A Classic Film Based on a West Virginia Serial Killer: “The Night of the Hunter” Tells the Chilling Story of Harry Powers with West Virginia Ties

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Set and shot in West Virginia, “The Night of the Hunter” offers a haunting tale based on a 1950s novel inspired by a notorious serial killer in the area. The 1955 film draws from a book by Moundsville native Davis Grubb, bringing to life the story of a chilling serial killer.

The narrative begins with the introduction of Harry Powell, a self-proclaimed preacher with “LOVE” and “HATE” tattoos on his knuckles. Portrayed by Robert Mitchum, the character is imprisoned at the Moundsville Penitentiary, also known as the West Virginia Penitentiary, following a vehicle theft.

In prison, Powell crosses paths with Ben Harper, a man facing execution after committing a bank robbery and double homicide. Knowing that his end is near, Harper entrusts his children and wife with the secret of a hidden $10,000. As Powell’s predatory nature unravels, he exploits his marriage to Harper’s widow, solely to unveil the money’s hiding place.

The character of Powell is a chilling reflection of the infamous “West Virginia Bluebeard,” Harry Powers. Originally from the Netherlands, Powers relocated to West Virginia and married Luella Strother in 1927. He would attract widows through “lonely hearts” ads, luring them with promises of wealth before taking their lives.

Powers confessed to the murders of at least five people, including Asta Eicher and her children, as well as Dorothy Lemke. Despite initially denying the killings, he eventually admitted to them after a violent confrontation. Following a trial, Powers was executed at the Moundsville State Penitentiary in 1932.

Although the film did not enjoy immediate success, it has solidified its place as a classic in the thriller and horror genres. Esteemed directors like William Friedkin, Robert Englund, and Guillermo del Toro have praised or been influenced by the film.

Renowned film critic Roger Ebert hailed “The Night of the Hunter” as “one of the greatest of all American films.” With its timeless quality and inventive storytelling, the film continues to captivate audiences, making it a must-watch for those seeking a chilling and memorable cinematic experience.

For those intrigued by this harrowing tale, the film is available for rental and as a Blu-Ray and DVD copy from The Criterion Collection.