Since the dawn of cinema, real serial killers have been a source of inspiration for some of the most disturbing antagonists on the big screen. While their image may have been construed for added shock value or a dramatic revelation, there’s no denying that reality is more disturbing than fiction. In fact, some real life murders are so horrendous, they’re too shocking for the camera and must be downcast for the audience.
It’s hard to imagine that someone like Hannibal Lector was once free to walk the streets. While the man behind the myth may not have been a charming intellectual who can recognize a niche woman’s perfume with a single sniff, it’s almost even more disturbing to know that he probably looked and acted like a “normal” person. Whether they’ve been made to explore the inner workings of the human psyche, or to glamorize the horrendous crimes, these 10 serial killer movies have not only shocked and awed the public, but brought attention to some of the most prolific murder cases of all time.
Aileen Wuornos was a former prostitute who was executed in 2002 after killing six men over a period of one year. All of her victims (apart from one) received multiple gunshot wounds and were found dumped alongside the highway or hidden in wooded areas. Wuornos gave conflicting statements during her trial, initially claiming that all of the men tried to sexually assault her, and later citing robbery as her motive -- Nick Bloomfield’s documentary Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, offers an insight into her state of mind during her incarceration. In Monster, Wuornos is played by Charlize Theron, who went on to win the Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal.
9 Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
Henry Lee Lucas was one of the most notorious serial killers in history. While he was convicted of 11 counts of murder, after his arrest he claimed to have killed many more -- the exact number is debated. Lucas reportedly received special treatment for confessing to the crimes: he was regularly taken out to dinner, he wondered freely in jail, and was rarely handcuffed. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a shocking independent film that chronicles his journey. Lucas is portrayed by Michael Rooker, who is most famously known for playing Merle Dixon on The Walking Dead.
8 Wolf Creek
Ivan Milat was a serial killer from the Australian Outback, who used his hunting skills to prey on innocent backpackers. When the bodies of his seven victims were found, they were so decomposed that it was impossible to fully uncover the extent of their injuries. However, evidence suggested that he would first stab them at the base of the spine, which incapacitated them, before committing other torturous acts. While Wolf Creek strays from the original story by making antagonist Mick Taylor skin his victims, the real life murders of Ivan Milat are certainly no less horrifying.
7 From Hell
In 1888, Jack the Ripper prowled the foggy streets of Whitechapel, mutilating women and leaving the entire city of London in a state of panic. For more than a century ‘Ripperologists’ have tried (and failed) to solve the case, but with over 200 suspects, it’s unlikely to ever happen. The Royal Conspiracy is one of the most famous theories -- although most experts will agree that it’s ludicrous -- and formed the basis of From Hell. While the real Inspector Abberline, wasn’t a drug-taking psychic with a cockney accent, Johnny Depp’s portrayal inspired many armchair detectives to take up the case; most notably, Russel Edwards, who recently claimed to have identified the culprit using mitochondrial DNA.
The Zodiac Killer is an, as-of-yet, unidentified serial murderer who operated in northern California during the 60s and 70s. The killer’s name originated from a series of taunting letters and cryptograms that he sent to the local Bay Area press. To date, the case is “inactive”, but remains open. Although a number of suspects have been named throughout the years by both law enforcement and amateur sleuths, there is no conclusive evidence to link anybody with the crimes. David Fincher’s Zodiac is based on Robert Graysmith's true crime book of the same name, which names a man called Arthur Leigh Allen as the prime suspect based on circumstantial evidence.
The Wineville Chicken Coop Murders occurred in Riverside County, California, between 1926 and 1928. A man named Gordon Northcott kidnapped, abused and murdered as many as 19 young boys with the help of his own mother. When his nephew -- who was also forced to help him -- told his older sister what had happened, she contacted the authorities. Upon searching the premises they found the personal effects from three children who had been reported missing, a number of body parts, and a blood-stained axe near a chicken coop on Northcott’s property. The basis of the story inspired the American drama film Changeling, starring Angelina Jolie.
4 The Boston Strangler
The crimes of The Boston Strangler -- who murdered 13 women in the earl 60s -- are widely believed to be the work of a man named Alvert Henry DeSalvo. While he confessed to the crimes, people who were close to him didn’t believe he was capable of killing. In addition, the modi operandi of the killer was inconsistent, as the victims were of varying ages, ethnicities and social status; therefore, the number is up for debate. To date, the story and conspiracies surrounding The Boston Strangler has spawned a number of films: The Stranger, The Boston Strangler, The Boston Stranger – The Untold Story and The Front.
Jeffrey Dahmer, also known as “The Milwaukee Cannibal”, was an American serial killer who sexually assaulted, murdered and dismembered 17 men and boys between 1978 and 1991. His later crimes included acts of necrophilia, cannibalism and body part preservation. He even exhumed his first victim -- who he killed just after high school -- two years after the death, just to beat the body. After his arrest and incarceration, Dahmer was bludgeoned to death by fellow inmate Christopher Scarver. In the biographical film Dahmer, Jeremy Renner plays the title role. While the film wasn’t a commercial success, Kathryn Bigelow was so impressed with Renner’s portrayal, she cast him in The Hurt Locker.
2 10 Rillington Place
John Christie was a serial killer who strangled a number of women -- including his wife -- inside his Notting Hill flat in London, England. Before he was caught, his neighbor, Timothy Evans, received the death penalty for the murder of his own infant daughter. Evans always proclaimed his innocence, but it wasn’t until after his death than John Christie was found guilty. This miscarriage of justice contributed heavily to the abolishment of capital punishment in the United Kingdom. In the 1971 movie 10 Rillington Place, Richard Attenborough plays the role of John Christie. While it wasn’t widely received during the time of its release, it’s developed a huge cult following over the years and is now considered a classic.
1 The Texas Chain Saw Massacre/Psycho/Silence of the Lambs
Ed Gein has inspired countless horror movies, but The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs are the most well-known. Gein was a murderer and body snatcher who killed at least two women. When police initially entered Gein’s residence, they found a horrifying sight, including skulls on his bedposts, masks and furniture made from human skin, organs in the fridge, a heart on the dining room table, and a vast number of other “man-made” artifacts. None of these movies represent Gein's crimes in a literal sense; however, all of their primary antagonists were inspired by his actions.