These works look beyond the facts of a case to find truly compelling cautionary tales.
As far as true crime goes, it doesn’t get much darker than serial killer documentaries. And yet, there’s something perversely fascinating about them that draws audiences in. Killers like Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, and Jack the Ripper are modern-day boogeymen, and documentaries about them abound. Other docs illuminate lesser-known but just as disturbing figures like Albert Fish or Lonnie David Franklin Jr., a.k.a the “Grim Sleeper.” The best of these works go beyond the facts of the case and try to understand what makes these very human monsters tick, how their societies shaped them and vice versa, and what might be done to prevent these crimes in the future.
Whether you’re a dark history buff, an amateur profiler, an advocate for victims, or just plain curious about the worst aspects of human nature, there’s something to shock and enlighten everyone in EW’s list of the 25 best serial killer documentaries.
“Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer” (2003)
The second of two Aileen Wuornos documentaries from British director Nick Broomfield (Kurt and Courtney, Biggie and Tupac), Life and Death of a Serial Killer questions the use of the death penalty in her case and in general. Utilizing footage from a 2002 hearing and taped interviews with her the night before her execution, Broomfield suggests that Wuornos — who shot and killed seven clients as a sex worker in Florida between 1989 and 1990 — was not “of sound mind,” as court-ordered psychiatrists had declared her in the weeks leading up to her death.
“Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer” (1992)
Made 11 years before Life and Death, Broomfield’s first documentary on Aileen Wuornos captures the circus surrounding America’s most famous female serial killer — including the bizarre story of a religious fanatic who fixated on and even attempted to adopt her. Some people view Wuornos sympathetically due to the brutal abuse she endured during her life; here, Broomfield argues that the exploitation continued throughout her trial and eventual conviction.
“Albert Fish: In Sin He Found Salvation” (2007)
There’s nothing sympathetic about Albert Fish, a seemingly harmless old man who was actually a sadistic murderer and cannibal. The fiend took sexual pleasure in torturing and killing young people and then taunting their traumatized families in depression-era New York. This 2007 documentary doesn’t skimp on any of the horrific details in Fish’s story, of which there are many. It’s a tough watch, even as director John Borowski elevates the material by laying out the perverse, Biblically-inspired belief system behind the serial killer’s incomprehensible actions.
“Crazy, Not Insane” (2020)
This one’s for the Mindhunter fans. Instead of concentrating on an individual serial killer, this HBO documentary from celebrated director Alex Gibney (Going Clear) profiles Dr. Dorothy Otnow Lewis, a psychiatrist who dedicated her life to finding out why “extreme offenders” do the horrible things they do. Lewis’ hypothesis — that many killers suffer from DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder, previously known as having “multiple personalities”), and therefore aren’t fully responsible for all their crimes — is controversial. But that just makes Gibney’s portrait of her more interesting.
“The Confession Killer” (2019)
This Netflix documentary series is a must-see because it makes you look at serial killers in a novel way. By investigating the claims of drifter killer Henry Lee Lucas — who took cops for a ride, sometimes literally, after confessing to hundreds of murders he didn’t commit — the producers show how overeager and incompetent policing can allow someone like Lucas to inflate their ego by spinning their own legend. Should we believe anything these malignant narcissists say about their crimes? This docuseries calls that into question.
“Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes” (2019)
The same year he directed Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile for Netflix, which starred Zac Efron as Ted Bundy, Joe Berlinger also made this documentary series about the notorious American serial killer. Bundy is repellant, frightening, and occasionally charming in Conversations With a Killer, which is built around archival footage combined with more than 100 hours of taped interviews conducted while he was on death row.
One of a small handful of documentaries that are chilling enough to qualify as horror movies, Cropsey is an investigation into an urban legend that reaches a terrifying conclusion: Everything that the filmmakers heard growing up in Staten Island about an old man who lived in the woods and snatched children was true (sort of). You’ll see what we mean after watching them combine the boogeyman tale of “Cropsey” with the crimes of convicted kidnapper Andre Rand.
“Don’t F— With Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer” (2019)
The 2010s birthed an interesting phenomenon known as “cyber sleuths,” a.k.a. ordinary people who investigate crimes and catch killers online. This stranger-than-fiction documentary series peeks behind that virtual curtain, for better and for worse, through the case of a budding psychopath who posted videos of himself torturing and killing cats on YouTube and the Facebook group dedicated to stopping him before he escalated to hurting humans. That’s just part of the story, but we won’t give anything else away here.
“H.H. Holmes: America’s First Serial Killer” (2004)
Released one year after the best-selling non-fiction book The Devil in the White City, this documentary recounts a dark chapter in American history through the story of H.H. Holmes, a lifelong con man and the proprietor of Chicago’s infamous “Murder Castle.” Holmes would target tourists in town for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, butcher them, and sell their skeletons to medical schools. This film comes from the same director as the Albert Fish documentary above, so don’t expect a delicate delivery; the modus operandi here is stock footage and lurid detail.
“I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” (2020–2021)
Perhaps the single best example of a serial killer documentary series, HBO’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is a compelling and moving portrait of a group of survivors bound together by their shared encounters with an anonymous assailant and the woman dedicated to finding him. Crime author Michelle McNamara died before her life’s work — an investigation into the identity of the “Golden State Killer” (a term she coined), also known as the “East Area Rapist” — was complete. This series by documentarian Liz Garbus, based on McNamara’s posthumously released book of the same name, traces how her tireless research ultimately led to his capture and conviction.
“Jack the Ripper: Unmasking the Ripper” (2004)
An infamous figure who was never caught, Jack the Ripper has been a subject of obsession for armchair criminologists for more than a century. Many have claimed to discover his true identity, but historian Richard Jones actually makes a solid case backed by evidence in the 2004 documentary Unmasking the Ripper, which is generally considered to be one of the better films about the case. This detailed work investigates three prime suspects while also placing the Ripper’s crimes in the context of their time: the seedier corners of Victorian London circa 1888.
“The Jeffrey Dahmer Files” (2012)
The Jeffrey Dahmer Files dives deep into the psychology of the “Milwaukee Cannibal,” and the experience of watching it is as upsetting as that description implies. Director Chris James Thompson focuses on the summer leading up to Dahmer’s capture and tells the story from three distinctive with overlapping points of view: that of Dahmer’s next-door neighbor, the medical examiner who processed the crime scene, and the detective who urged him to confess. The result is disturbing but surprisingly not exploitative, given the sensationalist nature of Dahmer’s crimes.
“John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise” (2021)
It’s long been rumored that “killer clown” John Wayne Gacy didn’t work alone when he attacked, drugged, and killed at least 33 young men and boys in suburban Chicago in the late ‘70s. This provocative docuseries digs into that idea, suggesting not only that Gacy’s connections to police ensured that his crimes were never investigated too deeply, but that there may be more victims yet to be identified. That’s just one episode in this exhaustive five-hour docuseries, which covers Gacy’s early life through his death and infamy.
“The Killing of America” (1982)
This early serial killer documentary was made not long after the term came into being. An example of the mid-century style known as “mondo movies” known for incorporating documentary footage of real violence, The Killing of America makes the connection between the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 and the wave of serial murders in the 1970s. The filmmakers argue that a decline in social norms, combined with easy access to firearms, had turned the country into a culture of violence — a provocative thesis that still resonates over 40 years later.
“Last Call: When A Serial Killer Stalked Queer New York” (2023)
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark’s Liz Garbus served as an executive producer on this documentary series, which shares a survivors-first perspective with its HBO predecessor. Last Call looks back at a string of murders committed against gay and bisexual men in early-’90s New York during the AIDS crisis. The killer picked up his targets at bars frequented by closeted businessmen, creating an atmosphere of secrecy that was compounded by the NYPD’s homophobia and indifference towards the victims. The focus here is on the LGBTQ community’s reaction to the so-called “Last Call Killer,” creating a fascinating snapshot of a frightening but important moment in queer history.
“Memories of a Murderer: The Nilsen Tapes” (2021)
Another Netflix documentary built around the jailhouse confessions of a notorious serial killer, Memories of a Murderer takes viewers to London in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, where lonely necrophile Dennis Nilsen murdered at least a dozen young men and boys before concealing their bodies under the floorboards of his apartment. This film mostly consists of Nilsen telling his story in his own words on audio tape combined with evocative visuals.
“Monique Olivier: Accessory to Evil” (2023)
This French documentary series focuses on serial killer Michel Fourniret only as much as it has to. It’s far more interested in Monique Olivier, Fourniret’s wife. At first, Olivier claimed that her abusive husband forced her to participate in the sexually-driven murders. But as the investigation continued, questions about her real role in the crimes began to surface, suggesting that she may have been a more active accomplice than she initially let on. Is Monique Olivier a victim, a perpetrator, or something in between?
“Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer” (2021)
Netflix’s Richard Ramirez documentary series is one of the streamer’s scarier efforts, conveying the fearsome hold the so-called “Night Stalker” had over Los Angeles between 1984 and 1985. Night Stalker’s primary sources are Gil Carrillo and Frank Salerno, the LAPD detectives who were tasked with catching Ramirez; as a result, the series concentrates on the investigation rather than the psychology of the killer, recounting Ramirez’s crimes and capture in grisly, granular detail.
“The Raincoat Killer: Chasing a Predator in Korea” (2021)
The Raincoat Killer is the story of South Korea’s most notorious serial killer. Yoo Young-chul was convicted and sentenced to death in 2004, months after he first admitted to murdering 26 people, many of them sex workers, masseuses, and wealthy, elderly people. (He also claimed to have eaten his victims’ livers, although that’s never been proven.) The story of Yoo’s apprehension and arrest plays like a movie, featuring daring escapes, wild confessions, and a victim’s mother hell-bent on revenge — but it’s all true.
“The Ripper” (2020)
Netflix’s documentary series on the so-called “Yorkshire Ripper” takes a broader, more sociological look at the string of crimes that shocked Northern England in the late ‘70s. The serial killer, who was eventually identified as Peter Sutcliffe, specifically targeted sex workers because he knew that law enforcement would put little effort into solving their murders. This series takes the police to task for their indifference and incompetence while laying out the details of one of the largest manhunts in British history.
“The Shipman Files: A Very British Crime Story” (2020)
Harold Shipman is one of the most prolific serial killers in history: He’s been tied to 218 deaths but is suspected of killing around 250 people. And yet, he hid in plain sight as a respected doctor in a town outside of Manchester, England. How did Shipman get away with murdering so many people over so many years? This BBC documentary series seeks to answer that question, investigating how the age of Shipman’s victims and British attitudes towards death and dying enabled the infamous “Dr. Death.”
“The Sons of Sam: A Descent Into Darkness” (2021)
The Sons of Sam is a documentary series about obsession. Cropsey co-director Joshua Zeman tells the story of Maury Terry, an investigative journalist who set out to prove that David Berkowitz, a.k.a. “the Son of Sam,” did not act alone when he went on a killing spree in New York City between 1976 and 1977. Terry thought that Berkowitz was in the thrall of a Satanic cult called “the Children,” a wild theory that ultimately damaged the writer’s career. As a result, Zeman — who knew Terry for several years before his death in 2015 — calls him Berkowitz’s “last victim.”
“Tales of the Grim Sleeper” (2014)
Nick Broomfield, the British filmmaker who also directed the Aileen Wuornos documentaries mentioned above, steps behind the camera once again for this sobering look at the case of Lonnie David Franklin Jr., a.k.a. the “Grim Sleeper.” Franklin terrorized South Central L.A. practically unchecked for over 20 years, and Broomfield’s documentary investigates why, uncovering appalling institutional racism and indifference towards the lives of the killer’s victims — nearly all of them Black women — along the way.
“This Is the Zodiac Speaking” (2007)
The most unsettling thing about the Zodiac Killer is that he was never caught. That fact leaves an eerie void at the center of this intricately detailed story, a feeling that director David Prior effectively evokes in the 2007 documentary This Is the Zodiac Speaking. Prior went on to make the cult horror movie The Empty Man (2020), and his chops are obvious when watching this efficiently constructed and extremely creepy doc. The film consists of little more than first-person interviews with Zodiac survivors and cops who worked the case against a white backdrop, combined with stock footage.
“World’s Most Evil Killers” (2017–present)
A spinoff of Britain’s Most Evil Killers, this British documentary series offers up bite-sized glimpses into the minds and crimes of the most extreme criminals of our time. World’s Most Evil Killers expands its scope to include cases from outside the U.K., which makes it a good source of information on lesser-known murderers like Germany’s Fritz Honka and Poland’s Pawel Tuchlin. It’s not the deepest dive of its subjects, but in terms of its reach, few serial killer series have as much to offer as this one.
Read the original article on Entertainment Weekly.