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26 Serial Killer Movies Based on Real Life (and Death)

These films are hard to watch because you know they’re true.

serial killer movies
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  • Photo Credit: MRB Productions

We all get a thrill watching a horror film. And if things get too scary, we can tell ourselves that it’s just make-believe. That’s not true of these twenty-six movies based on the rampages of real serial killers. But at least we can comfort ourselves with the fact that these killers are all now safely locked up—or dead.

1. Dahmer

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  • Photo Credit: Blockbuster Films

Killer: Jeffrey Dahmer

Moniker: The Milwaukee Cannibal

Played by: Jeremy Renner

Body Count: 17

M.O.: Strangulation, Dismemberment, Necrophilia, Cannibalism

Today: Dead. Beaten to death by a fellow prisoner.

Jeffrey Dahmer was one of the most depraved serial killers of all time. He began his killing career just three weeks after graduating from high school. Handsome and charming, he lured young men back to his home where he typically drugged them, strangled them, had sex with them (sometimes after death), and dismembered them, saving and sometimes eating the remains. 

Related: Evan Peters Set to Portray Jeffrey Dahmer in Upcoming Ryan Murphy Series

2. The Snowtown Murders

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  • Photo Credit: Screen Australia

Killer: John Bunting

Moniker: Bodies-in-Barrels Killer

Played by: Daniel Henshall

Body Count: 11

M.O.: Torture, Strangulation, Cannibalism

Today: In prison, serving 11 consecutive terms of life without parole.

John Bunting was the ringleader of a murderous gang that terrorized South Australia from 1992 to 1999.  Like many other serial killers, he believed he was cleansing the world of undesirable or weak people. Some of his victims were discovered dismembered in barrels of acid, giving the killer his nickname. 

3. Wolf Creek

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  • Photo Credit: Duo Art Productions

Killer: Ivan Milat 

Moniker: The Backpacker Killer

Played by: John Jarratt

Body Count: 7

M.O.: Left victims face down with their hands behind their backs.

Today: In prison, serving seven consecutive life sentences plus 18 years life without parole.

The killer is called Mick Taylor in the movie, but the story is based on Ivan Milat’s killing spree, which terrorized New South Wales, Australia from 1989 to 1993. Milat preyed on backpackers in the Australian outback, many of them foreign tourists. Some of his victims were decapitated.

4. Zodiac

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  • Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures

Killer: The Zodiac 

Played by: Unknown

Body Count: 5+

M.O.: Targeted and shot or stabbed couples

Today: On the loose

Unlike the other entries on this list, the killer at the center of this film has never been captured. The Zodiac claimed responsibility for 37 killings. Police believe that he actually only killed five. Regardless, the Zodiac struck fear into the hearts of Northern Californians for nearly a year, as he assaulted and killed (primarily) couples in the area. Zodiac follows Robert Graysmith's years-long attempt to identify the killer. Although Graysmith, and the film, seem to settle on one particular suspect as the Zodiac, the case is less clearcut than it may appear in the film.

Related: 8 Serial Killers Who Were Never Caught 

5. Monster

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  • Photo Credit: Media 8 Entertainment

Killer: Aileen Wuornos 

Played by: Charlize Theron

Body Count: 7

M.O.: Shooting at close range

Today: Dead, executed in 2002 by lethal injection.

Wuornos, the rare female serial killer, targeted men she claimed had raped her, or tried to. Abandoned by her mother, Wuornos began selling her body as a child for cigarettes and food. She was working as a prostitute in Florida during her killing spree. The glamorous Charlize Theron required extensive makeup to transform herself into the hard-lived Wuornos.

Related: 9 Notorious Female Serial Killers 

6. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

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  • Photo Credit: Maljack Productions

Killer: Henry Lee Lucas 

Moniker: The Confession Killer

Played by: Michael Rooker

Body Count: Unknown. He confessed to 600 unsolved murders, but was probably lying about many.

Today: Dead. He died of a heart attack in prison. His death sentence was commuted to life in prison by Texas Governor George W. Bush.

Lucas’s first murder was probably his mother, a prostitute who reportedly made Lucas watch her work. There is strong evidence linking him to between two and 10 more murders, but when he was in prison he began confessing to hundreds of unsolved cases. Most of those confessions turned out to be false. In the film, his victims are entirely random, including a good samaritan who stops to help Lucas fix his car. 

7. Speck

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  • Photo Credit: Magic Hat Media Inc.

Killer: Richard Speck

Played by: Doug Cole

Body Count: 8+ 

Today: Dead. Died of a heart attack at 50 while serving out his 400-1200 year prison sentence.

Richard Speck committed all eight of his confirmed murders on the same night. In 1966, he raped and killed eight nursing students living together in a townhouse. By hiding under a bed, one young woman managed to survive. She later identified him by his distinctive tattoo, leading to his arrest and trial. Although Speck’s night of crime would more rightfully qualify him as a spree killer, his suspected earlier murders make him a candidate for this list as well.

Related: The Brutal Crimes of Mass Murderer Richard Speck

8. Karla

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  • Photo Credit: Goldmill Productions

Killer: Karla Homolka

Played by: Laura Prepon

Body Count: 3

M.O.: Teamed up with her husband Paul Bernardo to target young women

Today: Remarried and is now living in Quebec.

This film is a reimagining of a behind-bars therapy session with Karla Homolka, as a psychologist determines whether she should be eligible for parole. It’s thought-provoking, yet came under fire for undermining Karla’s complicity in her crimes. In real life, Karla Homolka helped her husband rape and kill at least three young women, including her own sister. Videotapes of the heinous crimes showed she was a more active participant than she originally claimed.

Related: Dangerous Duos: Sickest Serial Killer Couples Ever 

9. The Town That Dreaded Sundown

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  • Photo Credit: American International Pictures

Killer: Unknown

Moniker: The Phantom Killer

Played by: Bud Davis

Body Count: 5 killed, 3 wounded

M.O.: Double homicides targeting couples

Today: Presumed dead

A number of suspects emerged for the so-called Phantom Killer who terrorized a small Texas town, but no one was ever arrested for the murders that took place. The townspeople lived in fear for decades after the killing stopped, but they can finally sleep at night: the crimes took place in the 40s, making it unlikely that the killer is still prowling. The Town That Dreaded Sundown is only loosely based on the Phantom Killer, but it is a legitimately creepy thriller.

Related: 8 True Crime Books About Murders in Texas 

10. The Night Stalker

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  • Photo Credit: MRB Productions

Killer: Richard Ramirez 

Moniker: The Night Stalker

Played by: Lou Diamond Phillips

Body Count: 14

M.O.: Beat, stabbed, and shot sleeping couples in their homes

Today: Died of lymphoma while awaiting execution. 

This film follows a fictional lawyer’s interviews with real-life killer Richard Ramirez, an avowed Satanist who never expressed remorse for his savage crimes on unsuspecting families. The 24 year old got a sadistic thrill out of brutally attacking the inhabitants of the homes he robbed, where he occasionally inscribed pentagrams at the crime scenes. Though his killing spree lasted just a year, he managed to take 14 lives.

11. The Hunt for the BTK Killer

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  • Photo Credit: Diana Kerew Productions

Killer: Dennis Rader 

Moniker: BTK

Played by: Gregg Henry

Body Count: 10

M.O.: Bound, tortured, and killed (BTK) his victims; sent taunting messages to police and the media

Today: In jail, serving 10 consecutive life sentences. 

This movie is especially creepy because it emphasizes how mundane murderers can appear. Dennis Rader was a father and a local Cub Scout leader who started killing men, women, and children alike in the 70s and wasn’t apprehended until 2005. This movie is largely told from the perspective of the detectives who handled his case for the 3 decades that it was open. 

12. The Deliberate Stranger

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  • Photo Credit: Lorimar Productions

Killer: Ted Bundy 

Played by: Mark Harmon

Body Count: 30+

M.O.: strangulation, beating, necrophilia

Today: Dead. Was Executed by the electric chair in 1989.

Ted Bundy preyed on college-aged women to lure them to their deaths. He was notoriously difficult to catch, having changed his appearance numerous times, fled across state lines, and even escaped from prison. Bundy’s lawyer called this film “stunningly accurate” in its portrayal of his crimes and mannerisms. 

Related: 8 Twisted Confessions from Ted Bundy That Will Make Your Skin Crawl

13. My Friend Dahmer

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  • Photo Credit: Ibid Filmworks

Killer: Jeffrey Dahmer

Moniker: The Milwaukee Cannibal

Played by: Ross Lynch

Body Count: 17

M.O.: Strangulation, Dismemberment, Necrophilia, Cannibalism

Today: Dead. Beaten to death by a fellow prisoner.

This may be the second Jeffrey Dahmer film to make this list, but the two movies are vastly different–and both warrant a viewing. My Friend Dahmer is unique as a serial killer movie because the entire film takes place before Dahmer actually begins killing. Based on a graphic novel by one of Dahmer’s high school friends, the movie offers a portrait of the mind of a serial killer by chronicling his home life and descent into mental disturbances.

Related: 10 Little-Known Facts About Jeffrey Dahmer 

14. Gacy

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  • Photo Credit: Beartooth Productions

Killer: John Wayne Gacy 

Moniker: The Killer Clown

Played by: Mark Holton

Body Count: 33

M.O.: Strangulation

Today: Dead. Executed by lethal injection

As if clowns weren’t already scary enough! Considered a respectable member of the community, John Wayne Gacy was an entertainer at children’s parties by day and a murderer of young men at night. When he was arrested, 26 of his 33 victims were found buried in the crawl space of his house. Many of them remain unidentified. 

15. Out of the Darkness

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  • Photo Credit: Centerpoint

Killer: David Berkowitz 

Moniker: Son of Sam

Played by: Robert Trebor

Body Count: 6

M.O.: .44 caliber revolver

Today: Behind bars, serving 6 consecutive life sentences

Berkowitz’s nickname arose from the chilling letters he addressed to law enforcement, which he signed “Son of Sam.” He gained notoriety for shooting young women in New York City in the 70s, which he claimed were ritual murders performed for a Satanic cult. With Martin Sheen and Hector Elizondo making appearances as a detective and priest, respectively, this made-for-TV movie has surprising gravitas.

16. The Boston Strangler

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  • Photo Credit: Twentieth Century Fox

Killer: Albert DeSalvo 

Moniker: The Boston Strangler

Played by: Tony Curtis

Body Count: 13

M.O.: strangulation

Today: Dead. Stabbed by an unidentified fellow inmate

This film is loosely based on the circumstances surrounding the crimes and capture of Albert DeSalvo, whose identity as the Boston Strangler is still disputed to this day. Although DNA evidence unearthed in 2013 matched him to at least one of the murders, many believe that he was not responsible for all of the homicides he confessed to.

Related: Who was the Boston Strangler? 

17. From Hell

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  • Photo Credit: Twentieth Century Fox

Killer: Unknown

Moniker: Jack the Ripper 

Played by: Ian Holm

Body Count: 5 (disputed)

M.O.: Throat slashing, Abdominal mutilation

This movie is a reimagining of the circumstances surrounding the homicides committed by Jack the Ripper in late nineteenth century London. While the killings were very real, swirling rumors and the passage of time have made it impossible to disentangle all the facts from this figure of urban legend. What we do know is that Jack the Ripper was a gruesome killer who was suspected to have some surgical knowledge, based on his precise mutilation of bodies. 

18. Eaten Alive

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  • Photo Credit: Mars Productions Corporation

Killer: Joe Ball

Moniker: The Alligator Man

Played by: Neville Brand

Body Count: at least 2, but possibly as many as 20

M.O.: Said to have fed women to his alligators

Today: Dead. Shot himself when questioned by police

This movie’s killer goes by Judd, but his real-life inspiration was Joe Ball, a Prohibition-era bootlegger. A witness confirmed that Ball enlisted his help to dispose of two bodies by feeding them to the alligators he kept in his backyard. However, many more women in the area had gone missing, including his wife and a few ex-girlfriends, meaning this killer’s body count could be much higher.

19. Citizen X

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  • Photo Credit: HBO Films

Killer: Andrei Chikatilo

Moniker: The Butcher of Rostov

Played by: Jeffrey DeMunn

Body Count: 52

M.O.: Disembowelment, Mutilation

Today: Dead. Executed for his crimes

This movie follows the efforts of detectives to zero in on the prolific murderer responsible for the deaths of dozens of women and children. This American-made movie takes place in the Soviet Union, giving it extra depth by incorporating the political ideology of the bureaucrats trying to crack the astonishing case. 

20. 10 Rillington Place

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  • Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures Corporation

Killer: John Christie

Played by: Richard Attenborough

Body Count: 8, possibly more

M.O.: Using gas to render victims unconscious, Strangulation

Today: Dead. Hanged for murder

The case of this British serial killer is especially fascinating not only due to his heinous crimes (his victims included babies and pregnant women), but also because his actions led to an extraordinary miscarriage of justice: Another man was hanged for his crimes before Christie’s culpability was discovered. The film’s name comes from the address of Christie’s house of horrors, where he buried bodies in the garden, walls, and under the floorboards.

Related: John Christie: The Whispering Killer of England

21. The Gray Man

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  • Photo Credit: RavenWolf Films

Killer: Albert Fish

Played by: Patrick Bauchau

Body Count: at least 3

M.O.: Cannibalism

Today: Dead. Executed by the electric chair

This movie is based on Albert Fish, who was convicted of killing three children and may have been responsible for another five deaths. The gruesome killer mutilated and ate his victims’ bodies. Fish had a family history of mental illness and was known to be a sado-masochist. At the time of his arrest, x-rays revealed that he had embedded at least 29 needles in his own pelvis. Despite evidence that Fish was insane, the jury felt that he should be executed and subsequently found him sane and guilty of murder.

22. Ed Gein

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  • Photo Credit: Tartan Films

Killer: Ed Gein 

Moniker: The Butcher of Plainfield

Played by: Steve Railsback

Body Count: at least 2

M.O.: Shooting, Mutilation, Exhumation

Today: Dead. Died of cancer while committed to a psychiatric institution

Even though Ed Gein’s number of confirmed victims doesn’t quite qualify him as a serial killer, the nature of his crimes make him one of the most terrifying and disturbing killers of all time. Gein mutilated his victims’ remains and bodies he robbed from graves to make suits out of human skin and masks out of corpses’ faces. Upon arrest, his home was found full of his collection of human remains. Gein was an inspiration for countless horror movies, including Psycho, The Silence of the Lambs, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

23. Green River Killer

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  • Photo Credit: Heidenheim Films

Killer: Gary Ridgway

Moniker: Green River Killer 

Played by: George Kiseleff

Body Count: 49 (confessed to 71)

M.O.: Strangulation, Necrophilia, Dumping bodies in the Green River

Today: Serving life imprisonment without parole

This film captures the crimes of the man who once claimed that killing young women, especially prostitutes, was his “career”. Ted Bundy  assisted investigators in his capture by offering his opinions on Ridgway’s behavior and motivations. Many of his predictions turned out to be true and helpful in identifying Ridgway.

24. The Iceman

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  • Photo Credit: Bleiberg Entertainment

Killer: Richard Kuklinski

Moniker: The Iceman

Played by: Michael Shannon

Body Count: at least 6

M.O.: Freezing bodies

Today: Died in jail while serving 2 consecutive life sentences.

Kuklinksi had already earned a reputation for his murderous rage when he was enlisted as a hitman by a Mafia family. He went on to lead a double life with his wife and children, who were unaware of his crimes but occasionally subjected to his violent temper. This movie leverages a strong cast (Shannon, Winona Ryder, Chris Evans, and Ray Liotta) to create a sleek crime biopic.

Related: 6 True Crime Books About Lesser-Known, Suspected Serial Killers 

25. Who Killed Atlanta’s Children?

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  • Photo Credit: Showtime Networks

Killer: Wayne Williams 

Played by: Cle Bennett

Body Count: 23 (disputed)

M.O.: strangulation/asphyxiation of children

Today: Imprisoned, serving a life sentence

Citizens of Atlanta, Georgia lived in horror from 1979-1981 as 28 children and young adults were killed. After Wayne Williams was already behind bars for life for the murder of 2 men, police announced that he was also the man responsible for the child slayings. Williams has maintained his innocence, claiming that he was used as a scapegoat when police couldn’t crack the case. 

26. Killer: A Journal of Murder

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  • Photo Credit: Breakheart Films

Killer: Carl Panzram 

Played by: James Woods

Body Count: 5+

M.O.: Shooting, Sexual assault

Today: Dead. Hanged for his crimes

Evidence indicates that Carl Panzram committed at least five murders, though he boasted of killing up to 21 boys and men. Panzram was in and out of prison his whole life, and wrote an autobiography during one of his stints in jail for burglary. His manuscript became the basis for this film. Panzram was hanged in 1930 after he beat a prison foreman to death. 

Featured still from "The Night Stalker" via MRB Productions