The Horrifying True Story That Inspired The Ghost and the Darkness

Although the film indulges in a number of liberties, it may have actually downplayed the gruesome events that unfolded over 100 years ago.

In 1996, Paramount Pictures released The Ghost and the Darkness , a historical horror-adventure film directed by Stephen Hopkins. The story is based on the true account of the Tsavo man-eaters, in which two lions - for reasons that are still being debated to this day - mercilessly preyed upon construction workers during the tumultuous build of a significant railway bridge in Kenya, Africa. Over the course of nearly a year, these two lions were reportedly responsible for the death of 135 people.

Screenwriter William Goldman - the famed writer of such classics as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Princess Bride - first heard about the legend of the Tsavo man-eaters while traveling in Africa in 1984, and immediately found the subject engrossing and perfect fodder for the big-screen treatment.

Although the film indulges in a number of liberties in its recounting of this famous tale (as is the case with most Hollywood movies based on true stories ), the movie may have actually downplayed the gruesome events that unfolded over 100 years ago. Let’s take a look at the horrifying true story behind The Ghost and the Darkness .

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The Attacks Begin

At the heart of the story is Lt. Colonel John Henry Patterson (played in the film by Val Kilmer), who in 1898 was sent to Africa on behalf of the British government to oversee the construction of an essential railway bridge in the Tsavo region of Kenya, Africa. The building project was a massive operation, employing thousands of workers (most of them brought in from India) and spanning miles of railway track.

Almost immediately after Lt. Patterson's arrival, the pair of lions begin their vicious attacks. Right away these attacks were considered highly unusual; not only is it incredibly uncommon for lions to hunt in pairs, the fact that they were both male was even stranger still. Furthermore, unlike typical lions, the Tsavo man-eaters didn’t have any manes (a common attribute for lions in the region). While animal scientists aren’t exactly sure why this is the case, the most prevalent theories suggest that the harsh environment - which is incredibly dry and covered in rough, thorny brush - make manes inefficient at best and debilitating at worst, so lions evolved over time to be born without them.

But more puzzling still is why . It isn’t normal for lions to attack humans without provocation, yet almost every night, workers were literally being dragged out of their tents and feasted upon. They even targeted specific areas of the camp - like the hospital tent - and took advantage of the sprawling size of the area, never attacking the same place twice. And while the lions occasionally engorged themselves on the remains of those they killed, for the most part the man-eaters didn’t eat their victims.

In other words, they were killing for the thrill of it. These were like monsters out of a horror movie.

Since Patterson was in charge of overseeing the bridge project, it was also his responsibility to rid the area of these two lions. It was a massive undertaking, and not an easy one. Most nights, Patterson would spend camping out in a tree, waiting for the lions to strike. But this method quickly proved to be ineffective, as the construction site was so large that it would be impossible for him to know what section the lions would target.

Patterson also tried to take the defensive, but his efforts were in vain. He and the workers set up bomas - or barricades made up of thorny brush - around the perimeter of the campsite, but the lions would easily circumvent these obstacles. Small fires were ignited around camp in a bid to scare the lions off, but they were unbothered. Strict curfews were instituted, but this didn’t make much of a difference when workers were being killed in their tents. Patterson even moved the hospital tent - a hot-bed of attacks - but the lions quickly sniffed the new location out.

As the bodies continued to pile up, the workers began to revolt, threatening to stop production until the monstrous lions were killed. Since many of these workers were brought in from India (the country was under British rule at the time) and weren’t native to the region, they had no idea how to properly defend themselves from these beasts. And even if they did, these lions proved far more cunning than the typical big cats that even the locals were familiar with.

Legend quickly began to spread around camp, claiming these were no ordinary lions, but vengeful ghosts defending their territory from the railway system and, in effect, the encroaching British Empire. The workers named them “Ghost” and “Darkness” (hence the title of the film).

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Fighting Back

With the workers threatening to cease work, and the British government breathing down his neck, Lt. Patterson had to get crafty.

One of his most well-known attempts at capturing these beasts is wonderfully recreated in the film, in which Patterson transforms an abandoned railway cart into a box trap. Three Indians workers (who apparently volunteered for this thankless role), armed with rifles, locked themselves behind steel bars within the box trap and baited the lion with animal remains. Surprisingly, the trap worked; one of the lions was drawn into the car, triggering the trap doors and locking it inside with the workers.

Immediately the lion panicked and began lunging at the steel bars, which started to give under the massive size of the beast. The frightened and overwhelmed workers desperately unloaded on the lion with their rifles, but somehow missed every shot. One of their bullets connected with the cage door, opening the trap and allowing the lion to escape.

Around this point in the movie, the audience is introduced to Charles Remington, a famous big-game hunter who is played by Michael Douglas . But this character is a creation of William Goldman’s and didn’t actually exist. In reality, Patterson requested British troops to help take down the lions - that’s how much of a problem they became. While Britain was hesitant to send troops (out of fear that it might make them appear weak), they did send in a small squadron of Indian soldiers - known at the time as Sepoys.

It’s around this point that things finally started to turn around. Patterson built a scaffold in the middle of an area where the big cats were known to stalk and used it as a hunting stand. Using the remains of a dead donkey to lure the lions out of hiding, Patterson sat atop his hastily-assembled hunting stand and waited. But he didn’t have to wait long, as that night the first lion emerged from the brush. Patterson managed to shoot the beast a few times, but it escaped. A few nights later, the lion returned and Patterson - with the help of a much more powerful rifle - was able to take it down.

With one lion dead, morale started to shift. But hunting the second lion wouldn’t be as easy.

Things started off well-enough for Patterson, who utilized the same technique to lure the lion out of hiding. Much like the first time around, it worked, but again Patterson was unable to kill the beast.

What followed was a multi-week hunt for the injured lion. For close to two weeks, the lion was untraceable. But eventually Patterson and troops tracked it down and managed to shoot it a few more times. Somehow, the lion still managed to get away - but not for long. The next day, Patterson took down the second and last lion, finally putting an end to the months-long ordeal.

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The End of a Nightmare

With the lions neutralized, work on the railway was soon completed. Soon after, Patterson returned to his home in London with the bodies of the two lions in his possession, and recounted the events in his semi-autobiographical book The Man-Eaters of Tsavo , which William Goldman drew heavily from when writing The Ghost and the Darkness .

Despite the dark shadow of brutal colonialism looming heavy over this entire story, it’s nevertheless a nail-biting tale. To this day, scientists are unsure what the cause of these attacks were. The bodies of the lions - which Patterson later donated to the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History - were studied by scientists, who concluded that bad teeth may actually be to blame for the lions’ unusual behavior. Allegedly their teeth were “soft” - much like a zoo lion - and thus unable to catch prey and tear through bone. One of the lions also had what appeared to be an infected root, which most likely made hunting incredibly painful. In short, these lions targeted humans because they were easier prey.

The actual death toll is debated as well. While Patterson claimed 135 people were killed by these lions, official records put the real number somewhere in the vicinity of 30-40. However, we’ll never be sure: Great Britain had reason to undermine these numbers to maintain their image, and Patterson could have exaggerated the number of dead to further bolster his own status and ego.

Although we’ll probably never get the “full truth” about what happened, one thing is for certain: it made for one hell of a terrifying movie.

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Tsavo Man-Eaters: The True Story of the Ghost and the Darkness

Image of Lenny Flank, author

In 1898 two African lions, known locally as "The Ghost" and "The Darkness", killed a number of workers on the East Africa Railroad at the Tsavo River and halted the project until they were hunted down and shot by a British foreman. The incident was described in a book titled The Man-Eaters of Tsavo that became, in 1996, the basis for a movie starring Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer. Today, the mounted taxidermy skins of the two lions are on display in the Field Museum in Chicago. Join me below for the real history of the Ghost and the Darkness.

The Tsavo Man-Eaters, on display at the Field Museum in Chicago.

In 1896, the British decided to construct a railroad in their East African colony, running from the coastal port city of Mombasa, in modern-day Kenya, all the way to Lake Victoria and then on to Uganda. Officially named the Uganda Railroad, it was mocked by critics as "The Lunatic Line" and was said to run "from nowhere to nowhere". The British colonialists hoped that the railroad would encourage people to move into the interior of Africa, and would provide a method of transporting trade products between Africa and Europe. Thousands of laborers (called "coolies") were imported from India to build the railroad, which would cover about 580 miles, cross several rivers and valleys, and take over 30 years to complete, reaching Nairobi in 1899, Kismu on the shore of Lake Victoria in 1901, and Kampala, Uganda in 1928. It was considered a shining symbol of modern British progress in the "civilization" of what was then known as "The Dark Continent".

In February 1898, two years into its construction, the railroad line had reached the Tsavo River in Kenya, 130 miles northwest of Mombasa. A temporary bridge was built to allow the track to cross the river and continue being built on the other side. In March, British Army Colonel John Henry Patterson was brought in from India to oversee the construction of a permanent railroad bridge across the river. The river valley was about 100 yards wide. Patterson began by locating a source of suitable stone about three miles away and building a small tram line to the bridge site. These stones would be used to form foundation piers in the river bed, upon which the bridge pillars would be constructed. Meanwhile, construction of the actual railway continued. Because of this, several thousand workers were scattered in a string of camps along the railroad over a distance of some 20 miles. Patterson was responsible for all of them.

Within just a few days of Patterson's arrival, people began to disappear.

At first, Patterson didn't believe the natives who told him that there was a lion attacking the workers. Quickly, however, reports of lion sightings began coming in, and the remains of dead workers began to be found. It became clear that there were at least two lions involved. Every few days, one of the lions would strike at one of the scattered campsites, then another, attacking horses, donkeys, goats, cattle, and people. The Indian workers constructed protective fences around their camps, known as a boma , made from the thorny branches of Acacia trees, and kept campfires burning all night, but still the lions found their way through. In one incident, one of the lions clawed its way into a tent and attacked a sleeping worker, but in the confusion dragged away the worker's mattress instead--when it realized its mistake, the lion dropped the mattress and ran off.

By April, the railroad rails extended some 40 miles away from Tsavo, and only a few hundred workers remained behind to construct the bridge. They were concentrated into a number of camps at the bridge site, and this is where the lions now began to concentrate their hunts. Patterson spent several nights perched in a tree with his rifle hoping to spot the lions, but couldn't find them. One night, one of the lions broke into the hospital tent and dragged away one of the patients. Patterson decided to move the hospital tent to a different spot, but the next night, the lion returned to the new location and dragged the water-carrier out of the hospital--his head and one of his hands were found the next morning.

Patterson then moved the hospital tent again, and placed a railroad car with some cattle inside at the old location. Accompanied by the camp doctor, he stayed up all night with his rifle, hoping the lion would return. And it did. The lion managed to get into the boxcar and kill one of the cattle, but couldn't figure out how to drag the body out through the boma fence. Instead, it began to stalk Patterson and the doctor. When it attacked, Patterson managed to wound it in the mouth with a rifle shot, breaking off one of the canine teeth.

After that, the lions apparently left the area for a few weeks (Patterson later learned that they had been raiding one of the construction camps at the railroad, which was now many miles away). Assuming they would be back, Patterson constructed a mechanical trap inside the railway car that would drop a set of iron bars if anything entered. For several nights in a row, Patterson himself was the bait, spending the night inside the boxcar to try to lure one of the lions in.

A few weeks later, the lions were back. One of the cats entered a boma and dragged one of the workers out, where he was joined by the second lion. They ate the worker just 30 yards away from the camp. For the next several months, the lions would periodically return to make another kill. On December 1, most of the workers boarded one of the trains and left. Only a small number remained behind to finish the bridge.

Two days later, the Superintendent of Police arrived with 20 men to help hunt down the lions. That night, one of the lions finally entered the boxcar trap, but despite a number of shots being fired at it from close range, was able to get out. The Police Superintendent and his men spent several days looking for the lions, with no success. They left, after providing Patterson with a high-powered hunting rifle.

On December 9, one of the lions killed a donkey and, as it ate, Patterson instructed a group of workers to approach it making as much noise as possible, to drive it into the open. When the lion emerged, Patterson managed to wound it with the rifle. Expecting that the lion would return that night to his kill, Patterson built a wooden platform and waited. The lion indeed returned, but ignored the dead donkey and approached Patterson instead.  Patterson killed it with two rifle shots.

One lion remained, and a few nights later it attacked two goats. Patterson set out three more goats as bait, tying them to a short section of railroad tie, and waited. The lion returned, killed one of the goats, then dragged the entire railroad tie, still attached to the goat, away. Patterson's shots missed. The next morning, Patterson and a group of workers followed the trail and found the lion, which ran off. Patterson built another wooden platform, and when the lion returned that night, wounded it with two shots.

For the next ten days, nothing happened, and Patterson concluded that the lion had died of its wounds. Then, the lion returned and made an unsuccessful attack on a worker sleeping in a tree. That night, Patterson lay in ambush in the same tree, and when the lion returned, wounded it twice more. In the morning, they followed the blood trail and found the lion, which charged at them. Patterson killed it with two more shots. It was December 29, 1898.

Examination of the two dead lions showed that they were both males and were, like most of the lions in the Tsavo region, maneless. Most likely, they were brothers--young male lions without a pride of their own often form small packs or partnerships.

In 1996, Patterson's 1907 book, The Man-Eaters of Tsavo , was adapted into a Hollywood screenplay titled "The Ghost and the Darkness", which starred Val Kilmer as Patterson and Michael Douglas as the fictional big-game hunter character Charles Remington.

For years, there was much debate over just how many people the two lions actually killed over the nine-month period, with estimates running from the railroad company's figure of 28 to Patterson's figure of 135. In 2009, a team of biologists was able to do a chemical analysis on hair and skin samples from the Field Museum specimens, and used isotope ratios to determine the chemical makeup of the proteins in the lion's diet during their last months of life. They concluded that one of the Tsavo lions had eaten around 11 humans, and that the other had eaten around 24. That meant that one of the lions ate mostly herbivores with only about one-third of its diet coming from humans, while the other made up almost two-thirds of its diet with humans.

Patterson kept the skulls from both lions, and used their skins as rugs. In 1924, he sold the remains of the man-eaters to the Field Museum in Chicago, where they were mounted and put on display in 1928. They are still there today.

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  • Print length 74 pages
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  • Publication date February 13, 2018
  • Dimensions 5.83 x 0.15 x 8.27 inches
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  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Books on Demand (February 13, 2018)
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the ghost and the darkness true story



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