66 serial killer movies and documentaries to watch for a fright

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Serial killers are among the worst of the worst criminals. Their crimes? Heinous and shocking.

Yet, society's fascination with these murderers is undeniable. Perhaps it's because we seek to understand something that is simply beyond comprehension.

“The darkest human impulses are in the serial killer,” James Kendrick, professor of media and film at Baylor University, tells TODAY.com. According to Kendrick, we're able to rationalize some murders, to some degree, whether they're committed out of jealousy, passion or profit.

But murder for no reason other than blood thirst? It's a completely foreign concept.

"This whole idea of compulsively killing people for that purpose is something that most of us can’t even really wrap our minds around," Kendrick says. "We can’t identify with it."

That very well may be why we're so drawn to serial killer movies, TV series' and documentaries. In some small way, they offer a glimpse inside the minds of monsters like Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer and other notorious criminals.

Even fictional murderers like Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) in "Silence of the Lambs" or Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) from "Psycho" can help us gain insight into the "why" of it all, real or imagined.

"We take comfort in explanation, of understanding," says Kendrick who explains that whenever horrible things happen in real life, we immediately try to rationalize them.

"But when something is just inexplicable, when it can't be explained in any rational terms," he says, "that's the most unnerving thing."

Whether you've come here seeking answers or just the macabre, we've collected a list of fictional films, real-life crime documentaries and TV series that explore the darkest reaches of human nature.

And all of them will make your blood run cold. Consider yourself warned.

Serial killer documentaries

'Unseen' (2016)

This documentary details the story behind convicted serial killer Anthony Sowell and his crimes, following the murder of eleven women found by Cleveland police in 2009.

'American Murder: The Family Next Door' (2020)

This documentary uses uncut, first-hand footage to explore the horrific events that transpired after Shanann Watts and her children vanished. It was eventually discovered that they were killed by her husband, Christopher Watts.

'Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes'

This Netflix series offers an insightful look into the evil mind of notorious serial killer, Ted Bundy through a series of interviews with the convicted murderer prior to his execution in while the convicted murdered sat on death row.

'Crime Scene: The Texas Killing Fields' (2022)

A lonely stretch of Texas highway holds a sinister secret: it's the dumping ground for the bodies of murdered women. This true-life series explores the unsolved deaths of four women in the 1980s and '90s.

'The Confession Killer' (2019)

Why confess to a series of murders you potentially didn't commit? That's the question in "The Confession Killer," the Netflix docuseries on Henry Lee Lucas, the man widely regarded as one of the most vicious serial killers in the U.S. But did Lucas actually perpetuate the crimes? DNA and other facts dispute his claims in this compelling show.

'The Ripper' (2020)

Don't be misled by the title of this documentary. This isn't the story of Jack the Ripper, but rather the Yorkshire Ripper, a serial killer named Peter Sutcliffe who murdered 13 women in the United Kingdom between 1975 and 1980 in a terror-inducing spree.

'I'll Be Gone in the Dark" (2020)

This HBO docu series chronicles journalist Michelle McNamara's dark descent into obsession while investigating the Golden State Killer, a serial rapist and predator who murdered ten people and violently assaulted dozens more in the 1970s and '80s.

'Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer' (2021)

It's 1985 in Los Angeles and someone is stalking and murdering innocent victims across southern California. "Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer" details the gruesome crime spree and the two detectives who ultimately tracked down the killer.

'John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise' (2021)

This documentary offers a chilling look at one of the most prolific serial killers of our time: John Wayne Gacy. By day, Gacy was a well-respected community member and amused local children as a part-time clown. But when the sun went down, a monster emerged and preyed upon the innocent before finally being caught.

'The Sons of Sam: A Descent into Darkness' (2021)

A journalist is convinced that notorious serial killer David Berkowitz, also known as "The Son of Sam," isn't the only person behind a series of calculated murders in 1970's New York City, but rather a satanic cult.

'The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst' (2015)

Is real estate tycoon, Robert Durst, a serial killer or wrongly accused for the murders of his wife, close friend and neighbor? Decide for yourself after watching this compelling HBO documentary which many believe reveals an on-camera confession. Durst, while he was alive, denied killing his friend Susan Berman and his wife Susan McCormack Durst. He was sentenced to life in prison in 2021 for the murder of Berman and died in 202.

Fictional serial killer movies

'Se7en' (1995)

Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) takes on one last investigation before retiring, which he pursues alongside newly transferred detective David Mills (Brad Pitt). Together, the two uncover a string of eerie and complex murders.

The pair quickly comes to understand that they are dealing with a serial killer (Kevin Spacey), who targets people based on the belief that they represent one of the seven deadly sins.

'The Pledge" (2001)

Jack Nicholson stars as Jerry Black, a retired cop who vows to find the killer of a murdered girl and, in the process, discovers that there's a serial killer on the loose. Directed by Sean Penn, this 2001 film also stars Patricia Clarkson and Benicio Del Toro.

'Insomnia' (2002)

Al Pacino, Hilary Swank and Robin Williams team up in this mystery set in northern Alaska during a period of non-stop daylight known as the "midnight sun." Pacino stars as a detective trying to solve the grisly murder of a local teen and finds himself going down a disturbing rabbit hole after one too many sleepless nights.

'Watcher' (2022)

After relocating to Romania for her husband's new job, Julia (Maika Monroe) suspects something is off with one of her new neighbors and, worse, that he may be connected to a series of violent murders in the area.

'Ma' (2019)

Octavia Spencer stars as, Sue Ann, a deeply disturbed sociopath who invites a group of high schoolers to hang out and party at her house. Things take an ugly turn when the teens discover that Sue Ann has ulterior motives and their only hope of survival is escape.

'The Clovehitch Killer' (2018)

As the tagline says, everyone has a secret and, boy, this one's a real doozy! Women have been turning up dead, murdered and tortured in a small, Kentucky town for more than ten years. A teenager, from what appears to be an idyllic family, starts to suspect his father might have something to do with it after making a grim discovery.

'The Patient' (2022)

Steve Carroll and Domhnall Gleeson star in wildly-gripping Hulu mini series about a serial killer who seeks treatment for his murderous impulses by kidnapping his psychotherapist.

'Scream' (1996)

After her mother is brutally murdered, Sidney Prescott, (Neve Campbell), a California high schooler, finds herself stalked by a taunting killer who uses scary movie trivia as inspiration to murder her friends, one by one. Courtney Cox, David Arquette and Drew Barrymore also star in this classic serial killer movie.

'Scream 2' (1997)

In this sequel to 1996's "Scream," Sidney (Neve Campbell) thinks she's put a string of horrific murders behind her, but finds herself the focus of a new serial killer's murder spree. She must race against the clock to figure out the killer's identity before it's too late. Jada Pinkett Smith and Omar Epps join the cast in this Wes Craven film.

'The Postcard Killings' (2020)

After his daughter is brutally murdered, New York detective Jacob Kanon (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) travels across Europe to track down the killer, a sociopath who recreates famous works of art using his dead victims. To stop him, Kanon must first solve the mystery of postcard clues the killer sends in advance of his next crime.

'Disturbia' (2007)

Shia LaBeouf stars as Kale Brecht, a troubled teenager under house arrest who suspects his neighbor might be committing a series of heinous murders. Much like "Rear Window," Kale watches his neighbors through binoculars but can't act on his suspicions. Instead he enlists the help of friends to help solve the mystery.

'Serial Mom' (1994)

She cooks, she cleans, she murders: This campy John Waters' film stars Kathleen Turner as a devoted mom with a shocking hobby: killing the neighbors. "Serial Mom" also stars Sam Waterston and Ricki Lake.

'A Nightmare on Elm Street' (1984)

Freddy Krueger, a serial killer who targets children, is burned to death by vengeful parents but returns from the dead through the dreams of high school student, Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp). Disfigured and wearing a glove made of knives, Krueger begins to kill again and it's up to Nancy to stop him.

'Friday the 13th' (1980)

Counselors arrive at Camp Crystal lake to get ready for the season and are brutally murdered one by one by a killer wearing a hockey mask. Is it the ghost of Jason, a boy who drowned in the lake years before, or someone else seeking revenge? Spawning more than a dozen sequels, "Friday the 13th" is the original that started it all.

'Halloween' (1978)

The serial-killer movie that began a 40-year franchise, "Halloween" is centered around Michael Myers, a psycho killer who escapes from a mental hospital on Halloween and returns to his hometown on killing a spree. In her breakout role, Jamie Lee Curtis stars as Laurie Strode, a high-school babysitter who must fight for her life.

'Halloween' (2018)

Forty years after the original, "Halloween" gets a do-over when Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) once again faces off against Michael Myers. This time, however, she's ready to kick some serious butt and put an end to the serial killer (who, after 13 movies, somehow never seems to die), once and for all.

'Psycho' (1960)

The film that launched a million shower phobias, Alfred Hitchcock's classic remains the gold standard for serial killer movies. Released in 1960, the plot revolves around an embezzling woman who checks into a motel run by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), who turns out to be a murderer with mommy issues. When it comes to the Bates Motel, you can't check out any time you like, and you can never leave.

'American Psycho' (2000)

Based on the 1991 novel by the same name, "American Psycho" stars Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman, a narcissistic finance executive by day ... and sadistic serial killer by night.

'Silence of the Lambs' (1991)

Will the lambs ever stop screaming for FBI agent, Clarice Starling? Let's hope not. In this Academy Award winner, Jodi Foster and Anthony Hopkins play an FBI agent and an imprisoned serial killer in a reluctant partnership. Foster's Clarice Starling tries to use Hopkin's Dr. Hannibal Lecter's insights in order to catch another killer.

'Se7en' (1995)

Gluttony, greed, sloth, envy, wrath, pride and lust. It's all about the seven deadly sins in David Fincher's tense movie featuring Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman as two detectives tracking a serial killer who murders his victims based on what he considers to be their Old Testament misdeeds.

'X' (2022)

What happens when a group of porn stars head out to the country to make an adult film about farmer's daughters? A lot of seriously terrible things. With the tagline: "Dying to show you a good time," you can pretty much guess what you're in for with this one.

'There's Someone Inside Your House' (2021)

High school in the small Nebraska town of Osborne is hard enough without having to deal with a serial killer. It's kill or be killed in this slasher film about a murderer whose agenda is uncovering the hidden secrets of his victims.

'Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer' (1986)

Released in 1986, this film initially received an X rating due to its shocking and violent content, which includes beheading a victim with saw among other disturbing scenes. The movie's star and director are reuniting, as of 2022, for another serial killer film.

'Halloween' (1978)

Swap out trick or treating for terror in this movie. This famous slasher film popularized the trope of the "final girl" — and Jamie Lee Curtis has returned to the role of Laurie Strode, babysitter-turned-serial killer survivor, again and again. "Halloween" is about a young boy who murders his sister on Halloween, then grows up to murder a lot more people after he escapes from a metal health facility.

'Halloween' (2018)27

As far as remakes go, this reboot of "Halloween" is both scary and sophisticated. It stars Jamie Lee Curtis, the tormented babysitter (and sole survivor) from the original film, all grown up and ready for vengeance.

‘The House That Jack Built’ (2018)

Will you be able to sit through this Lars von Trier movie? More than 100 people walked out of the theater when the extremely graphic movie premiered at Cannes. The movie goes over 12 years in the life of Jack (Matt Dillon), a remorseless serial killer.

‘The Bone Collector’ (1999)

As this list shows, many serial killers — real and fictional — have distinct M.O.s. The central antagonist in "The Bone Collector" uses bones behind as clues, which vex investigators played by Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie. The thrill of the case gives Washington's character, rendered a quadriplegic from an accident, a sense of purpose.

'Fallen' (1998)

After convicted serial killer, Edgar Reese, is put to death, Detective John Hobbes (Denzel Washington) is ready to put the past behind him. Unfortunately, he soon discovers that more killing has begun — and he's the only one who can stop it. "Fallen" has a supernatural streak, setting this movie apart.

'Manhunter' (1986)

In this 1986 adaption of the Thomas Harris book "Red Dragon," a FBI profiler is tasked with tracking down the "Tooth Fairy," a deranged serial killer who stalks and murders families indiscriminately. Brian Cox plays Hannibal Lecter, who will later be the center of the Harris Adaptation "The Silence of the Lambs."

'Red Dragon' (2002)

"Red Dragon" is based on the same book as "Manhunter," and gives another spin on the same story. This time around, Anthony Hopkins steps in to reprise his Hannibal Lecter character from “Silence of the Lamb," and Edward Norton plays retired FBI agent Will Graham off to find the killer known as the Tooth Fairy.

‘Kissed the Girls’ (1997)

After his niece turns up missing, forensic psychologist, Alex Cross (Morgan Freeman), travels to North Carolina to find her, only to learn there's a serial killer on the loose. The movie is based on a James Patterson novel of the same name.

'Mr. Brooks' (2007)

He's got power, money and everything else anyone could ask for, yet Earl Brooks (Kevin Costner) can't control his urge to kill people for the fun of it. More surprising? He's not alone in his addiction. "Mr. Brooks" is a spin of Jekyll and Hyde, with Earl's murderous side being played by William Hurt.

‘Natural Born Killers’ (1994)

Juliette Lewis, Woody Harrelson, Robert Downey, Jr. and Tommy Lee Jones lead the cast in this Oliver Stone film about a couple who embark on a murder-filled road trip and become celebrities in the process.

'Hannibal' (2001)

The world just can't get enough of the diabolical Dr. Hannibal Lecter, who first appeared in books by author Thomas Harris and has gone on to be the transfixing, terrifying lead character in movies and TV shows. A sequel to the 1991 movie "The Silence of the Lambs," Lecter hides out in Italy and rekindles his relationship with FBI agent, Clarice Starling (now played by Julianne Moore).

'The Hitcher' (1986)

The late Rutger Hauer is completely terrifying as John Ryder, a grinning serial killer who murders pretty much everyone except Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell), a young man whom Ryder engages in a deadly game of cat and mouse. Another unofficial star: The highways of the American West, which provide a dramatic and sprawling backdrop for the film.

'Sweeney Todd' (2007)

Singing serial killers — yes, they exist. After being accused of a crime he didn't commit, a barber in 19th century England (Johnny Depp) seeks vengeance by murdering his customers with a razor. To dispose of their bodies, he enlists the help of his tenant (Helena Bonham Carter), who bakes their remains into meat pies. The story unfolds via music and lyrics by the late Stephen Sondheim.

'Night Hunter' (2018)

When a young woman is murdered in Minnesota, a washed up detective (Henry Cavill) must solve the mystery surrounding her death, which leads to way more than he bargained for.

'Killer Among Us' (2021)

In "Killer Among Us", a rookie cop (Yasha Jackson) partners with a veteran to track down a killer before he, in turn, tracks down the teenager he has his eyes on.

'The Poughkeepsie Tapes' (2007)

Police discover a massive collection of snuff films in an abandoned Poughkeepsie house in this fictional found-footage movie from 2007. The footage has proof of truly gruesome deeds, including murder and torture. The question is: Who filmed it?

'The Texas Chain Saw Massacre' (1974)

This 1974 horror flick is the deeply disturbing tale of a family of cannibals who use a chainsaw to carve up their victims. At the family's center is Leatherface, who wears proof of his victims (literally). You may never want barbecue again after watching gthis. Don't say we didn't warn you.

'The Little Things' (2021)

Denzel Washington stars as Sheriff Joe Deacon, a weathered cop who joins forces with a detective (Rami Malek) to solve a string of murders committed in Los Angeles.

Serial killer movies based on true stories

'The Girl Who Escaped: The Kara Robinson Story' (2023)

While staying over at a friend's house, 15-year-old Kara Robinson is kidnapped by a man who approaches her while she's outside. After Kara is taken to his apartment and sexually abused, she schemes a bold escape while her kidnapper is asleep. Kara ultimately helps take down the man who turns out to be a serial killer.

'Saw' (2004)

After waking up in a room and losing all memory of how they got there, two strangers learn they are the pieces in a deadly game being played out by a serial killer who goes by Jigsaw.

'Dahmer - Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story' (2022)

This series is based on the life of Jeffrey Dahmer, who was convicted of murdering 15 boys and men between the years of 1978 and 1991. "Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story" frequently chronicles the cannibalistic killer's murders from the perspective of his victims and exposes the ineptitude of the police in apprehending him.

'Lost Girls' (2020)

Based on the 2014 non-fiction book "Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery" by Robert Kolker, the film chronicles a mother's (Amy Ryan) search for her missing daughter and in the process uncovers a serial killer targeting sex workers.

'Blue Caprice' (2013)

"Blue Caprice" is based on the real-life "Beltway" shooting spree that occurred in and around Washington D.C. in 2002. Driving around in their blue, Chevy Caprice, the story chronicles the snipers and events leading up to the attacks.

‘Mindhunter’ (2017)

OK, OK, “Mindhunter” is technically not a movie. That said, if you’re here scrolling for serial killer movies, we’d be remiss to not include this excellent Netflix series starring Jonathan Groff and Holt McCallany as FBI agents who interview serial killers. “Mindhunter” is inspired by the true story of how FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit began studying the psychological profiles of repeated killers in the 1970s.

'The Frozen Ground' (2013)

"The Frozen Ground" is based on crimes perpetrated by Robert Hansen in Alaska. Nicolas Cage, John Cusack and Vanessa Hudgens star in this film about a young woman who escapes from the clutches of a serial killer then helps police track him down.

'Manhunt: Unabomber' (2017)

Technically, "Manhunt: Unabomber" is a series and not a serial killer movie. That said, it's a deep dive into the FBI investigation and capture of Ted Kaczynski, the former math professor who murdered three people (and injured 23 more) by sending bombs through the mail.

'My Friend Dahmer' (2017)

Based on the book by the same name, this 2017 film offers a look into the high school years of notorious serial killer, Jeffrey Dahmer, as seen through the eyes of friend and classmate, John Backderf. The surprisingly poignant film raises the question: What makes a killer, and can the process be stopped?

'The Snowtown Murders' (2011)

Set in Australia, this film is based on the horrific true story of a group of serial killers who tortured, murdered, then dismembered eight people in the '90s, then hid their remains in barrels.

'Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile' (2019)

Zac Efron plays prolific serial killer Ted Bundy in this movie about his life told from the perspective of longtime girlfriend, Elizabeth Kloepfer (Lily Collins).

'Zodiac' (2007)

Based on real-life events, a detective and newspaper cartoonist become obsessed with cracking the Zodiac Killer's indecipherable code in order to catch the elusive killer, who was preying on people of San Francisco in the 1960s and '70s. The case remains open to this day.

‘No Man of God’ (2021)

“No Man of God” is the true-to-life movie about FBI profiler Bill Hagmaier (Elijah Wood) and his attempts to get a confession from Ted Bundy (Luke Kirby) as the clock winds down to his execution.

'Monster' (2003)

"Monster" is based on the true story of Aileen Wuornos, a serial killer who was executed in 2002 for the murders of at least seven people. Charlize Theron won Best Actress in 2004 for her portrayal of Wuornos.

This article was originally published on TODAY.com