Warning: This article contains some spoilers for the movie X.
Of all the wonderful things to appreciate about A24 and Ti West’s X, the film creates two villains out of an elderly couple whose motives include jealousy, bitterness, and insatiable sexual desires— something so rare and refreshingly different to witness in a slasher movie or a hagsploitation one, let alone a movie that lends itself to both. Walking out of the theater, I felt like I had seen or read a familiar story before. Not in film. Not in a fictional book. But in reality— true crime, specifically.
True crime enthusiasts could namedrop the Bundys and the Dahmers of the world without hesitation, but elderly couple Ray and Faye Copeland seem to have slipped through the proverbial cracks of serial killer notoriety. (Ti West hasn’t cited the couple as a source of inspiration for X’s Pearl and Howard either, but the similarities between the couples were too interesting to bypass.)
In August 1989, an anonymous tip to Crime Stoppers declared some human skulls and bones on a farmhouse property in Mooresville, Missouri from a former labor worker on the farm. The tip would eventually be revealed to be from a man named Jack McCormick, who also alleged that he nearly became a victim himself— if he hadn’t gotten away.
Initially scoffing at the possibility of two elders as stone-cold serial killers, police obtained a search warrant and would discover three bodies and a quilt made out of bloody clothing worn by the victims— before recovering two more bodies on a nearby barn also owned by Ray Copeland— during a two week-long search of the couple’s farmland. “You’ll find nothing on my place,” Ray, 76 at the time, had taunted authorities.
Born in 1914 in Oklahoma, Ray Copeland would become a casualty of the Great Depression in the late 1920s and ‘30s. Dropping out of school in the fourth grade to assist his family with their small farm, Ray would commit his first petty crime at the age of 20— stealing hogs from his own father’s farm and selling them behind his father’s back. He’d continue to steal and scam his way into his first serious crime in 1936, in which he was taken into custody for forging government checks and served one year in county jail. Before long, he would meet his match.
In 1940, Ray met then-19-year-old Faye Wilson before making her his bride just six short months later. The pair would go on to have five children, four boys and one daughter – although the exact number of children has been debated, depending on sources – throughout the span of the 1940s.
After multiple crime stints, several arrests, damaged reputations in various locations, and problematic finances, the Copelands purchased their humble farm with 40 acres in Mooresville, Missouri in 1966. The family, particularly Ray, proved to not be a favorite within the small town, as neighbors and local residents suspected verbal and physical abuse towards his family, as well as his mistreatment towards restaurant workers and intentionally running over dogs. Observers noticed his penchant for hiring luckless employees for his farm that he could easily take advantage of. One resident noted him as a “menacing oddball.” To say the least.
In desperate need of cash to provide for the farm but aware of the fact that another forgery arrest would send him to the clink for an unprecedented time, Ray concocted a scam to send his drifter employees to the cattle market in his place, purchase the cattle for him, and then he’d sell it off swiftly before his bad checks would bounce. Naturally, this stunt eventually sent Ray to prison.
Upon release, however, Ray knew the only way to continue his scheme was to get rid of the evidence— which included, quite literally, ridding himself of the drifters he would employ that would undoubtedly rat him out.
And so began the slayings. Ray (and his wife Faye, as his accomplice) would go on to kill at least five young men: Dennis Murphy, killed in October 1986; Wayne Warner in November 1986; 27-year-old Jimmy Dale Harvey in October 1988; John Freeman, also 27, in December 1988; and 20-year-old Paul Cowart in May 1989. On that summer day of the 1989 search warrant, authorities would find the five bodies buried in shallow graves, each with .22 caliber bullets in their brains.
On top of the trophy quilt made from the victims’ garments worn when murdered, Faye Copeland also created a list of the victims, including seven additional former farm workers, totaling 12— and here’s the kicker— each with an “X” marked next to their name, in Faye’s confirmed handwriting. That (deadly) X factor.
Ray and Faye Copeland would be charged with the five confirmed murders, though authorities believed all 12 names had been victims of the elderly duo. If alligators existed in Missouri, you’d have to wonder if Ray and Faye pushed those other seven into their mouths a la Pearl (Mia Goth) with Brittany Snow’s Bobby-Lynne.
In November of 1990, Faye’s defense team played Faye as the naïve, battered woman and claimed 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 for four counts and a life sentence without parole for the fifth. When Ray was informed of the sentencing of his wife of exactly 50 years, his alleged response was, “Well, those things happen to some, you know.”
In March of the following year, then 76-year-old Ray was also sentenced to death by lethal injection for all five counts. Ray and Faye Copeland became the oldest couple to receive the death sentence in the United States.
In 1993, Ray would die of natural causes in a prison hospital. In 1999, Faye’s sentences were deduced from lethal injections to life imprisonment, but she passed in 2002 after suffering from a paralyzing stroke.
True, Ray and Faye Copeland may not have been itching for a sexual plaything victim like X’s Pearl and Howard (Stephen Ure), and, as far as we know, Faye wasn’t quite as hands-on with the murders as Pearl proved to be with her trusty rake and butcher knife. However, an elderly couple in cahoots to kill several young victims right off their farmhouse property in the middle of nowhere and parading their exploits like some sort of prized medallion was straight out of a real-life horror movie, those 30 plus years ago.
And, while both Ray and the fictional Howard seemed to share the same “get off my lawn,” old man energy and cantankerousness, who’s to say 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 bloodlust. (We’ll have to wait for West’s upcoming prequel, Pearl, for those answers.)
Sometimes reality can prove even stranger than horror fiction.