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

Published August 27, 2023
Updated January 25, 2024

Go inside the most terrifying serial killer movies of all time — and the even grislier real-life murderers who inspired them.

Best Serial Killer Movies Based On True Stories Jeffrey Dahmer
Matthew Lillard and Danny Rolling
Best Serial Killer Movies 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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As film critic Roger Ebert once said, "movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts." Maybe that's why serial killer movies are so popular: these vicious murderers are enigmas we're desperate to decode.

Because people are often most afraid of what they can't understand, seeing the horrid brutalities that serial killers commit — from the safe distance that a movie affords — might be an appealing way of learning how they became this way and what makes them tick.

And when it comes to some of the best serial killer movies based on true stories, a number of history's most brutal real-life predators have served as inspiration.

Best Serial Killer Movies Based On True Stories

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 grindhouse features like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre from 1974, serial killer movies based on true stories have been a mainstay of our culture for decades. Besides thrills, they offer an opportunity to delve into the minds of the real-life figures who inspired them.

But in these cases and others, what changed between real life and the silver screen? How did some of the best serial killer movies based on true stories amend the truth in ways that both intensified and softened what actually happened?

Best Serial Killer Movies Based On True Stories: 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.

Ed Gein

Bettmann/Getty ImagesEd Gein, the so-called "Butcher of Plainfield."

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.

And while The Texas Chain Saw Massacre remains one of the best serial killer movies ever made, the filmmakers behind it couldn't even begin to capture all of Ed Gein's real-life atrocities onscreen.

Adapting The Real Story Of Serial Killer Ted Bundy Into A Movie

When the famously handsome Zac Efron was cast as the murderous Ted Bundy in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, the reaction was harsh. A likable, beautiful young movie star portraying a monster like Ted Bundy? To many, that was precisely what seemed vile.

However, Bundy himself entranced a whole nation in the late 1970s and early 1980s with his infamous charm and good looks, and perhaps that made Efron was a perfect fit for the role. What's more, 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," Berlinger told USA Today. "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."

Ted Bundy

Bettmann/Contributor/Getty ImagesTed Bundy waves to television cameras during his trial for the assault and murder of several women in Florida in 1978.

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."

And while small measures of dramatic license like this are often taken, the best serial killer movies based on true stories largely attempt to capture the terrifyingly real essence of who these horrifying figures are and why they do what they do.

After learning about the best serial killer movies based on true stories, 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 former staff writer for All That’s Interesting, Marco Margaritoff holds dual Bachelor's degrees from Pace University and a Master's in journalism from New York University. He has published work at People, VICE, Complex, and serves as a staff reporter at HuffPost.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.