People often tend to find serial killers intriguing, which makes them want to know more about their psyche and the ways in which they carry out their awful deeds. Even though stories of horrifying murders and heinous crimes are challenging to gulp down, the best serial killer documentaries often attract a huge number of viewers.
Learning about crime scenes and forensics, analysing the mind of a prolific serial killer and understanding the motives behind their actions have piqued the interests of many, giving rise to plenty of true crime documentaries that are now available on various streaming platforms.
Being infamous for evading the police before getting arrested finally and using unique methods to torture and kill victims — some of the most well-known serial killers did manage to garner media and public interest during their investigation and trial period. And later, this led to the making of some of the best serial killer documentaries of all times.
Here are 10 of the most terrifying serial killer documentaries
The Jeffrey Dahmer Files (2012)
This documentary is sure to make you question all the seemingly normal people whom you come across every day. This serial killer documentary by Chris James Thomson is based on the murders and horrific crimes committed by Jeffrey Dahmer between 1978 and 1991.
Dahmer was a notorious serial killer with a casual demeanour and without any real motive. He killed 17 boys and men and was accused of raping and mutilating them before his arrest in Wisconsin in 1991. The documentary uses real archival footage of his trial sessions as well as interviews with the case’s lead detective Patrick Kennedy, medical examiner Jeffrey Jentzen and one of his neighbours Pamela Bass who shared detailed accounts of his life and personality.
The film’s format is also interesting. Instead of just stating facts and producing the footage, it shows certain segments of his crimes in a dramatic way. The Jeffrey Dahmer Files was initially released as Jeff at the 2012 SXSW Film festival but was later changed to its current name after being taken up by IFC Midnight.
H. H. Holmes: America’s First Serial Killer (2004)
In 1983, when innumerable people were flocking to the World’s Fair, this dreaded serial killer was hatching quite a sinister plan. This John Borowski documentary explores one of American history’s most famous serial killers — H.H. Holmes, who chose his victims from the fair.
Holmes, also known as ‘Torture Doctor,’ was a mastermind who went to the length of building a full-fledged hotel in Chicago, with torture chambers, trap doors and acid tanks, where he tormented his victims before killing them. Infamously called the ‘Murder Castle’ this hotel was a complete maze and though its claims were proven false, it gave rise to a number of films and series including the season titled Hotel of the American Horror Story (2010).
Interestingly, though Holmes himself confessed to 27 murders, he was sentenced to death for just one — his associate and business partner Benjamin Pitezel.
One of the most gruesome serial killer documentaries, H.H. Holmes: America’s First Serial Killer is sure to leave you with sleepless nights, owing to its dramatic reenactments which bring his crimes alive on screen.
Aileen: Life and Death Of a Serial Killer (2003)
A sequel to his 1992 documentary, Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, Nick Broomfield’s 2003 true crime documentary takes viewers to the final days of the female serial killer who was on death row for nearly 12 years.
The film revolves around Aileen Wuornos’ degrading mental health and her fading from reality. Wuornos was a sex worker and was accused of killing six to seven men between 1989 and 1990. These men were reportedly her clients who had allegedly assaulted and tried to rape her. According to the accused herself, these murders were committed in self-defence and the film also upholds this argument.
Aileen was executed in 2002 via lethal injection and the film strongly advocates her cause and hints at a grave misjudgment being meted out. It believes that since she was not in the correct frame of mind, she should’ve been admitted to a mental health institute for treatment.
Along with her interviews in prison and footage from court trials, this true crime serial killer documentary poses questions about humanity and mental health.
Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer (2021)
Richard Ramirez, also known as the night stalker, was one of the most notorious serial killers of 1985 Los Angeles who broke into his victims’ houses, sexually assaulted them and finally ended their lives.
This Netflix docuseries takes viewers into the intricacies of the case, depicting the incredible investigation and the hunt by homicide investigator Frank Salerno and detective Gil Carrillo to locate and arrest the serial killer.
The four-part series also goes beyond his murder spree and throws light on child abduction and sexual assault cases that Ramirez was accused of. During his highly covered trial in 1989, he was slammed with 13 murders, 11 sexual assaults and 5 attempted murders, among other charges for which he was given death sentence. However, he died of natural causes in 2013.
A New York urban legend of a boogeyman — ‘Cropsey’ — inspired filmmakers Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio to delve deep for more details about the missing cases of five children from Staten Island.
The director duo brought out the gruesome case of child abductor and alleged serial killer Andre Rand whose heinous and terrifying crimes made the legend real. The documentary does a detailed study of all the cases of the missing children and attempts to answer some unanswered questions to the families residing in the area about what had happened.
Rand was a patient at Staten Island’s Willowbrook Mental Institute and was allegedly involved in Satanism. While the urban legend of Cropsey was made to keep children away from the remnants of the dilapidated building, this serial killer documentary takes viewers through its ruins giving an almost horror film-like eerie vibe.
Tales of the Grim Sleeper (2014)
Undoubtedly one of the best serial killer documentaries and another Nick Broomfield gem, Tales of the Grim Sleeper was shot with the director’s son Barney Broomfield and Marc Hoeferlin on board as well.
This true crime documentary depicts the gruesome crimes of Los Angeles-based serial killer Lonnie David Franklin Jr. who was on a raging murder spree between 1984 and 2007. The reason Franklin got the nickname ‘the grim sleeper’ was because he took a sort of sabbatical from killing between 1988 and 2002.
This documentary deals with 10 of his murders before he was brought to justice. Though Franklin was accused of nearly 100 deaths, these killings — nine women and a teenage girl — gave him the death sentence.
Instead of going behind the mind and motive of the serial killer, the documentary focuses on the loose investigations and the incompetency of the LAPD who let the homicide go on for nearly 25 years. It also depicts the lives of his victims and makes viewers question the system.
John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise (2021)
Listen to the dreaded and notorious serial killer himself speak about his infamous crimes while the affected families narrate their share of the story. The killer — John Wayne Gacey — was nicknamed the ‘killer clown’ as he performed at children’s events like ‘Patches the Clown’ and ‘Pogo the Clown.’
Gacey was imprisoned for murdering at least 33 men and boys and given death sentence in 1980. He was later executed in 1994.
The documentary series received positive reviews for the true and authentic portrayal of the tormenting crimes as well as the heart-wrenching accounts of the victims’ families.
I’ll be Gone in the Dark (2020)
This six-part docuseries attempts to trace one of the most horrifying serial killers of all times.
It is based on Michelle McNamara’s eponymous book (released in 2018) which takes a plunge into the macabre case of the anonymous serial killer whom the author named ‘Golden state killer’ in 2013.
According to McNamara’s investigations and writings, the ‘Golden state killer’ petrified California in the 1970s and 1980s. He was responsible for breaking into 50 homes, raping victims and committing 13 murders. However, he remained unidentified for decades.
Though McNamara died while writing her book, in 2018, a man named Joseph DeAngelo was arrested after advanced DNA testing and forensic investigations. He was declared the murderer, which was followed by his confession. It was the writer’s relentless hard work that kept the case alive and ignited hope for survivors and victims.
Academy Award-nominated and Emmy-winning director Liz Garbus helmed this title which is a detective story in the writer’s words. Original recordings and readings of the book by actor Amy Ryan make it more intriguing. Additionally, detailed interviews of victims’ families, survivors, the killer’s family and police archive footage make this docu-series a must-watch.
Ted Bundy: Falling for a Killer (2020)
One of America’s most infamous and cruel serial killers, Ted Bundy has influenced a number of documentaries and series that tell viewers about his life, murders, crimes and victims. He was accused of cold-heartedly killing over 30 women.
This 2020 documentary series shifts the radar and presents a completely different angle of Bundy’s life — from the point of view of Elizabeth Kendall, his long-time girlfriend, and her daughter Molly Kendall. The mother and daughter remained away from public attention for almost 40 years to sever all ties with the killer. However, they opened up about their relationship with Bundy and what it was to fall in love with the killer.
Besides this, exclusive heart-wrenching interviews of survivors and family members of the victims come alive in this series. Though other documentaries like Conversations With A Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes chronicle his trial and motives, this series offers a fresh perspective.
This is the Zodiac Speaking (2008)
This documentary film by David Prior is based on the hideous and ghastly anonymous killer who called himself the ‘Zodiac killer,’ and was on a killing spree between the 1960s and 1970s in North Carolina.
However, till date, the case remains unsolved and the murderer is still unidentified. Though there have been a number of suspects, no one could be termed as the killer and the case is left open. What is even more fascinating is that the killer did not fear the police and sent out threat letters, riddles and cryptograms to the press.
Though not much is known about the serial killer, the documentary is essentially a compilation of interviews of survivors, victims, investigators and police archive footage. This is the Zodiac Speaking is stripped of all dramatic representation and shows the dry and basic facts that shroud this unknown killer.
(Main and featured image credit: Night Stalker: The Hunter for a Serial Killer/ IMDb)