Special Case File
The Most Dangerous Game
The Richard Connell Short Story
The Most Dangerous Game
"Man is the most dangerous animal of all"
A short adventure fiction story by Richard Connell that was published in 1924, the Most Dangerous Game features the notion of shipwrecked mariners who find themselves alone on an isolated island who are hunted for sport by a crazed madman. The very notion of hunting humans would be abhorrent to most of the civilized world, however in the annals of true crime, there have been several criminals who have either threaten or did hunt their fellow man for sport. One criminal in particular seems to have gained significant inspiration from the story of Count Zaroff.
Over the years, the Most Dangerous Game has been adapted numerous times into feature length films, some of which have spanned several other genres, such as horror and science fiction. But it is the short story by Connell, and the first feature length movie produced in 1932, which remained faithful to the original short story, that would prove to have the most inspiring influence on the Zodiac Killer. This serial murderer who terrorized the people of the San Francisco Bay Area during the 1960’s and 70’s, and claimed to police that he preferred killing people because it was more fun than killing wild game.
In the January 19, 1924 edition of Collier’s, the American general interest magazine, there appeared a short story by Richard Connell entitled The Most Dangerous Game. Illustrated by Wilmot Emerton Heitland, the story tell the tale of big-game hunter Sanger Rainsford, who travels to the Amazon rainforest with a friend for a jaguar hunt. Rainsford eventually ends up stranded on an Island in the Caribbean, but soon discovers that he is not alone, the other inhabitants being two Cossacks, General Zaroff and his servant, Ivan. Rainsford soon finds himself being hunted by the eccentric Russian aristocrat.
The story was originally inspired by the big-game hunters who went on safaris in African and South America, something that was particularly fashionable among the elite and wealthy American during the 1920’s. Upon its periodical publication, the story, which also appears under the name “The Hounds of Zaroff,” went on to win the O. Henry Award, an annual American award given to short stories of exceptional merit. Adapted for both film and radio, The Most Dangerous Game proved popular with readers, and would go on to become the most popular short stories ever written in English.
The Hounds of Zaroff
The story begins with Sanger Rainsford, big-game hunter who is travelling to the Amazon rainforest with his friend, Whitney. The two discuss their planned jaguar hunt, and how they will be “the hunters” rather than “the hunted”. After Whitney goes to bed, Rainsford hears what sounds like gunshots. As he climbs onto the yacht’s rail, he accidentally falls overboard and is forced to swim towards Ship-Trap Island, an apparently isolated and uninhabited islet. Arriving ashore, Rainsford soon comes to the realisation that there are two Cossack occupants on the Island, the General Zaroff and Ivan, his gigantic deaf-mute servant.
As a big-game hunter himself, Zaroff knowns of Rainsford from his published account of hunting snow leopards in Tibet. Invited to dine with the Count, Rainsford learns that Zaroff has been hunting animals since he was a young boy, however he has grown bored killing big-game. So after escaping the Russian Revolution, he moved to Ship-Trap Island and there began tricking vessels into wrecking themselves on the jagged rocks that surround it. He explains how he hunts these captive survivors for sport, giving them all the supplies they need, including a knife, along with a three hour head start, but only uses a small-caliber pistol.
Anyone who manages to elude Zaroff, Ivan, and a pack of hunting dogs for the three days are then set free. But the Count triumphantly reveals that he has won every hunt to date. Furthermore, he tells Rainsford that captives are offered a choice between being hunted by him, or being turned over to Ivan, who once served as official knouter for The Great White Czar. Rainsford is horrified, but Zaroff is enthused to have another world-class hunter as a companion and, at breakfast, offers to take Rainsford along with him on his next hunt, who staunchly refuses. Disappointed, Zaroff then decides that he will hunt Rainsford.
Zaroff explains the rules of the game, and with little option, Rainsford reluctantly agrees to be hunted. As he heads out into the forest, he lays an intricate trail and then climbs a tree. The Cossack is not easily fooled, and decides to play a game of cat and mouse with his prey, and stands underneath the tree that Rainsford is hiding, smokes a cigarette, and then abruptly leaves. After his failed attempt at eluding Zaroff, Rainsford builds a Malay man-catcher, a weighted log attached to a trigger. This injures Zaroff’s shoulder, causing him to return home for the night, but before departing, he shouts his respect for the trap.
The following day, Rainsford creates a Burmese tiger pit, which kills one of Zaroff’s hounds. He then kills Ivan, by sacrificing his knife by tying it to a sapling to make another trap. With Zaroff and his hounds fast approaching, Rainsford dives off a cliff into the sea to escape. Zaroff, believing that Rainsford had committed suicide and disappointed at his apparent demise, returns home. As Zaroff smokes a pipe by his fireplace, two issues plague his mind, the difficulty of replacing Ivan and the uncertainty of whether Rainsford perished in his dive.
When Zaroff locks himself in his bedroom and turns on the lights, he finds Rainsford waiting for him. After his dive, Rainsford had swum around the island in order to sneak into the chateau without the dogs finding him. Zaroff congratulates him on winning the “game,” but Rainsford states his intention to fight him, saying that the original hunt is not over. A delighted Zaroff accepts the challenge, saying that the loser will be fed to the dogs, while the winner will sleep in the bed. He then challenges Rainsford to a duel to the death.
The story abruptly concludes later that night by stating that Rainsford enjoyed the comfort of Zaroff’s bed, implying that he won the duel.
The story of the Most Dangerous Game has been adapted numerous times over the years, with many different variations of the original theme. The first adaptation was the 1932 film version of the story, directed by Irvin Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack, while Connell went on to become a contributing screenwriter for the movie. The film starred Joel McCrea as Robert “Bob” Rainsford, Leslie Banks as Count Zaroff, Noble Johnson as Ivan, and Fay Way as Eve Trowbridge, the damsel in distress. This first film version differed significantly from the source material, introducing other survivors on the Island, as well as more henchmen working on behalf of Zaroff known as the Tartars.
The movie received positive reviews from critics, and was praised for its acting and suspense. It would go on to influence others films, as well as subsequent remakes of the Most Dangerous Game storyline. The story was adapted for the radio program Suspense, which featured two separate adaptations, one of which aired on September 23, 1943, starring Orson Welles as Zaroff and Keenan Wynn as Rainsford, and the second aired on February 1, 1945, and starred J. Carrol Naish as Zaroff and Joseph Cotten as Rainsford. Both of these radio versions were narrated by Rainsford’s character in retrospect, as he waits in Zaroff’s bedroom for the final confrontation.
The year 1945 also saw the RKO Pictures movie A Game of Death, in which the director, Robert Wise, changed the character of Zaroff into the Nazi ‘Erich Kreiger’, and changed the setting to the aftermath of World War II. One notable adaptation was Confessions of a Psycho Cat, an early sexploitation film from 1968, in which Zaroff is replaced by a woman named Virginia Marcus and the story is relocated to New York City, in which Marcus offers three acquitted murderers $100,000 if they can survive a night of her hunting them down. Another sexploitation was Slave Girls from Beyond Infinity, in which the story takes place on an alien world.
The story of man hunting man has also transferred to the small screen, with several television show using the idea as a plot point. In the fourth season of the hugely popular HBO show Game of Thrones, the antagonist Ramsey Bolton hunts women. The idea of hunting humans was used as recently as late-2021, when it featured in the showtime series Dexter: New blood, in which the antagonist Kurt Caldwell, played by Clancy Brown, is a prolific serial killer who hunts his female victims in the snow covered wilderness of the fictional town of Iron Lake, New York, while using a hunting rifle and dressed in combat camouflage.
Real-life Cases: The Zodiac Killer
One of the most infamous of serial murderers, the Zodiac Killer terrorized the San Francisco Bay Area during the 1960’s and 70’s, and was greatly influenced by the short story The Most Dangerous Game, using it as a pretext for his murderous crime spree. The connection between the Zodiac and the story of man hunting his fellow man did not emerge until July 1969, when he sent letters to three San Francisco newspapers detailing the specifics of his crimes, and claiming responsibility for three murders and one attempted murder. But it was the ciphers that accompanied the letters than contained the secret to his killing spree.
In December 1968, two teenagers were murdered on Lake Herman Road by a lone gunman who shot and killed Betty Lou Jensen and David Faraday as the couple sat in the car. The crime was considered an isolated incident. Then, on July 4, 1969, two more teens were attacked by a lone suspect, while they were in the parking lot of Blue Rock Springs Park in Vallejo. This time only one victim was killed, Darlene Ferrin, while her friend Michael Mageau survived. At the time, this too was thought to be a random crime. But several weeks later, the San Francisco Examiner, Vallejo Times-Herald and San Francisco Chronicle each received a letter on July 31, 1969.
The letter writer claimed responsibility for the Vallejo murders, and provided proof by describing details only the killer would have known. Accompanying each letter was a 136-character cryptogram that was one-third of a larger 408-symbol cipher that was to be published on the front page of each newspaper by August 1. The letter stated, “Here is a cyipher or that is part of one. The other 2 parts of this cipher have been mailed to the S.F. Examiner + the S.F. Chronicle.” The author added, “If you do not do this I will go on a kill rampage Fry night that will last the whole week end.”
The Zodiac’s 408-symbol cipher decoded read;
“I LIKE KILLING PEOPLE BECAUSE IT IS SO MUCH FUN
IT IS MORE FUN THAN KILLING WILD GAME IN THE FORREST
BECAUSE MAN IS THE MOST DANGEROUE ANAMAL OF ALL
TO KILL SOMETHING GIVES ME THE MOST THRILLING EXPERENCE
IT IT EVEN BETTER THAN GETTING YOUR ROCKS OFF WITH A GIRL
THE BEST PART OF IT IS THAE WHEN I DIE I WILL BE REBORN
IN PARADICE AND THE I HAVE KILLED WILL BECOME MY SLAVES
I WILL NOT GIVE YOU MY NAME BECAUSE YOU WILL TRY TO SLOI
DOWN OR ATOP MY COLLECTIOG OF SLAVES FOR MY AFTERLIFE
When the 408 cryptogram was solved, it was became clear to detectives that the killer, who had not yet taken the name Zodiac, had clearly been influenced by the Richard Connell short story The Most Dangerous Game. His statement that “MAN IS THE MOST DANGEROUE ANAMAL OF ALL” was clearly a direct reference to the plot of the story. There still exists the possibility that the Zodiac came up with his idea for hunting humans independently, however, the parallels with his reason for killing, and the plan orchestrated by Count Zaroff to hunt ship-wrecked mariners are too much of a coincidence.
Real-life Cases: Robert Hansen
The Zodiac wasn’t the only killer who found possible inspiration for his crime spree in the pages of Richard Connell’s short story. In the Alaskan wilderness, bodies began turning up during the early 1980’s, and when these remains of several women were found with gunshot wounds, authorities suspected they had a serial killer on the loose. The victims had mostly been shot to death, and their bodies left in isolated regions of Anchorage, Alaska. Police had little evidence, as the bodies had been left to the elements, and there was little that pointed to the identity of the killer.
Then, in June 1873, a woman who had been kidnapped managed to escape her captor and gave police a description of the man. Based on the victim’s story, police investigated Robert Hansen, securing warrants to search his vehicles, plane and home. Eventually investigators found evidence linking Hansen to the murders. His victims had been sex workers, who were picked up by Hansen and taken a gunpoint to his home, where they were raped and tortured. He would then fly them out to a secluded area, and proceed to “hunt” them as if they were wild game, before shooting or stabbing them to death.
A baker by profession and an experienced hunter, Hansen became known in the press as the “Butcher Baker”. He was eventually charged only with four murders, but was suspected of killing as many as seventeen women. Hansen earned a reputation in Anchorage as a great outdoorsman and hunter, stalking wolves, Dahl sheep, and bear with a rifle or bow and arrow, and his den was soon decorated with animal mounts. In his description of the murders, Hansen told investigators his hunts would be like “going after a trophy Dall sheep or a grizzly bear.” It seemed that Robert Hansen began conducting his own real life version of “The Most Dangerous Game.”
Real-life Cases: James Huberty
On July 18, 1984, James Huberty arrived at a McDonald’d restaurant at the San Ysidro neighborhood of San Diego, California, and there perpetrated one of the deadliest mass murder sprees in American history at that time. During approximately 77 minutes, he fatally shot 21 people, and wounded a further 19 others before he was shot and killed by a police sniper. The chain of events that lead to Huberty carrying out this act of mass murder has never been fully understood, and so the reasons for why he committed his crimes are open to debate, but a statement he made that morning perhaps sheds some light on his psychosis.
On the morning of that fateful day, Huberty calmly told his wife he was “going hunting… hunting for humans”. He was holding a gun across his shoulder and carrying a box of ammunition, along with a bundle wrapped in a checkered blanket. He then said to his family, “Goodbye, I won’t be back.” He then proceeded to the McDonald’s restaurant where he shot numerous people dead, and wounded scores of others. During his unhappy childhood, the often friendless Huberty enjoyed target practice as his primary interest. By his teens, he had become something of an amateur gunsmith, often repairing, modifying and shooting his gun collection.
It was this interest in firearms that led to Huberty carrying out his crimes, but the motivations behind them are not so clear. Huberty was known for his temper, and history of domestic violence towards his wife Etna and their two daughters. To his neighbors and co-workers, he was known as a sullen, ill-tempered and somewhat paranoid individual. It is unknown if ‘The Most Dangerous Game‘ had any influence on the mass murders committed of James Huberty, but his statement about “hunting humans” was a clear indication of his mental state, and that he saw people, including himself, as unworthy of life.
Serial Killers are, by their very nature, predators who hunt their prey, seeking out victims to satisfy their twisted urges and unnatural desires, and often see them as nothing more than objects to discard. James Huberty was likely suffering from some type of mental disorder, and had a history of domestic violence against his family. That he lost his job in the days prior to the massacre, would seem to point towards Huberty wanting to get revenge against people in general, and was a potential reason for why he went “hunting for humans”, and perpetrated one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history.
Conversely, Robert Hansen suffered no such mental issues, and his actions were calculated, well planned and committed over the course of an eight year period. His reason for hunting his victims in and around the secluded snow covered region of Anchorage, Alaska, is because it had been part of his modus operandi. Hansen was an avid hunter, finding solace in these past-times during the difficult years of his childhood when he underwent bullying. So when it came to getting rid of his victims, Hansen chose a method he enjoyed as a hobby, allowing them a head-start before he cold-bloodedly hunted them like game.
But the Zodiac Killer went a step further, by communicating directly with police that he enjoyed the act of killing, and by explaining that he considered man a much more worthy prey than animals. He often taunted police directly in his letters, referring to them as incompetent and assuring those hunting him that they would never learn his identity. The Zodiac was as arrogant as Zaroff, but unlike the Russian Count, the Zodiac Killer was never bested by law enforcement, always managing to stay one step ahead. The Zodiac was a hunter who enjoyed killing, stating in his own words, “TO KILL SOMETHING GIVES ME THE MOST THRILLING EXPERENCE”.