Back in the 90s, The West Memphis Three trial shook America after three men convicted of an unimaginable crime were set free. This is the chilling true story that inspired Stranger Things' Eddie Munson.
Back With a Bang
Since 2016, Netflix series Stranger Things has remained a huge hit. With every new season, fans get more invested in the intense storylines filled with drama and supernatural scares. But, in 2020, filming stopped.
So when season 4 finally came out in May of 2022, thousands of people were ready to dive right in. (*Spoiler alerts ahead*) Sure enough, the latest drop was as dramatic as expected. From the Upside Down to secret government testing, viewers saw it all. But what many didn't realize was that a lot of the plot was based on real events.
New Season, New Characters
As fans already know, we got to see what Eleven and the rest of the gang had been up to since last time. But new characters were also brought into the picture. Eddie Munson was introduced in the first episode of season 4 as he stood in front of everyone to give a speech about something he's passionate about.
Eddie, played by Joe Quinn, was seen reading a magazine article claiming that the game Dungeons and Dragons leads to rebellious behavior in teens. Since he was head of the school's DND club, the Hellfire Club, he was not happy that the group was being judged simply because they enjoyed fictional games.
Eddie "The Freak" Munson
Eddie's introduction showed viewers that he was nicknamed "The Freak" by others at school and was an easy target for bullying. The character was quickly portrayed as an outcast at Hawkins High, classified as a heavy metal rocker with long unruly hair and an equally unruly attitude.
Despite his portrayal, audiences later learned that Eddie was completely misunderstood. The first speech he gave was actually foreshadowing how the biases against him ended up making him an easy target. But things took a dark turn when the school's popular cheerleader, Chrissy, approached him to buy illegal substances.
Series of Unfortunate Events
Chrissy and Eddie were two types of people who would never normally hang out. But despite their differences, they became good pals after she bought substances from him. But Chrissy wasn't the only one who enjoyed his down-to-heart persona - Eddie quickly became a fan favorite.
Sadly, things changed when Chrissy was brutally murdered at Eddie's trailer by supernatural villain, Vecna. Not knowing what to do after witnessing the crime, Eddie ran off. And unfortunately, this led folks to believe he was the one who took her life - after all, he ran a "Satanic cult" - a.k.a. the DND Club. Right?
This accusation quickly escalated. And in no time at all, nearly the whole town of Hawkins, Indiana, believed that the high school senior should be arrested for taking Chrissy's life. It was easy to believe he was guilty as rumors continued spreading that he was a Satanist.
But things got worse when locals believed he was sacrificing the kids of the town for a Satanic ritual that was supposedly a part of the Hellfire Club. He became the lead target of the case - only there was no actual evidence to support the claims. The only thing the accusations were based on was that he played DND.
"A Nerd at Heart"
The goal that the creators of the series had with Eddie was to show that just because he was stereotyped as a heavy metal misfit didn't mean that was all he was. This is part of the reason why they also connected him with the nerds (sorry, Caleb).
See, Eddie didn't just enjoy playing DND - he was the head of the fantasy game club! Eddie was also a part of two other groups. "We really wanted that character who's a metalhead, he's into Dungeons & Dragons, he's ultimately a true nerd at heart," later explained the creators, the Duffer Brothers.
But the majority of the inspiration the Duffer brothers had for Eddie didn't come from their imagination: it was actually loosely based on a real person. When they were asked in an interview, "Where did you come up with that character?" Matt and Ross explained their creative process.
The brothers explained that they wanted season 4 to include some type of Satanic panic - especially because it was happening in the 1980s (where Stranger Things is set). This led to conversations about the Memphis Three being tossed around by the writers. And thus: Eddie Munson was born.
West Memphis Three
But what exactly did the Memphis Three trial entail? As explained in the documentary Paradise Lost: on May 5th, 1993, the remains of three 8-year-old boys, Steven Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers, were found in a creek in Memphis, AR. It was a devastating blow to the community.
The locals were horrified that there could be a potential murderer running around their streets. And they were determined to change that. Sure enough, local police officers eventually narrowed in on one suspect: Damien Echols. This man would later be the inspiration for Eddie Munson.
But why Damien? Echols was known in town… and not for good reasons. The teen had dropped out of high school and had been charged with multiple minor crimes over the years. His home life was also not good, and overall, he built a bad reputation amongst local authorities.
His mischievous behavior wasn't the only reason detectives began questioning if Echols was involved in the Memphis Three murders. It was also his interest in the occult that left police on edge. Despite having no proof, authorities believed the crime was a part of a Satanic ritual that Damien had executed.
We now know the Duffers based Eddie off of Echols's story. But it wasn't just the fact that they were both accused of a crime they had nothing to do with: it was why both teenagers were named the lead suspect despite there being any actual evidence.
Both Eddie and Echols were outcasts. Although Echols didn't play fantasy games like the Stranger Things character, he was seen as a rebel by the Bible Belt community in his town. He only wore dark clothing and was known to be interested in Wicca and the supernatural world. Clearly, he and Eddie had several similarities.
“Tragedy Etched All Over”
Unfortunately, both Eddie and Damien's interests led their community to accuse them of murder. The Satanic panic ran deep in the '80s, and people quickly judged anyone involved in unusual behavior. "When you talk about Satanic panic, Damien Echols [has] a tragic story we've been obsessed with," Matt Duffer told Deadline.
"It seemed like a really great character and a means to explore Satanic panic, and that's why [Eddie] kind of had tragedy etched all over him." The creators explained that they wanted a storyline where Eddie would be accused even though he was innocent - all because he played DND. But off-screen, things weren't as clear…
Partner In Crime
The police were sure that Echols was their guy. And even though he wasn't officially named a suspect, he was continuously interviewed just two days after the tragic murder. Everyone in town believed that he should be detained - but according to them, he wasn't the only one.
Eventually, a new suspect was brought in. Jessie Misskelley Jr. was good friends with Echols. So naturally, authorities also assumed the worst of him. Despite the teen having an IQ substantially below the normal range of intelligence and the fact that his dad hadn't given police permission, he was interviewed by police.
Jessie sat in the interrogation room for a dreadful 12 hours, being asked question after question about the murders. "I kept telling [the detective] I didn't know who did it - I just knew of it - what my friend had told me. But they kept hollering at me… They kept saying they knew I had something to do with it," he recalled.
After hours spent at the station, Jessie eventually confessed to the crime. "I had to go through the story again until I got it right. They hollered at me until I got it right. So whatever he was telling me, I started telling him back. But I figured something was wrong, 'cause if I'd a killed 'em, I'd a known how I done it."
During his confession, Jessie told police it wasn't just him and Echols responsible: He named another teenager, Jason Baldwin. This was exactly what the police needed to hear to move forward with their investigation. They finally caught the guys. Or so they thought.
Except, shortly after confessing, Jessie recanted everything he had said. He said that he had not understood his Miranda rights and that investigators had pressured him. Sadly, despite his retraction, his confession was one of the biggest pieces of evidence they had... and it was not dismissed.
Too Little, Too Late
Damien, Jessie, and Jason were all arrested on June 3, 1993, each one charged with three counts of capital murder. But because the only evidence was the confession, their lawyer fought hard to get it thrown out. He argued that it was untrue and that Jessie's story was unclear and all over the place.
There were even recordings from the interrogation that revealed the interviewer asking Jessie misleading questions about the crime. This type of questioning has been known to lead to confessions - but not always accurate ones. Yet still, despite Jessie recanting his statement, they were all taken into custody.
Life Behind Bars
Memphis locals finally felt safe knowing that the alleged murderers of the three boys were finally locked up. Both Jessie and Jason were put behind bars for life - but Echols' punishment was much harsher. As officials saw it, he was the leader of the pack.
Damien was placed in solitary confinement and sent to death row. And over the years, he and his "accomplices" adjusted to their new realities. But on the outside, their high-profile case was still given endless attention. The conviction became more unstable, especially as new information slowly began to emerge.
A New Lead
As they sat inside their dark cells, several details were being brought to light by the media. And it wasn't long before people began to question whether or not the teens were the real masterminds here. But when the 1996 documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills dropped, doubts reached an all-time high.
Why? The film interviewed locals who believed that Satanic cults were to blame for the murders. But in doing so, it showed how, thanks to unreliable evidence, the jurors had been confused. Sure enough, the controversial doc soon sparked a movement. And before long, a website was born - dedicated to helping the teens go free.
Enter Vicki Hutcheson
But that wasn't all. There was another crucial aspect that caused the verdict to be reconsidered: Vicki Hutcheson. She was a key witness during the trial after she claimed that Echols had committed the murders. The jurors believed her story because a polygraph administrator said she was telling the truth.
But years later, in 2003, the mother of one claimed that everything she had previously said was a lie. Vicki admitted to a reporter for the Arkansas Police that she felt like she had to help the detectives with the investigation because she was scared if she didn't, they would take her little boy away.
Can't Deny the DNA
And finally, the third and final thing that altered the course of the Memphis Three's case: DNA testing. At the time of the original trial, this technology wasn't available. But in 2007, DNA evidence was brought to the lab, and the results showed that Damien, Jessie, and Jason were not at the scene of the crime.
This was a shocking breakthrough. After all this time, the truth about the teenagers came out, just proving even more that the public only targeted them based on their stereotypes - not because of any conclusive evidence. With all the new information, their lawyers requested a retrial.
Freed, At Last
But it wasn't until 2011 that the request for a retrial was finally accepted. It was here that the Memphis Three accepted the Alford plea deal from a judge. This meant that they claimed their innocence and were set free as long as they agreed that the state had enough evidence to convict them.
After 18 years in prison, Echols and his friends were finally freed from a nightmare they were not involved in. And the news sent the nation into a whirlwind. After all this time and all this scrutiny, spectators were wrong. It was a crucial learning lesson that we shouldn't judge a book by its cover.
Who's The Real Killer?
Echols reflected on the life-changing moment: "I am innocent, as are Jason and Jessie, but I made this decision because I did not want to spend another day of my life behind those bars." But now that the convicted men were proven to be innocent, the world wondered… who murdered the three boys back in 1993?
DNA evidence was later taken from hair found at the scene. The test revealed that the strands were "not inconsistent with" Terry Hobbs - one of the victim's stepfathers. Yet, sadly, there wasn't enough evidence for a judge to grant a new trial. And today, the true criminal remains unknown.
Non-Fiction to Fiction
The unbelievable story of how three men were wrongfully convicted impacted the Duffer brothers since they grew up following the case. "I think we saw the HBO documentary Paradise Lost. We were in high school when we first caught those, and then, of course, we saw West of Memphis," Matt told Deadline.
So while we know Echols inspired Eddie's character, there are actually many more aspects about the real-life story than can be seen in the show. For example, the school counselor at Hawkins High School is named Miss Kelly. This was likely inspired by Jessie Misskelley Jr's name.
Justice for Damien
Clearly, Stranger Things writers wanted to include a character similar to Echols to show how the biases against him led to a wrongful accusation. Just because Eddie played supernatural games and was different than others, he was quickly accused of the grim act.
And while Eddie is based on a real person, it wouldn't have been able to come to life the way it did without the actor behind the character: Joseph Quinn. "And Joe, I don't know how he did it. He was the only one," the Duffers explained. "There was literally no other option. Joe just pulled it off."
Where Is Echols Today?
These days, Damien Echols spends his time up in Salem, Massachusetts, where he lives with his wife, Lorri Davis. But even today, the 47-year-old is still struggling to get himself exonerated for the murder of those young boys. However, he won't let his life revolve around his painful past.
In fact, he's crossed paths with several Hollywood stars over the years. He even spent some time in New Zealand paragliding with Peter Jackson, a.k.a. the man who directed the Lord of the Rings franchise. And Echols has even befriended actor Johnny Depp. Safe to say, he's making up for lost time.
A Different Perspective
Several years and celebrity friendships later, Echols' story has been given an entirely new lens thanks to Stranger Things. The show's retelling of the infamous story allows audiences to look at the Memphis Three from a different angle. Through Eddie, we see that judging someone based on their exterior can become dangerous.
Especially because the writers made fans grow to love Eddie by showing them who he really was inside, making it even harder to understand how he could be accused of something so cruel. But thanks to the Satanic panic, his black clothes and heavy metal music led everyone to point the finger at him.
How Did He Feel About Eddie?
But how did Damien Echols himself feel about Stranger Things developing an entire character based on him? Sure enough, on July 15, 2022, he took to Twitter to express his true thoughts on becoming the inspiration behind the fan-favorite Eddie Munson.
As he revealed, he felt proud that the storyline brought recognition to the dangers of being falsely accused. And lucky for him, the new season's viewership numbers helped spread awareness about the issue to millions of people worldwide - becoming the most viewed English language series on Netflix.
Late Night Thoughts
Thanks to the Duffer brothers, Echols has way more people on his side to help get him exonerated. But that's not all. Damien also revealed that he was very happy with the scene where Eddie played the guitar and had an unforgettable riff to the song Masers of Puppets.
"In case anyone else is wondering, I was tremendously honored by it. And I greatly appreciate all the new eyes and hearts it has brought to our fight. I was watching it at 3 am in the morning, and when I heard the very first chords from Master of Puppets, my heart exploded," he confessed.
Destined for Doom
While it was not an easy journey, both Echols and Eddie's truth was eventually revealed. It was a happy ending for everyone… well maybe not exactly for Eddie. Towards the end of this season, he ended up sacrificing his life to avenge Chrissy and save Dustin.
"Even had he survived the season, you know it wouldn't have ended well for him," Duffer said. "He would have been demonized and blamed for all this. The minute that Chrissy died in his trailer, it was the end for a character like that. He either ends up dead or in jail, and that's the tragedy ultimately of Eddie Munson."
The Montauk Project
But The Memphis Three wasn't the only headline that Stranger Things took notes from. The show's haunting storyline was also loosely influenced by a secret CIA experiment that allegedly took place decades ago. So much so, that the title of the show was almost named after the said experiment.
"We lived so long with it being called Montauk, it became very strange to try to imagine it as anything else," they revealed. The Montauk Project is a conspiracy theory that claims the government held mysterious tests on people around the 1980s. "We wanted the supernatural element to be grounded in science in some way."
According to the 2011 documentary Montauk Chronicles, the Montauk Project included "experiments... conducted on nearly 100,000 people over the course of about 10 years. Kidnappings... time travel, mind control, and extraterrestrial contact are all said to have occurred at Camp Hero." Sound familiar?
Eleven from the series was also a victim of secretive government testing. And similarly to the said patients of the Montauk Project, she had her memories removed. Who would have guessed that the series' fascinating storyline was pulled from nationwide headlines? We can't wait to see what happens in season 5…