Serial Killer Movies You Didn’t Know Were Based on Real Crimes

WARNING: This article contains content that may be upsetting to some, including mentions of murder, sexual assault and mutilation.

Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer are among the most notorious serial killers of all time. My Friend Dahmer (2017) and Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019) reignited the universal obsession with biographical crime drama films, but these lesser-known serial killer flicks inspired by true events existed long before Ross Lynch and Zac Efron embodied Dahmer and Bundy.

The Strangers Took Inspiration from Deadly Home Invasions

Written and directed by Bryan Bertino, The Strangers follows a couple, Kristen (Liv Tyler) and James (Scott Speedman), whose stay at a vacation home is interrupted by three masked assailants. Bertino based the screenplay on two true events: the multiple homicides conducted by the Manson family in Los Angeles -- known as the Tate-LaBianca murders -- and several break-ins that occurred in Bertino's neighborhood during childhood.

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Conducted by Tex Watson and Charles Manson, the Tate-LaBianca murders took place in August 1969. On the first night, the perpetrators killed five people, including pregnant actress Sharon Tate. On the following evening, Manson was allegedly displeased regarding the previous murders. Therefore, the Mansons murdered Leno LaBianca, and his wife, Rosemary, in the Los Feliz section of Los Angeles.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Slasher Nods to a Real Serial Killer

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre features a group of unsuspecting friends who fall victim to a family of cannibals while on their way to visit an old family homestead. It was marketed as being based on real events to attract a wider audience, but its plot is largely fictional. However, the character of Leatherface and minor story details were inspired by the crimes of Ed Gein, also known as The Butcher of Plainfield.

Gein was a convicted serial killer and body snatcher. In 1957, authorities discovered that he had exhumed corpses from local graveyards and fashioned trophies and keepsakes from their bones and skin. In addition to mutilating and dismantling corpses, Gein confessed to abducting and killing two women, Mary Hogan and Bernice Worden. When Worden's disappearance was reported in 1957, authorities searched Gein's property that same evening. Among his possessions, they found human bones and fragments, furniture crafted from human skin, human skulls and multiple body parts scattered throughout the premises.

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Wolf Creek Used Two Killers as a Template

Wolf Creek, written, co-produced and directed by Greg McLean, incorporated elements reminiscent of the real-life murders of backpackers by Ivan Milat in the 1990s and Bradley Murdoch in 2001. While its characters and plot remain mostly fictional, McLean used these events as inspiration for the screenplay. Wolf Creek centers around three backpackers who are taken captive and subsequently hunted by Mick Taylor, a psychopathic serial killer in the Australian outback.

Milat was responsible for the bodies of seven missing young people that were discovered partially buried in the Belanglo State Forest in New South Wales between 1989 and 1993. In 2005, Bradley Murdoch was convicted of murdering British tourist Peter Falconio. He was 28 years old at the time of the disappearance, and his body has never been found. He is now presumed dead.

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Monster Spotlights a Controversial Female Serial Killer

In her feature directorial debut, Patty Jenkins took the helm of Monster, a biographical crime drama based on the life and crimes of the female serial killer Aileen Wuornos. As per true events, the film dramatizes her personal affairs and chronicles Wuornos' story from childhood until her first murder conviction.

Aileen was a former sex worker who murdered seven of her male clients between 1989 and 1990 by shooting them at point-blank range. She was executed in Florida in 2002. In a confusing plea of innocence, Wuornos claimed to have committed all the murders in an act of self-defense.

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Zodiac Chronicles One of the Greatest Unsolved Mysteries

Zodiac, directed by David Fincher, focuses on the manhunt for the Zodiac Killer, a serial killer who terrorized the San Francisco Bay Area during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The peculiar case of the Zodiac Killer -- whose identity is still unknown even to this day -- has been credited as the most famous unsolved murder case in American history. It has inspired amateur detectives and acted as the basis for many movies, television shows and novels.

The Zodiac Killer taunted police with letters, bloodstained clothing and ciphers mailed to newspapers. Fincher, James Vanderbilt (screenwriter) and Bradley J. Fischer (producer) spent 18 months conducting their own investigation and research into the Zodiac murders. Furthermore, Zodiac was based on the 1986 non-fiction book of the same title by Robert Graysmith and its 2002 sequel, Zodiac Unmasked.

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The Silence of the Lambs Draws on Thomas Harris' Real Experience

Regularly cited by critics and audiences as one of the most influential films of all time, The Silence of the Lambs tells the thrilling story of FBI trainee Clarice Starling in her independent manhunt for the renowned serial killer Buffalo Bill. To do so, Starling enlists the help of Buffalo Bill's former psychiatrist, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, a convicted cannibalistic felon.

The Silence of the Lambs was based on Thomas Harris' 1988 novel of the same name. Harris created Buffalo Bill, a serial killer who murders women in order to fashion a "woman suit" for himself. Moreover, Harris based Gumb's M.O. on seven real serial killers. During his time as a journalist, Harris visited a prison medical office and met "Dr. Salazar" -- discovered to be Alfredo Ballí Treviño. "The doctor is a murderer," the warden told him. "As a surgeon, he could package his victim in a surprisingly small box. He will never leave this place. He is insane." Treviño's alter-ego became the inspiration for the greatest villain of all time, Dr. Hannibal Lecter.

KEEP READING: The 10 Best Serial Killer Movies (Updated 2021)

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About The Author
Chase Wilkinson (60 Articles Published)

Chase is an anime, television and movie features writer for CBR. An award-winning screenwriter, published poet and accomplished academic writer, they have taken the media industry by storm; they have produced short stories, scripts, articles, features and poetry that thoroughly engage, excite and thrill those fortunate enough to read them. As a self-proclaimed geek, they enjoy watching anime, horror movies and animated shows. Their life revolves around cinema, video games and literature. If lost, please return to Jessica Jones. They can be found on Instagram @chaseswilkinson.

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