“The Black Dahlia” is the nickname given to Elizabeth Short, a 22-year-old Hollywood hopeful whose chopped-in-half, horrendously mutilated body turned up sanitized, drained of blood, and pointedly posed in a vacant lot on January 15, 1947.
The case horrified the public and dominated headlines for months. Police and private agencies alike worked frantically to find the killer, but even now, 70 years later, the Black Dahlia remains arguably the highest-profile cold case in LAPD history.
The unimaginably sadistic nature of the crime and the fact that no perpetrator has ever been named, let alone prosecuted, quickly and profoundly exuded a macabre grip on popular culture that has essentially never subsided.
On the anniversary of the Black Dahlia tragedy, here’s a roundup of how the case has been handled in the fields of art and entertainment.
A multitude of fact-based books investigating the life and death of Elizabeth Short exist, and more always seem to be forthcoming.
The 1998 bestseller Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia Murder by John Gilmore, the son of an LAPD detective who worked the actual case, continues to stand out among its related titles.
In 2003, ex-cop Steve Hodel caused a sensation by publishing, Black Dahlia Avenger: A Genius for Murder — The True Story In the book, Hodel makes the case that Elizabeth Short’s killer was none other than his own father, Dr. George Hill Hodel. The author provides an even stronger argument in 2014’s The Black Dahlia Avenger II: Presenting the Follow-Up Investigation and Further Evidence. Hodel further asserts that his doctor dad was actually a serial killer who committed numerous monstrous travesties.
The 2006 release Exquisite Corpse: Surrealism and the Black Dahlia Murder by Mark Nelson and Sarah Hudson Bayliss connects the specifics of the case, particularly how Short’s body was presented, to works by surrealists Dada masters such as Man Ray and Salvador Dali. The authors more or less endorse the notion of Dr. George Hodel as the culprit, citing his obsession over these fields of art.
The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy essentially ignited the modern fascination with the torture and slaughter of Elizabeth Short.
It’s an electrifying fictionalized account of the case, told in tough-as-nails style by an LAPD detective named Bucky Bleichert.
Perhaps even more than any of his other sensational work, The Black Dahlia established Ellroy as modern literature’s true master of the twisty, twisted crime novel — particularly those centered in mid-20th-century Los Angeles.
The short story “Black Dahlia and White Rose” by acclaimed writer Joyce Carol Oates imagines the circumstances from a variety of points of view.
The Black Dahlia (2006) is director Brian De Palma’s adaptation of James Ellroy’s 1987 bestseller. Mia Kirshner portrays the title role. Josh Hartnett and Aaron Eckhart costar as the detectives partnered to work the case, with Scarlett Johansson as the femme fatale that comes between them.
True Confessions (1981), based on John Gregory Dunne’s bestselling 1977 novel, uses a Black Dahlia–inspired murder as the backdrop to explore the relationship between a pair of Los Angeles brothers, Tom and Desmond Spellacy, who are played, respectively, by Robert Duvall and Robert De Niro. Duvall is an LAPD detective; De Niro is a priest.
Lucie Arnaz stars as Elizabeth Short in a 1975 CBS movie, Who Is the Black Dahlia?, amid a very seventies TV cast that also includes Tom Bosley, Donna Mills, June Lockhart, Macdonald Carey, Ronny Cox, and Effram Zimbalist, Jr.
In 2011, Mena Suvari took on the Black Dahlia role on American Horror Story: Murder House.
The popular Michigan death metal band that calls itself The Black Dahlia Murder requires no further explanation.
Elizabeth Short has turned up as a lyric and/or the inspiration for numerous songs by artists in an vast array of genres, as well. Some musical invocations of the case include “My Black Dahlia” by Hollywood Undead, “Illuminated” by the Cult, and “In California” by Neko Case, wherein she sings:
“Another suicide on the 405
The Black Dahlia she’s smiles and smiles
It’s the same old town that bled her dry
One more starlet one more time
Bound to make it do or die”
The popular, provocative, and endlessly compelling Hollywood and Crime podcast has delved deep into the Black Dahlia with fascinating results.
Hosted by Hollywood historian Tracy Pattin, the Black Dahlia examination ranks among the podcast’s most dynamic and engaging.
Each segment powerfully conjures the dangerous depths of vintage show business and the L.A. underworld while presenting new evidence and, most importantly, bringing vivid humanity to Elizabeth Short, the tragic victim at the center of it all.
Main image: Black Dahlia (2006), official movie poster/promotional image