As human beings, we are obsessed with crime and serial killers. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, one thing is for sure, these serial killer movies are good, good enough to scare your bones off your skin. They are a 100 percent based on real, twisted people, who lived amongst us.
Here are 20 best serial killer movies and the lives of the people they are based on:
Dennis Rader seemed like a normal, suburban dad with two children before he was identified as the BTK Killer. He was a Boy Scout troop leader and church council president which allowed him the perfect alibi to bind, torture, and kill 10 people. In his spare time, he would write letters to the police and taunt them with the trophies he acquired from his victims such as jewellery.
Then, he would photograph himself dressed in his victims’ underwear, practiced auto-erotic self-asphyxiation, and even buried himself in dirt at the crime scenes to relate to his victims more.
The Hunt For The BTK Killer (2005)
Dennis Rader’s horrific bind, torture, kill methodology inspired many serial killer movies, none more accurately than The Hunt For The BTK Killer.
Dennis Rader famously kept his entire family in the dark while spending his free time as a serial killer. Rader seemed like an typical father and God-fearing churchman to his friends and family who knew him, until he was discovered as the mask-wearing, auto-erotic self-asphyxiation-obsessed serial killer. Playing a cat and mouse game, the final mistake this killer made was to get too cocky and allow himself to be traced by a floppy disk.
Red Dragon (2002)
In Red Dragon, a prequel to The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal, a former FBI agent played by Edward Norton asks convicted cannibal Hannibal Lecter for advice on how to find a new serial killer.
Author Thomas Harris, who wrote the 1981 novel of the same name, said the character of Francis Dolarhyde — a hermit who has trouble forming relationships and seeks solace in the paintings of William Blake — was based on real-life serial killer Dennis Rader.
Jeffrey Dahmer killed 17 people. He’d bring victims home from gay bars because he couldnt come to terms with his own sexuality. Then, Dahmer would drug, rape, and kill them, dismember the remains and keep the skulls. Police arrested him in 1991 after Tracy Edwards escaped and took them to Dahmer’s apartment, where they found many photos of his murders. The soft-spoken murderer mutilated animals from a young age, keeping roadside carcasses and storing their organs in jars. He’d find his first human victims by taking men home from bars.
This low-budget indie stars Jeremy Renner in an early break-out performance as Wisconsin serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. If you are looking to get inside the mind of Dahmer at the height of his murder spree this film tracks the killer as he stalks a potential victim, all while flashing back to his first kill and his relationship with his father.
Dahmer like many serial killer movies ends on a different note (in this case a foggy memory of the man’s childhood) in reality, the real killer was beaten to death in a federal penitentiary.
My Friend Dahmer (2017)
If you’re not looking for a whole lot of murder to go with your serial-killer drama, check out Ross Lynch as a high-school-era Jeffrey Dahmer. If you know the name “Dahmer” but don’t remember his exact crimes off the top of your head, just keep in mind that he was also known as the Milwaukee Cannibal and was responsible for the rape and murder of 17 men from 1978 to 1991.
Ted Bundy infamously used his charm to lure young women in, before overpowering them and inevitably killing them. His necrophilia was so bad he often performed sexual acts with his victims’ corpses while they decomposed. He also groomed their bodies. Ted Bundy wore a cast to attract victims and he kept some of his victims’ severed heads as trophies.
While on trial in Florida, Ted Bundy enthralled a whole nation of young women watching on TV, believing him to be innocent. Many serial killer movies take inspiration from Ted Bundy.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019)
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile received stellar reviews from critics, although many thought it glorified, not vilified, Bundy. Regardless, the film was inspired by the serial killer’s relationship with his girlfriend and explored “how one becomes a victim to that kind of psychopathic seduction,” as Director Joe Berlinger explained at Sundance Film Festival.
Based on the memoir of Ted Bundy’s former girlfriend, Elizabeth Kloepfer, the movie largely revolves around the serial killer’s last days as a free man before his execution in 1989.
Berlinger’s film skews more closely to the life and crimes of the real-life killer than others merely inspired by actual murderers. This is likely attributed to the director’s experience in documentary filmmaking, particularly his 2019 Netflix film, Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes.
Alterations were made which deterred from real events. According to Berlinger this is one of those serial killer movies dramatic enough to entertain, first and foremost. While Efron’s character proposes to his girlfriend Carole Ann Boone in Judge Edward D. Cowart’s courtroom, the real Bundy did so during the 1980 Florida trial for the murder of 12-year-old Kimberly Leach.
The confrontation by Elizabeth Kloepfer before Bundy’s execution, too, was altered for the silver screen. It’s “one of the few liberties we take in the film,” said Berlinger in regards to changing the real-life phone call to an in-person confession.
“It was a phone call,” Berlinger said. “I didn’t find that very dramatic.”
The Deliberate Stranger (1986)
Airing in 1986, this two-part TV movie is based on serial killer Ted Bundy’s trial. The NBC film does not tell Bundy’s full story. In reality, he murdered at least 30 people (likely more), but the movie was praised for being fairly accurate. Mark Harmon, of NCIS fame, was praised for his performance as Bundy, even receiving a Golden Globe nomination.
American Psycho (2000)
Based on a novel by the same name, American Psycho follows investment banker Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) as he manages his homicidal tendencies. The author, Bret Easton Ellis, read every book about Bundy while writing the novel, but he also references Bundy many times in the book and screenplay. Notably, both Bateman and Bundy are charismatic men who demonstrate the unstable, aggressive nature of a psychopath. And Bateman murdered prostitutes just like Bundy.
David Berkowitz aka “Son of Sam”
David Berkowitz, murdered six people and claimed Satan had possessed his neighbor Sam’s dog and instructed him to kill. In 1976, he killed six people and wounded eight using a .44 caliber revolver. He also sent insulting letters to the police as they tried to find the killer. In 1977, police arrested Berkowitz, who said he’d followed orders from a demon who took the form of a dog named Sam.
Summer of Sam (1999)
Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam explores the “Son of Sam” murders in New York City during the summer of 1977. Berkowitz’s mother died when he was 14. He served in the military and returned home to find his friends had moved on. He grew lonely, despondent, and eventually began to stalk people. Similar to the Zodiac killer, he sent cryptic letters to the police. Unlike the Zodiac, however, he was arrested and is serving six consecutive 25-years-to-life sentences in prison
Summer of Sam is about serial killer David Berkowitz, often called the “Son of Sam” by the media. Spike Lee’s film doesn’t focus on Berkowitz. Instead, it tells a different story as the murders occur. A group of friends in the Bronx begins to fear and suspect one another as they try to solve the murders for themselves.The main character is a hairdresser living in the Bronx, but his story intersects with Berkowitz’s story.
Serial killer Gary Heidnik would force his victims to torture each other. He even ground one of his victims up and forced another victim to eat her flesh.
Most disturbingly, Heidnik led a 50-person church congregation, and appointed himself bishop. When he wasn’t head of the United Church of the Ministers of God, he was raping, torturing, and murdering innocent people.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Buffalo Bill in the serial killer movies of The Silence of the Lambs series was inspired by numerous serial killers. The main man among them was Gary Heidnik, who, like Buffalo Bill, enslaved his victims.
Richard Speck famously remarked in reference to his nursing student victims that “It just wasn’t their night.” The alcoholic killer impregnated a 15-year-old girl, was arrested for theft, robbery, fraud, and assault, and raped numerous victims before he was finally sentenced to life in prison.
Chicago Massacre: Richard Speck (2007)
Chicago Massacre: Richard Speck is based on the true story of the eponymous serial killer who murdered eight women in one night in 1966. Serial killer movies based on Speck may be few, but the scary details and acting chops based on this character is wonderfully explained in Mindhunter.
Aileen Wuornos was a prostitute convicted of luring men to their deaths while hitchhiking across the country. Wuornos was sexually promiscuous and violent from a young age, getting into fights at local bars and marrying a 69-year-old businessman at the age of 20. Aileen was also abused by her father. She vehemently denied culpability in her victims’ deaths and claimed she was raped by the men and killed them in self-defense, but was convicted of murder in the early ’90s and executed in 2002.
Charlize Theron absolutely transforms into Aileen Wuornos, a real-life former prostitute who murdered six men (or seven, if you don’t go by the courts) in the late ’80s/early ’90s. Selby Wall (Christina Ricci) falls in love with Wuornos but starts to wonder if her new girlfriend is responsible for a string of johns ending up dead.
In 2003, Charlize Theron won the Oscar for Best Actress for her role as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster. In reality, Wuornos shot and killed seven men in 1989 and 1990, then confessed a year later. She said she “hates human life and would kill again.” Wuornos was sentenced to death for the murder of Richard Mallory and was executed in 2002.
Henry Lee Lucas
Lucas and his lover Ottis Toole traveled across America, raping and killing anyone they deemed worthy. Lucas and Toole even cannibalized some of their victims. If Lucas told the truth, he and Toole killed hundreds of people. Perhaps most unnerving is the fact that Lucas murdered his own mother. She allegedly raised him abusively, leading him to torture animals at a young age.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer(1986)
Arguably Michael Rooker’s greatest performance, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer depicts serial killer Henry Lee Lucas’ descent into madness when he killed in the ’60s and ’70s.
He was finally arrested for stabbing Frieda Powell and Kate Rich. Lucas was convicted for 11 homicides but claimed to have murdered as many as 3,000 people. The film mirrors a lot of his real life, including Lucas’s friend Ottis Toole, another serial killer. But Henry is based on Lucas’s confessions and fantasies, not reality.
Despite being the basis for plenty of serial killer movies, such as Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs and the aforementioned Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the real-life Ed Gein only killed two people. What he did a little more often dig up corpses and make clothes and lampshades out of their skin, because he wanted to look like his mother. Like Norman Bates from Hitchcock’s Psycho, both men killed women and had an unhealthy obsession with his dead mother.
Ed Gein (2000)
With a story as messed up as that, it’s no wonder Gein inspired so many serial killer movies, although 2000’s biopic Ed Gein is one of the few films that focuses on the real guy behind the macabre crimes. It’s not a sensational stop-him-before-he-kills-again kind of story, although it definitely dives into disturbing territory (seriously, how could it not?). Steve Railsback, who started playing killers in 1976 as Charles Manson in Helter Skelter, is pretty believable as the oddball farmer who’s secretly insane enough to put on a woman’s skin and dance around in his front yard.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
One of the best serial killer movies, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is kinda based on a true story. The serial killer in the movie, Leatherface, is loosely based on Ed Gein.
Ed Gein’s name alone might not garner as much recognition as Ted Bundy’s, but his crimes are responsible for some of the best serial killer movies ever made. While Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre veers off into utter madness, Gein’s vile inhumanity is at the core of the film’s gore. Ed Gein’s penchant for necrophilia, decapitation, and retaining his victims’ body parts to make homemade furniture was a big inspiration behind the villain character of Leatherface.
It was 1957 when authorities finally found their suspect in Gein. They were greeted by the gutted, decapitated body of Bernice Worden hanging from his ceiling when they entered his home.
An A&E and Biography Channel documentary on the man who inspired Leatherface, Ed Gein. Hooper’s film, 17 years later, is set in an equally rural environment, and sees Leatherface engaging in similarly shocking behavior. Both people, fictional or otherwise, treated others like animals ready to be slaughtered.
“The girl on the meathook,” said Hooper, “when I pan down her body to show the washtub underneath, it is obviously to catch a lot of fluid. There’s nothing dripping from her. It’s just, you put it together in your mind.”
Leatherface hung his victims from meathooks in a slaughterhouse. Gein simply used his farmhouse. Both properties were littered with countless human bones — which Gein used for furniture, bowls, and utensils. While Leatherface used his victims’ skin to make masks, Gein used it to upholster his chairs and to make leggings.
A whopping 30 people were reported missing or found murdered. The lack of leads plagued the city and led to tension between its citizenry and the police, until Wayne Williams was caught and arrested.
Williams was found guilty of two adult murders, and always maintained his innocence regarding the child killings. In 2010, forensics experts performed DNA tests, which didn’t exist in 1981, on hairs found on the body of an 11-year-old victim. The tests could not exclude Williams as the boy’s killer, but the child murder cases remain unsolved.
Who Killed Atlanta’s Children?(2000)
David Fincher’s Mindhunter may have discussed the riveting case of Wayne Williams, but back in 2000, Who Killed Atlanta’s Children? explored Atlanta’s string of murders of young black children and men between 1979 and 1981.
Ramiez was influenced by his older cousin, who would torture women and showed Ramirez a photo of himself standing beside one of their decapitated heads.
Ramirez soon took to LSD and Satanism, and perpetrated horrific sexual violence for 16 months before being arrested. He died in 2013, due to liver failure.
The Night Stalker (2016)
The Night Stalker centers on a young attorney traveling to California’s San Quentin State Prison to garner a confession from one of its most dangerous inmates.
Lou Diamond Phillips is perfectly cast as serial killer Richard Ramirez, who brutally murdered 13 people in Los Angeles between 1984 and 1985.
Although “the Night Stalker” was unfortunately a very real serial killer who committed heinous crimes, the movie itself does not stay true to life.
The Dating Game Killer (2017)
The true story is so incredible, it’s surprising that it took until 2017 for it to be portrayed on film. The Dating Game Killer is based on serial killer Rodney Alcala and his suspected murders of up to 130 people.
While most murderers try to stay under the radar, Alcala laughed and joked his way to victory on TV matchmaking show The Dating Game in 1978 — right smack dab in the middle of his killing spree.
Alcala usually bit, beat, raped, and strangled his victims. At one point he enrolled at NYU under a fake name and studied under Roman Polanski, whose own wife would soon be murdered by Charles Manson’s followers. Alcala was sentenced to death in 2010 after acting as his own attorney in his third murder trial. He’s currently incarcerated in a California prison.
Karla Homolka and her husband Paul Bernardo commited a disturbing series of rapes and killings in a Canadian suburb. Homolka encouraged her husband to deflower her 15-year-old sister — her gift to him as a Christmas present. Homolka spiked her sister’s drink with animal anesthetics before the two lovers took turns raping the young girl.
Homolka later claimed her husband raped around 30 people, and killed at least two teenage girls.
Based on real events, Karla stars OITNB’s Laura Prepon as one half of Canada’s most notorious serial-killer couple, Karla Homolkaand Paul Bernardo (Supernatural’s Misha Collins). Although, perhaps the disturbing premise—an inside look at how Paul convinces his wife, Karla, to help him rape and murder women (including her own sister)—coupled with the fact that the director reportedly acted creepy and inappropriate on-set will make this one you choose to skip.
The “Ken and Barbie Killers” began a sadomasochistic relationship before sharing their interest of raping others. The film sparked outrage among the families of victims and Canadian politicians, who thought it too sympathetic toward Homolka.
Real-life serial killer Robert Hansen was an avid hunter, and tracked his victims down like animals. Hansen usually targeted prostitutes and strippers, and would set them free in order to track them down, armed with a Ruger Mini-14 semi-automatic rifle and a hunting knife. He killed 17 people.
The Frozen Ground (2013)
The Frozen Ground follows an Alaska state trooper investigating a suspect who’s been abducting, torturing, and murdering young girls.
The “Butcher Baker” seemed inspired by Richard Connell’s short story The Most Dangerous Game.One of his would-be victims was 17 years old and was found running through Anchorage in bare feet, handcuffed and pleading for help.
Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate
Once again serial killer movies love to feature real life couples who killed others. Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate were one of America’s most notorious spree killing couples. Fugate was only 14 when Starkweather amassed his roster of victims. She returned home one night to find that Starkweather had shot and killed her stepparents. He also murdered her infant half-sister by stabbing her in the neck.
The two then went on a road trip that transfixed the nation, with Fugate eventually becoming the youngest female ever tried for first-degree murder.
Natural Born Killers (1994)
Quentin Tarantino is famous for tailoring real life around his stories, not the other way around. Natural Born Killers is thus more of a satire on true crime TV and the media than a direct dramatization of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate.
Nonetheless, the pair’s ghastly and engrossing story was hugely inspirational. The character of Mickey (played by Woody Harrelson) murders his girlfriend’s (again, funny enough, played by Juliette Lewis) abusive father before taking her on a road trip across the country, before eventually being imprisoned and sentenced to death.
Both Mickey and Starkweather kill their lover’s fathers, but Starkweather was sentenced to death by electrocution — while Mickey got away.
Known for its cult following with stars such as Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, and Robert Downey Jr., this serial killer movie will undoubtedly creep you out, it’s also packed with satire and cautionary wisdom, representing the consequences of glorifying violence and evil in mass media.
Kalifornia revolves around a pair of journalists who go on a guided tour of serial killer murder sites, led by a serial killer named Early Grayce (played by Brad Pitt) and his girlfriend (played by Juliette Lewis).
While the Early Grayce character wasn’t specifically beholden to the characteristics of real-life serial killer Charles Starkweather, the murderous, cross-country rampage undertaken in the film was certainly inspired by Starkweather and girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate’s crime spree.
Terrence Malick’s Badlands centers on two lovers on the run after murdering the young girl’s father.
Starkweather killed Fugate’s stepparents, and even murdered her infant sister, before the pair hit the road. Like Martin Sheen’s character, Starkweather murdered several more people he encountered while on the run.
The film doesn’t fully adhere to the true story of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, but the sizable body count and cross-country road trip strongly parallel the couple’s late-1950s crime spree.
Serial killer Albert DeSalvo confessed to sexually assaulting and murdering 13 women. Originally, police couldn’t find physical evidence to convict DeSalvo, so he went on trial for unrelated robbery and sex crimes.
The papers warned of a “mad strangler” on the loose in 1962, five years before Albert DeSalvo admitted it was him. He’d call his victims’ homes and say, “You will be next,” and put the city of Boston in a panic.
His claims and contradictory evidence regarding all 13 cases leave some uncertain of the truth, however, as he was never convicted of the killings. Nonetheless, DeSalvo claimed, on tape while institutionalized, to being the Boston Strangler.
The Boston Strangler (1968)
The Boston Strangler is the true story of 13 murders from 1962–64. Albert DeSalvo sexually assaulted and killed women in their own homes, with no signs of forced entry. DeSalvo was arrested when a victim survived and went to the police. The film depicted DeSalvo as having multiple personality disorder, which he did not officially have in real life. For years, many thought there was another killer. But, in 2013, DNA evidence confirmed he was the strangler.
John Wayne Gacy
With an official body count of 33 victims, Gacy is remembered as one of the scariest serial killers in American history. He once worked as a mortuary assistant in Las Vegas, and was first convicted of sexually assaulting a child in 1968.
He performed as “Pogo the Clown” at numerous parties and fundraisers, including children’s hospitals, while his primary obsession was young boys. His last meal was a bucket of fried chicken from KFC.
The original killer clown, John Wayne Gacy is a legend born of nightmares. And yeah, thanks to that whole murderous clown thing, Gacy has inspired more than his fair share of silver-screen psychos. Remember Twisty the Clown from AHS: Freak Show? Sure you do. Like a savory marinade, he soaks into your psyche and puts down roots. Roots that go straight back to the real-life freak show who murdered 33 boys and buried them in the crawlspace under his house.
While plenty of characters have drawn inspiration from Gacy’s macabre Pogo the Clown act, surprisingly few films have been made about the man himself. The 2003 biopic Gacy is, let’s face it, a turd in a handbasket, but it at least made an effort to depict the killer’s life in a realistic way. Gacy is played by Mark Holton, who lends a heavyset hostility to the role, but the similarities stop there. Well, other than the makeup. The makeup is spot on.
Milat murdered seven backpackers. Authorities had him on their radar since he was 13, with Milat garnering his first conviction for theft six years later.
When he was 17, Milat allegedly confessed to his brother Boris that he shot a taxi driver during a robbery gone wrong. He blindfolded some of his “backpacker murder” victims, marching them into the bush before repeatedly shooting them in the head or stabbing them to death.
Wolf Creek (2005)
Wolf Creek is based on the ghastly murders of Ivan Milat, Australia’s most violent serial killer. The plot sees three young backpackers being hunted in the Outback.
Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck
The pair is suspected to have killed 20 people, though there was only enough evidence to convict them of three murders. Fernandez and Beck were sentenced to death by electrocution in 1951. Just before her execution, Beck wrote a final letter to the media.
“What does it matter who is to blame?” she wrote. “My story is a love story, but only those tortured with love can understand what I mean….In the history of the world, how many crimes have been attributed to love?”
The Honeymoon Killers (1970)
The Honeymoon Killers is a romantic crime-drama that follows an obese nurse and her toupée-wearing lover as they con and kill unsuspecting people.
The movie was inspired by the real-life serial killers Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck, who would scam women before murdering them. They were able to keep their killings secret until they murdered a mother and her two-year-old daughter. Suspicious neighbors reported the pair’s disappearance, and police soon captured Fernandez and Beck.
Andrei Chikatilo murdered at least 52 people before he was caught. Despite the vast amount of evidence against him, he was let go numerous times before being convicted for good in 1992. He was small in stature, bullied as a child, and even attempted suicide once. Instead of ending his own life, he ended those of dozens of transients, children, and runaways.
Citizen X (1995)
Citizen X is based on the true story of a serial killer who murdered women and children in the Soviet Union in the 1980s.