Hollywood Serial Killer Movies That Are Actually Based on True Crimes

Shape-shifting clowns and dream-infiltrating slashers terrify people, but horrific scenarios that could actually happen in real life also fascinate audiences. That’s part of why the serial killer subgenre is so popular.

In some cases, the best serial killer movies depict crimes that could not only happen in real life, but actually did. The most famous serial killers in history inspire plenty of great films, including two of the most famous horror movies ever made. Here are some of the best serial killer movies based on true crimes.

1. Henry: Portrait of A Serial Killer (1986)

Michael Rooker in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer looking at himself in the mirror

Michael Rooker in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer | Greycat Films

  • Real-life inspiration: Henry Lee Lucas
  • Kill count: Henry Lee Lucas claimed to have killed up to 3,000 people
  • Method: Stabbings

John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is based on the real-life story of Henry Lee Lucas. From Virginia, Lucas committed many murders in the ’60s and ’70s, getting arrested for the deaths of Frieda Powell and Kate Rich. The serial killer confessed to these killings and Lucas was convicted for 11 homicides, though he claimed to have murdered as many as 3,000 people.

Based on this case, Henry: Portrait a Serial Killer shares many similarities to the true story, including the depiction of Ottis Toole, another serial killer and a friend of Lucas’s. But the movie doesn’t try to be 100% accurate and is inspired by Lucas’ confessions and fantasies rather than reality.

Did you know? Henry Lee Lucas made hundreds of false murder confessions. No one knows exactly how many people he killed.

Next: Notorious serial killer Ted Bundy inspired many movies. 

2. The Deliberate Stranger (1986)

Mark Harmon as Ted Bundy in The Deliberate Stranger talking to a sunbathing woman in a park

Mark Harmon as Ted Bundy in The Deliberate Stranger | Warner Bros. Television

  • Real-life inspiration: Ted Bundy
  • Kill count: at least 30 people
  • Method: strangulation and blunt trauma

Based on the book by the same name, this two-part TV movie aired on NBC in 1986 and was based on Ted Bundy’s trial. Bundy often got women to come to his car or a secluded place by faking an injury.

The film does not tell the full life story of Bundy, who murdered at least 30 people — likely more — in real life, but it received praise for being relatively accurate, much more than other films based on real killers. Mark Harmon, who now stars on NCIS, received praise for his performance as Bundy, even receiving a Golden Globe nomination.

Did you know? Ted Bundy kept some of his victims’ severed heads as trophies.

Next: A British true crime film starring Richard Attenborough

3. 10 Rillington Place (1971)

Richard Attenborough as John Reginald Christie in 10 Rillington Place

Richard Attenborough as John Reginald Christie in 10 Rillington Place | Columbia Pictures

  • Real-life inspiration: John Reginald Christie
  • Kill count: at least eight people
  • Method: strangulation

10 Rillington Place tells the story of real-life serial killer John Christie, played by legendary actor Richard Attenborough. In the film, Christie murders and defiles two of his neighbors in his apartment on 10 Rillington Place. Unfortunately, this disturbing series of events actually happened.

Tim and Beryl Evans moved into 10 Rillington Place where John Christie lived; he murdered Beryl, with Tim being put to death for the murder. While Christie killed at least eight people, and the movie shows many of these murders, it primarily focuses on Tim and Beryl.

Did you know? After his arrest, Christie admitted to killing Beryl Evans and Timothy Evans was posthumously exonerated.

Next: A man feeds his victims to a crocodile in this horrifying movie.

4. Eaten Alive (1976)

Neville Brand as Judd in Eaten Alive with blood on his face and shirt

Neville Brand as Judd in Eaten Alive | Mars Productions Corporation

  • Real-life inspiration: Joe Ball, a rumored serial killer and urban legend
  • Kill count: supposedly killed at least two people
  • Method: gunshots

Eaten Alive is about a psychopathic hotel owner who murders people and feeds them to his pet crocodile. The movie is a little similar to Psycho, with a woman visiting the hotel and being killed, only for new characters to arrive and look into her death. Believe it or not, it’s based on a real person, although there are big differences between the movie and real life.

While most of the movie is fictional, it was inspired by the real-life case of serial killer Joe Ball, who ran a Texas saloon and kept six alligators in a pond. When local women started going missing, it was rumored that Ball killed them and fed their bodies to his alligators. One witness came forward and said he saw it happen. However, it’s not clear if this ever really occurred. In fact, police found many of Ball’s victims buried, according to Texas Monthly.

Did you know? Although it wasn’t proven that Ball actually fed his victims to his alligators, he still earned the nickname “Alligator Man.”

Next: One of the most famous serial killers ever inspired this TV movie.

5. To Catch a Killer (1992)

Brian Dennehy as John Wayne Gacy in To Catch a Killer

Brian Dennehy as John Wayne Gacy in To Catch a Killer | FOX

  • Real-life inspiration: John Wayne Gacy
  • Kill count: at least 33 young boys
  • Method: strangulation or asphyxiation of some kind

To Catch a Killer tells the story of John Wayne Gacy, one of the most notorious serial killers ever. Between 1972 and 1978, Gacy murdered at least 33 young boys. Gacy lured the boys to his house by offering them a job. He’d sexually assault and murder them, burying the bodies in his crawl space.

The film focuses on a detective who tries to solve the mystery behind the death of several young boys. He has a hard time convicting Gacy, considering how beloved he is around town. Eventually, the detective gets a warrant and search Gacy’s home, finding dozens of bodies. Brian Dennehy, who portrayed John Wayne Gacy in the film, received an Emmy nomination for his performance. The film is fairly accurate, although it changed a few minor inaccuracies and many names.

Did you know? Gacy earned a living performing as a clown at children’s birthday parties and came to be known as the “killer clown.”

Next: This film helped launch Jeremy Renner’s career.

6. Dahmer (2002)

Jeremy Renner as Jeffrey Dahmer in Dahmer sitting on a bed

Jeremy Renner as Jeffrey Dahmer in Dahmer | Peninsula Films

  • Real-life inspiration: Jeffrey Dahmer
  • Kill count: 17 people
  • Method: strangulation

Jeffrey Dahmer killed 17 people over a 13-year period in real life. In his mid-20s, Dahmer found his victims at gay bars, bringing them to his home, and drugging, raping, and killing them. He generally dismembered his victims’ remains but kept the skulls. Police finally arrested Dahmer in 1991 after a victim, Tracy Edwards, escaped and brought them to the apartment. Police found several photos Dahmer took of his murders and arrested him.

Dahmer depicts many of these key events, but it changes the victims’ names (Tracy Edwards is Rodney in the movie). Jeremy Renner received praise for his performance, though some critics felt the film was too exploitative. People don’t discuss the movie much anymore, but it launched Jeremy Renner’s career.

Did you know? Dahmer was killed by an inmate three years into his sentence.

Next: Charlize Theron won her Oscar for this movie.

7. Monster (2003)

Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos in Monster

Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos in Monster | Newmarket Films

  • Real-life inspiration: Aileen Wuornos
  • Kill count: seven middle-aged men
  • Method: gunshots

In 2003, Charlize Theron won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her unforgettable portrayal of real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster. In real life, Wuornos shot and killed seven middle-aged men in 1989 and 1990. She then confessed in 1991.

She later said that she “hates human life and would kill again.” She was sentenced to death for the murder of Richard Mallory, a 51-year-old store owner, and pled no contest or guilty to other murders, ending up with six death sentences. She was executed in 2002.

Did you know? Wuornos originally claimed she was raped by the seven men and that she killed them in self-defense.

Next: A film about a serial killer case that has never been solved

8. Zodiac (2007)

Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr in Zodiac sitting in a newsroom

Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr. in Zodiac | Paramount Pictures

  • Real-life inspiration: The Zodiac Killer
  • Kill Count: possibly up to 37 people
  • Method: stabbing or gunshots

Among the best serial killer movies ever made is David Fincher’s Zodiac, which is unique in that it’s based on an unsolved case. Fincher’s film revolves around the hunt for the Zodiac Killer, who killed at least five and possibly up to 37 people in California in the ’60s and ’70s.

Plenty of suspects and lots of theories exist about the Zodiac Killer’s identity, but five decades later, the killer has still not been identified. Fincher’s movie, therefore, is more about the characters’ search for answers. The film does point to Arthur Leigh Allen as a possible suspect, only to suggest he wasn’t the killer after all.

Did you know? Investigators are still working to crack the case and hope to use DNA and genealogy to finally identify the Zodiac Killer.

Next: This is arguably the most iconic film about a serial killer ever made. 

9. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Hannibal Lector with his face mask on in The Silence of the Lambs.

Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lector in The Silence of the Lambs | Strong Heart/Demme Production

  • Real-life inspiration: Gary Michael Heidnik, one of the three killers Buffalo Bill was based on
  • Kill count: detained and tortured six women, killing two of them
  • Method: starvation and electrocution

The Silence of the Lambs isn’t directly based on any one story. Still, real-life crimes inspired the movie. According to People, Buffalo Bill is an amalgam of three killers: Ed Gein, Ted Bundy, and Gary Michael Heidnik. The influences are clear. Ed Gein removed the skins of his victims and used them in bizarre ways. Ted Bundy wore a cast in order to lower the victim’s guard. And Gary Michael Heidnik held his victims captive in a basement.

In addition, the character of Hannibal Lecter has real-life inspiration. Novelist Thomas Harris said in 2013 that Lecter was inspired by a killer surgeon he met while he was a reporter and who he described as having a “certain intelligence and elegance about him.” The doctor Harris referred to has been identified as Alfredo Ballí Treviño, a physician who murdered a close friend. He was not a cannibal, though.

Did you know? Heidnik was honorably discharged from the Army after 14 months due to a medical disability. He was reported to have “schizoid personality disorder.”

Next: A film about one of the most notorious crimes in Australia’s history

10. Snowtown (2011)

Daniel Henshall as John Bunting eating ice cream with three boys in Snowtown

Snowtown | Madman Films

  • Real-life inspiration: John Bunting, Robert Wagner, and James Vlassakis
  • Kill count: 12 people
  • Method: a variety of ways, usually torturing them brutally beforehand

The Australian film Snowtown, also known as The Snowtown Murders, is the true story of murders committed by three Australian men in the ’90s. In 1999, Snowtown police found eight dismembered bodies in barrels inside an old bank. A massive investigation unfolded, and they eventually discovered that seven people took part in the killings. The leader was John Justin Bunting, who was assisted by Robert Joe Wagner and James Vlassakis.

The investigation and subsequent trial became one of the most famous in Australia’s history, attracting a swarm of media attention. Bunting and Wagner’s joint trial lasted 12 full months, with both men receiving convictions. The film primarily follows Bunting and Vlassakis, showing the events leading up the murders and eventually the murders themselves.

Did you know? Bunting harbored a hatred towards pedophiles and homosexuals.

Next: A series of brutal Boston crimes inspired this film.

11. The Boston Strangler (1968)

Tony Curtis as Albert DeSalvo and Sally Kellerman as Dianne Cluny in The Boston Strangler on a bed

Tony Curtis as Albert DeSalvo and Sally Kellerman as Dianne Cluny in The Boston Strangler | 20th Century Fox

  • Real-life inspiration: Albert DeSalvo
  • Kill count: 13 women
  • Method: strangulation

The Boston Strangler is the true story of a series of murders that took place from 1962–64. Albert DeSalvo sexually assaulted and killed 13 women in their own homes, leaving no signs of forced entry. Although people called the killer “the Boston Strangler,” some of the murders took place in other Massachusetts cities like Lawrence and Cambridge. DeSalvo was arrested when one of his victims lived and went to the police.

Some questions about the case lingered at the time the movie was made. It received criticism for depicting DeSalvo as having multiple personality disorder, which he did not officially have in real life. For years, many people questioned whether there was another killer or whether Albert DeSalvo may not have been involved at all, although DNA evidence eventually confirmed he was the strangler in 2013.

Did you know? Originally, police couldn’t find physical evidence to prove DeSalvo was the killer so he went on trial for unrelated robbery and sex crimes.

Next: Alfred Hitchcock’s horror masterpiece, which surprisingly drew inspiration from real life

12. Psycho (1960)

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in Psycho is smirking at the camera.

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in Psycho | Universal

  • Real-life inspiration: Ed Gein
  • Kill count: two women
  • Method:  gunshots

Psycho is one of the most popular horror films of all time, but a lot of people don’t know it’s inspired by a real killer, at least to some degree. Alfred Hitchcock adapted the classic film from his 1959 novel by the same name, which he loosely based on the real-life case of Ed Gein. Psycho‘s Norman Bates and Gein both had an obsession with their mothers. Gein went off the deep end after her death, and psychologists suspect he made clothing out of women’s skin in order to dress like her.

In 1957, a Plainfield, Wisconsin store owner named Bernice Worden went missing. Ed Gein was the last person who saw her when he purchased a gallon of antifreeze. Police arrested him and searched his farm. Not only did they find Worden’s body, but they also found a house covered in human remains. They later discovered that Gein frequently visited local graveyards to exhume bodies.

Did you know? Both Gein and Bates were sent to a mental institution, although Bates is released from the institution in Psycho II, whereas Gein remained there until his death.

Next: A movie about tourists being killed in the Australian outback

13. Wolf Creek (2005)

John Jarratt as Mick Taylor holding a bloody knife in Wolf Creek

John Jarratt as Mick Taylor in Wolf Creek | Roadshow Entertainment

  • Real-life inspiration: Ivan Milat
  • Kill count: seven people
  • Method: gunshots and stab wounds

Marketed as being based on true events, Wolf Creek is not a direct adaptation of any particular story, but the plot was evidently inspired by real cases. One was the “backpacker murders” of Ivan Milat. Between 1989 and 1993 in Australia, Milat murdered seven young people, five of whom were visiting Australia. He is currently serving seven consecutive life sentences.

Bradley John Murdoch also inspired this story. In real life, Murdoch was charged with the murder of tourist Peter Falconio and assault of Falconio’s girlfriend Joanne Lees. Wolf Creek was released before the real-life trial concluded, but Murdoch ultimately received a lifelong prison sentence. He maintains his innocence, and no one ever found the body of Peter Falconio.

Did you know? Milat’s crime scenes were easy to identify by their primitive handmade brick fire pits, cigarette butts, and spent .22-caliber cartridges.

NextA Spike Lee film where a real-life serial killer operates in the background

14. Summer of Sam (1999)

John Leguizamo as Vinny and Adrien Brody as Ritchie in Summer of Sam

John Leguizamo as Vinny and Adrien Brody as Ritchie in Summer of Sam | Buena Vista Pictures

  • Real-life inspiration: David Berkowitz
  • Kill count: killed six people, wounded eight
  • Method: gunshots

Summer of Sam is about the serial killings of David Berkowitz. Beginning in the summer of 1976, Berkowitz killed six people and wounded eight using a .44 caliber revolver, sending letters to the police mocking them as they tried to find the killer. By July 1977, about a year after the first murder, police arrested Berkowitz, who confessed to the killings and said he was following orders from a demon who took the form of a dog named Sam.

Spike Lee’s film doesn’t focus on Berkowitz but instead tells a different story as the murders occur in the background. The main character is Vinny, a hairdresser living in the Bronx, but his story intersects with the story of Berkowitz.

Did you know? Berkowitx was referred to as the “Son of Sam.

Next: Another iconic horror film inspired by the murders of Ed Gein 

15. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Gunnar Hansen as Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre holding a chainsaw in the air

Gunnar Hansen as Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre | Vortex

  • Real-life inspiration: Ed Gein
  • Kill count: two women
  • Method:  gunshots

Tobe Hooper marketed his 1974 film as a true story, opening with a title card stating the movie is based on “one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of American history.” That’s technically true, but not in a way the movie suggests.

There was no real-life equivalent to the one depicted in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the character of Leatherface is completely fictional. But this story was loosely based on Ed Gein’s murders. After all, Gein used human remains in bizarre ways like making bowls out of skulls and masks out of human skin. Although police ultimately Gein arrested and sent him to a mental institution, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre ends in a much more eerie fashion with Leatherface remaining alive, ready to kill again.

Did you know? After the death of his brother and mother, Gein lived alone in the family farmhouse. He locked his mother’s bedroom door and kept everything inside it exactly as it had been when she was alive.

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