33 Of The Best Serial Killer Movies And The Even More Horrifying True Stories Behind Them

Published October 18, 2019
Updated April 27, 2022

A side-by-side comparison of the most terrifying serial killer movies of all time — and the even grislier real-life murderers who inspired them.

Jeremy Renner as Jeffrey Dahmer
Matthew Lillard and Danny Rolling
Mark Holton John Wayne Gacy
Zac Efron as Ted Bundy
33 Of The Best Serial Killer Movies And The Even More Horrifying True Stories Behind Them
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Roger Ebert famously said that "movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts." Maybe that's why serial killer movies are so popular: serial killers are enigmas we're desperate to decode.

Since people are most afraid of what they can't understand, experiencing the horrid brutalities serial killers commit — from safely in front of a movie screen — might be an alluring method of learning how they became this way.

While Hollywood largely shifted its horror-centric output of the 1980s to the more fantastical (think Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees), real-life serial killers have always been an enormous inspiration. No monster is scary without a semblance of relatable realism, after all.

Movies About Serial Killers

Wikimedia CommonsHorror films have been inspired by true events and real serial killers as early as Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 classic Psycho. The character of Norman Bates shares a striking number of similarities with Ed Gein, "The Butcher of Plainfield."

From Academy Award-winning fare like 1991's The Silence of the Lambs to the deliciously disreputable The Texas Chain Saw Massacre from 1974, serial killer movies based on real stories have been a mainstay of our culture for decades. Besides thrills, they offer an opportunity to delve into the minds of the true figures who inspired them.

What changed between real life and the silver screen? How did the era affect the film's depiction of true crimes? How much creative liberty can filmmakers get away with before they can no longer claim their work was "based on a true story"?

Ed Gein And The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

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.

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.


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.

Zac Efron Vs. Ted Bundy

When the notoriously handsome Zac Efron was cast as the murderous Ted Bundy in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, the reaction was harsh. A charming, beautiful young man portraying Ted Bundy?

They likely forgot that the latter entranced a whole nation in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and that Efron was a perfect fit. According to USA Today, director Joe Berlinger's 2019 movie is largely accurate and conforms to the truths of Bundy's trial and imprisonment.

"That was important to me," said Berlinger. "This is not a documentary, obviously. But the historical beats of Ted Bundy are very accurate in the movie."

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.

And though Berlinger stayed true to the most of the facts surrounding Bundy's life — this is a dramatic horror film intended 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.

"Telling a whole other trial was not in the cards for this movie," Berlinger explained. "We took some dramatic license."

An IndieWire interview with director Joe Berlinger on adapting Ted Bundy's life for the screen.

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."

Ultimately, that is the entire basis for these side-by-side comparisons. Real life is not structured in three acts, nor is the pacing as engaging as we sometimes wish it were. Murderers are terrible people — but they're still people.

Only in film can they be as binary, or more thoroughly explored as complex, than they are in reality. Hopefully, these 33 images serve as a reminder that fact and fiction, thought often seemingly close, can never be one and the same.

After learning about the best serial killer movies and the horrifying true stories behind real-life serial killers, check out these 21 serial killer quotes that will chill you to the bone. Then, read the horrifying story of Rodney Alcala, the serial killer who won 'The Dating Game' during his murder spree.

Marco Margaritoff
A staff writer for All That’s Interesting, Marco Margaritoff has also published work at outlets including People, VICE, and Complex, covering everything from film to finance to technology. He holds dual bachelor's degrees from Pace University and a master's degree from New York University.