While films dealing with serial killers have been around at least since Fritz Lang’s M (1931), the concept of the serial killer arose public interest and notice in the 1970s with the credit for coining the term “serial killer” belonging to FBI agent Robert Ressler in 1974. Films about serial killers have existed well before the concept was public knowledge – just look at Psycho (1960) and Peeping Tom (1960) for two of the most famous examples – but the coining of the term, a term that gives a label to a form of human evil, opened the flood gates of serial killer films. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Halloween (1978) both show early example of the serial killer film starting to solidify within a horror context but the theme lent itself much more to thrillers such as Frenzy (1972) and 10 Rillington Place (1971).
The ’80s saw the serial killer film combine the elements of the thriller and the horror film much more effectively and, thus, produced a wider array of serial killer films that frequently crossed the line between the two similar genres. Perhaps the most terrifying of these films was 1986’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Based on serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, who confessed to – but doubtfully committed – over 600 murders, Henry is a challenging film that questions the public fascination with serial murderers and the consumption of media related to them. The 1980s also saw the horrifically graphic Maniac (1980), the devilish The Hitcher (1986), and Psycho II (1983) which straddle the line between serial killer and slasher film; a line that is frequently blurred since slasher films are all about “slashers” racking up a body count – however, they often don’t attempt any psychological approach to the killers the same way the serial killer film focuses on. Examples of the serial killer film focuses on psychological motivations can be found in Manhunter (1986), Dressed to Kill (1980), The Stepfather (1987) and Spoorloos (The Vanishing, 1988).
The ’90s saw The Silence of the Lambs (1991) win five academy awards and kick start a series that included Hannibal (2001), Red Dragon (2002) and Hannibal Rising (2007). David Fincher directed Se7en (1995) and Zodiac (2007) while Christian Bale portrayed the demented Patrick Bateman in American Psycho (2000). Man Bites Dog (1992) brought serial killers to the found footage/ faux-documentary style that would later be used for The Last Horror Movie (2003). Scream (1996) kicked off the teen slasher wave but gave it’s murderer a more true-to-life feeling than earlier slashers and was followed by Scream 2 (1997), Scream 3 (2000) and Scream 4 (2011). Wolf Creek (2005) was serial killer film by way of torture porn – made popular by Saw (2004-) a franchise that has always flirted with the serial killer subgenre but never quite crossing over into it. But the most frightening – or exploitive, depending on your ethics – are the based on true story films like Dahmer (2002), Ted Bundy (2002), Gacy (2003), and The Snowtown Murders (2011); these films show that as long as there are serial killers, there will be films about them.