Warning: this article contains some spoilers for the film. X.
Of all the wonderful things to enjoy about A24 and Ti Westit’s X, the film creates two villains from an elderly couple whose motivations include jealousy, bitterness and insatiable sexual desires – something so rare and refreshing to see in a slasher movie or a hagsploitation movie, not to mention a film that lends itself to both. Leaving the theater, I felt like I had already seen or read a familiar story. Not in the cinema. Not in a fiction book. But in reality, the real crime, more precisely.
True crime buffs could name the Bundys and Dahmers of the world without hesitation, but an elderly couple Ray and Faye Copeland seem to have escaped the proverbial cracks of serial killer notoriety. (Ti West did not cite the couple as inspiration for XNeither did Pearl and Howard, but the similarities between the couples were too interesting to ignore.)
In August 1989, an anonymous tip to Crime Stoppers reported human skulls and bones on a farm property in Mooresville, Missouri, of a former farm worker. The tip would eventually be revealed to have come from a man named Jack McCormick, who also alleged he had nearly become a victim himself – if he hadn’t run away.
Initially mocking the possibility that two elders were ruthless serial killers, police obtained a search warrant and discovered three bodies and a quilt made from bloody clothing worn by the victims – before recovering two more bodies from a barn neighbor also owned by Ray Copeland – during a two-week search of the couple’s farmland. “You won’t find anything at my place,” joked Ray, 76 at the time.
Born in 1914 in Oklahoma, Ray Copeland would become a victim of the Great Depression in the late 1920s and 1930s. Dropping out of school in the fourth grade to help his family on their small farm, Ray would commit his first petty crime at the age of 20 – stealing pigs from his own father’s farm and selling them behind his father’s back. He would go on to steal and defraud his first serious crime in 1936, during which he was arrested for forging government checks and served a year in county jail. Before long, he would meet his match.
In 1940, Ray met Faye Wilson, then 19, before marrying her six months later. The couple would have five children, four boys and a girl – although the exact number of children was debated, sources say – throughout the 1940s.
After multiple criminal stints, multiple arrests, blemished reputations in various locations, and troubled finances, the Copelands purchased their humble 40-acre farm in Mooresville, Missouri in 1966. The family, especially Ray, proved not to to be a favorite in the small town. , as neighbors and local residents suspected verbal and physical abuse of his family, as well as his mistreatment of restaurant workers and intentionally running over dogs. Observers noticed his penchant for hiring unlucky employees for his farm that he could easily take advantage of. One resident called it “weird and threatening”. To say the least.
Desperate for cash to support the farm but aware that another forgery arrest would send him to the jingle for an unprecedented length of time, Ray concocted a scam to send his vagrant employees to the cattle market in his place, buy the cattle for him, and then he would quickly sell them before his bounced checks bounced. Naturally, this stunt ultimately landed Ray in jail.
Upon his release, however, Ray knew the only way to proceed with his plan was to get rid of the evidence – which included, quite literally, getting rid of the vagabonds he would employ who would no doubt get him exposed.
And so began the massacres. Ray (and his wife Faye, as an accomplice) would go on to kill at least five young men: Dennis Murphy, killed in October 1986; Wayne Warner in November 1986; Jimmy Dale Harvey, 27, in October 1988; John Freeman, also 27, in December 1988; and Paul Cowart, 20, in May 1989. On that summer day of the 1989 search warrant, authorities found all five bodies buried in shallow graves, each with .22 caliber bullets in their brains.
In addition to the trophy quilt made from the clothing worn by the victims during the murder, Faye Copeland also created a list of victims, including seven additional former farmhands, totaling 12 – and here’s the kick – each with a “X” stamped next to their name, in Faye’s confirmed handwriting. That X factor (deadly).
Ray and Faye Copeland would be charged with all five confirmed murders, although authorities believe all 12 names were victims of the elderly duo. If alligators existed in Missouri, one would have to wonder if Ray and Faye shoved those other seven in their mouths à la Pearl (Mia Goth) with Brittany Snow’s Bobby-Lynne.
In November 1990, Faye’s defense team portrayed Faye as the naive, battered wife and claimed that her husband had committed these crimes without her knowledge. But the jury didn’t buy into it and Faye, then 69, was sentenced to death by lethal injection on four counts and life without parole on the fifth. When Ray was informed of the sentencing of his wife of exactly 50 years, his supposed response was, “Well, those things happen to some, you know.”
In March the following year, Ray, then 76, was also sentenced to death by lethal injection on all five counts. Ray and Faye Copeland have become the oldest couple to be sentenced to death in the United States.
In 1993 Ray would die of natural causes in a prison hospital. In 1999, Faye’s sentences were reduced from lethal injections to life imprisonment, but she died in 2002 after suffering a crippling stroke.
Granted, Ray and Faye Copeland might not have fancied a sex toy victim like X‘s Pearl and Howard (Stephen Ure) and, as far as we know, Faye wasn’t as involved in the murders as Pearl turned out to be with her trusty rake and butcher knife. However, an elderly couple in cahoots to kill several young victims right next to their farm property in the middle of nowhere and showing off their exploits like some sort of prized medallion was straight out of an actual horror movie, over 30 years ago.
And, while Ray and the fictional Howard seemed to share the same old man’s energy and aggression, who says Faye and Pearl didn’t have more in common than meets the eye? Faye may not have been a former dancer with a distaste for blondes (as far as we know), but perhaps the two women were each victims of long-term abuse that influenced their penchant for lust for blood. (We’ll have to wait for West’s next prequel, pearlfor these answers.)
Sometimes reality can turn out to be even stranger than horror fiction.