Turn the light on: The most terrifying serial killers in movies
Since Ted Bundy is apparently having a moment in cinema, we thought it was time to reflect on some of the scariest serial killers in the movies. Serial killers are terrifying because they exist in both the normal & predictable, as well as the highly abnormal & unpredictable spheres.
They look like us, and they share the same fundamental humanity as we do, and yet, they don’t play by our agreed-upon rules, such as, you know, don’t kill people or commit horrific acts of violence. What’s more, you can watch a movie about a monster of the inhuman variety, go home, and tell yourself that monsters aren’t real. Serial killers, on the other hand, are.
Serial killers, both real & fictional, are often featured in movies because of the danger they present. With popular true crime documentaries having a moment on Netflix and other streaming services, the public’s interest in serial killers is higher than ever.
The choice to dramatize these events, real & imagined, has led to some controversy. There are those who feel that doing so romanticizes the killers, while disrespecting their victims. Others feel that art can serve as a critical exploration of why serial killers kill. And then there are those who give in to their basest instincts and enjoy the thrill they get from watching stories like these, despite the horror.
Like many famous figures, serial killers are mythologized until it’s difficult to tell fact from fiction. The serial killers featured in this article are either based on real people, or completely made up, but all are equally frightening.
Patrick Bateman (American Psycho)
Patrick Bateman, played by Christian Bale in the 2000 movie American Psycho, directed by Mary Harron, is easily one of the most unsettling serial killers in movies. He’s a wealthy investment banker who has a secret love for killing people in violent, bloody ways.
As the film progresses, Bateman slips further & further into his insanity & depravity. As he does so, he begins to lose his grip on the perfect façade he presents to the world. The movie is a bit of a trip, but Bale gives a memorable performance that’s equal parts terrifying and oddly hilarious.
Norman Bates (Psycho)
The titular psycho in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece is Norman Bates, one of the most famous killers in movie history. Norman Bates, played by Anthony Perkins (other actors portrayed the character in later years, but none so well as him), is a young man who runs the Bates Motel and supposedly lives with his mother.
Of course, if you’ve seen the movie then you know that there is no mother currently living. “Mother” is Norman’s alter ego he created for himself based on his mother, who he killed. His split personality is hidden from those he introduces himself to as Norman, a shy, awkward young man running a hotel.
Hitchcock’s Psycho is based on a novel by the same name. The success of the film version has led to multiple sequels, remakes, and spinoffs, none of which have ever quite lived up to the iconic original.
John Doe (Se7en)
John Doe is the sought-after killer pursued by Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt in the David Fincher directed 1995 film Se7en. The detectives played by Freeman & Pitt are paired up to find a man who is killing people in ways inspired by the seven deadly sins.
Doe claims to be committing these horrific acts in the name of God. He hunts down people he views as sinners, and murders them in a way that reflects their supposed sin. Doe is constantly one step ahead of the detectives, and evades capture multiple times throughout the film.
We won’t spoil who he chooses to be his final victim here, but what we will say is this: The answer to Brad Pitt’s famously delivered “What’s in the box?”? You don’t want to know.
Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs)
Hannibal Lecter might actually be the most iconic serial killer in movie history. He’s been listed as the best movie villain in multiple lists, and it’s true that we really can’t talk about serial killers in movies without giving him a mention.
Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs stars Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling, an FBI agent who gets inside the mind of Lecter in order to catch another killer who’s on the loose. Hannibal the cannibal develops a creepy fascination with Starling – oh, and he eats his victims.
Who did we leave out? Are these guys all that scary? Let us know in the comments!