Home » The Facts in the Case of John List: The True Story Behind The Stepfather Film

The Facts in the Case of John List: The True Story Behind The Stepfather Film

John List Stepfather Movie Terry O'Quinn

It’s a Sunday evening on the 21st of May. Families across the United States relax and recline in front of their televisions sets awaiting the new episode of America’s Most Wanted. The television flickers images of the crime and suspects over their now cold TV dinners. For many families, the show is as entertaining and chilling as any other night. Though the crimes are hellacious and the prospect of deranged madmen eluding authorities terrifying, the disconnect between ‘real-life’ and ‘entertainment’ satiates most viewers. “That could never be me.” They think.“Never could such things happen here, not here…” And many would be correct in that assumption. But for one family on this Sunday evening, entertainment has just transformed into a paralyzing reality. Huddled in front of their box TV on this chilly Colorado night, Wanda Flannery and her daughter Eva Mitchell made a shocking discovery: They recognize the suspect. As John Walsh, host of America’s Most Wanted, described the murders of a mother, her three children, and her mother-in-law in their Victorian-era mansion he delineates the only suspect: John List. Husband and father to the family gunned down in their own home, John List confessed his crimes in a letter addressed to his pastor. Though he confessed to the haunting scene that unfolded in Westfield, New Jersey, List evaded capture for 17 and a half years. Wanda Flannery and her daughter never met any man by the name John List, but they did know a Bob Clarke. Clarke, a former next-door neighbor, fit the description and forensic bust and profile of List from his sinking jowls to his thick-rimmed glasses to his job as an account to his quiet, antisocial demeanor. The resemblance was uncanny in the eyes of Wanda Flannery. And with a single call from the mother and daughter whom only sat down on this Sunday evening to relax, the pair led police to a mass murderer lurking in the shadows for nearly two decades.

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John Emil List was born on September 17th, 1925 in Bay City Michigan. Born to German-American parents, John Frederick List and Alma List, John grew up as an only child in a strict Lutheran household. As an only child, List lamented a lonely childhood where he had no siblings to “play with or fight with.” Rather, List was doted on constantly by his overbearing mother and imbued with a deep fear of God by his father. Possibly, the absence of a sibling or friend coupled with his strict parents created a shy, unassertive vein within John. His fear of confrontation would persist through his college years at The University of Michigan, his service in the Korean War, and his family life. In 1951, John List married Helen Taylor after only three months of dating. The speed of their union can be attributed to a number of variables, but List claimed he was “tricked” and “berated” into marrying Helen after she falsified a pregnancy. Despite these claims, John and Helen would remain married for 20 years, raise four children together, and act as the model family in their local church. List supported his family financially as the vice president of The First National Bank of New Jersey, and he supported his community spiritually as a Sunday School teacher. In 1965, after securing a respected position at the bank and experiencing general financial success, John List purchased a three-story Victorian-era mansion on Breeze Knoll Drive complete with 19 rooms. But for how well life seemed to be going for the Lists, John landed himself in a financial fiasco. He was fired from his position at The First National Bank, not due to a lack of competence but to a “personality issue.” Unable to cope with his termination and the shame it brought, List kept the status of his employment secret from his own family. List would dress in his regular work attire every day and drive to the train station where he would then spend 6-8 hours each day just to keep up appearances with his family and community. Along with these financial issues, List began to worry greatly for the salvation of his family. His 16-year-old daughter Patty expressed an interest in acting, something the highly conservative List viewed as immoral. Helen, who had been a heavy drinker for some time, began drinking to excess. Coupled with her tertiary syphilis, which she contracted from her first marriage, her overall health was deteriorating. This disgusted List so profoundly that he described his wife as “an unkempt and paranoid recluse.” Soon, the financial burden of supporting his family proved too great for List. Compounded by his family’s perceived fall from grace, he began planning something horrendous. Seeing no other alternatives, List sought absolution on a Monday afternoon on the 9th of November, 1971.

John List

After seeing all his children off to school, John List set his plan in motion. He waited for Helen to come down for her morning coffee. He then shot his wife in the back of the head as she enjoyed her final sips, careful to ensure that her last moments were free of suspicion. He dragged the body into the ballroom and partially wrapped his now deceased spouse in a sleeping bag. List then set to cleaning the kitchen with paper towels and a mop before heading to the third story. Once there, he greeted his mother, Alma List, with the typical fair. She inquired about the sound she heard below. List claimed that it came from the garden, but assured her that he came up to check on her just to be certain. As Alma List moved through the hallway, her son shot her in the back of the head. List left her body on the third floor, unable to carry her down to the ballroom where the rest of the family would soon lay. John then waited in the dining room for each one of his three children to arrive home from school. Patricia, age 16, was the first to arrive. List shot her in the back of the head, just like his mother and wife, and dragged Patricia’s body to the ballroom next to her mother. After a few more hours, John’s youngest child Frederick, age 13, arrived home and met the same fate as the rest of his family.  He, too, was dragged into the ballroom and laid next to his mother and sister. For some reason, the murder of John’s oldest son, John Jr., was radically different than his siblings. John Jr. had a soccer game that evening and instead of waiting for his son to arrive home, List drove to his son’s final game to watch him play. List looks back on these memories fondly. He recounts that his son played very well, and was pleased to know that some of his son’s final hours were filled with joy. As they arrived home, John Jr. taking the lead to enter the kitchen, List readies his pistol. Though he shot John Jr. in the back of the head, his eldest son didn’t die immediately. John Jr. struggled, List fired off 9 more bullets into his son’s body before the 15-year-old finally went limp. With his plan finally complete after a meticulous setup, List admits to feeling “relieved” once the entire ordeal found completion. He enjoyed a small lunch afterward. List likened the experience of murdering his family to killing soldiers in Korea. His platoon would deploy, complete their mission, then return back to base for some well-needed food and rest. After finishing his meal and cleaning the kitchen once again, List wrote a letter addressed to his pastor confessing his crimes. The letter was left on his desk in the office. The 5-page confession detailed his cold, calculated detachment from the murders. But, more shocking than List’s calculated, apathetic demeanor was his assurance within himself that he’d done the right thing. List explains that his actions guaranteed his family’s admittance into heaven and that he hoped they would wait for him at the gates. Once the letter was complete, List set the thermostat on low to preserve the bodies and let music play to give the guise of activity within the house. And his plan worked. Nearly a month went by before the bodies were discovered and the Hellscape of Breeze Knoll would be broadcast to the world. 

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List lived a free life for nearly two decades before Wanda Flannery and Eva Mitchell placed that fateful call. In that time List lived yet another picture-perfect life. Under the alias Robert Peter Clarke, List became employed at an accounting firm in Denver, Colorado in 1972, less than a year after murdering his family. Later, after being apprehended by the law, List would claim that the alias was actually the name of a college friend, Bob Clarke, who went into the same line of work. List, ever the devout Lutheran, also joined St. Paul’s Lutheran church where he ran a carpool service to help shut-in church members attend the service, shop for groceries, and become productive members of society. List also managed to remarry. In 1984 at a church service, he met Dolores Miller who also worked previously in the Army as an XP clerk. The two hit it off and were married in less than a year. They were the picture of matrimonial bliss to everyone that knew the couple. Neighbors and congregation members had nothing but good things to say about Bob Clarke, including Dolores’s next door neighbors Wanda Flannery and Eva Mitchell. However, this picturesque scene that List once again constructed imploded on June 1st, 1989. Less than two weeks after the airing of America’s Most Wanted, List was apprehended at his accounting firm for familicide. During his incarceration, List recalled watching his episode of America’s Most Wanted and being rather impressed with the forensic bust created by Frank Bender. The genius behind Frank Bender’s bust was more than just his aging of List. Because the murders were committed nearly 20 years ago, Bender knew that he would have to do more than just add a few wrinkles here and there to capture the image of List. By combing facial reconstruction with art, genetics, and psychological profiling, Bender was able to capture even the most minute details of List’s personality through his bust. The real smoking gun though for Bender, and for Wanda Flannery and Eva Mitchell, were the glasses Bender choose to place on the bust. Knowing List’s psychology, Bender knew List would never be vain enough to adorn contact lenses. But he also knew that List associated his glasses with status and intelligence. So List, even 20 years later, would wear modest, sharp looking glasses to maintain his image to the world. When questioned about recognizing Bob Clarke as John List, Eva Mitchell said “It all just started adding up gradually. That he was an account, and a Lutheran, that he had a scar behind his ear, and that he was real put-together… But the real clincher for me was the glasses and the jowls.” After the positive identification on May 21st, 1989, List was arrested and sentenced to jail not even a year later in May of 1990. Though Dolores had stood by her husband when he was first accused, she divorced List in 1989 after the evidence against him was undeniable. After almost two decades, The Boogeyman of Westfield was finally caught. 

The List Family

Though he went under the alias Robert ‘Bob’ P. Clarke, he was very much the same man in Colorado as he was in New Jersey. List, now masquerading as Clarke, worked at an accounting firm, remarried, and even dressed in the same business attire he did in his previous life. What shocked many people about the List murders was John List’s ability to blend into society. How could a man kill his whole family, assume a new identity, and pass it off for 18 years with no one knowing his dark past? The answer lies in the psychological makeup of John List. When studying List’s relationships with his parents, wife, children, and coworkers, disturbing features become apparent. John List was a deeply repressed man. The strictness of his ultra-religious parents made him a passive individual, yet his overbearing mother created an augmented sense of self within List. His passivity occurred in his everyday interactions with his co-workers and neighbors as somewhat anti-social. They either described List as quiet or as aloof and unapproachable. This passive nature, however, is most notable in his interactions with women, particularly his mother and first wife. Alma List doted on her son incessantly, taking on the dominant role in their relationship for most of his life. This trend, through John List’s perspective, continued through his marriage with Helen. Not only did List claim that Helen tricked him into marriage, but he also claimed that she was verbally and emotionally abusive towards him. During his trial, List referenced Helen’s dissatisfaction towards their sex life as a great stress. List claims that Helen berated him constantly about his under-performance as a man, and the stress of his marriage compounding with their financial troubles sent him over the edge. This plea of an ‘abusive wife’ did little to nothing for List. He was sentenced to 5 consecutive life terms and died in jail on March 21st, 2008. But while List’s plea did little for his case, his views on his wife does reveal the state of his internal workings at the time of the murders. 

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It’s difficult to truly know what illnesses afflicted List mentally. Some have diagnosed List with Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD), a disorder in the same vein as OCD. The main difference between OCPD and OCD is that those afflicted with OCD know that their behaviors are problematic. Individuals with OCPD, however, see no issue with their behavior. For people with OCPD the issue is never their own behavior, but the behavior of others. John List definitely had OCPD tendencies as apparent in his meticulous planning of the murders. But OCPD by itself doesn’t create a murderer. List had another form of mental illness within him, most likely sociopathy or psychopathy. Apparent within both psychopaths and sociopaths are a combination of three personality traits known as the dark triad: narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Narcism typically is characterized by individuals who display egotism, pride, grandiosity, and a lack of empathy. List’s murders conveyed a great amount of pride and egotism and a profound lack of empathy. Rather than admitting to his family and his community that he had lost his jobList murdered his family with little to no guilt. There was also a great deal of Machiavellianism within List as apparent by his manipulation, deceit, and cunning in executing the murders and leading his double life. In the 17 years that List ran free, no one suspected him of anything heinous. He not only blended in exceptionally well, but he was a master at controlling the perceptions of others. The one trait difficult to parse in List’s psychology is psychopathy. Those suffering from psychopathy often lack a conscience and display an overdeveloped Id. The Id, as defined by Sigmund Freud, is the section of our subconscious where our basic instincts and impulses lay. Typically, the Ego will keep our Id in check in realistic ways with the help of the Superego, the portion of our brain that internalizes the rules and regulations of our culture. But in individuals with psychopathy, their Id, or impulses, runs unchecked. They do not perceive what they do to be truly wrong because they lack the ability to understand what is right and what is wrong. Psychopaths understand what they want and regardless of morality, they will gain what they want. List, on the other hand, had great impulse control. His planning was meticulous and his execution of the murders were clinical to a fault. List had a concept of morality, but his personal morality was highly skewed. It’s as if his conceptualization of society’s rules took a backseat to his own interpretation of biblical morality. To List, going on welfare after he lost his job seemed like a great sin, a greater sin than murdering his entire family. Murdering his family was not only a means of unburdening himself but also a means of guaranteeing his family’s eternal salvation. Because List had a clear understanding of morality and adhered to a code of morality, he is most likely not a psychopath. Rather, List fits the mold of a sociopath. Sociopaths are often plagued with extreme anxiety, reclusiveness, and an aloof demeanor. Though this describes John List the man, it also describes List the murderer. Combined with List’s strained relationship with women, OCPD, sociopathic tendencies, narcissism, and Machiavellianism, he is a horrific and utterly fascinating psychological creature.

Both The Stepfather (1987) and its remake in 2009 err in the psychological makeup of their lead character, Jerry Blake, who is loosely based on John List. Though both Henry Morrison and Grady Edwards committed the same initial crime as List, family annihilation, the manner in which list executed the murders is radically different to those depicted in The Stepfather franchise. List avoided confrontation at all cost. Whether it was at work, with his family, or life in general, he made it a point to be as inconspicuous and unassuming as possible. Take, for example, the opening scenes of The Stepfather and its 2009 remake. Though the 2009 remake filmed a truer rendition of the List murders, both were exceptionally violent. The characters of Henry Morrison and Grady Edwards were presented as violent men shrouded in a disguise of normality. Both Morrison and Edwards killed at will and out of indignation, even though the murders of their families were premeditated. They are depicted as low-functioning sociopaths. But John List, our source material for these movies, exhibits more high-functioning sociopathic tendencies than low-functioning. Despite sharing List’s meticulous planning, both the films depicted violent, emotionally driven antagonists. List, however, was mostly devoid of emotion. When interviewed on the killings of his own family, List only delineated two emotions: relief and anxiety. He felt anxious about his family and relieved when they were finally gone. Despite John List’s negative feelings toward his wife, he killed her with a gunshot to the back of the head. This methodology is very impersonal and non-confrontational, and while both low and high-functioning sociopaths are capable of this methodology their reasonings are very different. The low-functioning individual, Henry Morrison and Grady Edwards, seeks instant gratification and disregards the consequences. Very little planning is used in these killings and they are typically brought on by a fit of rage. John List, on the other hand, was seeking relief from what he perceived to be the burden of his family’s salvation. He calculated the risk and planned accordingly. Also, John List never killed again as far as the public knows. In the original film, Henry Morrison killed 2 people after murdering his first family and planned on killing his new family. In The Stepfather II and III, Morrison kills a total of  7 more people. The 2009 remake continues this trend with Grady Edwards killing a total of 3 people after murdering his original family. Along with the film’s penchant for serial family annihilation, The Stepfather franchise also depicted their killers as emotionally unstable and volatile. So while The Stepfather films are based upon the John List murders, they are, in reality, loosely based on the initial murders rather than John List himself.   

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The Stepfather

This err in John List’s psychological portrayal is not a disservice to the franchise. The Stepfather was released two years before List’s arrest in 1989, so the original film had a great deal of creative freedom with what a known family annihilator would do in their time at large. The original film is a cult classic and still a riveting picture by any stretch of the imagination. The Stepfather never set out to retell the List murders in a painfully true rendition, but to create an entertaining piece of media centered around the idea of familicide. And that is truly where the film shines. Though The Stepfather doesn’t capture the psyche of John List himself, it does portray a deeply disturbed, calculating individual. To watch Henry Morrison unfold on screen is truly frightening in all the right ways. Like the thrill of those late night horror flicks or Unsolved Mysteries, the entertainment provided by these true or truth-inspired mediums are enough to keep us in tasteful disconnection. We recline back late at night after a hard day at work, ready for the newest episode of Cops or 48 Hours for a good hit of schadenfreude. “Too bad for them…” we say. “That could never happen here…” we say. “Not here…” 

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*Updated February 1, 2024

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