Serial Killers On The Silver Screen: Hollywood's True Crime Obsessions

These serial killers are distinguished by their viciousness, insanity and often longevity, and are immortalized through countless novels, TV shows and films. 

By Hayley Fox

While many egregious criminals of our time are quickly chewed up and forgotten about by a constantly churning news cycle, there are some offenders so terrifying and inexplicable, they capture the interest of the public for decades on-end.  Distinguished by their viciousness, mysteriousness, insanity and often longevity, these serial killers are immortalized through countless novels, TV shows and films even after their deaths. While the “entertainment” capacity of such horror is an undeniable driving force behind the media’s obsession, capturing these serial killers on screen also seems to be a way to process and digest their heinous crimes. Here’s a round-up of some of the most infamous serial killers memorialized on screen. 

John Wayne Gacy

A rapist and murder reportedly active from 1972 to 1978, Gacy was convicted of killing 33 people; mostly teenage boys, who he tortured and strangled, and then buried underneath his house in suburban Chicago. If that doesn’t make him horrifying enough, Gacy was also known to dress up as a clown at community parades and parties, earning him the nickname of “Killer Clown.” All of this makes Gacy ripe for public obsession, and he’s been immortalized by Hollywood in handfuls of movies spanning more than a decade. There was the high-profile, made-for-TV Brian Dennehy movie, To Catch A Killer and then Gacy, a direct-to-video drama that received one-star on Rotten Tomatoes.

While both these films are largely biographical, other Gacy-centric films took new angles on the old horror, including Dear Mr. Gacy, about a college student who writes a thesis on Gacy and develops an intense relationship with him, and8213 Gacy House, which follows a team of paranormal investigators as they set up camp in Gacy’s old house. Perhaps the most over-the-top Gacy film is Dahmer vs. Gacy, a 2010 movie in which the government clones the two namesake serial killers and then has them battle it out to see who’s the most vicious.

Ted Bundy

Active in the 1970s, Bundy left a trail of female victims from Washington, to Oregon, Utah, and possibly beyond. Often feigning injury or to be in need of help, he targeted attractive, young women with long brown hair and then raped and murdered them. Although he claimed to have killed 36 people, authorities expect his total number of murders to actually be much higher. Even once he was captured, Bundy managed to escape law enforcement’s custody – twice.

In addition to more than a dozen or so books on the killer, there’s been multiple movies made about Bundy and the people he touched. The Deliberate Stranger, a TV mini-series released in 1986, stars Mark Harmon as Bundy and follows him as he leaves Seattle for Utah to start law school and continue his murderous rampage. The self-titled Ted Bundy and Bundy: An American Icon, dramatize the murderer’s life on film, while TV movie, Ann Rule Presents: The Stranger Beside Me, depicts the true story of when crime writer Ann Rule befriended Bundy when they worked at a crisis hotline together. Even Bundy’s well-documented obsession with pornography has been examined in Ted Bundy: Natural Porn Killer, which looks at whether this preoccupation helped fuel his sadistic behavior.

Charles Manson

Although not a serial killer in the traditional sense, Charles Manson and his flock of brainwashed followers are some of the most well-documented personas in history. Even today, from inside prison, Manson continues to generate a flurry of media attention and inspire numerous fictional and documentary works.

Claiming there was an impending “race war” that was clearly predicted in the Beatles’ song “Helter Skelter,” in 1969 Manson ordered a group of his cult followers to brutally murder eight people in Los Angeles. Famously known as the “Tate-LaBianca murders” these killings included pregnant actress and wife of Roman Polanski, Sharon Tate.

There have been dozens of books written about Manson and his “family” (latest count shows nearly 40), in addition to TV documentaries (a two-hour special just aired on ABC last month), a David Duchovny-starring fictional series about a LAPD cop handling Manson in his cult’s infant stages, and movies including Helter Skelter, Six Degrees of Helter Skelter, and Inside the Manson Gang. As recently as last month, plans for a new film based on Manson’s infamous jailhouse interview have been announced.

Jeffrey Dahmer


Operational in Wisconsin for more than a decade, Dahmer was not only a murderer, but he also often dismembered his victims, ate portions of their body and had sex with their corpses. For his particularly heinous crimes (with all male victims), Dahmer was sentenced to 16 life terms and ultimately in 1994, was killed by a fellow inmate.

In addition to the slew of biographical novels and films based on Dahmer’s murderous spree, the 2008 Lionsgate film Raising Jeffrey Dahmer focused on what it was like for Dahmer’s family throughout the investigation, conviction, and public scrutiny of their murderous son. Dahmer, (along with many of the other aforementioned serial killers), is also included in the documentary film, Serial Killers: The Real Life Hannibal Lecters, which explores how these real-life killers relate to the famed Silence of the Lambs murderer, Hannibal Lecter.

Zodiac Killer

With the killer’s identity still a mystery today, the Zodiac Killer remains a lingering obsession of media and the public alike. Connected to at least five murders in Northern California in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, yet claiming to have killed even more, the Zodiac Killer has been investigated, examined and immortalized in scores of books, including The Zodiac Killer Cover Up: The Silenced Badge, which alleges that law enforcement discovered the identity of the killer, but covered it up.

The Zodiac Killer’s affinity for sending coded messages to cops and newspaper reporters during his hey-day has only furthered fascination with him, and films starting as early as 1971 documented and speculated about his crimes. In 2007, the David Fincher-directed Zodiac filmstarring Jake Gyllenhaal and Mark Ruffalo scored nearly $85 million in the box office. As recently as last year, there were murmurs over the Zodiac Killer’s true identity, after police sketches surfaced and the internet concluded that U.S. Senator Ted Cruz bore a striking resemblance to the suspect (although he of course was quickly disregarded).

Henry Lee Lucas


While Lucas may not be the household name that others on this list are, his Texas murdering spree is just as well-documented. In addition to killing his own mother, Lucas confessed to more than 150 other unsolved cases, but was only definitively tied to a handful of them. Showing signs of deviance from a young age, Lucas was a textbook serial killer, from a history of odd sexual proclivities to an affinity for animal torture.

The life Henry Lee Lucas has been chronicled in numerous forms throughout the years, including at least two films, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Drifter: Henry Lee Lucas. He’s been featured in multiple biographical books as well, including Henry Lee Lucas: The Shocking Story of America’s Most Notorious Serial Killer, Confessions of Henry Lee Lucas, and Hand of Death: The Henry Lee Lucas Story. Lucas also shares the pages of a book with the Zodiac Killer, in Murder Casebook Issue 116, which delves in the details and depravity of both serial killing sprees.

David Berkowitz

Better known as “Son of Sam” or the “.44 Caliber Killer,” Berkowitz terrorized New York in the Summer of 1976, killing six people and managing to elude one of the largest manhunts in history until police eventually tracked him down at his home address. Once captured, Berkowitz - a postal worker - claimed it was a demon force inside his neighbor’s dog that ordered him to carry out the killings. He targeted mostly dark-haired, single women as well as couples, and elicited widespread panic because of the seemingly random and unconnected nature of his murders.

In addition to the slew of biographies that have come out about Berkowitz, NYPD Chief Inspector George H. Calohan wrote a book about the serial killer called My Search for the Son of Sam, which details the investigation of and hunt for Berkowitz from a law enforcement point of view. Even widely acclaimed filmmaker Spike Lee tackled the subject in his 1999 film, Summer of Sam, which explores how the murders impacted the lives of New Yorkers at the time, embodied through characters played by John Leguizamo, Mira Sorvino, Adrien Brody and Jennifer Esposito.

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