Few figures in literature are as chilling and grisly as serial killers. These men and women lure us in with extreme charisma, but their alarming level of detachment from their victims’ suffering ensures that they never feel remorse. As a result, their crimes resonate as particularly heinous. From Hannibal Lecter to Dr. H. H. Holmes, serial killers make for a gripping (albeit gruesome) read. Piquing our morbid curiosity, these 10 serial killers—both fictional and real—continue drawing us into the dark underbelly of society.
Patrick Bateman may be a figment of Bret Easton Ellis’ (admittedly pretty dark) imagination, but that’s more than enough to keep us up at night. TheAmerican Psycho protagonist is an investment banker by day and a sadistic serial killer by night. Exhibiting an astonishing lack of empathy, this yuppie casually confesses his crimes in an unnerving deadpan that no one takes seriously. Bateman’s murders are, more likely than not, manifestations of his own feelings of inadequacy. However, his unreliability as a narrator makes it very difficult to take anything at face value. Either way, we’d prefer not to encounter Patrick Bateman in a dark Manhattan alley anytime soon.
Usually we feel complimented when someone, friend or stranger, mentions that our hair smells nice. But after reading Patrick Suskind’s dark tale of a fragrance-fiend, we’re a bit more wary. Jean-Baptiste (ironically named after John the Baptist) was born without his own odor, but gifted instead with a powerful sense of smell. Obsessed with scents that intrigue him, Jean-Baptiste begins murdering young women and preserving their natural scents in perfume via distillation. Being strangled to death is bad enough, but to have the killer keep a bottle of your scent around for years to come? Too creepy to handle. Did we mention there’s also a portion where he hides out in a cave and “lives” in an imaginary purple castle in his mind? Yeah…
Serial killer convention
You have to giggle a little when you read this volume of The Sandman, in which a number of serial killers attend an actual convention—pretending to be members of the breakfast cereal industry. One of the ladies, Dog Soup, complains at a panel that female serial killers are always pigeonholed as either “black widows” or “angels of mercy.” These instances of dark humor aside, the actual notion of a serial killer convention is paralyzingly scary. What’s more, this issue introduces us to the Corinthian, a killer with two laughing mouths for eyes. We still can’t get him out of our nightmares.
Dr. H.H. Holmes
Considered one of the first modern American serial killers, Dr. Henry Howard Holmes features prominently in Erik Larson’s popular and immensely unsettling nonfiction book The Devil in the White City. Larson juxtaposes the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago with Holmes’ brutal killings, which took place in his “Murder Castle.” The “castle,” which Holmes disguised as a hotel to lure people in, was outfitted with soundproof rooms, gas lines (so he could asphyxiate his victims at will), and a medieval stretching rack, among other horrors. Worse still, he subsequently sold many of the skeletons and organs of his victims with relative ease because of his contacts from medical school.
Fictionalized serial killers are often depicted as brilliant, slightly sexy, psychopaths who outwit the cops at every turn. These killers make for excellent entertainment, but in reality most serial killers are violent, opportunistic, and deeply disturbed. When Lauren Beukes sat down to write The Shining Girls, her goal was not to create a glamorized villain, but to paint a true portrait of a killer without rhyme or reason, without sense of self or justice. Harper Curtis is an unstable and unstoppable madman until he meets Kirby, the only girl who’s survived his attack. Kirby’s fight for justice is empowering, but Curtis’ mission is as deeply disturbing as any true-crime case.
That Yellow Bastard
You can’t find a better or more fitting name for a serial killer than the jaundiced serial rapist and killer at the center of this Sin City story. To clarify: At first Roark Junior looks like a normal senator’s son, using his father’s influence to cover up his nasty predilections. Then a freak accident turns him into a bald, yellow-skinned creature, finally revealing the monster within.
We’re not saying that your creepy neighbor is a murderer, but if he lives alone and spends all of his free time building dollhouses, you might already suspect he’s not quite normal. George Harvey is that neighbor, the kind you avoid eye contact and extended conversations with. The kind who raped and murdered young girls like Susie Salmon. What he did to their bodies (Susie was dismembered, stuffed into a safe, and thrown into a sinkhole) is not only deplorable, but it prevented them from truly finding a peaceful rest in the afterlife. Needless to say, we’d be moving pronto if our neighbor reminded us at all of Mr. Harvey.
FBI profiler Robert K. Ressler, who coined the term “serial killer,” rarely discusses female killers because they tend to kill in a spree (often for financial gain), rather than in a sequential fashion for personal gratification. Aileen Wuornos was his sole exception. Arrested multiple times in her adult life, Wuornos’ crimes escalated over time from DUIs to murder. When her self-defense strategy failed, she confessed to the murder of six men, who she met while working as a prostitute; she was also suspected in the disappearance of a seventh. She received a lethal injection in 2002.
Annie Wilkes is the killer on this list that authors are likely most afraid of and that readers most closely relate to. What reader hasn’t lost their cool over the death of a beloved book character? What author hasn’t made a controversial decision in their works? The line Annie crosses, however, is in the imprisonment, torture, and attempted murder of her former favorite author. (To be clear, any single one of those things would’ve been crossing the line—all three is what really put her into crazy territory.) While we don’t learn much about the other murders she’s committed, aside from a creepy scrapbook, it’s clear that this isn’t her first time.
There are serial killers, and then there are serial killers. While everyone on this list ruthlessly murders people, Hannibal Lecter takes it one step further: He eats them. Lecter is a textbook case of sociopathy, maintaining a sterling public persona that is entirely at odds with his gruesome hobby. Hannibal Lecter nightmares are particularly bad: You don’t just worry about him killing you—you also have to wonder if he’ll eat your liver with fava beans and a nice Chianti.