Serial killers, or rather tales of serial killers, have a long and sturdy relationship with both the page and screen. As viewers and readers, we can't seem to get enough of the nail-biting horror that a tense thriller centered on a maniacal killer can bring. We're all the more entranced when the murderer in question is based on a real-life figure. The recent news that Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio will be adapting Erik Larson's acclaimed nonfiction book The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America certainly fits into this category. Its principle subject, Dr. H. H. Holmes, remains one of the most notorious serial killers in U.S. history. That being the case, what better time take a look at a few of the most notorious killers to terrorize the page and screen?
DR. HANNIBAL LECTER
Why not start at the top? Created by writer Thomas Harris in his novel Red Dragon and brought to chilling and legendary life by Anthony Hopkins in the 1991 adaptation of Harris's third novel, The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter remains one of the most unnerving, charming, utterly terrifying serial killers in any medium. His astounding intellect, predatory skill, and unnatural charisma make Dr. Lecter a fascinating and ambiguous literally character. And keep in mind, he's technically a minor character in both Red Dragon and The Silence of Lambs, both of which featured the hunt for entirely unrelated murderers. It's easy to say that Anthony Hopkins's performance is what made Lecter so enthralling, but Thomas Harris gave him plenty to work with.
The disturbingly quintessential mama's boy, Norman Bates has been unnerving audiences since his debut in Robert Block's Psycho in 1959. Although, Bloch's novel is an excellent read and well worth checking out, it was Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 adaptation that left an indelible mark on the character's legacy. By casting the fresh-faced Anthony Perkins as Norman (who is middle-aged and overweight in the novel) and making the character somewhat more sympathetic, Hitchcock managed to pull audiences further into the narrative, making the shocking finale all the more disturbing. Thanks to Hitchcock's direction and Perkins's performance, Norman Bates was that much easier to identify with - after all we all go a little mad sometimes, right?
THE REVEREND HARRY POWELL
"The Night of the Hunter" (1955), based on the novel of the same name by Davis Grubb and inspired by true events in this writer's hometown, is a cinematic classic in large part due to Robert Mitchum's unnervingly engaging portrayal of the murderous preacher Harry Powell. Powell ingratiates himself into the lives of a Willa Harper and her children John and Pearl. Powell's dogged pursuit of the children following his murder of their mother is one of cinema's most nightmarishly surreal scenes and Powell's fanatical, misogynistic hatred combined with the inherent charm of Mitchum made for a truly terrifying murderer.
Homophobic, misogynistic, and utterly insane, Patrick Bateman is one of the most disturbing characters on this list. His gleeful, brutal murders coupled with the unreliable narration of "American Psycho" result in an uncomfortably horrifying film that swings between manic tension and disconcerting hilarity. "American Psycho" is an adaptation that is as chilling as it is ambiguous. It may fall short of the biting satire of Bret Easton Ellis's novel of the same name, but Patrick Bateman is thoroughly mesmerizing and wholly creepy whether on the page or the screen.
THE ZODIAC KILLER
If you're going to talk about notorious serial killers, you have to include the Zodiac Killer; there's no way around it. The mysterious murderer terrorized the San Francisco bay area in the late 1960s and early 1970s, taunting police with a series of cryptic letters to various newspapers during his killing spree. With a total of seven confirmed victims (two of whom survived) and claims as high thirty-seven victims, the Zodiac Killer remains one of the most prolific serial killers in U.S. history. The fact that he was never apprehended makes the case all the more frightening. The Zodiac Killer was the subject of Robert Graysmith's 1986 nonfiction book Zodiac, which chronicled the various investigations into the murder and was adapted to a film of the same name in 2007.
Those are our picks for a few of the most notorious literary and cinematic serial killers. What would you add? Let us know.