Even the most die-hard fans of Law & Order: SVU can admit that sometimes, it can be too disturbing to handle. Granted, the show is about the Special Victims Unit and the “heinous crimes” they fight, but sometimes the atrocities they deal with are a little too much for television. It can be pretty intense watching Olivia Benson and the squad fighting sex crimes, so sometimes it’s nice to remember it’s just a TV show… kind of.
Unfortunately, many SVU episodes are “ripped from the headlines,” which means they’re inspired by real-life crimes. Yeah. A surprising amount of the horrific incidents on the show are either based directly off or inspired by actual cases. So, here are 19 of the most bone-chilling, real-life crimes ever depicted on Law & Order: SVU.
1. “American Tragedy,” Season 15, Episode 3
This episode of Law & Order: SVU was wild from start to finish. It starts with a news exposé of a famous celebrity chef named “Jolene Castille,” who’s known for her southern charm. Sound familiar? Yes, the beginning of the episode was clearly about the “Paula Deen is a huge racist” scandal.
However, the episode took a bizarre and really upsetting when Castille sees an unarmed, black teen in a hoodie. There’s talk in the neighborhood of a serial rapist, and Castille incorrectly assumes this boy is the rapist, and shoots him, which is supposed to mirror the killing of Trayvon Martin. The rest of the episode is basically: did she genuinely believe she was in danger or is she just a big ol’ racist? (Hint: it’s the latter one.)
2. “Funny Valentine,” Season 14, Episode 16
This Law & Order: SVU episode was so clearly about a real, celebrity case that it’s honestly a little tacky. It follows the Special Victims Unit as they attempt to reason with a famous female R&B; singer, who is in a publicly abusive relationship. Her husband, a famous rapper, consistently cheats on her and physically beats her.
If you haven’t guessed at this point, it’s about Chris Brown and Rihanna. The episode actually ends in the murder of the “Rihanna” character, Tiffany Robinson. While the intent of this episode was mostly good, the end of the episode seemed a little tasteless, TBH.
3. “Babes,” Season 10, Episode 6
This is one of those episodes of Law & Order: SVU where the beginning of the episode is wildly unrelated to the end plotline. You kind of forget how you got there, but you just go with it. Basically, this episode starts with the murder and assault of a homeless man, and ends up being about four high school girls involved in a pregnancy pact. If you’re not familiar, there was a real-life case at Gloucester High School, in which seventeen high-schoolers made a pact to become pregnant, garnering national attention.
4. “Selfish,” Season 10, Episode 19
This is one of my personal favorite episodes of Law & Order: SVU because of a guest appearance by Hilary Duff. Basically, Ashlee’s (played by Duff) mother suspects something has gone horribly wrong when her granddaughter — Ashlee’s daughter — goes missing. Grandma immediately fears that her daughter murdered her granddaughter, due to her partying ways and negligent parenting.
Clearly, this episode was inspired by the Casey Anthony trial. Somehow, the episode derails into the debate over the anti-vaccine movement, because it comes to light that Ashlee’s daughter actually died of mumps, passed to her by a classmate. We don’t really know, either.
5. “Thought Criminal,” Season 15, Episode 13
In one of the more-disturbing episodes of Law & Order: SVU, the squad deals with the phenomenon of “thought crimes.” Basically, they catch a well-established internet perv, who is obsessed with the idea of kidnapping and brutalizing children. However, despite his growing, twisted obsession, he hasn’t actually done anything to a child.
This episode was based directly off the case of Gilberto Valle, the “cannibal cop.” Valle was imprisoned for expressing plans (via the internet) to kidnap, torture, murder, and cannibalize several women he knew IRL including his own wife. Believe it or not, Valle was released after a judge ruled that he hadn’t technically committed a crime, he just thought about it.
6. “Devastating Story,” Seaon 16, Episode 18
This episode was almost an exact replica of the real-life case on which it was based. It begins when Benson witnesses a news story in which a college student, Heather Manning goes on a popular TV show to confess that she was gang-raped by several fraternity brothers on her campus. The story becomes a national sensation, only to be complicated when evidence comes forward that some of Manning’s facts may have been inaccurate.
In case you don’t remember, it’s pretty much exactly what happened to “Jackie” (as she was named for the article) at the University of Virginia. Her devastating story in Rolling Stone got an unbelievable amount of attention, only for the whole thing to blow up after a serious lack of fact-checking came to light.
7. “Slaves,” Season 1 Episode 22
This episode of Law & Order: SVU is pretty complex — there are a million twists and turns, different characters and really confusing connections. But the main point of the plot is that a young girl named Ilena sends an SOS message to a fruit vendor one day at the park, claiming she is being trapped as a sex slave.
As it turns out, the woman works as a nanny for a well-to-do, yuppie couple. Upon investigation, the team discovers that she is being held there against her will. The episode is based on the case of Colleen Stan, a woman who was kidnapped and held as a sex slave by a wealthy California couple.
8. “Perfect,” Season 4, Episode 24
This super-disturbing episode of Law & Order: SVU begins when the squad finds the body of a young girl. Her autopsy reveals she had faced extensively poor health and neglect. However, she was wearing a $1,000 dollar necklace and (even more confusingly) she is pregnant. The doctors find that her pregnancy was caused by a unique and experimental fertilization process, leading them to one Dr. Lang. Lang runs a cult, where he impregnates young girls with his children.
Disturbingly enough, the episode is based on the suspected murder of Lisa McPherson, a member of the Church of Scientology whose death suggested neglect, malnourishment and abuse.
9. “Game,” Season 6, Episode 14
In this episode, a young couple assaults and batters a woman to her death, and then later murders one of their friends. Things only get weirder when Elliot Stabler’s son realizes the entire crime spree is based directly off of a (fictional) video game. The couple’s lawyer then argues that the game had such a strong impact on their perceptions of reality, that they were not responsible for their actions.
Believe it or not, this episode was based on a real-life lawsuit against the creators of Grand Theft Auto, when a 16-year-old boy stole a car and shot a police officer. In this case, real-life was even wilder than the episode.
10. “Sick,” Season 5, Episode 19
This is another one of those Law & Order: SVU episodes that was blatantly taken from the headlines. While they obviously put their own spin on things, these episodes are always kind of unnecessary because, well, we all know what happens.
In “Sick,” a rich and well-known billionaire is accused of molestation by the child of one of his employees, and more children slowly come forward. However, the families signed a confidentiality agreement, making it impossible for the children to testify. This episode was pretty clearly about the assault allegations against Michael Jackson. The fictional court case even brought to light evidence from the real case that didn’t make it to trial.
11. “Gridiron Soldier,” Season 15, Episode 16
In the “Gridiron Soldier” episode of Law & Order: SVU, the team encounters a case of hazing gone horribly wrong. When Winston Duke is being scouted for the fictional Hudson University football team, his luck pretty much ends there. What starts as seemingly-innocent hazing and messing around goes south when the team blindfolds Duke, and has a man perform oral sex on him without his consent. In a fit of homophobic rage, he ends up punching a gay man at a bar.
Many could argue that this episode was a lot like the Miami Dolphins hazing incident, in which older team members bullied a new member, Jonathan Martin, to the point of suicidal thoughts. He eventually quit the team, and a full-scale investigation into the harassment was launched.
12. “Personal Fouls,” Season 13, Episode 2
This episode of Law & Order: SVU is super strange, because of the fact that it wasn’t based on a real-life case. Hear us out: When a well-respected community member, football coach, life mentor and trainer Ray Masters is accused of molesting his underprivileged players, it sheds light on a decades-long string of child abuse and molestation.
This may sound familiar, as infamous Penn State coach Joe Paterno was caught covering up almost exactly the same thing. However, this episode of SVU came out before the scandal, showing just how disturbingly-common and systematic this kind of abuse can be.
13. “Wanderlust,” Season 1, Episode 5
The “Wanderlust” episode of SVU is a classic one. What starts as a murder investigation leads to a web of scandal and family secrets. When a journalist is found dead with a pair of women’s underwear shoved in his mouth, his landlady is the first suspect — since he’s a relatively solitary man. It turns out, the teenage daughter, Virginia, is having an affair with him, and kills him when he backs out of his promise to take her away from her boring life. Sounds familiar? It’s a whole lot like Lolita, in which a man marries his landlady only to have an affair with her daughter. Sur, Lolita is fictional… but weird, right?
14. “Repression,” Season 3, Episode 1
In this episode based on a famous psychological phenomenon combined with the Cheryl Pierson case, the SVU gang deals with a highly complicated case. Essentially, a woman comes forward after revealing that she was sexually abused by her father, Evan, throughout her childhood. She recovers these memories under intense psychoanalysis by her therapist. While she is now grown, she fears for her minor sisters who still live with him. Things go from bad to worse when Evan is murdered, and it is revealed that the memories were false — brought on by drugs and the intense suggestions of her therapist.
This actually happened in real life, when the epidemic of “recovered” trauma memories spread across the nation, only for it to be revealed that the majority of them were false. Additionally, the episode pulls from the Cheryl Pierson case, in which a high schooler shot Pierson’s father for $400 after she claimed he was abusing her.
15. “Head,” Season 5, Episode 25
This Law & Order: SVU episode is another combo of real-life cases. It starts as a simple case of a peeping tom in a Central Park bathroom who is caught filming strangers. Things get complicated when the camera gets footage of a grown woman molesting a young boy. The perpetrator, Meredith Rice, suffers a seizure in custody, where it is revealed that a brain tumor is causing her unusual, predatory behavior.
In real life, a still-unidentified man who suffered from a similar brain tumor began abusing his daughter every time the tumor would grow back. Additionally, the episode drew from the Mary Kay Letourneau case, in which a woman was caught committing second-degree child rape of her 12 year-old student. The two later married, and Letourneau gave birth to two of his children in custody. Yuck..
16. “Fools for Love,” Season 10, Episode 15
After a man is accused of brutally killing his girlfriend’s sister and then another victim, the SVU squad is pretty certain they caught the right guy. They find his girlfriend, also brutally beaten and injured, and she points the finger on her boyfriend as well. However, things are only made more complicated when they realize that his girlfriend was actually a co-conspirator, and played a huge part in the murder of her own sister. This episode was based on a real-life couple, the “Barbie and Ken Killers,” or Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, who killed Karla’s sister, as well as two other victims.
17. “Scorched Earth,” Season 13, Episode 1
In another classic “ripped from the headlines” episode of Law & Order: SVU, the team investigates the alleged assault of a hotel worker. The maid claims that one of the hotel guests, a well-known Italian diplomat, sexually assaulted her.
The woman is put through hell and back as the case becomes super high-profile and her credibility becomes more and more tarnished. In the case of the real-life politician, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, he was eventually forced to resign after it came forward that he did, indeed, assault a maid.
18. “Glasgowman’s Wrath,” Season 16, Episode 6
In one of the creepiest episodes of Law & Order: SVU, a group of young girls become victims of a grisly crime after hearing the terrifying urban legend, Glasgowman. One of the young girls, Zoe is found stabbed to death in Central Park after going on the hunt for Glasgowman with her sister, Mia and Mia’s friend, Perry.
Sadly enough, this is directly based off of the Slenderman Killings which occurred when a 12-year-old girl was stabbed by two other girls in their hopes to impress Slenderman, a creature of urban legend who is believed to kill children.
19. “Scavenger,” Season 6, Episode 4
And finally, it was inevitable that Law & Order: SVU would make an episode based on the BTK killer. In the SVU version, Benson and Stabler reopen a cold case in order to track down a serial rapist and murderer from the 1970s with the help of one of his only surviving victim. They call the killer (get this) RTK, which stands for “rape, torture, kill.” If you aren’t familiar with the real-life crime, the BTK (short for bind, torture, kill) killer was only convicted after 30 years after committing ten murders.