Released during a major slump in the slasher genre, Scream was based on the murders of five college students in Gainesville, Florida.
Screenwriter Kevin Williamson, inspired by killer Danny Rolling, initially wanted to set the film on a college campus before opting for a high school.
The real-life "Gainesville Ripper" raped one of his victims before killing her. He then removed her nipples and placed them beside her before leaving.Dimension Films/Public Record via Jacksonville.Com
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Gacy went straight to video, but it's yet to be topped as the definitive biopic of John Wayne Gacy.
With an official bodycount 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.Left: Beartooth Productions Right: Tim Boyle/Getty Images
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.
Arguably most horrific was the murder of 12-year-old Kimberley Leach, which is not depicted in the film. While on trial in Florida, Ted Bundy enthralled a whole nation of young women watching on TV, believing him to be innocent.Left: Netflix Right: Bettmann/Getty Images
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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.
In real life, 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.Left: The Weinstein Company Right: AAP/Daily Mail
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From Hell (2001)
From Hell is based on a graphic novel by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, and centers on the Jack the Ripper murders of Victorian-era London.
Jack the Ripper's is still unknown, but the film takes some serious liberties with the facts. It runs with a decades-old conspiracy theory (with which many scholars disagree) that the Ripper was one William Gull, a prominent London physician.
Investigators did think the Ripper could have been a doctor, since he seemed to be very familiar with dissection and human anatomy. But Gull was 71 at the time of murders and had recently suffered a stroke. Left: 20th Century Fox Right: Wikimedia Commons
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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.
The real-life serial killer, David Berkowitz, murdered six people and claimed Satan had possessed his neighbor Sam's dog and instructed him to kill.
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.Left: 40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks Right: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The real-life figure 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.Left: Maljack Productions Right: Wikimedia Commons
Inspired by the brutal murders of Ed Gein, the film is set in rural Texas and finds a group of lost teenaged hippie hitchhikers get butchered to death.
The slaughterhouse is filled with household items made of human flesh and bone — just like Ed Gein's home in Plainfield, Wisconsin was when he was arrested in 1957.Left: Vortex Right: AP
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Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho sees a young bank secretary steal from her boss and hit the road. During a particularly stormy night, she checks into the roadside Bates Hotel and meets the boyish Ed Gein-inspired innkeeper, Norman Bates.
Hitchcock's film came out just three years after America learned about the "butcher of Plainfield" and his grisly crimes. The country had never heard of a man decapitating innocents and stringing their bodies up like cattle.
Ed Gein, like Bates, killed women and had an unhealthy obsession with his dead mother. Left: Universal Pictures Right: Getty Images
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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.
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. In his spare time, he bound, tortured, and killed 10 people.
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.Left: Universal Pictures Right: Bo Rader-Pool/Getty Images
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The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Jonathan Demme's Oscar-winning Silence of the Lambs revolves around a young FBI trainee (Jodie Foster) who seeks out a cannibalistic murderer (Anthony Hopkins) to help her find a serial killer on the loose (Ted Levine).
The character of Buffalo Bill is based on several real-life serial killers, including Ted Bundy, Ed Gein, Edmund Kemper, and Gary Heidnik. Ted Bundy actually did help authorities find serial killers like him while behind bars, paralleling Hannibal Lecter.
While Buffalo Bill isn't depicted as the butcher Ed Gein was (Gein made furniture out of the human skin and bones of his victims), the character's treatment of women as disposable meat was certainly inspired by killers like Gein.
It was only the third film ever to win Academy Awards in all top five categories: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay.Left: MGM Right: Harold Olmos/AP
Chief among them was Gary Heidnik, who, like Buffalo Bill, enslaved his victims.
Unlike Buffalo Bill, however, Heidnik forced them 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.Left: MGM Right: The Ecletic Collection/YouTube
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David Fincher's Zodiac is unlike any serial killer film in recent memory, as it explores the endless obsession of those who spend their lives chasing down nebulous leads.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Robert Graysmith, a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle, as he independently delves into the Zodiac case and attempts to discover the killer's true identity. The Chronicle famously received a cryptic letter from the Zodiac. One of the killer's famous letters read:
"Schoolchildren make nice targets. I think I shall wipe out a school bus one morning. Just shoot out the front tire + then pick off the kiddies as they come bouncing out."
As depicted in the film, the Zodiac Killer was never caught. David Fincher leaves the viewer with an option of rabbit holes to choose from, never certain of one suspect over the other, paralleling Graysmith's frustration with the audience's own.Left: Paramount Pictures Right: San Francisco Police Department
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Monster is based on the true story of Aileen Wuornos, 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.
She vehemently denied culpability in her victims' deaths and claimed she killed them in self-defense, but was convicted of murder in the early '90s and executed in 2002. Left: Media 8 Entertainment Right: YouTube
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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.
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.
Left: PolyGram Filmed Entertainment Right: Bettmann/Getty Images
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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.
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?"Left: Roxanne Right: Seymour Wally/NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images
Powers was arrested for killing two women and three children in Illinois in 1931. He lured the women via lonely hearts ads in local papers, and he was hanged for his crimes in 1932.
Mitchum's character in the film is called Harry Powell, a misogynistic murderer-turned-priest. It's been hailed as a classic horror film, and one French magazine called it the second-best film of all time after Citizen Kane.Left: MGM Right: Wikimedia Commons
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Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006)
Tom Tykwer's Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is a period piece centered on an 18th-century olfactory genius in France and his murderous search for the perfect scent.
The film was based on the 1985 novel Perfume, which shares striking similarities to the real-life murders by serial killer Manuel Blanco Romasanta.
The Spanish murderer, nicknamed the "Tallow Man," killed nine women and children in the mid-1800s. He made soap using their body fat, while in the film, the main character thinks humans are the key to unlocking the perfect scent.Left: Constantin Film Right: Wikimedia Commons
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Who Killed Atlanta's Children? (2000)
Before David Fincher's Mindhunter expertly tackled the case, Who Killed Atlanta's Children? explored Atlanta's string of murders of young black children and men between 1979 and 1981.
A stunning 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.Left: Babelsberg International Film Produktion Right: Bettmann/Getty Images
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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.Left: Thinkfactory Media Right: Bettmann/Getty Images
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Memories of Murder (2003)
Bong Joon-Ho's Memories of Murder is based on South Korea's Hwaseong serial murders between 1986 and 1991.
Nine women were found bound, raped, and killed. The case remained unsolved for more than 30 years, but in October 2019, police announced that one Lee Choon-jae — already imprisoned for killing his sister in 1994 — had confessed to all nine killings, and well as five others. And police have DNA evidence to back up Lee's confession.
Unfortunately, Lee cannot be prosecuted for the murders as South Korea's 15-year statute of limitations has long expired. Still, police are determined to continue investigating so they can close the decades-old murder cases. Left: CJ Entertainment Right: Public Domain/Hwaseong Police
The "Phantom Slayer" was never caught, killing five people and wounding three. He mainly targeted young lovers in cars at night, and would kill the men before sexually assaulting and killing the women.
According to witness testimony, the killer did indeed wear a burlap sack with slits for eyes. Youell Swinney, a repeat offender with burglaries and assaults on his record, became a prime suspect but there wasn't enough evidence to arrest him.Left: MGM Right: Wikimedia Commons
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Director William Friedkin wasn't satisfied with his 1987 thriller Rampage, but the dramatized true story has its substantial share of defenders.
The film was based on the "Vampire of Sacramento," serial killer Richard Chase. He had a penchant for drinking his victims' blood — hence the nickname.
Chase killed and mutilated six people in the late 1970s. Like many of his serial killer peers, he abused animals at a young age. His schizophrenia later in life led him to believe his heart had stopped and that he was a walking corpse. He was institutionalized when he tried to inject rabbit's blood into his veins.Left: DEG Right: YouTube
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Terrence Malick's Badlandscenters 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.Left: Warner Bros. Right: Bettmann/Getty Images.
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.Left: Warner Bros. Right: Bettmann/Getty Images
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The Hunt For The BTK Killer (2005)
Dennis Rader's horrific bind, torture, kill methodology inspired many scary 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.Left: Sony Pictures Right: Larry W. Smith/AFP/Getty Images
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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.
The real "Night Stalker" 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.Left: Lifetime Right: Getty Images
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Karla is based on the true story of Karla Homolka and her husband Paul Bernardo's disturbing series of rapes and killings in a Canadian suburb.
The "Ken and Barbie Killers" began a sadomasochistic relationship before sharing their interest of raping others. 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. The film sparked outrage among the families of victims and Canadian politicians, who thought it too sympathetic toward Homolka. Left: MovieBank Right: Peter Power/Toronto Star/Getty Images
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.Left: Lionsgate Right: Bettmann/Getty Images
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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.
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.Left: HBO Pictures Right: Terry Smith/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
The papers warned of a "mad strangler" on the loose in 1962, five years before 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.Left: 20th Century Fox Right: Getty Images
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The Frozen Ground (2013)
The Frozen Ground follows an Alaska state trooper investigating a suspect who's been abducting, torturing, and murdering young girls.
Real-life serial killer Robert Hansen was an avid hunter, and tracked his victims down like animals.
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.
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.Left: Grindstone Entertainment Group Right: Anchorage Daily News/MCT via Getty Images.
33 Of The Best Serial Killer Movies And The Even More Horrifying True Stories Behind Them
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.
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.
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.