From Jack the Ripper to John Wayne Gacy to Aileen Wuornos, the horrific legacies of serial killers have managed to both appall and intrigue, as people attempt to explore and understand the darkest depths of the human psyche. Hollywood has mined this territory for years, with dozens of scripted true-crime movies and TV series exploring the “why” of those who snap.
But why are we so obsessed? Alex Wolff, who stars in the new movie My Friend Dahmer, about the high school years of the notorious mass murderer Jeffrey Dahmer, has a theory. “People are interested in seeing how things happen and maybe finding out what things could be different,” he tells ET. “Like, what is it about him that’s so different from me, or my next-door neighbor who seems a little bit off? That’s why people are interested in seeing the birth of things like this -- for their own comfort, for their own life. It’s very easy to write people off as monsters, but it’s more interesting to examine them as people who did horrible things.”
The trend continues thanks to a raft of forthcoming and recent productions that put the spotlight on serial killers (as well as infamous murderers and domestic terrorists). With the true-crime genre showing no signs of slowing down, ET explores the current and upcoming slate of scripted projects inspired by real-life killers.
Manhunt: Unabomber (Discovery)
Premiered: Aug. 1
Subject: Ted Kacyznski
This eight-episode miniseries starred Paul Bettany as Kacyznski and Sam Worthington as FBI agent/profiler Jim Fitzgerald. And while Kacyznksi is labeled more as a domestic terrorist rather than a serial killer, the Unabomber killed three and injured 23 more during a 17-year span in which he mailed a series of sophisticated bombs to various targets on his anti-technology crusade. Kacyznski was arrested in April 1996 and is serving eight life sentences without parole in a supermax prison in Colorado.
Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders (NBC)
Premiered: Sept. 26
Subjects: Lyle and Erik Menendez
This limited-run series from uber-producer Dick Wolf recounts the tabloid-friendly saga of the Menendez brothers, who murdered their parents in grisly fashion back in 1989. The brothers’ brutal killings, subsequent spending spree, and claims of sexual and emotional abuse were splashed all over the news throughout the 1990s, and the numerous trials and deadlocked juries only increased the attention. Both brothers were eventually convicted to life sentences and are currently in separate California prisons.
Premiered: Oct. 13
Subjects: Edmund Kemper, Dennis Rader, Monte Ralph Rissell, Jerry Brudos, Richard Speck
Director David Fincher’s second dive into the world of serial killers, following Zodiac, centers on the men who began profiling serial killers for the FBI, in part, by using interviews with imprisoned criminals to help collect characteristics of those who may kill and kill again. Some of the real-life people portrayed include Kemper, known as the “Co-Ed Killer” after murdering eight people in the 1970s; Rissell, a teenage rapist and murderer captured at 19; Brudos, who was known as the “Shoe Fetish Slayer”; Speck, who went on a spree at a Chicago hospital, killing eight nurses; and Rader, the infamous BTK Killer who operated for years before being caught in 2005.
Alias Grace (Netflix)
Premieres: Nov. 3
Subjects: Grace Marks and James McDermott
The latest prestige work from director Sarah Polley and author Margaret Atwood explores a crime of which most people have very little knowledge. In 1840s Canada, 16-year-old domestic Marks (Sarah Gadon) paired up with stable worker McDermott (Kerr Logan) to brutally murder their employer and his housekeeper, who was found dismembered via axe. Both were sentenced to be hanged, and while McDermott’s sentence was carried out, Marks was pardoned after 30 years in prison and disappeared from the record.
My Friend Dahmer (FilmRise)
Premieres: Nov. 3
Subjects: Jeffrey Dahmer
This slow-burn drama explores the high school years of notorious serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer (Ross Lynch) and his friendship with fellow senior John “Derf” Backderf (Wolff), who would go on to write the graphic novel on which this is based. Dahmer would begin his crimes shortly after graduation, and he would go on to gruesomely murder, torture and cannibalize 17 men over a 13-year period. Dahmer was sentenced to life in prison, where he was beaten to death by a fellow inmate in 1994.
The Lost Wife of Robert Durst (Lifetime)
Premieres: Nov. 4
Subject: Robert Durst
If HBO’s docuseries The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst didn’t give you enough twisted insight into the mind of Robert Durst, this TV movie, starring Katharine McPhee (Scorpion) as Durst’s first wife, will raise even more questions. Durst remains under investigation for this case and the execution murder of his longtime friend Susan Berman. He was acquitted for murder in the case of his neighbor Morris Black, though Durst admitted to dismembering his body and dumping it in a local bay. In addition, Durst remains a person of interest in the disappearance of three teenage girls. Durst is awaiting an April trial on the Berman case.
Dating Game Killer (Investigation Discovery)
Premieres: Dec. 3
Subject: Rodney Alcala
Guillermo Diaz (Scandal) takes a dark turn in this TV movie, playing Rodney Alcala, a smooth-talking lothario who appeared on The Dating Game while in the middle of a prolific serial killing spree. Alcala was arrested in 1979 and sentenced to death in 2010 for his role in seven murders, but those numbers may be extremely low compared to his actual crimes. Alcala would pose as a photographer to lure in women and children, take explicit pictures and then strangle them. It is speculated that Alcala may be the culprit in more than 100 unsolved murders.
Final Vision (Investigation Discovery)
Premieres: December 10
Subject: Jeffrey MacDonald
This case has served as fodder for several media adaptations, and in the latest, Scott Foley (Scandal) takes on the role of MacDonald, a Green Beret doctor who was accused of brutally murdering his pregnant wife and two small children in 1970, and then attempting to blame the crime on a Charles Manson-inspired group of criminals. Thanks to forensic evidence, MacDonald was convicted of the crime and sentenced to life in prison, where he has continued to insist on his innocence. Author Joe McGinniss’ book about the case was made into a miniseries in 1984, with Gary Cole in the MacDonald role.
American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace (FX)
Premieres: Jan. 17, 2018
Subject: Andrew Cunanan
The fashion designer’s shocking murder gets a star-studded treatment from Ryan Murphy, who turned American Crime Story’s first installment -- focused on the O.J. Simpson trial -- into a pop-culture phenomenon. Former Glee star Darren Criss steps into the role of glib gigolo Cunanan, who went on a murder spree in 1997, killing five men during a cross-country reign of terror, the last of whom was Versace on the front steps of his Miami home. Cunanan committed suicide eight days later, leaving no suicide note and no motive for his crimes.
Subject: Lizzie Borden
This upcoming theatrical release stars Chloe Sevigny as the titular alleged axe murderer and Kristen Stewart as her live-in maid, detailing the events that led up to the deaths of Borden’s father and stepmother. Despite the nursery rhyme, Borden (or whomever committed the crime) did not use 40 or 41 whacks with the axe, but both victims had been repeatedly hacked. Borden’s trial became a major event in 1893 and despite numerous contradictory claims, Borden was found innocent of the crimes and lived the rest of her days in the same town, ostracized from public society.