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Popular Serial Killer Movies Based On True Stories Ranked Worst To Best

One of the most terrifying things about some scary movies, be they horror, thriller, or slasher, is when they claim to be based on true stories. Of course, there's a balance to be struck between inspiration drawn from the original story and the creative license of filmmakers, but no one wants to believe there is any truth, however small, to films like "The Silence of the Lambs" or "American Psycho."

In reality, though, many of these stories hit closer to home than you might think. In one especially horrific case, the same killer is responsible for three of the most well-known thrillers in cinematic history. And in pop culture at large, whether a work of art takes direct inspiration from a real killer or not, their names and stories are inescapable.

Lately, the general public has developed something of a fascination with — and even attraction to — serial killers and true crime. The real-life, real-death basis of the following films, however, should give even the most obsessed fans a great deal of pause, reminding us that there isn't always a screen separating us from humanity's greatest evils.

Based on critics' and audiences' Rotten Tomatoes scores and audience IMDb scores, the following list will tell you which true-story terrors you might be missing out on, ranked from worst to best. The three scores provide a 2-out-of-3 tiebreaker in the event that audiences and critics disagree profoundly.

The following content contains a trigger warning for descriptions of violence and sexual assault.

18. Dahmer

Like the killer himself, the movie "Dahmer" was extremely polarizing. Critics seemed to think the 2002 film was well worth watching, giving it a 72% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes — better than five out of the next six films on this list! Audiences, on the other hand, did not have a positive experience with the film: On Rotten Tomatoes it holds a 40% audience approval rating, while on IMDb it earned the lowest score on this list by far, a 5.6/10. That is a huge disparity!

That's why it's worth noting that you might want to proceed with caution when you're watching this film, as its audience scores are the lowest by far. But you definitely shouldn't write it off altogether, especially if you consider yourself something of a film buff. In that case you'll probably enjoy the non-linear, partly reverse-chronological storyline that paints the picture of a troubled young man and the unsettling, savage ways in which he exerted his disturbances on others — the (at least) 17 male victims of his murders, dismemberments, and sometimes, necrophilia and cannibalism.

It's easy to see why this film resonated more with critics than audiences: It seems to offer a rationale for one of the most monstrous serial killers in history. But it might be more nuanced than that: an expose on how pathology can evolve from trauma and survival to deviance to downright evil.

17. The Strangers

Honestly, it's a bit of a crime in itself to place this 2008 film so far down this list, so keep in mind that despite pretty dismal audience and critic reactions at the outset (48% for both Rotten Tomatoes scores and a 6.2/10 on IMDb), the 2008 psychological horror film "The Strangers" has become a cult classic in the intervening years.

One of the scariest things about this movie is that it was, as star Liv Tyler told Entertainment News Wire, based on not one, but two real-life events: the high-profile Manson family murders, and a series of break-ins that happened in the neighborhood director Bryan Bertino lived in as a child. It clearly made a lasting impression, and his film was unique because it refused to explain the motivations behind the home invaders' torment (his original script was even scarier and much more "Manson-esque" than the final cut).

It's part of what makes the name "The Strangers" so chillingly accurate: A stranger is someone you don't know, whose actions you can't predict or account for the way you could with someone you know. When someone is killed by a stranger, Bertino reminds us, the public may eventually find out why they were targeted, but the victim will never know: To them, it's a completely random attack. He wanted to tell that story, not the FBI-profiled explanation of motive.

That's why when asked why they were torturing the family, the strangers reply, "Because you were home."

16. Wolf Creek

Critics and audiences on Rotten Tomatoes liked this 2005 film just a little more than they liked "The Strangers" (53% and 49%, respectively, with the same 6.2 IMDb score), but many people in both circles felt like it was pretty exploitative of a genuinely horrific story. But if being truly repelled is your thing, this might be the serial killer movie for you.

"Wolf Creek" was based on the Backpacker Killer, whose real name was Ivan Milat. Milat never confessed to the murders before he died in prison, but that didn't stop people from finding a morbid fascination in his story, which came to light when the bodies of seven backpackers (all tourists or people traveling through the area of New South Wales, Australia) were discovered in a remote forest. 

Marketed as being based on real events, the film shocked audiences with just how violent and depraved it really was. Roger Ebert said he wanted to "walk out of the theater and keep on walking." But for horror addicts looking for another endurance test, that almost sounds like an invitation.

15. The Frozen Ground

With the star power of Nicolas Cage, John Cusack, and Vanessa Hudgens, you'd think that this mystery-thriller from 2013, "The Frozen Ground," would have performed a little bit better with critics and audiences (who, on Rotten Tomatoes, gave respective scores of 61% and 50%). Though it was arguably nothing special based on these scores and its 6.4/10 rating on IMDb, the film is as solid as the frozen ground itself, from the performance of Cage to the procedural plot. It enjoyed renewed and more positive attention when it began streaming in 2020.

The literally chilling film is based on an Alaskan serial killer named Robert Hansen, also known as the Butcher Baker, who actually hunted down 17 women in the Alaskan wilderness like some kind of depraved predator. Though he used multiple weapons, including a knife and a gun, the wilderness itself was arguably its own instrument of fear.

The movie serves as a chilling account of the struggles that sex workers, who are often the targets of violence, experience with the often discriminatory attitudes of law enforcement. Hudgens' character, Cindy Paulson, is a prostitute who escapes Hansen's clutches after he abducts and assaults her ... But because of her profession and the fact that she lies about her age, no one wants to take her side against the upstanding family man Robert Hansen, until a state trooper works with her to track him down as his spree continues.

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

14. Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile

When Zac Efron became the new face of Ted Bundy on Netflix in 2019, with Lily Collins playing Bundy's longtime girlfriend Liz Kendall, audiences were excited. Pop culture had become obsessed with the serial killer phenomenon in the preceding years, so the time seemed ripe for one of history's most famous madmen to make an appearance.

Despite critical disappointment (a dissatisfied Rotten Tomatoes score of 54%) and a lackluster performance with audiences — though audiences on both Rotten Tomatoes (57%) and IMDb (6.7/10) still liked this movie better than "The Frozen Ground" — one element that drew consistent praise was Efron's acting. Bundy himself was known as a handsome, beguiling stranger who enticed his female victims, and the former Disney movie star plays the part well.

For those who aren't obsessed, the lengthy title of the film, "Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile," is a reference to the words of the judge who sentenced Bundy to death. The film itself is more of a biographical drama than a thriller, based on Kendall's memoir. Unlike other films in this list, we don't really get up-close-and-personal with Bundy's horrific side: We see hints of it interspersed with the façade he expertly showed the world, and this duality is one of the vilest parts of all.

13. My Friend Dahmer

Critics in general seem to be much bigger fans of the Jeffrey Dahmer story than audiences, at least in the cases of both Dahmer flicks on this list. Whether it's because it's uncomfortable or because it just hasn't been told in a way that resonates yet, 2017's "My Friend Dahmer" enjoyed a Certified Fresh rating of 86% among critics on Rotten Tomatoes, but only a barely-fresh rating of 61% among audiences (with IMDb viewers offering a similarly middling rating of 6.2).

In the case of this film, maybe it was a little weird to see former Disney Channel star Ross Lynch playing a particularly depraved serial killer. (We got the same thing in Zac Efron's portrayal of Ted Bundy, but "My Friend Dahmer" goes much deeper into the killer's monstrosity.) The critical consensus classifies the film as both "empathetic" and "deeply troubling," which automatically puts audiences in the difficult position of considering the darkness inside themselves.

We get to see patterns in Jeffrey Dahmer that we can probably recognize in ourselves, without thinking of ourselves as monsters: obsession, maladaptive coping, and deviant fascinations, to name a few. If you want a window into the mind of someone who has done unthinkable things — if you want to get a little uncomfortable — "My Friend Dahmer" might be exactly what you're looking for.

12. From Hell

It's been done time and time again, but with Johnny Depp as the lead investigator in London's Jack the Ripper murders, there was the potential to unearth something great in 2001's "From Hell." Unfortunately, the film hit a roadblock that so many do: With such a well-known story, one that has essentially reached the status of legend, the source material commands a high expectation that can be incredibly difficult to reach.

While the performances of the leads and the visual spectacle of the film were generally applauded, critics in general found the story itself "dull," and not scary at all. It only earned a 57% score on Rotten Tomatoes, though audiences liked it better (66% on Rotten Tomatoes and 6.8/10 on IMDb). That's a pretty disappointing appraisal considering that the story of a serial killer who stalked the streets of London, cutting throats and removing organs, is pretty scary by default.

The title of the film comes from a letter allegedly sent by the Ripper to George Lusk and his Whitechapel Vigilance Committee, who were trying to apprehend the killer. It opened with, "From hell," like a business letter might open with, "From the desk of..." Attached was half a human kidney (the author claimed to have fried and eaten the rest). The scares sure seem built-in ... It's up to you whether the critics are right or not.

11. The Snowtown Murders

While the audience score for 2011's "The Snowtown Murders" tied that of the previous entry, the critical score is so much greater that it eked out a higher position. This powerful film is a disturbing "endurance test," as the critical consensus on Rotten Tomatoes puts it. It's certainly an investment, and the two-hour runtime and brutal subject matter means that you have to go through a lot to get your payout.

What draws people to this movie about what were also known as the "bodies in the barrels" murders is this very brutality in the midst of what is really a well-made film. The tale of three killers — John Bunting, Robert Wagner, and James Vlassakis — is beautifully told, but at the same time unwatchable. Making it all the way through this paradoxical experience is a badge of honor even among hardcore horror fans.

It's safe to assume that label probably doesn't apply to all of the viewers who scored the film a 66% with audiences on Rotten Tomatoes and a 6.6./10 on IMDb. If you consider yourself a fan of art horror films, your rating might look a little different.

10. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

Here's where it starts getting good, quantitatively speaking. The top 10 films on this list are all above a 7.0 on IMDb and not below a 70% on both Rotten Tomatoes scores, so whether you consider yourself a critical viewer or just love to binge-watch serial killer movies, you'll find something you love in these films — like "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer," the 1986 profile of a serial killer named Henry Lee Lucas, also known as The Confession Killer. (You may also recognize him from the 2017 Netflix documentary series "The Confession Tapes.")

Some parts of the killer's nickname are more accurate than others: Lucas was definitely more confessor than killer. The man confessed to more murders than he committed, so his total count may be as few as three or as high as the triple digits. Even if lying is a much lighter crime than murder, it's terrifying to think that someone loved killing so much that they wanted credit for potentially hundreds of victims more than they actually had.

"Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer," however, treats Lucas as if he had more than his three confirmed victims. Through his story, in which he also advises his friend and fellow killer Otis (based on convicted killer Ottis Toole), we see one version of events in which Lucas was as prolific as he said he was, and his disputed victims and different M.O.s were all a part of his design.

9. Monster

You've never seen Charlize Theron like this. The actress's 2003 transformation for the role of Aileen Wuornos in "Monster" is just one of the many shocks this film delivers. Theron plays a sex worker who has endured abuse at the hands of many of her male clients, and who kills one of them in self-defense after an assault. The trauma of this experience and Wuornos' fight for survival lead her on a misguided vigilante quest during which she kills and robs half a dozen more clients.

This portrayal is raw and riveting, rated 81% fresh among both audiences and critics on Rotten Tomatoes and a 7.3 on IMDb. It carries a heavy trigger warning due to its nuanced portrait of trauma and its unnerving, "deglamorized" portrayal of a serial killer.

It seems that Christina Ricci maintained the dark edge she inherited from her iconic portrayal of Wednesday Addams, the morbid but ingenious daughter of the anti-ideal Addams clan in 1991's "The Addams Family" and its 1993 sequel, "Addams Family Values." In "Monster," Ricci gives a compelling performance as Wuornos' girlfriend Selby, a fictionalized version of her real-life partner, Tyria Moore. Together, the two actors dive deeply into a very difficult story.

8. To Catch A Killer

Why do clowns scare people so much? The American public has been terrorized by "evil clown" sightings intermittently since at least the year 1981, and many of us probably remember the most recent spate of appearances in the year 2016. In 1985, Stephen King published his notorious novel It, about a malevolent supernatural evil that takes many forms, most notably that of Pennywise the Dancing Clown. In the horror genre at large and in the world of phobias, clowns have become a classic source of terror.

Is it a coincidence that John Wayne Gacy, more commonly known as the Killer Clown, was active throughout the 1970s, shortly before the idea of an evil clown came into vogue? "To Catch A Killer" profiled the hunt for the party clown who frequently performed at children's birthdays, was active in his local political community, and murdered at least 33 young men and boys.

The chilling game of cat-and-mouse in the 1992 film was quite well-received by audiences, who rated the film 88% on Rotten Tomatoes and 7.4/10 on IMDb. Though it lacks a critical score, the high-profile case and the mystique of the killer clown are sure to titillate audiences.

7. Once Upon A Time ... In Hollywood

Though this film by Quentin Tarantino (like an earlier Tarantino film, 2009's "Inglourious Basterds") depicts an alternate history revenge fantasy in which the real-life bad guys violently get their due, the fictionalized account in 2019's "Once Upon A Time ... In Hollywood" is at its heart based upon real events. These include not only the infamous Manson family murders in L.A. in 1969, but the final moments of Hollywood's golden age.

Because of its whimsical portrayal of this era, and the absurdity and excess with which it alters the course of events in terms of the killings, Tarantino's film stands apart from others in the "based-on-a-real-serial-killer" category because it is more of a comedy-drama than horror, slasher, or thriller. That's not to say we're spared any of Tarantino's trademark violence, but audiences in general have agreed that the pace of this film is much more of a slow burn than the usual Tarantino fare.

It's also a bit less popular than some of his classics. Critic scores landed at 85% on Rotten Tomatoes (which by default outranks "To Catch A Killer," which has none), while audiences gave it a 70% there and a 7.6/10 on IMDb. Maybe that's because the film's climax seems to make up for the more relaxed atmosphere of the rest of the film — it's a lot to take in at once, but incredibly memorable if you're up for it.

6. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

There have been many incarnations of the "Texas Chainsaw" franchise, from sequels to reimaginings. Tobe Hooper's 1974 original "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre," however, has arguably never been equaled. It sits at an 89% critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes, while audiences on that site and IMDb rated it 82% and 7.5/10, respectively. It's a wild ride that's based on a real serial killer — one who also inspired the films that sit at #1 and #2 on this list.

That killer was Ed Gein, also known as the Butcher of Plainfield or the Plainfield Ghoul. It's hard to decide which is more terrifying, the idea that Leatherface came out of someone's twisted imagination, or the idea that such a monster actually existed in the real world. Unfortunately, the latter is closer to the truth in this critically-acclaimed audience favorite. Though they don't share the operating state of Texas, a psychotic family, or the choice weapon of a chainsaw, Ed Gein and Leatherface do share a fashion sense: They like to wear and make keepsakes out of human body parts, especially skin.

The "realism" of "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" doesn't stop at the fact that it was "based on a true story," though. The actors used were intentionally obscure, and the cinematography was reminiscent of a documentary. It is shocking to see such horrific events portrayed as almost too real, and even more shocking when you discover how "real" some of the story actually is.

5. American Psycho

Inspired by his heroes (Ted Bundy, Edmund Kemper, and Donald Trump), Patrick Bateman polarized critics and audiences in 2000 with his story in "American Psycho." Critics gave it a 70% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, while audiences gave it an 85% and a 7.6 on IMDb. This divide arose not just because of the off-putting nature of its violence, but because of the genuine polarization of its genre placement: It felt too creepy to be a comedy and too funny (in an absurd way) for its own horror.

The author of the novel that inspired the film, Bret Easton Ellis, read "every book on Ted Bundy" in preparation for his own. Bateman can be seen as modeled after Bundy in that he was a charming, attractive man on the surface but the picture of evil, lacking a conscience or empathy, on the inside.

This controversial film almost qualified as another outlet for the likeness of Ed Gein, whom Bateman quotes directly in the film when he talks about how when he sees a woman on the street, part of him wants to show her a nice time and the other part wonders what her head looks like on a stick.

The quote is a memorable one, and it was attributed by Bateman to a killer that many people in pop culture would have recognized ... But this quote was actually spoken by a different killer, Edmund Kemper — whose targets, like Bateman's, were primarily women.

4. Zodiac

As surreal as his films can be, David Fincher did an impeccable job with "Zodiac" in 2007, a film inspired by a nonfiction book about the infamous Zodiac Killer. The fact that the case remains unsolved means that the film itself focuses more on the manhunt for the as-yet-unidentified killer, with a star-studded team of Mark Ruffalo, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Robert Downey, Jr. leading the charge in a film that critics scored as 89% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.

The film's effect is especially impressive considering how dialogue-driven much of the action is: It's more anxiety-inducing than gory, with a real sense of atmosphere that captures the spirit of the times — and the specter of the Zodiac Killer. He was known for taunting the police with everything from letters to bloodstained clothing — and the ciphers he sent them were supposed to contain the clues to his identity.

In a way, Fincher was the perfect person to direct a story that doesn't have a true conclusion, as he is known for his own inconclusive endings. The film, which audiences rated 77% on Rotten Tomatoes and 7.7/10 on IMDb, spans a whole decade and while it makes suggestions, it keeps us guessing — just as the public is still guessing decades later.

3. Halloween

Like "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre," "Halloween" was another 1970s horror masterpiece (1978, to be exact) that has seen many reincarnations and reinventions throughout the years. The inspiration for Michael Myers actually comes from a killer whose name you've heard before: Edmund Kemper.

Remember him? He's the one whose quote was misattributed by Patrick Bateman in "American Psycho" to the serial killer Ed Gein. Kemper was much more prolific than Gein, and like Michael Myers, he started with a member of his own family. In Kemper's case, it was his grandmother (and shortly after, his grandfather, because he didn't want to deal with his grandfather's questions and anger about his grandmother). Like Michael Myers, Kemper then spent over a decade in a psychiatric facility.

Of course, "Halloween" is widely regarded as one of the scariest and most iconic horror movies of all time, achieving a 96% critical rating and 89% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes, along with a 7.7 IMDb score. It's scary enough even if you didn't know it was based on a serial killer who lured young female hitchhikers into his vehicle with his non-threatening vibe, then killed them and took their bodies home to perform unspeakable acts on them.

But the supernatural elements of Michael Myers that make him a little less believable are much less reassuring when you know that there was a truly evil guy like that out there.

2. Psycho

The story of Norman Bates is regarded by many as the "mother" of serial killer stories, pun intended. Robert Bloch, author of the 1959 novel "Psycho" — which inspired Alfred Hitchcock's film of the same name the following year — based the troubled hotel proprietor and murderer on real serial killer Ed Gein. A seminal work in the horror genre in every way, the subsequent film by many accounts established the slasher genre for the first time — and earned itself a 96% Rotten Tomatoes score among critics, a 95% audience score and an 8.5/10 on IMDb.

Though we know that the Plainfield Ghoul has been the inspiration for many serial killer movies, "Psycho" was the first time his story rose to prominence in cinematic pop culture. So what do he and Norman Bates have in common? Oddly enough, though Gein is commonly referred to as a serial killer, he was only ever proven to have killed two people (grave robbing was his preference).

What he and Norman Bates share is more of a sensibility: their atypical psychologies and their bizarre predilections for wearing dead women's skin. Gein's goal was to literally crawl inside a woman to cope with the grief of losing his mother. That's a creepy enough premise and it's executed perfectly by Hitchcock's trademark suspenseful atmosphere, regardless of the fact that Norman Bates' kill count in "Psycho" barely surpasses that of Gein himself.

1. The Silence of the Lambs

The best serial killer movie to be inspired by a real story is a doozy: One of its villains reportedly took inspiration from six different serial killers! But the "true story-inspired" killer in "The Silence of the Lambs" isn't its most notorious name, Hannibal Lecter: It's "Buffalo Bill," who skins his female victims. Though his rampage was inspired by many real-life stories, his desire to make a "woman suit" takes direct cues from the repeat star of this list, Ed Gein.

With all of his pop culture appearances, you'd never guess that Ed Gein terrorized the dead much more than the living. Buffalo Bill certainly prefers the latter instead: The scene in which he stalks Clarice in night vision goggles as she stumbles around in the dark was arguably the most terrifying scary movie scene of 1991. The film itself was an instant classic, tying with "Psycho" among critics and audiences on Rotten Tomatoes at 96% and 95%, respectively, and eking out a lead on IMDb at 8.6/10.

"The Silence of the Lambs" elevated the horror genre by becoming the first (and only) film under that label to win the Academy Award for Best Picture: Only six have ever been nominated. But as this list makes clear, there are plenty of high-caliber horror movies whose stories are not only terrifying, but (to an extent) true.