty-something friends are exploring Australia’s outback when their vehicle dies on a lonely road. But, not to worry–a friendly, caricature-like Australian (John Jarratt) just happens by to rescue them. However, the “rescuer” is a deranged serial killer who has tortured and murdered multiple tourists. One of his favourite modes of torture is slicing the spinal cord, rendering his victims paralyzed so they are aware of what’s happening to them, but cannot move or escape.

While scary in the tradition of so-called “torture porn,” along with other movies in the same vein, like Hostel (another discouraging film for avid travellers), the scariest thing about Wolf Creek is that it was based on a true story.

I’ve seen some reviewers disparage this, saying that the movie was actually based on two criminals, not just one. Um…that makes it better how?

A Tale of Two Killers

Even the writer, Greg McLean, has admitted that his main inspiration was Australia’s “Backpacker Killer,” Ivan Milat, so let’s start with him.

Ivan Milat mug shotMilat, the fifth of fourteen children born to an Australian woman and her Croatian husband, was a bad seed from the beginning. Born in 1944, his anti-social behaviour led to a stint in a reform school when he was thirteen, followed by time in a juvenile detention centre when he was seventeen. Through his late teens and early twenties, he served time in jail for breaking and entering and various thefts. In a chilling indication of what was to come, Milat kidnapped two eighteen-year-old hitchhikers, raping one of them, in 1971. In that case, his lawyer got him off without him serving any time at all. (Way to value women!)

The Vanishing

Years later, backpackers began to go missing in Australia. A nineteen-year-old Australian couple vanished in 1989 on their way to a music festival. A twenty-one-year-old German woman went missing in January 1991, followed by a young German couple in December of that year. Two women in their early twenties disappeared in April 1992.

Beginning in 1992 and throughout 1993, the backpackers’ bodies were found in Belanglo State Forest. The corpses told a grisly tale. Some of the women had been stabbed as many as fourteen times. One victim had been shot ten times in the head, prompting investigators to believe that she’d been used for target practice. Most had suffered brutal beatings, and the women showed signs of sexual assault. Almost all had deep cuts to the back, which would have paralyzed them — yes, McLean’s gruesome touch in Wolf Creek was based on Milat’s actual MO. Police suspected the serial killer had spent considerable time with the backpackers, given the campsites that were found near the bodies.

The One Who Got Away

Milat was finally apprehended when he took on the wrong dude. In November 1993, backpacker Paul Onions, 24, was hitchhiking in Australia when he was given a ride by a man who told him his name was Bill. During the drive, Bill whipped out some rope and a gun, and told Onions he was being robbed. Onions fled, and managed to flag down a passing motorist and escape. Milat had eventually come under suspicion for other reasons, including the report of a co-worker’s girlfriend, and the fact that he’d been off work when each crime was committed. Onions later identified Milat as his attacker.

When Milat’s residence was searched, police found numerous items belonging to the seven murdered backpackers — another element of truth in Wolf Creek. Charming as always, Milat attempted to blame the murders on his brothers, but the ruse didn’t work. He was convicted of all charges and given seven life sentences.

His depravity didn’t end there. While in prison, he cut off his little finger with a plastic knife, hoping to force the Australian courts to grant him an appeal. He tried to get the government to pay for his funeral. His marriage in the eighties ended due to domestic violence. Even when he was dying of cancer, Milat never admitted to any of the murders.

Lees and Falconio

The other inspiration for Wolf Creek was almost as charming. Bradley Murdoch, a biker, drug smuggler, and white supremacist with racist Bradley Murdoch mug shottattoos, was convicted of the murder of Peter Falconio, and the attack on Falconio’s girlfriend Joanne Lees. Lees managed to escape and identify Murdoch, which led to his capture.

Murdoch was previously charged with seven counts of abduction and rape in the case of a twelve-year-old girl and her mother, whom Murdoch allegedly tormented for twenty-five hours.Unbelievably, he was acquitted, but he used the same method of restraints and blindfolding on Lees that the kidnapper had used on the twelve-year-old girl.

Falconio and Lees were driving through Australia in 2001 when they were flagged down by a motorist claiming car trouble. When Falconio went to help the stranded driver, Lees heard a loud noise she believed was a gunshot. The man who had waved them down then pointed a gun in her face and tried to restrain her with tape and cable ties. However, Lees fought back and was able to get away.

Murdoch was convicted of Falconio’s murder in late 2005, but has never admitted to the crime or revealed where Falconio’s body was hidden. Falconio’s remains have still not been found, and mystery continues to surround this case, which was profiled on a four-part series, Murder in the Outback, this year.

Falconio and Lees

Falconio and Lees

Have you seen Wolf Creek or heard of the murders? Do stories like this make you more cautious about traveling? What’s the scariest thing that’s ever happened to you on a trip?

PS: If you liked this post, you’ll love the true story behind the Nightmare on Elm Street movies. It’s one of my most popular posts.

PPS: Mask of Ghosts is on sale for a limited time. Use this link!

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  1. Alex J. Cavanaugh

    That’s why real life is scarier than any movie. Not planning on backpacking in Australia, that’s for sure. (And I wouldn’t anyway due to the amount of deadly snakes there.)

    • JH

      I’d love to go to Australia, but Covid 19 has put any travel plans on hold, sadly.

    • Jim

      I wouldn’t worry about the snakes.it’s the spiders you have to watch out for!

  2. L. Diane Wolfe

    Cutting their spines? That’s horrific. The worst thing that’s ever happened to me on a trip was almost forgetting my ipad on the plane.

    • JH

      Well, that would be horrific in a different way. 🙂

  3. Kimberly

    This movie made a huge impact on me–and I am a “veteran” watcher of horror movies. The severing of the spine was one of the most terrifying things I could imagine–being aware, but unable to move. I checked out the real-life inspiration shortly after.
    Backpacking across Australia is definitely NOT on my list of things I wish to do…

    • JH

      I think it would be an amazing experience, but you’d certainly have to have your wits about you.

      Agreed, that part of the movie was especially disturbing.

  4. sherry fundin

    i love reading this kind of post and watch a lot of true crime and read a lot of true crime stories. i find humans frightening and interesting creatures that never cease to amaze me…in good and bad ways! now i’m off to check out the nightmare on elms post

    • JH

      I feel the same way, Sherry. Always been fascinated by what makes people tick, and why people do the horrible things they do.

  5. Mary Aalgaard

    Yikes! Makes me want to stay home and look all the doors and windows. Or, welcome to Covid quarantine!
    I finished Mask of Ghosts in two days. It’s your best one, yet. Can hardly wait for the next one!!

    • JH

      Thanks so much, Mary. And thanks for your kind review!

      • Unknown

        I was on a rickshaw in Vietnam and realised he started driving the wrong way.. he wouldn’t listen to me or stop so I had to jump off in the middle of a busy road.. I then swore my head off at that dickhead.

  6. Patricia Josephine

    It doesn’t surprise me that the movie has bits based off of real life. Real life is way scarier than fiction.

    • JH

      So true.

  7. Liesbet

    Wow, JH! When I started reading your post, I couldn’t wait to scan down and see which years these horrific murders took place. I backpacked in Australia in 2001 for three+ months (never hitchhiked, thank God), so was “relieved” to see these awful events took place in the nineties.

    I haven’t seen the movie and I don’t think I will. I’m not a fan of horror – and as Alex said, real life can be scarier than the movies. I do have a few crazy travel stories to share myself, but that’s for another time. 🙂 None of it will keep me from traveling, though, since that’s my biggest passion.

    • JH

      Yes, this movie is really difficult to watch. It’s not for the faint of heart.

  8. LT

    I visited Australia in 2019 and drove the Stuart Highway to Uluru and Alice Springs and back. The thing that scared me the most was the kangaroos everywhere next to the roadway. I would never have driven at night, and the road house accommodations were quirky, but pleasant. Looking back I can see that it would have been unnerving to break down, but there are many remote places where that would be the case. The Outback was enchanting. And I never saw a snake or a spider outside of a zoo.

    • JH

      You’re so lucky to have seen it in person! I’d love to go.



  1. Movie Monsters Inspired by Real Life Criminals – DSCSG - […] J H (2020) Murder at the Movies: The true story behind “Wolf Creek”, J.H. Moncrieff, accessed 20 August […]

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