5 Real-Life Serial Killers who Inspired Movies

When it comes to scary movies, I have a bit of a penchant for the more realistic plots. Serial killer narratives usually end up being my favorite, though many times the best slashers aren’t based in reality. Below is a collection of my personal favorite real-life serial killers who have in some way inspired a film, horror or otherwise.

5) Charles Starkweather (1938 – 1959)

I would be completely remised if I did not include this young killer on the list, seeing as Badlands (1973) is one of my favorite films of all time. Over the span of two months, the 19-year-old went on a killing spree with his 14-year-old girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate. Though the film is in no way a horror film, there is something very chilling about the straightforward, cold-blooded manner in which Kit (based on Starkweather, played by Charlie Sheen) carries out his murders.

4) Zodiac Killer (? -?)

Like Badlands, Zodiac (2007) is less a horror film than a crime thriller. That being said, the film is excellently suspensful and often has you horrified with how gruesome the murders are. You couple that with the fact that in reality the killer’s identity is still unknown, it makes the film and story a fairly disconcerting one.

3) John Wayne Gacy, Jr. (1942 – 1994)

As if clowns didn’t already have enough of a bad reputation, this legendary killer won over his neighbors year after year by dressing up as a clown to entertain children. His side job? Raping and murdering teenage boys and hiding them in the crawl space of his home. No good filmic endeavor has come out of Gacy’s supremely disturbing life. Gacy from 2003, while visually disgusting, is one of the worst films ever made. Though, I can’t imagine it being any worse than Dahmer vs. Gacy (2010), in which a covert government operation attempts to create the ultimate killer by combining Dahmer’s and Gacy’s DNA. (Real-life Gacy did manage to inspire a pretty beautiful song from Sufjan Stevens, though, so he has that going for him.)

2) Jeffrey Dahmer (1960 – 1994)

Similarly to Gacy, Dahmer hasn’t had the best films made about to his crimes and murders. Dhamer from 2002 starring Jeremy Renner early on in his career isn’t terrible, but will likely only appeal to you if you’re weird like me and are fascinated by serial killers’ lives. Dahmer also had an interesting, experimental doc made about him in 2012 called The Jeffrey Dahmer Files, though it doesn’t quite capture Dahmer’s unsettling life as effectively as it could.


1) Ed Gein (1906 – 1984)

Gein is an easy pick for the number one spot, due mostly to the sheer volume of quality films and characters that have been inspired by his life. Though he only confessed to two murders, he garnered recognition mostly from exhuming corpses, and using the skin and bones for various things, like crafting trophies. He inspired Norman Bates in Psycho (1960), Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and many others.



Author: Catherine Haas

Catherine Haas is a native Philadelphian who received her master’s in film history from Columbia University. She is a freelance film programmer, writer, and an avid pug enthusiast.

One comment

  1. Interesting article, but it was Martin Sheen in Badlands, not Charlie. He’s way too scary to play a serial killer 🙂

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