Netflix’s The Devil All the Time is full of sinister characters, who all do dark deeds, either because of their own evil disposition or their environment. Two of these characters, Carl and Sandy Henderson (Jason Clarke and Riley Keough), are husband and wife serial killers, who take pleasure from hunting down their victims. But while married serial killers have existed in the real world, author Donald Ray Pollock didn’t have anyone particular in mind when he wrote the 2011 novel from which the movie is adapted.
“I was going to graduate school at [Ohio State University], and one of the requirements was you have to have a thesis or dissertation,” Pollock told the Chillicothe Gazette ahead of the film’s release. “I had written a bunch of pages about a serial killer couple named Carl and Sandy. I got out of school and kept messing with it and finally decided that a novel with just Carl and Sandy, these two serial killers as the main characters, probably wasn’t going to interest too many people.”
While the entire film is incredibly dark and violent, Carl and Sandy’s storyline is particularly so. The couple first meet at a diner where Sandy works and she finds out Carl is a photographer. But, soon, they’re married and taking road trips where their goal is to find young men hitchhiking, and then rape and murder them while Carl takes pictures. Since all the characters in The Devil All the Time are intertwined, Sandy and Carl encounter some of the other faces we meet as the movie goes on.
When Pollock realised he needed to add more to the story besides just focusing on the serial killers, he added the main character of Arvin (Tom Holland in the film). Arvin has a connection to all of the other characters, and while he is drawn to violence himself, he comes from a more moral place, generally speaking.
Pollock was asked why he wrote about serial killers at all in an interview with Nailed magazine in 2013. “There is just something weirdly fascinating about them,” he said. “I’ve said this several times, but if you have two newspaper articles on the front page, one about a serial killer and one about a kid who donates his piggy bank to the local homeless shelter or whatever, the majority of people are going to read the serial killer story first.”
Pollock explained that he wasn’t looking at any particular serial killers when he came up with Carl and Sandy — though there are many examples of serial killing couples — and purposely didn’t read about any other killers once he began writing. “I had read some non-fiction stuff about serial killers before I started — for example, Tim Cahill’s book about John Wayne Gacy, Buried Dreams,” Pollock told Nailed. “With that said, I believe that I’m influenced by everything I come in contact with, so there’s really no way that other books and films don’t rub off to a degree.”
As The Devil All the Time developed, Pollock added more influences from his hometown of Knockemstiff, Ohio, which is where the story is set. This included looking at fathers who were “drinkers and hellraisers,” as he told NPR. Describing the town, he said, “There wasn’t much else around there, but it was a community. There were three small general stores and a bar and a church and probably 450, 500 people. You know, I probably was related to at least half those people.” Yep, that part sounds just like the story. Though, thankfully, the reality didn’t include any any couples who were serial killers.