The past few years have been pretty anxiety-inducing, but for some people, the pandemic, horrifying headlines, and “adulting” isn’t enough. There has been a lot more interest in true crime recently. A few years ago, being fascinated with serial killers and con men was a weird quirk; but nowadays, everyone has a true crime podcast that they can name as their favorite.
A lot of true crime content is focused on the most violent criminals: serial killers.
A serial killer, technically, is a person who commits three or more murders in the span of at least a month. Not all serial killers are men, but the ones we will spotlight are all men. But that’s about all these people have in common.
Serial killers may be charming and charismatic or people might have always felt like they were a little strange.
Serial killers may admit to their crimes, even claiming murders that they didn’t commit, or they might go to the grave proclaiming their innocence despite plenty of evidence against them.
Serial killers may evade the police for decades upon decades or they may be in and out of jail throughout their lifetimes until they are finally pinned down for multiple murders.
They might live in the shadows or live a double life with a wife, children, and a respectable job in the community - making the discovery of their crimes that much more nauseating and traumatic for their communities.
When you dive deeper into the mindset of these serial killers, you may just believe that evil is among us, but not everyone who learns about serial killers comes to this conclusion. Many serial killers were people who experienced abuse or high amounts of trauma in their early life. Maybe, some say, if they had been more closely monitored or recieved some sort of support from their communities, they wouldn’t have been so eager to stalk and kill.
And yet, there are some serial killers who simply kill because they want to. They kill because they can, because they have a desire that is unspeakable to most of the human population. Don’t plan on reading about these serial killers during your lunch break or before you head to bed. While some of these killers are simply fascinating, others have committed downright gruesome crimes of murder, sexual assault, dismemberment, and cannabalism.
If you have already explored the true crime genre, some of these names may be familiar to you. Some might surprise you. Some might make you sick. Either way, these are some of the most horrific and fascinating tales within the true crime world.
Famous Serial Killers
The motive behind the “Son of Sam” murders appears to change every few years. Law enforcement or journalists can’t seem to get a straight answer out of David Berkowitz about his crimes. He killed six people and injured seven others between the years of 1976 and 1977, and the manhunt against him only intensified when he sent cryptic notes out to members of law enforcement.
When Berkowitz was finally caught as the Son of Sam, he admitted to the murders. His explanation wasn’t so cut-and-dry; he said a 6,000-year-old demonic dog told him to kill people. This story has changed, as well as stories about any other actors in the killings and whether or not Berkowitz has changed his ways and found religion. This case is certainly confusing; but to many people in the true crime world, that only makes it more intriguing.
Gary Ridgway is better known as the Green River Killer. Similar to serial killer Ted Bundy, he committed dozens of murders in the Pacific Northwest, specifically the Seattle area. But Ridgway’s victims weren’t women in college - they were primarily sex workers and young runaways.
He managed to live a double life for decades as he got away with these murders, marrying three times and having one child. Even though similar task force members who had worked on Ted Bundy’s case also worked on the Green River Killer’s case, Ridgway was not identified as the Green River Killer until 2003. (He had, however, been a suspect in the case since 1987!) Was he particularly smart, or did other factors keep him out of prison? The debate continues to this day.
In H.H. Holmes’ 35 years of life, he certainly made a name for himself. This serial killer-slash-drugstore-owner built a “murder castle” with trap doors and trick rooms in which he may have killed up to 200 people during the 1893 World’s Fair. He got married four times. He conned people with multiple fake ailments and tonics. Before he was arrested and sent to prison, he lived on the run around the country, conducting multiple cases of insurance fraud and going on a killing spree. Some true crime experts believe that he was Jack the Ripper. The story of H.H. Holmes is fascinating, terrifying, wild, and makes you wonder just how much you could get away with in the late 1800s.
The name Harold Shipman may not sound particularly gruesome, but what about the name Dr. Death? Harold Shipman and Dr. Death are one and the same, and he remains one of the most prolific serial killers (if not the most prolific serial killer) in recorded history. Not much is known about the exact nature of every victim taken by Dr. Death, experts do know that over 450 people died under his care between the years of 1971 and 1994. Harold Shipman was a trusted doctor throughout the Hyde area of England, and through his house calls, he committed many, many murders of patients who trusted him. Due to Shipman’s suicide in 2004 (done before he could confess to any murders,) what was going on inside this serial killer’s head, and how he claimed so many victims, will never be known.
Jeffrey Dahmer is one of the most fascinating, nauseating, and well-known serial killers in modern history. His story is truly haunting for many reasons. First of all, Dahmer had a perfectly normal childhood; unlike many serial killers, there was no extensive abuse or trauma that could have led him to commit the sick crimes that he committed. Dahmer worked at a chocolate factory during the period of time when he killed most of his victims. From 1978 to 1991, he killed 17 people. Some of these victims were dismembered and eaten by Dahmer, while some were killed in Dahmer’s attempts to turn them into zombies. The life of Jeffrey Dahmer will make your stomach churn, so learn about him with caution.
John Wayne Gacy
There are a number of reasons to be afraid of clowns, but John Wayne Gacy is among the most legitimate. Gacy, known as “The Killer Clown” in the true crime universe, didn’t commit his murders as Pogo the Clown. His role as a community leader and generally pleasant man, however, was a stark contrast to the man who murdered 29 boys and left their bodies lying around his property. The discovery of these bodies shocked the Chicago area and didn’t exactly help the reputation of clowns across the country.
The world’s most prolific serial killer may not be known, because so many serial killers admit to more (or fewer) murders than they actually commit. It is very likely, however, that Luis Garavito is in the top three of this list, if not at the top itself. Garavito committed at least 100 murders of young boys in Colombia during the 1990s, but the true number could be closer to 300. An investigation is still ongoing to this day. Although the descriptions of the murders he committed against young boys are gruesome, the details about he evaded arrest (and how he is still alive today) are an interesting read that stick out in the true crime genre.
Dozens of murder cases that hadn’t moved in 20+ years finally made some progress (and were even closed) after a confession from serial killer Samuel Little. Little’s story was not as dramatic as Ted Bundy’s or the Green River Killer’s, despite killing more than those two men (or most serial killers in American history.) By targeting mainly women of color and sex workers, he managed to maintain a low profile until his arrest for an unrelated charge in 2012. He was convicted on a murder charge two years later, but it wasn’t until 2018 that his conversations with a Texas Ranger turned into a four-hour confession of gruesome murders throughout the 1970s, 80s, 90s, and early aughts. In total, Little had confessed to committing at least 84 murders.
When people think of serial killers, it’s not long before their mind recalls the name “Ted Bundy.” Ted Bundy went on a killing rampage throughout the mid-1970s, admitting to over 30 murders primarily in the Pacific Northwest. But there are many serial killers who have killed more people, made more shocking headlines, and spent many more years evading the police than Ted Bundy. So why is he such a popular figure in true crime?
The answer depends on who you ask. Some believe it’s his charm, others believe it's his privilege, and many others simply chalk it up to the fact that his was one of the first trials to ever be aired on television. Regardless of what made him so infamous, he’s certainly a name to know if you’re at all fascinated by serial killers.
The best movies about serial killers and murders appear to be more horrifying than fiction. Movies like Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Silence of the Lambs are all classic for this reason. But you may be surprised that every single one of these movies has a character (or characters) inspired by the same man.
Ed Gein, also known as The Butcher of Plainfield, was a graverobber, murderer, and potentially a cannibal. Although the low number of murders that he claimed does not classify him as a serial killer per se, his infamy will live on through the characters that he inspired.
Coded messages, few eyewitnesses, and decades of evading the police - the story of the Zodiac Killer has all of the elements of a fascinating murder mystery. It’s such a crazy story that many people don’t realize that the Zodiac Killer is a real case that has yet to be solved. Despite very recent developments in the Zodiac Killer’s messages to law enforcement, and people coming forward who believe their father was the Zodiac Killer, no one has been arrested for the murders committed by this elusive killer. Will we ever know who the killer was or how many murders he committed? We don’t even have an answer to that question.
No serial killer makes even the most passionate true crime fan squirm as much as the case of Albert Fish. Be warned - learning about Albert Fish is not for the faint of heart. In the early 20th century, Fish committed a countless number of crimes against young children, ranging from sexual assault to murder. He was known by names from The Grey Man to The Brooklyn Vampire, and finally came to his demise in 1936. But the murders are just the beginning of the strange tale of Albert Fish - self-mutilation, cannibalism, and even consuming fecal matter are all parts of his story. Don’t learn about Albert Fish while you’re eating your lunch; his biography is going to make you squeamish.
No one can blame the hesitation that many single, young women have around letting strange men into their homes. All you need to understand that hesitation is to watch a few episodes of a criminal investigation drama or read up on real-life cases. Take the Boston Strangler. While Albert DeSalvo confessed to the 13 sexual assaults and murders committed by the Boston Strangler in the 1960s, true crime fans and law enforcement alike aren’t 100% sure that he actually committed the murders. What they do know is that for years, the Boston Strangler appeared to be a maintenance man, tailor, or other serviceman at the door of single women living alone. Once he gained their trust, he assaulted, strangled, and killed them.