Why are we, as a society, so fascinated by serial killers? Murder mysteries, courtroom dramas, and true crime documentaries are some of the most watched movies and TV shows, especially when based on real people.
According to research, this morbid curiosity with killers and death is psychologically ingrained in us as humans. We can't help but be intrigued by the dark, the dangerous, and the true.
Netflix jumped on this trend years ago, releasing a string of biopics and crime docs, with titles like Mindhunter (2017), Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019) and Dahmer - Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story (2022) getting more views than some Oscar-winning masterpieces.
Let's dive into the best true crime documentaries that the industry has to offer, from infamous cannibals to unknown internet killers.
13. Abducted in Plain Sight (2017)
Directed by Skye Borgman
Starring Jan Broberg, Bob Broberg, Mary Ann Broberg
Documentary, Crime (1h 31m)
Ted Bundy is most famous for his charm and good looks that made him an unsuspecting murderer. But he's not the only killer who hid in plain sight beneath a veil of charisma. Try Robert Berchtold.
At first, everyone thought Robert Berchtold was a kindly neighbor who always had an ear to listen and a joke to crack.
However, when his relationship with 12-year-old neighbor Jan Broberg grew increasingly intense, things started to go south. Jan was kidnapped by Robert during the 1970s, coming as a shock to their small, God-loving Idaho community.
Abducted in Plain Sight uses old footage and modern interviews to tell the—quite frankly bonkers—story of Jan's kidnapping. You think you know where it's headed, but we promise you... you don't.
12. H.H. Holmes: America's First Serial Killer (2004)
Directed by John Borowski
Starring Tony Jay, Harold Schechter, Thomas Cronin
Documentary, Crime, History (1h 4m)
Before he was playing Jeffrey Dahmer, Evan Peters starred in American Horror Story: Hotel as a fictionalized version of America's first documented serial killer, H.H. Holmes.
If Peters's character piqued your interest, then you should definitely get the full story from John Borowski's documentary.
Not only was Holmes one of the earliest known mass murderers, but his execution style was nothing short of insane. The 19th century con artist didn't just kill people—he took them through a series of traps and torture chambers in his "Murder Castle" playground, disguised as a hotel.
The history of Holmes has undoubtedly been exaggerated for sensationalist purposes, but the core story remains the same.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese began working on a movie about the legendary serial killer—who some suspect was also Jack the Ripper—but since production fell through, Borowski's detailed documentary will more than suffice.
11. The Ripper (2020)
Directed by Jesse Vile and Ellena Wood
Starring Alan Whitehouse, Keith Hellawell, Andrew Laptew
Documentary, Crime (3h 15m)
Everyone has heard of Jack the Ripper, but fewer have heard of the Yorkshire Ripper. The nickname tells you the basics: a man in Yorkshire who murdered women in a similar capacity to Jack the Ripper (i.e. he mutilated and killed prostitutes, apparently under orders from God).
Peter Sutcliffe brutally murdered 13 women (and attempted seven more, with numerous unresolved cases linked to him) in West Yorkshire and Manchester during the 1970s. It led to one of the largest manhunts in Britain, but that's not all this documentary wants to talk about.
Sutcliffe's killings are grisly enough to fill any movie, but Jesse Vile and Ellena Wood have more to say in their docuseries. The police investigation itself was put under its own investigation, and the force was criticized for their handling and safety of their pursuit.
The Ripper gives us a wider context to the Yorkshire Ripper killings beyond the murders and psychology of Sutcliffe and into the details of a botched police procedure.
10. Ted Bundy: Falling for a Killer (2020)
Directed by Trish Wood
Starring Elizabeth Kendall, Molly Kendall, Steve Winn
Documentary, Biography, Crime (3h 51m)
As mentioned before, Ted Bundy is a serial killer known for his inconspicuous appeal. The American murderer raped and mutilated dozens of women throughout the 1970s, although his total body count remains unknown.
Bundy's whole case was a treasure trove for the media, as he broke in and out of prison and had a wife who apparently believed he was innocent.
Bundy was known to seduce his victims before killing them, and Trish Wood's docuseries is taken from the POV of one of his girlfriends who fortunately didn't end up buried underground.
Ted Bundy: Falling for a Killer has shades of feminism, told from the perspective of Elizabeth Kendall (who was featured in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile a year before, portrayed by Lily Collins).
9. Cropsey (2009)
Directed by Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman
Starring Joshua Zeman, Barbara Brancaccio, Bill Ellis
Documentary, Crime, Horror (1h 24m)
If you're after a chilling watch, Cropsey is the one to check out. Cropsey is the name of an urban boogeyman figure in New York, but when Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio set out to uproot the myth, they find a very real man lurking behind it.
Part folktale, part court drama, part crime documentary, Cropsey reaches the organic (if controversial) conclusion that the convicted kidnapper and sex offender Andre Rand may be behind the Cropsey legend.
According to the Staten Island story, Cropsey is an escaped mental patient who snatches children away in the night. He's often depicted as a shadowy figure wielding a bloody axe.
But when we're presented with images of a possessed-looking Rand in handcuffs, we can't help but question where fact and fiction overlap.
8. The Confession Killer (2019)
Directed by Robert Kenner and Taki Oldham
Starring Bob Prince, Nan Cuba, Hugh Aynesworth
Documentary, Crime (4h)
Getting a confession out of a criminal is usually like pulling teeth or drawing blood from a stone. After all, who wants to admit guilt and go to prison? But like we saw in the Apple TV+ drama Blackbird, some people are just the opposite: serial confessors.
Serial confessors impulsively admit to crimes they (usually) didn't do. Henry Lee Lucas is the most notorious serial confessor in history, laying claim to over 250 crimes—almost all of which were lies.
The Confession Killer isn't just about the crimes themselves or the man behind them, but the justice system that allowed them to happen.
Sure, he was good at drawing the victims' portraits, but a lack of concrete evidence made journalists question why the police believed Lucas so readily, to the point he was treated like a criminal celebrity.
7. Tales of the Grim Sleeper (2014)
Directed by Nick Broomfield
Starring Nick Broomfield, Lonnie David Franklin Jr., Donna
Documentary, Crime (1h 50m)
How did Lonnie David Franklin Jr. get his nickname of "The Grim Sleeper"? Well, the Grim part comes from the fact he raped and murdered multiple women in Los Angeles, and the Sleeper part comes from his 14-year hiatus before resuming again in 2002.
Originally dubbed "The Southside Slayer," Franklin's killing spree lasted a horrific 25 years. It took a while for police to even notice Franklin's serial killings, as he only targeted black female prostitutes and drug users.
In fact, the cops didn't even warn the community it was happening because they didn't deem the victims important enough—and it's this irksome note on which Tales of the Grim Sleeper sets off.
Nick Broomfield looks into the personal, economical, and political sides of this long stretch of unfettered murdering, continuing in the style of his earlier true crime documentary Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (which is also included in this list down below).
6. Conversations With a Killer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes (2022)
Directed by Joe Berlinger
Starring Park Dietz, Wendy Patrickus, Anne E. Schwartz
Documentary, Biography, Crime (3h)
Joe Berlinger has provided Netflix with three seasons of Conversations With a Killer, where archival audio footage acts as the foundation for each series. In addition to The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes, Berlinger also lets us listen in on Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy.
These three names are the most popular in America's history of grisly serial killers. Jeffrey Dahmer is known for being a cannibal who targeted young men and boys between 1978 and 1991, and cinema seems to have a particular fascination with his story.
Conversations With a Killer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes is one of the more unsettling documentaries about the so-called Milwaukee Cannibal, as we hear his real voice echoing from behind bars.
Dahmer has no problem describing the horrors he inflicted on his sliced-up and boiled victims, so we're given a spine-shivering first-person account. Dahmer's casual openness is what makes it so eerie.
5. Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer (2021)
Directed by Tiller Russell and James Carroll
Starring Paul Skolnick, Gil Carrillo, Frank Salerno
Documentary, Crime, Mystery (3h 9m)
Most serial killers have a byname. For Richard Ramirez, it's the Night Stalker. A drug-addicted Satanist with a love for the macabre since childhood, Ramirez is creepy just to look at, with his wide black eyes and gaping, toothless mouth.
More monster than man, Ramirez terrorized California in the mid-1980s, murdering people with an array of military, surgical, and torture weapons. He also forced them to confess their love for the devil and swear their lives on him...
Tiller Russell and James Carroll's four-part miniseries is steeped in darkness, tracking the top-dog homicide investigator Frank Salerno's nocturnal chase of the Night Stalker.
Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer also inverts the usual true crime narrative by making the cops out to be almost god-like in their abilities rather than corrupt and/or incompetent.
4. The Sons of Sam: A Descent Into Darkness (2021)
Directed by Joshua Zeman
Starring Paul Giamatti, Charlie Ott, Phil Amicone
Documentary, Crime, History (3h 59m)
Like Charles Manson, David Berkowitz didn't act alone but as part of a wider Satanic cult—or so it's assumed.
At first, though, Berkowitz pled guilty to eight shootings after a city-wide search in New York, claiming he was under the order of a demon dog called Sam. Hence his title, Son of Sam.
Twenty years after his arrest, his name resurfaced on newspaper headlines. Now Berkowitz was changing his story and there were more ritualistic killers out there, meaning his case was reopened.
Joshua Zeman's documentary suggests the police were too hasty in breathing a sigh of relief when they caught Berkowitz, considering so many questions remained unanswered.
To this day, there still isn't a complete picture of this case. Although we know for sure Berkowitz was guilty (who now ironically speaks out against gun violence), the Sons of Sam cultish web remains an unsolved mystery like that of the Zodiac Killer.
3. Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003)
Directed by Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill
Starring Aileen Wuornos, Nick Broomfield, Terry Humphreys-Slay
Documentary, Crime (1h 33m)
In the same way Netflix released The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes to coincide with his biopic Dahmer, Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer was released a few weeks after Patty Jenkins's Oscar-nominated biography Monster.
Aileen Wuornos is the only female serial killer on our list. Although Wuornos was by no means innocent, many have gone on to question her death penalty due to her sanity and motivations.
Whereas men like Dahmer got life in prison, Wuornos was given a lethal injection for killing seven men (partly in self-defense, partly in revenge). Wuornos claimed only to kill the clients that had tried to rape her, and psychologists have since diagnosed her with BPD and PTSD.
Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill take an unusually sympathetic approach, showing us Wuornos's unsound mind—which was dismissed in court—via her long ramblings and letters about "sailing with the Rock, and I'll be back. Like Independence Day with Jesus."
2. Making a Murderer (2015)
Directed by Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos
Starring Steven Avery, Dolores Avery, Laura Nirider
Documentary, Crime (20h)
It's not often that innocent people are put in prison for almost two decades, but it does happen. In fact, Steven Avery was probably the only innocent man in Manitowoc County Jail.
Even though he was eventually freed when a DNA test proved he wasn't the rapist, Steven's jailbird days weren't behind him. His life under lock and key had no doubt rubbed off on him, and Steven was then accused of murder two years later.
Having already been wrongly imprisoned once, Steven's murder trial was unsurprisingly complex and saturated the media.
Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos's hit Netflix series gets into the nitty gritty of Steven's unusual case, which was followed by a second season on his nephew and accomplice Brendan Dassey.
1. Don't F**k With Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer (2019)
Directed by Mark Lewis
Starring Deanna Thompson, John Green, Claudette Hamlin
Documentary, Crime, Mystery (3h 7m)
We're giving top spot on our list to Mark Lewis's Don't F**k With Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer, mainly because of how unique and surprisingly engrossing it is.
Yes, you'll find the usual talking head interviews, old home photos, CCTV footage, and dramatic music, but this is no stereotypical serial killer portrait or exposé on a flawed investigation.
The manhunt for Canadian porn star Luka Magnotta was completely online at first. And the investigators? The general, web-surfing public. Specifically, animal rights activists who were disgusted by a video of him anonymously suffocating kittens.
Born as Eric Clinton Kirk Newman, Magnotta underwent various disguises, names, and aliases while fleeing between countries.
Computer nerds, hackers, and Facebook groups used every detail of Magnotta's increasingly disturbing posts to locate him, giving director Mark Lewis three solid hours of bizarre investigative content.
Lewis shows us the dangers of the internet while also depicting how it can be used for good: tracking and catching an anonymous killer before he turned serial. His first and only victim, Jun Lin, was killed before Magnotta was finally caught.