Lock the doors and check under the bed, monsters are real — or at least they are in all the scary horror movies we watch. And perhaps there are no monsters more frightening than the all-too-human ones found in serial killer movies, especially the ones based on true stories.
From “Psycho’s” Norman Bates to Dr. Hannibal Lecter in “Silence of the Lambs,” the serial killers of cinema have been scaring moviegoers for years. While Leatherface of "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" and Mike Myers of "Halloween" have a distinct look, many of the antagonists on this list look perfectly ordinary — which adds to the horror.
“Many serial killers and serial killer movies don’t look monstrous. They don’t necessarily act monstrous,” said James Kendrick, professor of Media and Film at Baylor University. “For most of the time, they look just like ordinary people.”
And, according to Kendrick, unlike people who kill for reasons we can somewhat identify with, like jealously or rage, the idea of murder motivated by something darker, and more sinister, is unnerving.
"This whole idea of compulsively killing people for that purpose is something that most of us can’t even really wrap our minds around," he said. As a result, many of these movies have a streak of the psychological thriller, trying to uncover what motivates such misdeeds.
From accurate depictions of sociopaths in true serial killer movies like “Zodiac” or fictional ones like “Se7en,” we’ve compiled a list of the best serial killer movies to stream on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon or anywhere else. It's a dark one, so considered yourself warned.
Fictional serial killer movies
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
'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.
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).
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" 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.