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Serial Killer

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"You see these? Each scar is a life."
"We all go a little mad sometimes."
Norman Bates, Psycho

Which Cop Show has one not appeared in?

A Serial Killer is defined as someone who commits multiple murders, out of some kind of mental or sexual compulsion, in separate incidents with at least a few days in between killings. This is their "cooling off" period, when they temporarily lose the compulsion to kill, and distinguishes them from Spree Killers, who kill in much more regular intervals of weeks or days, if they don't simply go on a murderous rampage that usually ends only when someone captures or kills them. The minimum death toll to be classified as a serial killer is 3-5 people, providing they were killed in separate incidents over a period of more than 30 days. If numerous people are killed in a single incident (e.g. someone murders an entire family in their home), that is mass murder, though mass murderers can and do become serial killers if they act multiple times.


It's worth pointing out that actually getting convicted of the three to five murders is rare. Historically, being convicted of one murder was generally enough to get you executed and pretty quickly as well, with no need or opportunity to prove the rest. Even with large-scale abolition of the death penalty, there's not much point in a prosecutor spending lots of money on multiple charges when just one will probably get the killer a life sentence. Of course, the killer could be deemed insane or kill themselves before the trial.

Real Life serial killers are usually divided into 4 categories, and fictional killers tend to fall into one or more of these categories as well, if not by design, then by their nature.

  • Visionary — The killer suffers a break from reality, delusions, and/or hallucinations, that compel them to murder. They might believe God or Satan, or simply voices, are telling them to kill, or that killing will prevent some kind of disaster. Tends to result from some kind of trauma and/or a mental illness like schizophrenia. The Insanity Defense will usually only apply to this type (though even this only counts if their mental illness impaired their sense of right and wrong), and as such if a killer is going for that defense, they will usually claim to be such — this very rarely works in Real Life, and in fact is very rarely attempted, probably because in practice there is only so much difference between being locked up in a jail cell for life for multiple murders, and being locked in an insane asylum for life for the same.
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  • Mission-Based — The killer believes that their actions are for the greater good, or in the service of some higher purpose, because they are performing some kind of social, political, philosophical, or religious service, generally targeting people they blame for society's ills, or view as sinful, distasteful, or dangerous. Though they may be deluded, they are not psychotic like the Visionary killer, having a rough grasp on reality. In fact, this is the only version of this trope that stands a remote chance of applying to a heroic character, if they're correct about their victims being the sort of people who deserve to die and who can't be dealt with in any other way. Vigilante killers are a sub-type of this.
  • Hedonistic — Someone who kills for lust, thrill, or comfort/profit. The first two kill principally because they enjoy it; lust-based killers get sexual satisfaction out of murder, while thrill-based ones simply find it exciting. Comfort/profit killers are the type who kill to maintain or fund a life of luxury, or otherwise for money; hitmen and assassins fall into this category, but it usually refers to cases of fraud, embezzlement, or robbery that involves killing somebody. Women serial killers are usually comfort killers, though not all comfort killers are women.
  • Power/Control — These murderers kill because it makes them feel powerful. Often (though not always) the type who were mistreated or abused as children, they are driven more by insecurity or rage than by any pleasure they might get out of killing, though that might eventually play a part. If rape is involved, it is not, like a Hedonistic killer, motivated by lust, but as another means of dominating the victim. Very often involves torture, and/or binding the victim in some fashion, though neither of these are requirements.

In addition, as mentioned, there are several sub-types of these killers that fit into the above categories. Some examples include:

  • Revenge killers commit murders to lash out at real or perceived wrongs done to them in life, the victims typically being substitutes for the perpetrator of the original offense. May kill friends, relatives, or strangers for slights, sometimes petty in nature.
  • Black Widow killers cash in on the insurance of murdered relatives (or friends with wills). Typically serial spouses who murder their new husbands/wives and then move on, though they have been known to murder other relations, including children. Almost always women.
  • The Bluebeard killer is a male counterpart to the Black Widow killer, except that this specifically refers to men who kill their wives, not other relatives. Also, the motive is usually power, not financial gain, though that often plays a part.
  • Professional Killers are now increasingly regarded as a sub-type of serial killers, falling under Comfort/Profit Hedonistic killers.
  • Cost Cutters are those who kill to save money, such as a person who murders employees to avoid paying them.
  • Lethal Caretakers are nurses, carers, or other such who kill patients and carees for profit, e.g. to cash in on social security checks in their name. Usually women.
  • Angels of Death are similar, but kill patients for feelings of power and control, or sometimes serial mercy-killing (or believe their crimes to be such), and are thus harder to trace. Again, usually women, though Harold Shipman — British doctor and the most prolific serial killer in the world — falls into this type.
  • Münchausen by Proxy is a personality disorder where the perpetrator harms another for attention — for example, murdering a relative for sympathy at the loss, or killing someone and then trying to "save" them to act the hero. Usually not killers, but serial abusers of relations or strangers, but have been known to turn lethal.
  • Murderers of prostitutes, which is Exactly What It Says on the Tin. Most often, a Serial Killer starts with killing a prostitute, and a Serial Killer's victims are likely to be mostly or even only prostitutes (such as Jack the Ripper, the Ur-Example of Serial Killers); in fact, it's not uncommon for such a murderer to target prostitutes, as they believe to be doing a favor to society by killing them, which makes these killings a type of Mission-Based Serial Killing.
  • Sexual Predators are killers who lure victims to their death with promises of sex or intimacy, or simply chatting the victim up. May drug their victims to make it easier. Usually Lust killers, but other motives are suspected in certain cases.
  • Sexual Sadists are lust killers who torture their victims before killing them; the torture is usually more important than the actual murder. The torture may be psychological and can last for a matter of seconds or minutes, or it can last for hours or days, depending on the offender.
  • Antisocial killers are those suffering from a severe case of a personality disorder. Impulsive and impatient, they pathologically violate social norms and values, such as repeatedly committing serious and petty crimes. Serial murder is usually just one of many crimes they regularly commit, and they often do so in the course of other crimes, such as robbery, rape, and various forms of manipulation.
  • Cannibalistic killers hunt down people so they can eat their flesh. Other times they do it out of curiosity after they've killed someone, the cannibalism not having been the primary motive for the murder. Jeffrey Dahmer is a well-known real life example of this type. Hannibal Lecter is the most iconic fictional example.
  • Police killers are serial murderers who are also involved in law enforcement. There's a roughly equal chance that they're a Vigilante Man who thinks he is cleaning the street by killing criminals and anyone else they regard as immoral, or just an indiscriminate psycho who butchers people for fun while using their jobs as covers for their crimes.
  • Supernatural killers are what happens when a normal, flesh and blood killer for any of the above types dies. Or rather, doesn't. He may discover Evil Makes You Monstrous, get turned into a vampire or werewolf, or linger on as a ghost. This usually makes them (perhaps literal) nightmares, as they suffer from a Horror Hunger, gain superpowers, and are nigh unkillable.
  • Murderers who invoke Serial Killings, Specific Target kill additional victims to disguise the motive for their intended victim's murder and make it look like the work of any of the other types of serial killers described above.

Serial killers can further be divided into Organized and Disorganized. The former plan their crimes carefully and often well in advance, and are thus always premeditated. They may even hold a stable job and have a good education, and appear perfectly normal in every way. Such people are very likely to be The Chessmaster. The latter are much more impulsive and careless; their crimes may or may not be premeditated, and they are recklessly executed when they are, without due care for witnesses or leaving evidence. These tend to be poorly educated and not in steady employment.

The following things tend to occur in a serial killer plot:

  • The killer sends a note to the police, or a newspaper, or both, with a taunting message that ends in a challenge along the lines of "You can't catch me." A gruesome souvenir may also be included.
    • A variation is to have the killer send a message saying "Please catch me before I kill more."
  • Serial killers are often, but not always, portrayed as The Chessmaster, brilliantly layering one Evil Plan onto another. Often, this takes the form of a series of Batman Gambits that lead the police on a series of wild goose chases as the killer gloats.
  • They have a wall full of newspaper clippings covering their actions. Sometimes they keep a photographic record of their kills, or even a souvenir of the victim's.
  • If it's part of a Story Arc, one cop is probably going to fall victim (which is part of the requisite Tonight, Someone Dies hype).
  • At the climax, one of the cops is usually Alone with the Psycho, but is saved Just in Time.
  • If the killer is not depicted as Ax-Crazy, then the victims all have something to do with one another.
  • If somebody else is wrongfully implicated, and looks close to taking the rap, the serial killer will bump them off, even though this means casting suspicion back on himself.
    • Or the killer will kill again while the wrongfully accused is incarcerated, casting suspicion back on himself.
    • Sometimes he will do it because it casts suspicion back towards himself, because he is insulted that the police suspect someone he considers unworthy of the attention.
  • The killer might leave a distinctive Calling Card at each scene of his crimes.
  • The killer might be a Poetic Serial Killer, who kills bad people with ironic methods.
  • Or they're a Theme Serial Killer, and they have a set of themes (possibly taken from a poem/book), with each victim fitting the next theme in the killer's list (which they rarely get to complete).
  • The killer will fondly recall or talk about their victims.
  • Some of these plots have the Serial Killer insert themselves into the investigation, either by posing as a witness, victim, or in some cases, an investigator. The killer's purpose in doing this is either to misdirect the police or prove how much smarter the killer is than the cops. While it's much more common in fiction, this has actually happened in real life.

Serial Killer plots tend to be men killing women, although The Bill subverted this. This is somewhat realistic, however, because in the real world, the vast majority of serial killers are men — or, more exactly, men tend to murder in ways that make it easier for them to get caught. Female serial killers will typically be Angels of Death and may work in health care or similar vocations. In fiction, they'll often have a Torture Cellar or do their killings in a Sinister Subway.

Over the last few years, daytime soaps have had an unusually high number of serial killers. One Life to Live has had at least two in as many years. It's the chic way for producers to pare down their casts.

It's notable that many of these behaviors are realistic for serial killers, though seeing all of them with one killer is unlikely. Also notable is the fact that they are practically never allowed to go uncaught by the end, despite many of the most famous unsolved cases in history being serial killer investigations.

Sometimes they are more like a so-called Spree Killer, i.e. someone who goes on a murderous rampage in a smaller area over a shorter time. In fact, this is more common than actual serial killers, though characters often confuse the two, as time constraints mean the killings in a story usually take place over the space of a few days, whereas real serial killers by definition usually have weeks, months, or years between their kills.

The term "serial killer" isn't actually that old; it was coined in German (as "Serienmörder", serial murderer) in 1930 by Ernst Gennat, the highly influential director of the Berlin criminal police in the 1930s. "Serial murderer" crops up in 1966 and "serial killer" is generally attributed to FBI agent Robert Ressler in the 1970s, it didn't enter popular culture until 1981.

A counterpart to the Serial Rapist; it's not uncommon for the tropes to overlap, seeing how Murderers Are Rapists and all. Compare with Psycho for Hire, where a job that requires killing people is used by villains to act out their sadism. See also Hunting the Most Dangerous Game, where someone makes an actual sport out of killing people. The killer feared by other killers is a Serial-Killer Killer.

Many potential Serial Killers get caught quickly because they use an MO that makes their crimes easy to detect and identify, or have such a strong compulsion to murder that they literally cannot stop themselves, even when they know they are under suspicion and/or police surveillance. They may even enjoy it more if they know the cops are watching — yes, they see it as some kind of game. And finally, some of them are so sick and broken that they want to get caught.

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    Films — Animation 
  • Claudandus from Felidae personally kills a huge number of his fellow cats as part of his plan to create a Master Race.
  • Syndrome from The Incredibles is this, even if he is never called that (this being Disney and all). He systematically murders the world's superheroes basically because he's jealous they're "special" and he's not.
  • Mr. Hitcher from Tiny Toon Adventures: How I Spent My Vacation seems to be one, as he's a chainsaw-wielding psychopath who escaped from a maximum-security prison.

    Myths & Religion 
  • Classical Mythology: When Theseus travels on the road to Athens, he encounters numerous bandits who have unique murder methods. Theseus offs them with their own methods. These includes:
    • Polypoetes, who beats people to death with his club.
    • Sinis, who ties people between two trees that he has bent down. Then, he let go of the trees, ripping them in half.
    • Sciron, an elderly man who asks passersby to wash his feet as a sign of respect. When they bend over to comply, he punts them off a cliff and into the jaws of a sea monster at the bottom.
    • Cercyon, who challenges passersby to wrestling matches, then kills them after they have lost.
    • Procrustes, who invites passersby to stay the night at his place. If they are too short for the bed, he stretches their bodies until they fit. If they are too tall for the bed, he chops off the excess. If they fit just right, he would swap the bed for a different sized bed so he could still kill them.

    Tabletop Games 
  • In Mutants & Masterminds, Jack-a-Knives, the Murder Spirit, manipulates people into this role.
  • The New World of Darkness has slashers, humans who find themselves compelled to kill. Strangely enough, they're playable, and you can opt for a game in which the people the slashers kill often deserve it. Each slasher archetype, or Undertaking, has two tiers: Ripper (steps above your standard serial killer, but still conceivably human) and Scourge (outright supernatural incarnation of murder).
    • Also the rules presented allow you to make every character seen on this page:
      • Avenger/Legend: Paul Kersey from Death Wish starts killing criminal punks, but eventually becomes so fed up with "the filth on the streets" that he becomes Candyman, haunting the urban projects.
      • Brute/Mask: Mickey from Natural Born Killers gets off on killing so much that he trades all that makes him human — language, literacy, the ability to be around others — to become Jason Voorhees, unkillable but lurking in the woods for the pain human contact causes.
      • Charmer/Psycho (Hypno in Hunter 2E): Reverend Powell from The Night of the Hunter gets by on the thin veneer of humanity for so long that it eventually turns inside out and he becomes the freak you can't help but stare at, not unlike The Joker.
      • Freak (Undesirables in Hunter 2E)/Mutant: The families from The Hills Have Eyes (2006) take to the caves and degrade until they become the Crawlers.
      • Genius (Virtuoso in Hunter 2E)/Maniac (Puppeteer in Hunter 2E): Hannibal Lecter tells people how much they suck so many times, he comes to believe he must teach people to overcome their flaws via traps and sadistic choices a la Jigsaw.
    • Over in the Old World of Darkness are the Euthanatos of Mage: The Ascension, a group of the mission-based style. Justified to some extent as there really are a number of monsters out there, and they're warned against judging too quickly. Although they have to be careful and not turn into the hedonistic type, otherwise they might become one of their colleagues' next targets.
    • Changeling: The Lost makes mention of Ernest Marker and the Shrike. The former is a serial child murderer, the latter is a True Fae named after the bird that impales animals on thorns. She had considered taking Marker back to Arcadia, but then she became curious about just how his madness worked. As she studied him, she became so interested in his insanity that (as far as "sanity" counts for The Fair Folk) she went mad exactly the same way. Now the two have pooled Marker's knowledge of the mortal world and the Shrike's ages of hunting experience, planning the most heinous crime in human history...
  • Subverted in the Ravenloft adventure Hour of the Knife. What seems like a hunt for Jack-the-Ripper expy "Bloody Jack" is complicated by the revelation that A) "Jack" is a doppelganger, and B) the killings aren't insane at all, but a murderous ritual to empower an artifact-caliber cursed knife.
  • In Pathfinder the Vigilante class is well suited to this. Their dual identity defeats efforts to find the killer through scrying, and emphasize deflecting suspicion by being a well-respected member of the community, while secretly specializing in attacking from stealth and downing a single target swiftly. They have three archetypes that are even better suited to the role: the Cabalist, who's associated with dark magic and blood sacrifice, the Hangman, who specializes in choking people to death, and...the Serial Killer. The other two are sinister but can be heroic (the Hangman's description suggests it's executing condemned criminals who escaped justice), but the last has to be evil. It leaves a Calling Card, and murders so brutally it gives those who inspect the body nightmares.
  • Rippers - Dr. John Dee, the Elizabethan sorcerer, becomes Jack the Ripper. Oddly as Jack the Ripper, he's initially a heroic figure (he was hunting succubi among prostitutes) and with Van Helsing, he created "the Rippers" - a monster hunting group. Then he goes off the deep-end and makes villainous organization "the Cabal".
  • Spite of Sentinels of the Multiverse is, well, let's just say he's a horrible person and a vicious serial killer and leave it at that. We don't need to go into the messier details. Besides, they're all in the nightmare fuel and character sheet pages anyway.
  • There have been several in Shadowrun: the Mealtime Killer, the Emerald City Ripper, the Mayan Cutter and his copycats, and the "We are Free" killer(s) are just a few.
  • In the dystopian future of SLA Industries, between the endemic violent entertainment and hopeless dreary lives of Mort City's inhabitants, serial killers are commonplace. The deadliest of these are ex-operatives who have gone rogue and taken to killing for fun. The most famous of the serial killers is the immortal, pumpkin-masked Halloween Jack.

  • Arsenic and Old Lace pits Only Sane Man Mortimer Brewster against two separate serial killers: his old maiden aunts, Abby and Martha, who poison lonely old men as a "charity" and bury them in their cellar (falling under Visionary as they are clearly insane); and his older brother Jonathan, who is a psychotic murderer with kills all over the world (falling under Power/Control). When they discover each other's crimes, they wind up comparing notes, Body-Count Competition-style, which is played for Black Comedy.
  • In the Mrs. Hawking series: Part VI: Fallen Women concerns the hunt for Jack the Ripper, one of the most famous historical serial killers of all time.
  • Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street: In a rare sympathetic (but not noble) example, Sweeney Todd becomes one of these after he fails to kill Turpin.
    • Even more applicable in the original penny dreadful The String of Pearls, in which he's just a Hedonistic sociopath out to profit - in every unspeakable way possible - from his victims.
  • While not in the original Novella, Edward Hyde becomes this in Jekyll & Hyde. The opening of act two is a sequence of him killing off the majority of St. Jude's Board of Governors.

    Visual Novels 
  • Ace Attorney has five serial killers, by definition [three or more murders, with time between each one]. A list of serial killers and the people they killed are as follows:
    • Joe Darke (Edward Jones, Jason Knight, Edith Kirby, Rachael Moss, Jeb Bates, Neil Marshall Except he didn't kill the last one. Things are more complicated than it seems.) (Technically, he's a spree killer, but the game identifies him as a serial killer)
    • Professional Killer Shelly de Killer (Juan Corrida, many unseen others as mentioned through in-game conversations)
    • Dahlia Hawthorne (Valerie Hawthorne, Terry Fawles (by proxy), Doug Swallow. Attempted to murder Diego Armando, Phoenix Wright, and Maya Fey)
    • Sirhan Dogen, another Professional Killer (Di-Jun Huang, many unseen others)
    • Kristoph Gavin comes close, and succeeds in the bad ending of Apollo Justice. (Zak Gramarye, Drew Misham, Vera Misham in bad ending)
    • The Great Ace Attorney has "The Professor," who systematically killed four people with a hunting dog (inspiring the Sholmes novel The Hound of the Baskervilles) and fatally stabbed Barok van Ziek's brother Klint. Except not really. Klint himself was The Professor, and turns out to have died through Suicide by Cop.
  • The most common type of criminal in Cause of Death, due in part to the efforts of the Connoisseur to cultivate them when possible. We have Power/Control (the Maskmaker, Zero, arguably Livewire, the dispenser of Nightmare), Hedonistic (the Hunter, the Ladykiller), and Mission-Based (the Hand of Justice, the Boogeyman).
  • Cemetery Mary: Reginald Tetra is the Blackwood Butcher killing innocent people, usually the elderly via a special antifreeze. He does this so that Mary will show up at their funerals where he can stalk her.
  • Danganronpa:
    • Genocide(r) Syo/Jack/Jill from Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is apparently well-known enough in-universe that they're one of the first suggestions when the students are speculating on the identity of the mastermind who locked them in the school. Genocider is rumored to have killed thousands of young men, writing "BLOODBATH FEVER" (or "BLOODLUST") on the wall of each scene in the victim's blood and crucifying them with hand-made scissors. When a student turns up crucified in the locker room, with the aforementioned message, it becomes clear Genocider is indeed among them. Except that Genocider, who is Fukawa's Split Personality, didn't kill Fujisaki; Togami strung the body up to resemble her MO in order to make the trial more interesting. Genocider is a Hedonistic type, as all the boys she's killed were Fukawa's crushes, and is therefore fairly safe to be around during the Deadly Game, as killing in any way other than their usual MO would be boring, and if anyone else turned up crucified everyone would immediately know it was Genocider Syo.
    • Played with in Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair. Early into the game, the same set-up that Genocider Syo has is run though again, with the killer Kirakira Seigi/Sparkling Justice and their MO being introduced, and then a character being killed with the serial killer's calling card left nearby. It turns out to be a ruse, as the killer is trying to get somebody else out of the game through a perceived loophole in the rules, and pretends to be the aforementioned serial killer to get everyone to vote for her quickly without thinking too hard about the circumstances surrounding the murder.
    • Chapter 3 of Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony reveals the rather threatening-looking Korekiyo Shinguuji is one of these, specifically a Misson-based type (early on in the game, he even admits that he has the appearance of a potential murderer). In a similar case to Genocider Syo, all of his victims are women, meant to become friends with his deceased older sister in the afterlife. He almost reaches triple digits, with the deaths of Angie and Tenko bringing him closer to his goal, and before he is executed, his only regret is not reaching this goal.
  • Discussed in Daughter for Dessert. Kathy talks about the true crime shows that she watches at one point, and they go over which serial killer that Kathy sees in the protagonist.
  • Hinimizawa Syndrome in Higurashi: When They Cry tends to induce people to become the Visionary type with the revenge subtype. Most notable case akin to a serial killer being Shion Sonozaki.
  • Kara no Shoujo: There are three serial killers, though one has disappeared from the police radar a few years back. They all appear to be a mix of type one and two.
  • In Nanairo Reincarnation, the villain is a lust killer who targets lonely young women. Makoto needs to expose the killer’s crimes so that the ghosts of his victims can find closure and move on to the afterlife.
  • The Nine Series has the mysterious Evil Eye User, who kills people by turning them to stone with the power of their eponymous Evil Eye. Uncovering their identity and stopping them forms the crux of the series' plot.
  • SHIKI in Tsukihime in the routes where he's in control over Roa. He doesn't actually enjoy killing and unlike Satsuki he isn't doing it to live. He just doesn't possess the power to stop. It's revealed that he's trying to find and kill Shiki because their mind-connection is driving him mad, but he can never find him because he was given false information about what he looks like. So instead he kills women who bear a resemblance to his sister Akiha because he wants to drink their blood.
  • Zero Time Dilemma has the attractive and seemingly-normal Mira, AKA the Heart Ripper, a sociopathic killer who can't comprehend human emotions and who cuts the hearts out of their victims in a vain attempt to understand them.


Michael Myers

also known as "The Shape", Michael Myers is the main antagonist of the Halloween series, a silent murderer in a mask with a single-minded drive to kill Laurie Strode.

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