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The best horror movies based on true crimes

A word of caution: Many of the nonfiction incidents we’ve linked out to in this article are quite disturbing, but our own write-ups of the movies themselves feature no gratuitous details. Just a friendly warning if you plan on clicking a link or two.

Sometimes the truth is far scarier than any fiction a work-for-hire screenwriter could conjure up. This is why some of the most disturbing horror films have been at least partly inspired by a number of infamous real-world crimes. From cannibalistic madmen to enigmatic serial killers, we’ve put together this autumnal roundup of the best horror movies based on true crimes, and we bet you’ll be surprised to learn what classics can trace their roots back to a headline-grabbing travesty that shook a town, state, country, or the entire world.

Want more horror movies in your life? Check out our roundups of the best horror films on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, and Shudder.

M (1931)

Drama, Action, Thriller, Crime
Peter Lorre, Ellen Widmann, Inge Landgut
Directed by
Fritz Lang
Watch on HBO Max

Writer-director Fritz Lang is one of the most prolific figures in film history, and his 1931 film put down some hard roots for the future of the horror genre. Lang’s first sound film, introduced audiences to new and captivating camera movements, as well as Peter Lorre, the breakout star who plays spine-chilling child murderer Hans Beckert.

The story takes place in Berlin and follows a citywide manhunt for Beckert, a man whose heinous crimes have rattled the German city to the core. Not only are authorities on his trail, but so are the many malcontents of Berlin’s criminal underbelly. Lang’s self-proclaimed magnum opus is a stylish and mostly silent journey into some pretty disturbing subject matter, and many film critics and historians claim that Lang took influence from the vicious Peter Kürten, a German serial killer in the ’20s known as the Vampire of Düsseldorf. While the director has refuted that the film is based on this one individual, Lang has admitted he drew inspiration from a number of German serial killers of the era, including Kürten.

M (1931) Original Trailer [FHD]

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
Marilyn Burns, Allen Danziger, Paul A. Partain
Directed by
Tobe Hooper
Watch on Shudder

We’re all familiar with the one they call Leatherface, the chainsaw-wielding maniac who made his onscreen debut in director Tobe Hooper’s grim 1974 film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The story of Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) and her four Texas friends is a simple one: A band of teens head out into the rural Texas outskirts to check on their grandfather’s grave and homestead but happen upon a family of crazy cannibals instead. But what if we told you that the psychopath was actually inspired by an individual who did far worse than Leatherface and his kin?

The subject we’re speaking of is Ed Gein, and if you don’t have the strongest stomach, we highly recommend you steer clear of this man’s story. Gein’s disturbing acts also served as some of the inspiration for Robert Bloch’s 1959 book Psycho, which would receive its own famous Hitchcock adaptation only a year after the book was released.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) - Trailer HD 1080p

My Friend Dahmer (2017)

My Friend Dahmer
Drama, History, Crime
Ross Lynch, Alex Wolff, Anne Heche
Directed by
Marc Meyers
Watch on Peacock

Jeffrey Dahmer is one of the most infamous serial killers in the annals of American crime. But before barreling down the dark rabbit hole of murder and mayhem, Dahmer was a fairly run-of-the-mill, shy high schooler who operated on the fringes. In My Friend Dahmer, we’re given a front-row seat to the life and times of the titular murderer-to-be from the unassuming vantage of a man who was actually somewhat close to Dahmer before he started killing — John “Derf” Backderf, a graphic novelist whose 2012 book of the same name was the inspiration for this film.

Unpacking their friendship and Dahmer’s many idiosyncrasies, the movie gets us as close to the disturbed youth as the medium can attain, and Ross Lynch’s standout performance as the withdrawn Dahmer adds layers of authenticity to the nonfiction-adjacent narrative.

My Friend Dahmer Trailer #1 (2017) | Movieclips Indie

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019)

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile
Zac Efron, Lily Collins, Kaya Scodelario
Directed by
Joe Berlinger
Watch on Netflix

In Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, Zac Efron stars as notorious serial killer Ted Bundy, while Lilly Collins plays his longtime girlfriend, Liz Kendall, a partner who would deny Bundy’s crimes for years until the proof was far too prevalent to ignore. In fact, it would be Kendall’s own memoir, The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy, that would serve as the cinematic blueprint for this 2019 Netflix film.

While the story gets into some of the finer details of Bundy’s terrible acts, the true focus of the story is on the relationship between Bundy and Kendall throughout the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, with both Efron and Collins delivering earnest and arresting performances.

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile | Official Trailer [HD] | Netflix

Zodiac (2007)

Crime, Drama, Mystery, Thriller
Robert Downey Jr., Jake Gyllenhaal, June Diane Raphael
Directed by
David Fincher
Watch on Amazon

Director David Fincher is the man to call when there’s a movie to be made about an elusive murderer, and perhaps his best execution of this narrative style is his 2007 film Zodiac. The title itself refers to the moniker that was self-bestowed by a vicious San Francisco killer that terrorized the city for years, taunting authorities with threatening letters and confusing riddles.

Based on Robert Graysmith’s novels Zodiac and Zodiac Unmasked, Graysmith is portrayed in the film by Jake Gyllenhaal, with other cast members including Robert Downey Jr. as journalist Paul Avery and Mark Ruffalo as an inspector assigned to the Zodiac case. Zodiac is a brooding and epic horror-thriller, and its source material is just as haunting, if not more so, than what Fincher captures onscreen.

Zodiac (2007) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
Crime, Horror, Thriller
Michael Rooker, Tracy Arnold, Tom Towles
Directed by
John McNaughton
Watch on Peacock

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is one of those movies that if you’ve seen it once, that was probably enough for a lifetime. Michael Rooker stars as the titular Henry, and Tom Towles plays Otis, a drug dealer and prison mate. After serving jail time together, the two men embark on a horrific spree of random killings. But after Henry begins developing a relationship with Otis’ sister (Tracy Arnold), the murderous dynamic between Henry and Otis starts to become complicated. Based on the real-life murders of American serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, Henry had a notoriously difficult time securing distribution — and considering the material, we’d say that’s no surprise.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) - Trailer HD 1080p

Scream (1996)

Crime, Horror, Mystery
David Arquette, Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox
Directed by
Wes Craven
Watch on Showtime
Wes Craven’s masterful 1996 film Scream was a major surge of energy for the horror genre at the time, featuring an ensemble of mid-‘90s A-list players, from Neve Campbell to Courtney Cox, who serve as mere pawns in a dastardly sardonic bit of meta-voicing (Scream’s own narrative often calls attention to the many “rules” of horror movies). But the film’s mysterious mass murderer was inspired by a disturbing set of killings carried out by Daniel Harold Rolling in 1990, with Florida authorities labeling Daniel as “The Gainesville Ripper.” Sans the horrific true crime, Scream is a fantastic film with many awesome scares, performances, and an excellent soundtrack and original score.
Scream | Official Trailer (HD) - Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, Drew Barrymore | Miramax

Editors' Recommendations

Movie images and data from:
Michael Bizzaco

Michael Bizzaco has been writing about and working with consumer tech for well over a decade, writing about everything from A/V components and smart home devices to encryption software, cloud backup platforms, search engine tools, and more. He has written for Digital Trends for over three years, covering entertainment content, A/V, and smart home devices.

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