Is ‘Jeepers Creepers’ Based On A True Story?

Jeepers Creepers is a 2001 horror movie that has a whole lot of creepy going on behind the scenes.

Victor Salva and his creeper from Jeepers Creepers (2001).

Warning: this article discusses child sexual abuse.

Jeepers Creepers is a 2001 horror movie that has a whole lot of creepy going on behind the scenes. Most people know that writer/director Victor Salva was convicted of sexually abusing a minor and possessing child pornography in 1988. In the 80s Salva made a name for himself in the filmmaking world with a 37-minute horror short called Something in the Basement (1986). He became pals with Francis Ford Coppola who gave Salva $250,000 and lent his name and talent as producer for the Salva written and directed slasher film Clownhouse (1989). It was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance that year even though the year prior Salva was convicted of sexually abusing the film’s star. Eventually public outcry caught up with the people involved and an attempt was made to erase Clownhouse from public view, ceasing distribution of the film.

Francis Ford Coppola even let Victor Salva use his Napa Valley home for filming Clownhouse. Today, copies of Clownhouse are still difficult to procure.

Salva’s 1988 sexual abuse of a minor conviction was for lead actor of Something in the Basement and Clownhouse, Nathan Forrest Winters, who was 12 at the time. Salva routinely raped Winters before and during production (Winters says over a period of six years) and even filmed some of the attacks. When Salva was arrested, he was also found to be possessing child sexual abuse material (child pornography). He was convicted of five felonies but given the shortest sentence he was eligible for even though the prosecutor noted that Salva seemed to seek out jobs where he would work with minor boys. Prior to filmmaking he had written children’s books and worked in a low-income childcare center. On the set of Clownhouse, Salva told Winters’ mother she wasn’t allowed on set. He ended up serving just fifteen months of a three year sentence.

The frustrating part for law enforcement is that you have a convicted molester who is able to be around children and to be in a position of authority…It would be very easy for him to abuse his power and authority in that position.

Officer Joe Kreins of the Concord Police Department

After getting out of prison Salva was gifted another chance at his dream career and Disney stepped forward to produce his next work about a troubled teenage boy, Powder (1995). Nathan Forrest Winters bravely weathered the media shitstorm and condemned those who worked with Salva and supported the film. Winters told the public, “Please don’t spend your money on this movie…It would just go to line the pockets of this child molester.” Disney responded to Winters was through a spokesperson who said, “What’s the point, other than you want to make headlines?” When Francis Ford Coppola was asked to comment on Salva’s crimes, he was apathetic, saying “Victor is a talented young director.”

He spent the better part of a year grooming me and my parents…Developing the trust. It was very calculated, and a long process, as it is with most pedophiles.

Nathan Forrest Winters, 2017 interview

There were basically no longterm consequences for Victor Salva other than his fifteen month stint in jail during which he wrote scripts. This is in asymmetry with his victim, who has had a lifetime of consequences to overcome through no fault of his own. Unlike Salva, nobody rich and famous came to the aid of Winters the way Disney and Salva’s buddy Francis Ford Coppola did for him. After Powder, Salva spent one month writing the script for Jeepers Creepers (2001) and then there was a four-way bidding war. Coppola financed and executive produced Jeepers Creepers and Jeepers Creepers 2 (2003) and Jeepers Creepers 3 (2017) was greenlit before public awareness caught up with Salva again. Salva even treated himself to a cameo appearance in the first two films.

One reason Victor Salva got so many chances despite being a proven child predator is that many powerful people in Hollywood don’t think preying on children is that bad and see no reason to distance themselves from child predators other than public pressure from audiences. Salva’s patron, Francis Ford Coppola had previously cast his own 19-year-old daughter Sofia (right) as the daughter of a mafia boss in the Godfather films whose older cousin Vinnie (Andy Garcia) takes advantage of her. While the story is completely fictional, it speaks to attitudes about exploitation that the uproar about the relationship in the movie and in real life centers around incest (the two characters are first cousins) rather than grooming or the alarming age gap.

Comedian Barry Crimmins has pointed out that Powder is Salva’s allegory for how he believes children can have sexual “power” over an adult. In Jeepers Creepers 3 Salva’s ideology again appeared in a now deleted scene in which one character responds ““Can you blame him though? I mean look at her…The heart wants what it wants, am I right?” in response to another character being raped by her stepfather.

He paid for his crime, he paid his debt to society…What happened eight years ago has nothing to do with this movie.

Roger Birnbaum, head of Caravan Pictures at Disney telling the public to get over it in 1995

During the release of Jeepers Creepers 3 public knowledge of Salva’s misdeeds grew to a level where it was finally untenable for other Hollywood people to work with him. The premiere was cancelled. There was much debate on social media over whether it was ethical for fans to see the movie. Victor Salva quietly disappeared. His victim(s) remain unhelped by any of this. We also know Salva himself was abused by his stepfather growing up and his parents disowned him at age 18 when he came out as gay. There’s really no upside to any of this.

I think [studio execs] saying, ‘He’ll never work again’ was all for show. My God, if they were to take the [arrest] records of every filmmaker or actor, they’d have to shut this town down… Let’s face it, anybody can work here who makes money.

Victor Salva, San Jose Mercury News

With what we know about Victor Salva, is any part of the Jeepers Creepers universe inspired by his real life?

In a 2011 interview Salva talked about how from a young age the part of the horror movie he related to was the monster, ”When someone in the movie pointed and screamed, ‘Arrrrgh, he’s so hideous! He’s so ugly!’ I thought, ‘No, the monster is the most interesting thing about the movie. I wonder what he’s thinking and feeling.” But Jeepers Creepers isn’t based on Salva. While Salva himself has never confirmed, most people think the film series takes some inspiration and visual cues from a true crime story that was featured on the March 20, 1991 episode of Unsolved Mysteries.

Ray and Marie Thornton saw a man disposing of a bloody sheet behind an old schoolhouse on a rural country road on Easter 1990.

The segment is about a crime witnessed by married couple Ray and Marie Thornton out for a casual drive on Easter Sunday, April 15, 1990. While passing through the countryside, the couple was accosted by a large van that tailgated and then passed them. Later, the couple witnessed the driver of the van disposing of a bloody sheet beside an abandoned schoolhouse. The man then aggressively tailgated the couple again. The couple turned off the road but returned to try to get the man’s license plate number only to find even more disturbing evidence:

It’s hard to deny that the film and the TV segment are eerily similar.

The Unsolved Mysteries segment had an unsatisfying ending. The man driving the van was identified as Dennis DePue, who had indeed murdered his wife of 18 years, Marilyn DePue, and was caught disposing of the evidence. He went on the run, sending lengthy letters to his friends and family where he blamed his ex-wife for murdering her, “Marilynn had many, many opportunities to treat me fairly during this divorce, and she chose to string it out, trick me, lie to me, and when you lose your wife, children and home, there’s not much left. I was too old to start over.” He died by suicide while being apprehended by police.

Marilynn and Dennis DePue.

Originally titled Here Comes the Boogeyman, Jeepers Creepers is an accurate description of a man like DePue. The supernatural element of the creature isn’t even necessary when you read about the case, the actual story is still the stuff of nightmares. The franchise also takes inspiration from the 1938 song “Jeepers Creepers”.

Now Jeepers Creepers: Reborn has plans to hit theaters in 2022. It is not written or directed by Victor Salva and he has no involvement in the film. Jeepers Creepers: Reborn‘s synopsis reads, “The Horror Hound festival is being held for the first time in Louisiana. Among the attendees are Chase and his girlfriend Laine, who begins to experience unexplained premonitions and disturbing visions associated with the town’s past and the Creeper.”

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Meet The Author

Chrissy is the co-founder of Creepy Catalog. She has over 10 years of experience writing about horror, a degree in philosophy and Reiki level II certification.

Chrissy Stockton