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Monsters and Mortals: Famous Serial Killers on the Screen

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Film and television have given us a number of unforgettable serial killers to haunt our nightmares. Sometimes, their origins and crimes are inspired by the stories of real criminals in our world. Other times, offenses and offenders are conjured up entirely from nightmare ether, tales of bogeymen creeping in the shadows.

Often, these fictional murderers start out as human and became monsters. In other cases, they were never human to begin with. They were created in darkness and remain within it, horrifying us with their dark imaginations and shocking deeds.

Here are some of my favorite serial killers from the big and little screens, with their complicated histories and compelling characters.


Norman Bates – Psycho (1960)

Based in large part on serial killer Ed Gein, Norman Bates haunts the hidden Bates Motel. In this trap of a place, he murders a young embezzler on the run. The disappearance of a private eye investigating the embezzlement leads to Bates being captured, where it’s revealed that Bates has been living too far in his dead mother’s shadow…and in her head. Aside from killing his mother and stepfather, he kills women who he finds attractive. In the case of the PI, Bates murdered him to cover up his previous grisly crimes. Bates is a deeply disturbed man who visits his dysfunction on hapless people who fall into his trap.


Hannibal Lecter – The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

We meet Hannibal Lecter behind bars in his most famous film depiction, learning that the elegant serial killer developed a taste for having his victims over for dinner and turning them into leftovers. His series of horrific crimes is probed by fledgling FBI agent Clarice Starling as she chases another killer. Lecter’s escape into the world leaves the audience cold with fear, wondering who will be on his menu next. Lecter’s victims are people who have committed the cardinal sin of being rude, with a smattering of instrumental killings to aid his escape.


Dracula – Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Perhaps the greatest serial killer of all time, Dracula sets sail to England. He kills as a means to survive, yes, but we have to think that he also enjoys it. This version of Dracula is partially a seductive gentleman who hides the ancient monster that lies beneath his genteel smile. Once can’t help how many hundreds of people he’s drained over the centuries. Maybe thousands? He’s a supernatural monster, and has been for centuries. Like the human killers on this list, he started out as human, though, twisted by the loss of love.


Victor Tooms – The X-Files (1993, 1994)

Appearing in two episodes of the X-Files, Victor Tooms is a mutant who has the creepy ability to squeeze into small spaces. He’s been around since the late nineteenth century, having ducked out of society occasionally to hibernate. He particularly enjoys liver, and often goes to great lengths to hide bodies. He seems to be an opportunistic killer, squishing himself into air ducts and pipes like a snake. When Mulder and Scully confront him, he’s potentially got dozens of kills under his belt and looking forward to more.


The Joker – The Dark Knight (2008)

Batman’s classic foe is imagined as a criminal mastermind, creating plots within plots to try and antagonize his nemesis. The Joker seems to kill for the thrills, yes, but many deaths are collateral damage to draw out Batman. His fascination for Batman is largely unexplained. But as Batman’s loyal butler observes: “Some people just want to watch the world burn.” In that sense, he is primarily an agent of pure chaos with no efforts made to conceal his murders.


Rose the Hat – Dr. Sleep (2019)

Always wearing her magic black hat, Rose leads a coven of psychic vampires who devour the “steam,” or life force, from magically-gifted children. In this sequel to The Shining, we learn that Rose’s people have lived a long, long time, devouring the innocent. Victims are carefully chosen, those who “shine.” But Rose may have met her match in the now-adult Danny Torrance and his young friend, Abra. One can’t hazard a guess about how many kills these ancient foes have amassed over the centuries, but the total might exceed Dracula’s.


Patrick Bateman – American Psycho (2000)

Bateman is a true psychopath, and one that the viewer loves to hate. He’s a Wall Street businessman who delights in killing as a power trip, choosing victims that he has social, financial, and physical power over. His grip on reality is tenuous, and we’re never certain which crimes he’s actually committed and which are all in his head. One thing’s certain, though…he blends in perfectly with his monstrous contemporaries by the end of the film.


Dexter Morgan – Dexter (2006-2013)

In contrast to Bateman, Dexter is the sort of serial killer one can sometimes root for. He starts off as a controlled killer, killing only people who have committed terrible wrongs—people like other serial killers who have evaded law enforcement. In his day job as a blood spatter analyst, he’s got a unique forensic viewpoint on how to get away with murder. And his father, a cop, taught him well. But Dexter’s moral code flags, and his personal life makes him vulnerable. By the end of the show, we’re left wondering what kind of monster he truly is.


The Corinthian – Sandman (2022)

The Corinthian is a rogue nightmare who doesn’t follow the rules. First created by Dream, he slipped into the waking world as an unauthorized entity, murdering young men and inspiring the murder of many others by humans who called themselves the Collectors. The Corinthian became a cult figure, an underground celebrity, until he’s ultimately confronted by Dream. The Corinthian was never human to begin with. Lacking eyes himself, he’s particularly fond of plucking out the eyes of his victims. He sees in the dark, and sees the awful impulses humanity has toward one another.

These serial killers run the gamut from human to supernatural and everything in between. Each has a different take on the story of a monster, from ancient entities to ordinary people with axes to grind.

In the world of fiction, a monster can be anyone. And that’s the scariest thing to contemplate in the real world.



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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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