In 1991, director Jonathan Demme and screenwriter Ted Tally developed a featured film version of Thomas Harris’s classic novel, The Silence of the Lambs. The film grossed $14 million over a four-day weekend in February of the same year, and the nation’s fascination with serial killer thrillers exploded.
Between Demme’s direction and the excellent cast, headlined by Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling and Anthony Hopkins as the iconic Hannibal Lecter, The Silence of the Lambs garnered overwhelmingly positive reviews, eventually spawning three additional movies in the Hannibal Lecter series: Hannibal (2001), Red Dragon (2002), and Hannibal Rising (2007). And I’d be remiss not to include Manhunter (1986), the original film adaptation of Red Dragon, directed by Michael Mann and starring William Petersen of CSI fame.
While The Silence of the Lambs brought serial killer thrillers into the limelight, serial killers have long fascinated readers and the moviegoing public. Perhaps the most famous celluloid serial killer is Michael Myers, the cypher murderer in John Carpenter’s all-time classic, Halloween.
In fact, many fictional serial killers are based on real-life murderers. Leatherface of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) is based on serial killer Ed Gein, the butcher of Plainfield. If you thought the macabre body parts found in Leatherface’s lair were unrealistic, think again. Gein upholstered chairs and yes, even a trash can, with human skin. Human skulls served as bowls inside his home.
Ivan Milat, also known as the Backpack Killer, never confessed to committing multiple murders before he died in prison. But his character inspired Wolf Creek (2005), a controversial horror movie reviled by critics, but revered by a small, but vocal, tribe of horror fans who loved the movie.
John Wayne Gacy, the serial killer infamous for dressing up as a clown, inspired To Catch a Killer (1992). Charles Starkweather and girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate influenced the murderous rampage in Natural Born Killers. Hollywood has brought countless horror and psychological thriller movies to the screen about the BTK Killer, Dahmer, and the Manson family. Lest we forget, Jack the Ripper.
Hollywood wouldn’t bother if serial killers didn’t sell tickets. But they do, decade after decade. Several serial killer thrillers and psychological thrillers rank among the hottest-selling novels on Amazon, with household names like Lisa Gardner, Robert Dugoni, Gillian Flynn, L.T. Vargus, and Thomas Harris dominating the charts. Even Stephen King and Dean Koontz feature serial killers in stories.
I’ve always found serial killers more terrifying than monsters and the supernatural, because serial killers exist, and we realize that the horror taking place on the screen could actually happen. You’ll need to suspend your belief after Dr. Loomis shoots Michael Myers multiple times, and the killer jumps up and stalks Laurie Strode again, or when Jason, no matter how many times he’s blown up or chopped into bits, returns to kill again in a Friday the 13th sequel.
Yet it’s difficult to argue serial killers aren’t flat-out more believable than Bigfoot, Godzilla, and the Amityville Horror ghosts. Statistics show that there are thirty to fifty active serial killers stalking the United States at any given time. Those are a lot of true-life horrors hiding in the shadows. If that number shocks you, consider that it was higher twenty years ago.
The serial killer thriller will always rank among the most popular suspense novels, as long as murder and true-life scares continue to fascinate us.
What are your favorite serial killer thrillers? Join the discussion below.