From the silver screen to your phone screen, the true crime genre is bigger than ever. Morbid fascination with infamous serial killers has led to hundreds of films and shows retelling these gruesome tales, and a handful of them really nail it.
The most accurate serial killer movies often include true life details, such as dressing actors in the same clothing victims wore when they met their demise, or featuring the exact words that were spoken during crimes, interrogations, and trials. Movies and TV shows about real serial killers might even shoot in the exact same locations where the real action took place.
These factual details add eerie realism to the stories portrayed on screen, transporting viewers back to the moments when these heinous crimes and their repercussions took place. These are the most meticulously researched serial killer movies based on true stories.
- Photo: Paramount Pictures
David Fincher’s 2007 true crime thriller went above and beyond when it came to historical accuracy. The film’s spot-on depiction of the terror and confusion the zodiac killer brought to the San Francisco Bay Area in the late '60s and early '70s went so far as to recreate buildings of the era. Even the clothing the victims were wearing when they met their demise was replicated.
Eleven years after the film’s release, video essayist Daniel Netzel created a short documentary for Film Radar investigating its spot-on portrayal. Zodiac: When Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction portrays the incredible precision in each scene of the film, even showing victims’ descriptions of the scenes beside the movie’s recreation of the event. Zodiac took “true crime” to a chilling new level.
Exploring whether killers are born or formed, Mindhunter follows a team of FBI agents and a psychiatrist as they learn, through interviews, about the intersection of crime and psychology.
The series is based on a book written by FBI special agent John E. Douglas and chronicles his quest during the 1970s to create a science-based method of profiling criminals. Though some names and interpersonal relationships have been changed, the show sticks quite closely to their work with notorious serial killers like Ed Kemper.
- Photo: FilmRise
Jeffrey Dahmer’s exploits in his adult life have been well-documented, but this film uses the memories of those who knew the prolific slayer in his youth to imagine what his mindset might have been during those formative years.
The film is based on a graphic novel by John Backderf, who’d been a good friend of Dahmer when they were teenagers. The film was shot in their hometown of Akron, Ohio, and even used Dahmer's old house. Parts of the movie, like Dahmer’s pretending to be handicapped and his obsession with a local jogger, were true to life.
- Photo: Netflix
For source material, this Netflix film draws on The Phantom Prince: My Life With Ted Bundy, a memoir by Bundy’s ex- girlfriend, Elizabeth Kloepfer, which all but ensures historical accuracy. The director of Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, Joe Berlinger, also directed a documentary series on Bundy, Conversations with a Killer, and is adamant that his drama film is "authentic" to the true story.
"That was important to me," Berlinger says. "This is not a documentary, obviously. But the historical beats of Ted Bundy are very accurate in the movie."
Bundy’s seemingly unreal escape from custody, his wildly popular trial, marriage proposal in court, and his innate, logic-defying charm were all true to life. "Bundy had this appeal. What I’m portraying is the psychological power that he had over others. And Ted lured women to their [ends] because he gave off this vibe of being trusted,” Berlinger says of the charismatic slayer.