The unthinkable acts of serial killers are a major draw for documentary makers. What makes these men - and women - commit such heinous acts? Why the repeated, often ritualistic, murders? And what of those who survive, whether escaped victims or friends and family? They’re questions compelling enough to drive entire series - and in search of answers some have gone so far as to interview serial killers themselves, while others trace investigations by police, desperate to find a killer who is terrorising a community. We can't promise a settled night's sleep after your choice from our top ten best serial killer documentaries, but we can promise an intriguing insight into the darkest side of human nature.
10 best serial killer documentaries
The Jeffrey Dahmer Files
A neighbour and the investigating police officer are among those interviewed in this compelling documentary about a cold-blooded killer who is described as "terrifyingly mundane". Jeffrey Dahmer lived an apparently ordinary existence in an ordinary neighbourhood - and this documentary uses archives and new footage to examine how behind that facade he was a brutal killer, dismembering the bodies of his 17 victims and eventually sentenced to 957 years in jail.
The Shipman Files: A Very British Crime Story
Harold Shipman was the apparently caring GP who was found to have killed dozens of his elderly patients by injecting them with morphine, forging their medical records to say they died of natural causes. This BBC documentary series makes sure to focus on Shipman's victims rather than Shipman himself, and features interviews with those who were close to them, aiming to answer a simple question: just how did he get away with it for so long?
Aileen: Life & Death of a Serial Killer
British documentary maker Nick Broomfield won international plaudits for this examination of Aileen Wuornos, who murdered seven men in Florida in the 1980s. Broomfield's distinctive approach puts him very much in the picture - and here, at Wuornos's own request, he conducts the last interview with her before she was executed. Her past as a hitch-hiking prostitute with a violent childhood is revealed, as she tells him her mind was controlled by radio waves.
Forensic series telling the story of the police investigation into the killings of the so-called Yorkshire Ripper, who murdered 13 women in the north of England in the 1970s. The victims were all sex workers and, as the series documents, the murders at first gained little public attention - until a teenager was killed. Archive footage deals with "one of the most cunning killers police ever had to trace", eventually leading to the arrest and imprisonment of Peter Sutcliffe.
Fred and Rose West: Reopened
Two-part series suggesting that husband-and-wife serial killers Fred and Rose West may have murdered many more than the 12 people they are known to have killed. The series' dramatically-staged on-site investigations are the draw here: taking viewers to an abandoned farm building and a strange cavity under a cafe - among others - in search of human remains. Included is the backdrop to the Wests' terrible crimes, which went unsolved for many years.
The Real "Des": The Dennis Nilsen Story
Dennis Nilsen was one of Britain's worst serial killers, murdering at least 12 men between 1978 and 1983. Nilsen strangled his victims, usually picked up in one of London's gay pubs. As the documentary recounts, he would hide dismembered remains under the floorboards of his home, sometimes burning them. The programme suggests he preferred to be called "Des", offering a - controversial - more human side to a brutal killer. Nilsen was himself a former Metropolitan Police officer, leaving the force, he claimed, because of homophobia.
Over three carefully crafted episodes, the horrific murders of child killers Myra Hindley and Ian Brady are examined, along with the police investigation and what happened after they were brought to court and convicted. Hindley and Brady murdered five children aged between 10 and 17 in the early 1960s, burying some of the bodies on remote Saddleworth Moor in the Peak District National Park. The programmes feature prison letters revealed for the first time and examines why we are fascinated with these terrible crimes.
Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer
Acclaimed four-part series looking into the terrifying crimes of Richard Ramirez, known as The Night Stalker. On a year-long killing spree in California in the 1980s, Ramirez broke into his victims' homes after dark, eventually caught and convicted of 13 counts of murder, as this series recounts, but suspected of many more. Ramirez's tortured childhood is examined, as is the terror his attacks caused - and how police eventually tracked down and captured him.
Jack The Ripper: The Case Reopened
There's no shortage of incredible documentaries on the still unidentified serial killer known as Jack The Ripper, who brutally murdered at least five women in the then-impoverished Whitechapel area of east London in 1888. This intriguing programme looks for new leads: examining fresh evidence, naming a new victim and suggesting who Jack The Ripper might in fact have been. Key here is the use of the latest technology to recreate crime scenes and to examine the killer's methods.
Conversations With A Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes
The voice of the serial killer himself is the chilling central feature of this intense four-part series. Interviews from death row - Bundy was executed in 1989 - join archival footage to tell the story of a man who lured his victims with his good looks and his charm. Bundy confessed to 30 murders in seven American states in the 1970s, but the real total is thought to be even higher. Surviving victims are interviewed, as well as family, friends and investigators who worked on the case.