Follow TV Tropes


Theme Serial Killer

Go To
I'm sensing a theme here.
Moss: If you were a murderer, what would your nickname be? Mine would be "The Gardener" cause I'd always leave a rose at the scene of the crime.
Roy: What would your murder weapon be?
Moss: [beat] A hammer.

There are killers who have a specific type of victim, and there are killers who leave behind calling cards. But for some, this just isn't dramatic enough.

No, he has to pattern his kills after a famous set, like the seven deadly sins, or a work of fiction. The killer will choose victims who match up with the set and/or he will kill them in manners befitting the set. Note that the killer will avoid repeating methods of murder: each death will represent, in some way, another portion of the set or story.

The motives of the killer for choosing the set can vary. If the motive is revenge or punishing a sin, then the killer is also a Poetic Serial Killer. Compare Idiosyncrazy.



    open/close all folders 

    Comic Books 
  • In Azrael, the Crusader murders members of the Order of Purity in ways based on the martyrdom of various Christian saints.
  • Batman:
    • The Joker once decided to kill everyone in Gotham whose name was a palindrome. Like most of Joker's crimes, this theme was selected on a whim.
    • Another Batman villain, Calendar Man, loves to commit crimes relating to certain holidays. He helps Batman track down another holiday-themed killer in The Long Halloween.
    • Batman once fought a villain called the Inquisitor, who was killing priests using methods based on the seven deadly sins.
    • The original version of Clayface was an actor who killed a series of actors in the same way their characters in a slasher film were killed.
  • In an issue of The Maze Agency, a killer starts murdering members of the Ripperologists (a club of people interested in Jack the Ripper) in an order based on Jack the Ripper's famous poem:
    "I'm not a butcher, I'm not a Yid,
    Nor yet a foreign skipper.
    I am your own lighthearted fiend,
    Yours truly, Jack the Ripper."
  • A Million Ways To Die Hard: Mr. Moviefone, who murders people in a certain style related to certain movies. Examples including beheading a man in Paris, killing an Egyptian man with snakes, having a man crucified near the Roman Colosseum, and killing Hideki Takagi by setting the whole first floor ablaze like in The Towering Inferno.
  • Issue #14 of The Sandman (1989) features a convention of Serial Killers. While a variety of serial killer stereotypes are explored, one in particular fits this trope. At one point, two serial killers (one calling himself "Fuck You!" and the other calling himself The Connoisseur) are comparing victim counts, and when Fuck You laughs at The Connoisseur "score" (he's only killed eight people, as compared to Fuck You's 170+), The Connoisseur admits that he has very refined tastes when it comes to victims.
    "There was something about pre-operative transsexuals that fascinated the Connoisseur..."

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The Abominable Dr. Phibes uses the Ten Plagues of Egypt to carry out his revenge on the doctors who failed to save his wife.
    • In the sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again, he has loosened his theme to a more generically Ancient Egyptian vibe.
  • In Basic Instinct, a woman kills a retired rock 'n roll star during sex, in the exact same way that a rich novelist named Catherine Tramell described in one of her books. When the police suspect her, she points out how stupid she would be if she were to write it down in her book first. Eventually, they find the culprit: police psychologist Beth, an old flame of Nick who was obsessed with Catherine. Then the last shot reveals Catherine as the real killer, making this an inversion.
  • Stuntman Mike in Death Proof kills with his death proof stunt car.
  • In Hellraiser: Inferno, the Engineer will murder people close to Joseph and then leave a finger behind from a boy he's keeping captive to complete a set of exactly 10 victims. All three of them are in fact the same person.
  • In Madhouse (1974), the murderer uses the murders in the Dr. Death films of actor Paul Toombes as the theme for their killings. This leads a lot of people to figure that the killer probably is Toombes. Even Toombes himself (Vincent Price) starts to think he might be doing it.
  • In Most Likely to Die, the victims are killed based on their phrases assigned on their school's yearbooks. And the Killer uses a Graduate motif.
  • The Raven (2012) features a series of killings based on Edgar Allan Poe's works. As it's a 19th-century period piece, Poe himself gets involved in the investigation.
  • In Ripper: Letter from Hell, the Ripper is picking off victims with the same initials as the victim of Jack the Ripper, and recreating the wounds Saucy Jack left on his victims.
  • Johnathan Doe from Se7en bases his victims and deaths on the seven deadly sins.
  • In Theatre of Blood, Vincent Price (playing a hammy Shakespearean actor) kills theatre critics in the manner of various deaths from Shakespeare's plays. Including Madhouse and the two Dr. Phibes movies, this is the fourth Vincent Price movie to involve this trope.

  • The killer in Angels and Demons used the classic 4 elements as a theme to his murders... and for the locations. Earth, Fire and Water were easy; Air took a little creativity. He punctured the victim's lungs.
  • One of the earliest (if not the first) examples in English literature is S.S. Van Dyne's The Bishop Murder Case, where the killer murders his victims based on classic nursery rhymes.
  • The killer in The Bone Collector bases his murders on turn-of-the-century crime novels.
  • Agatha Christie:
    • In And Then There Were None, the deaths were patterned after the "Ten Little Indians" rhyme. (Also a case of Poetic Serial Killer as the victims were all chosen to die because they'd gotten away with murder.)
    • Another work of hers that uses a similar motif is A Pocketful Of Rye, which has the deaths based on the nursery rhyme "Sing a Song of Sixpence". Subversion, as this is really a Red Herring.
    • In another Agatha Christie novel, The ABC Murders, the killer murders alphabetically, starting with a woman whose name began with A in an A town, then a person whose name began with B in a B town, etc. He always leaves an ABC Railway Guide next to the body. But as in "A Pocketful of Rye", this is a red herring, the killer really did have a specific target.
  • In The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl, the killer mimics the punishments of sinners in Dante's Inferno in post-Civil War Boston.
  • In The Executioner by Jay Bennett (no relation to the Mack Bolan series), four drunken youths are in a car crash, which kills one of them. A mysterious killer enacts his revenge by plotting the murder of the three survivors, the first one by fire, the second one by water, and the third by earth.
  • The In Death series has quite a few serial killers, but the most interesting one would probably be from Imitation In Death. In this, the serial killer imitates other famous serial killers, in methodology, victim selection, and any famous 'quirks'. The first killing is a prostitute, with her uterus removed, and a taunting note is sent to Eve Dallas once she's identified as the investigator: Jack the Ripper. The second killing is identical to the Boston Strangler, another to Ted Bundy. The author eventually switches to fictitious killers, once to provide an opening for Dallas to act, and another who specializes in police officers to up the danger quotient - and yes, the killer intended to imitate the latter in order to take out Eve, as his final 'triumph'.
  • Kovac & Liska: The Serial Killer "Doc Holiday" is known as such for performing acts of murder on holidays.
  • The killings in Lestrade by MJ Trow are all based on the cautionary tales in Heinrich Hoffmann's Shockheaded Peter.
  • Parodied in Making Money with the Dyslexic Alphabet Killer, who only got as far as A and W.
  • The killer in Boris Starling's Messiah murders his victims based on the apostles. A man named Philip is hung, a James is beheaded, a Peter is crucified upside-down and so forth.
  • In The Name of the Rose, the killings follow symbolism from the Book of Revelation. Subverted, as the pattern is coincidential, then double subverted after the killer hears the hypothesis and decides to run with it.
  • Ellery Queen used this one a lot:
    • In Ten Day's Wonder, the theme was the Ten Commandments.
    • Double, Double used the children's rhyme Rich Man, Poor Man, Beggarman, Thief.
    • In A Cat of Many Tails, the murderer was a doctor who was systematically killing the people whose birth he had presided over.
  • C J Sansom's Revelation uses imagery from the Book of Revelation for his killer's inspiration.
  • The killer in Ripper (2014) was abused as an infant and mistreated through the foster care system. He is later victimized via the juvenile court system. All the people he murders later on (with one exception) were all directly involved in his Trauma Conga Line.
  • Shadow Police: The killer in Who Killed Sherlock Holmes? uses the murders in the Sherlock Holmes stories as their theme.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Alcatraz: Kit Nelson, one of the escaped inmates from Alcatraz, was a child killer who always performed the same ritual to imitate the way that he murdered his own brother, who was his first victim. He only targeted preadolescent boys, breaking into their rooms at night to kidnap them, then force them to participate in his brother's favorite pastimes. Eventually, he would strangle them and drop off the bodies back in their room with a flower in their hand.
  • The Alienist: The killer's pattern corresponds with Catholic Feast Days, likely a result of his messed-up religious upbringing, which enables Kreizler's team to predict and track his attacks.
  • There was an episode of Bones where the killer based his killings on those in Bones' recent book, but the manner of the killings was different each time. It turned out it was a "Strangers on a Train"-Plot Murder.
  • The serial killer in Bron|Broen who kills people in media-attracting ways to highlight social problems in Scandinavia, from class wars, poverty, those weak and vulnerable in society (children and the mentally ill), corrupt police forces, etc.
  • Buffyverse
    • Penn, a vampire in Angel constantly reenacted the killing of his own family while under the wing of his sire, Angelus. When Angel encounters him a century later, he's still at it (calling it his "art") and Angel mocks him during their fight for the lack of imagination in sticking to the same pattern all this time.
    • Back when he was Angelus, Angel had something of a theme, too. He enjoyed setting up twisted, "romantic" scenes for his victims- Giles notes that his most famous killings were done on Valentine's Day, and one involved nailing a gift puppy to something. Upon losing his soul in Season 2, he recreates this formula by killing Jenny, then arranging her house to make it seem like she was preparing for a date night with Giles.
  • The pilot episode of Castle features a murderer that patterns his killings after ones detailed in the titular author's mystery novels. Subverted in that the actual murderer was only doing it to frame another character and cover up his own crime.
  • Criminal Minds has had a few of these, for example, a man who targeted people he considered having escaped justice by calling themselves victims of society, public hysteria, or anything else.
    • They also did the "crimes based on a work of fiction" plot in "Empty Planet."
    • Also did a Dante's Inferno-inspired killer, someone who was obsessed with witch hunting, and a Cinderella killer. They love this trope.
  • CSI's Paul Millander, who chose victims based on their birthdays. Grissom was to be his last victim at one point. And then later it's revealed that he chose them because their birthdays were the same day his father died.
    • There was also the Miniature Killer.
    • The killer in the two-parter "Skin in the Game/The Devil and D.B. Russell" uses Dante's nine circles of Hell as a theme.
  • CSI: Cyber: In "5 Deadly Sins", the killer uses the so-called '5 deadly sins' of social media (Hate Speech, Porn, Violence, Drugs, & Trolling) as their theme: killing victims guilty of these sins in a manner appropriate to the sin.
  • CSI: NY had Shane Casey, whose targeted victims had been involved in his brother's conviction, dress them in cryptic t-shirts containing numerology symbols. (See also Poetic Serial Killer.)
  • Dexter:
    • The Trinity Killer, who kills people in ways that mimic how his sister, mother, and father died, although it turns out that his nickname is non-indicative. He actually kills in fours, starting every cycle with kidnapping and killing a boy, who is supposed to represent himself.
    • The Ice Truck Killer chops up prostitutes and leaves their parts scattered because he watched while his mother - and, by extension, Dexter's - met the wrong end of a chainsaw at the hands of drug dealers. On top of that, the bodies are carefully drained of all blood because he and Dexter spent three days locked in the shipping container where their mother died, wallowing in her blood.
    • The Doomsday Killer kills his victims based on his interpretation of the Book of Revelation. He believes that if he can complete the sequence on a certain day, he will bring on the Apocalypse.
  • Endeavour:
    • In "Muse", Morse investigates a series of murders where the victims are killed using methods inspired by Biblical murders as depicted in Renaissance art. Small wonder that Morse does not twig to the theme until he sees several paintings reproduced in the same book.
    • In "Fugue", a Wicked Cultured opera-themed serial killer seems to be choosing the names of his victims in the order of the notes of the treble clef, EGBDF. While he is doing that, more specifically he's killing people who were involved with his original trial, or were related to those who were. He also murders them in ways that are based on death scenes in operas.
  • In the Forever (2014) episode "The Frustrating Thing About Psychopaths" a serial killer painstakingly recreates a different famous murder for each kill. Turns out he's actually basing his kills on a graphic novel that gave details of each murder, rather than the murders themselves.
  • A recurring threat in Hunter, appearing in episodes such as the three part "City Under Siege", "Lullaby" and the two part "Fatal Obsession" (a.k.a. the one where Molenski gets killed).
  • Parodied in The IT Crowd, where Moss says if he was a themed killer he'd go by the title of "The Gardener" and he'd leave a rose at the scene of the crime as his calling card. When Roy presses him for what his murder weapon would be, he thinks for a Beat then answers "...a hammer."
  • Subverted in Jonathan Creek, where a series of murders are linked by the media because the victims were all women with flowers for names. The media obsess over the psychology of the Serial Killer (and terrify all women in London with flower names) while it turns out that the killer was actually a disturbed individual killing at random and the flower names thing was a coincidence. Worse, a different, premeditated killer is able to (temporarily) get away with a murder because his intended victim had a flower name and fitted into the other killer's false "pattern".
  • Expect a killer with the Freudian Excuse to choose victims who remind him of his parents, like the Criminal Mind Games killer of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, as well as Fin's step-son.
  • In the finale of Lessons for a Perfect Detective Story the serial killer known as the Amateur Detective Serial Murderer kills amateur detectives.
  • Lewis: In "Magnum Opus" the killer associates each murder with a stage of a four-part alchemical procedure.
  • Lucifer, "Off the Record": Kavitsky specifically targets high-profile Hypocrites, whom he kills in a manner that matches what he considers their "crime". An environmentalist who secretly owns a private airplane is drowned in jet fuel, and so on.
  • Midsomer Murders:
    • "Echoes of the Dead" features a killer who based his murders on old murder cases, such as George Joseph Smith.
    • In "Death and the Divas", the killer's theme is the horror movies of a particular actress.
    • In "The Ballad of Midsomer County", the killer leaves items associated with the eponymous folk song with the bodies of his victims.
  • Plenty of Millennium (1996) episodes revolve around this type of killer.
  • Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries: In "Murder Under the Mistletoe", the murderer uses 'The Twelve Days of Christmas' as his theme.
  • Mouse (2021): Jae-hoon chooses his victims to act out fairy-tales associated with the Seven Deadly Sins.
  • NCIS: In one episode, McGee realizes that a series of murders being committed are based on the book he is currently writing, and all the victims are patterned off the characters (who themselves are based on himself and his coworkers, placing the whole team at risk). The culprit is the barista at the coffee shop McGee often writes at, who became obsessed with McGee and the story to the point he believed the story was real, and was killing "characters" he believed posed a threat to the "protagonist" (McGee). Realizing this prevented the killer from killing Abby, who the killer believed planned to kill McGee over being rejected romantically.
  • A Serial Killer on NUMB3RS chose victims with the same names as the 12 apostles and killed them in the way each apostle died. Some of them were pretty gruesome, too.
    • The same thing occurred in a TV crime drama called Messiah.
  • Psych: "Mr Yin Presents ...", in which the killer's murders are staged to model scenes from Alfred Hitchcock's films. Some props from the original films were used in the episode.
  • The Sandman (2022):
  • Supernatural: The murders in "Monster Movie" are modeled after old monster movies from Universal while the murders in "Hunteri Heroici" are themed after Animation Tropes and reference western animation. In "Monster Movie", the culprit is a shape-shifter who found solace in his status as a monster through the old Universal monster movies and sought to emulate them. In "Hunteri Heroici", the culprit is the nursing home doctor of a senile octogenarian psychic. The psychic has major Power Incontinence and spends all day watching Looney Tunes cartoons, so he has an area of effect where everything within several miles of him functions on Cartoon Physics, which the doctor exploits to rob banks, steal from the other nursing home residents, and kill anyone who gets in the way.

    Tabletop Games 
  • A scenario in the Blood Brothers supplement for the Call of Cthulhu RPG involves a killer murdering his victims in ways that symbolise the nine muses of Greek Mythology.

    Video Games 
  • Discworld Noir features a parody of Theatre of Blood, with the plays of Hwel, the Disc's version of Shakespeare.
  • The Origami Killer in Quantic Dream's Heavy Rain has a rather unique way of killing his victims. He kidnaps his victims in public places (a local park for example), though no one ever actually sees him. His victims disappear for four days (still alive throughout the time period) and then are found dead in a wasteland-like environment, drowned in rainwater with an orchid on their chest and an origami in their hand.
    • Gets even better. His father indirectly caused his brother to die, drowned in rainwater, so he's putting fathers through perverse tests, to see if they can actually succeed at doing what his father did not. He keeps the children he kidnaps in a gutter and lets it fill with rainwater. He was always a fan of Origami, as his brother made little origami dogs. His mother also grew orchids, which his brother loved, so he places one on the victims' chest as an apology.
  • The Phoenix, the villain of InMemoriam murders members of a religious catholic sect in specific locations visited by a murdered philosopher, arranging their corpses in ways corresponding to the philosopher's theories. He then uses the victims as puzzles to lead the player towards finding him.
  • Persona 4: When the killer claims a victim, their corpse will be hanging from a telephone pole. Double subverted after Mr. Morooka's death, in which he is on top of a water tower. It turns out that this was the doing of Mitsuo Kubo, a Jack the Ripoff.

     Western Animation