Top 25 fictional serial killers across games, film and TV
25 of the most memorable fictional serial killers from the world of pop culture...
The Evil Within is a game that blends serial killer drama with supernatural scares. Its sequel, due in shops on October 13th, is set to build on that exciting pairing, upping the horror factor and increasing the kill count.
There’s a particularly chilling fictional serial killer at the heart of The Evil Within games, and across films, TV and games, they’ve often proved to be hugely effective, unsettling characters.
To honour some bona fide classics and a few almost-forgotten gems, we’ve pulled together a list of some of our favourites from the worlds of film, TV and games. To be clear about the rules: we’ve only chosen fictional serial killers, and we haven’t allowed slasher icons onto the list. (They aren’t so much serial killers as movie monsters, right?)
So, if you’re looking for a chilling villain with a penchant for killing, here are 25 of the best (not necessarily ranked)…
The Evil Within: Ruvik
It makes sense to start here, given that this is what kicked us off. Ruvik – real name Ruben Victoriano – is the killer at the core of The Evil Within, Bethesda’s ‘grizzled detective versus supernatural forces’ videogame (the sequel to which was announced at E3). After being disfigured in a fire, Ruben was kept in a basement by his father. He eventually escaped and killed both of his parents, becoming the villainous Ruvik in the process.
Ruvik dedicated his life to studying the human psyche, and developed the STEM system to create a horrific physical realm out of his own fractured mind. He killed numerous people – including police officers and hospital staff – to enact his evil scheme and lure Detective Castellanos (the player character) into his nightmarish mindscape.
Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer
Michael Rooker stars in John McNaughton’s 1986 crime/horror flick Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer. Rooker’s title character, Henry, is a nomadic drifter – with complete lack of remorse – who travels the USA butchering scores of men, women and children. Right at the start, he murders two waitresses after eating in their diner, and things don’t exactly improve from there.
A hugely controversial film on its original release, and one that time hasn’t really dampened. A career best performance from Michael Rooker, too…
Psychoville: David Sowerbutts
The first of the more comedic killers on this list, Steve Pemberton’s David Sowerbutts brought creepiness and chuckles to the BBC show Psychoville a few years back. Over the course of the series he done a few bad murders, with the help of his mother Maureen (played by Reece Shearsmith).
As well as the look, the voice and the dialogue, David is also memorable because of his extra-curricular activities. When he’s not ending lives, he’s often engaging in some unenthusiastic dancing with his mum.
Saw: The Jigsaw Killer
As a big Saw fan, it pains me to say this. But let’s be honest, Tobin Bell’s John Kramer is very much a serial killer. If teaching life lessons was all he wanted to achieve, the traps wouldn’t be nigh-on impossible.
This is particularly true in the first film, where we’re shown glimpses of a barbed wire trap and a candle-based trap as the police investigation charges forward. In both cases, the victims try their best to escape – to learn Jiggy’s lesson – but they each meet a bloody demise despite their efforts. Such is the impact of Jigsaw on the Saw movies that the next film is called, well, Jigsaw…
Terry O’Quinn starred in Joseph Ruben’s 1987 film The Stepfather, playing a coldblooded killer by the name of Henry Morrison. In the opening scene, we see him walking away from the bloodied remains of his family. A year later, he’s relocated, changed his name and remarried, picking up a suspicious stepdaughter in the process. Bloodletting, of course, ensues.
You might remember the 2009 remake, directed by Nelson McCormick, which had Dylan Walsh in the murdery title role. Both films are inspired by, but not explicitly based on, the real life killer John List.
Still Life: The Chicago Killer (and many more)
The Still Life gaming trilogy – made up of Post Mortem, Still Life and Still Life 2 – has no shortage of killers. Most memorably, the middle game features an investigation into some similar strings of murders: one in 1920s Prague, one 1931 Chicago, another in 1956 Los Angeles, and a fourth in modern day Chicago.
All of these killers targeted sex trade workers, and wore dark cloaks, silver masks and top hats. There was some uproar when the second game didn’t unmask the modern day menace, but the third instalment cleared it all up. We won’t spoil the surprise here unless you fancy playing the games.
Shadow Of A Doubt: Merry Widow Murderer
Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 masterwork Shadow Of A Doubt remains one of the finest movies based on a serial killer. Joseph Cotton starred as Charlie Oakley, one of the top suspects in the police’s search for the ‘Merry Widow Murderer’, a killer of many women.
As the film unfolds, his niece (played by Teresa Wright) begins to develop her own suspicions, and a twisty narrative unfolds. There’s a discussion of how to commit the perfect murder – one of Hitchcock’s favourite themes – which will send a shiver down your spine.
The Following: Joe Carrol
It was Kevin Bacon versus James Purefoy in the American TV drama The Following, which ran for three seasons between 2013 and 2015. The former plays a tenacious FBI agent, and the latter an escaped serial killer by the name of Joe Carroll.
Like a few examples on this list, The Following begins at a time when Carroll is already an established name in the murder game, and lets the character grow from there. The cult he builds after escaping prison throws up some really creepy scenes.
Here’s the story trailer for The Evil Within 2…
I Saw The Devil: Jang Kyung-chul
South Korean director Kim Jee-woon served up a slice of cinematic gold with his 2010 psychological thriller/action flick I Saw The Devil. Choi Min-sik plays the bus driver/psychopathic murderer Jang Kyung-chul, and Lee Byung-hun is the NiS agent on a quest for revenge against him.
The film begins with Kyung-chul offering some roadside assistance, which leads to a spot of light dismembering. The film even throws in a second serial killer – the cannibalistic Tae-joo, played by Choi Moo-sung – for good measure. It’s very much seeking this film out, if you haven’t already.
American Psycho: Patrick Bateman
We couldn’t leave Patrick Bateman off the list, could we? When he’s not returning videotapes, lusting over embossed business cards or partaking in a gruelling skincare regime, Christian Bale’s Wall Street banker has a real panache for grisly murders. (That is, of course, unless you buy into the theory that it’s all in his head.)
Mary Harron’s American Psycho film, based on the book by Brett Eaton Ellis, is a true classic in the serial killer cinematic subgenre. And you’ll come out of it with some music recommendations, too.
Condemned: Serial Killer X
Leland Vanhorn, aka Serial Killer X, is an antagonist in the Condemned series of games. He’s the primary foe in Condemned: Criminal Origins, and he pops up again in Condemned 2: Bloodshot. FBI CSI agent Ethan Thomas – the player character – is the man tasked with hunting him down.
Serial Killer X is perhaps most notable for his unique modus operandi: he hunts and kills other serial killers, using their own trademarked techniques against them. That’s an MO with some serious cinematic potential if you ask me.
Sightseers: Chris and Tina
If you haven’t seen Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers, you really need to. The British horror comedy throws the serial killer movie formula on its head, presenting Alice Low’s Tina and Steve Oram’s Chris – an unhappy couple, who turn to murder on an otherwise unremarkable road trip holiday.
Social justice/boredom/coveting a rival couple’s dog rank among their motivators for killing. The first murder of the movie comes when Chris confronts a litterer, and a memorable one later on features a mini-caravan being pushed off a cliff. There’s plenty of fun to be had with this one, if you’ve got an ear for dark comedy.
Parents: Nick and Lilly
Speaking of killer couples in blackly comic movies, Randy Quaid’s Nick and Mary Beth Hurt’s Lily – from Bob Balaban’s 1989 film Parents – also fit that mould. This movie takes the highly fun approach of having Nick and Lily’s son (Bryan Madorsky’s Michael) work out the truth about his parents: they’re cannibalistic killers.
But here’s the rub: nobody believes Michael, and, due to a series of weird dream sequences, even the audience is hesitant to agree with him. This film struggled at the box office and received a somewhat mixed critical response, but it’s a cult classic now, and well worth checking out.
Natural Born Killers: Mickey and Mallory
On the cooler end of the killer couple spectrum, you’ve got Woody Harrelson’s Mickey and Juliette Lewis’ Mallory, from Oliver Stone’s 1994 satirical crime flick Natural Born Killers. The film pokes fun at the mainstream media, imagining a world where two mass murderers are glorified by reportage.
Natural Born Killers – which began life as a Quentin Tarantino script – was notorious at the time, courting controversy for its graphic violent scenes and some real-life copycat crimes. Again, it’s something of a cult classic now, with its blend of humour, bloodshed and visual lusciousness combining into enduring appeal.
Virtuosity: SID 6.7
When sci-fi meets crime, there can be wonderful results. One hybrids of this ilk is Brett Leonard’s 1995 action film Virtuosity, which stars Russell Crowe as SID 6.7, a virtual reality amalgam of the most violent serial killers in history. He takes a physical form early on in the film, and Denzel Washington’s Lt. Parker Barnes is sent after him.
Virtuosity wasn’t exactly universally loved upon its release, but it’s worth checking out for Crowe’s utterly unhinged central performance alone. Who knew a piece of computer code could be so scary?
The ‘Burbs: The Klopeks
Joe Dante brought us The ‘Burbs back in 1989, a comedy thriller starring Tom Hanks, Bruce Dern and Carrie Fisher. Over the course of the suburban-set film, Hanks’ character Ray learns that his next-door neighbours – the Klopeks – are murderers.
What begins as a jokey bit of neighbourly snooping builds up to a dramatic reveal at the death: there’s a collection of skulls beginning to gather, and the killer is part of this tiny suburban community. Cheery stuff! (Again, we’re trying not to spoil things here.)
Here’s the gamplay trailer for The Evil Within 2…
Funny Games: Peter and Paul
Funny Games is so good that Michael Haneke made it twice: first with an Austrian cast in 1997, and again with Americans in 2007. Both films are psychological thrillers, following two men torturing – and ultimately murdering – families on their holidays.
Funny Games’ Peter and Paul (played by Arno Frisch and Frank Giering in the original, and Brady Corbet and Michael Pitt in the remake) impose themselves on unsuspecting families, push their courtesies to the limit and end up taking them hostage, subjecting them to their own sick games. Both films are worthy your time, if you enjoy being thoroughly creeped out.
The Fall: Paul Spector
Jamie Dornan’s tangerine-loving Paul Spector faced off against Gillian Anderson’s DSI Stella Gibson over three series of the British-Irish TV crime drama The Fall. He comes replete with a dark backstory, numerous victims, a family, a psychology degree and an array of tracksuit trousers.
Dornan delivered some stellar sinister-ness in the role, and was given a dramatic ending at the end of series 3. Apparently the show could live on without Spector, but he’ll be a tough baddie to top, in all honesty.
The Suffering: Torque
Torque, the player character in The Suffering, is a death row inmate who gets a chance to escape during a supernatural event at his prison. The game that follows blends action with horror, as the mute Torque fights his way out past guards, creatures and hallucinations.
Torque’s serial killer status depends on how you play, and the game’s morality system. He was locked up for the murder of his family, and if you play the game as a psycho killer – butchering everyone in your path – it’ll be confirmed that he was indeed guilty. But if you guide Torque down a non-violent path, you’ll find out that he was framed. Smart!
So I Married An Axe Murderer: Mrs X
An interesting one, this. Thomas Schlamme’s 1993 black comedy/rom-com, So I Married An Axe Murderer, charts a suspicious chap developing a theory: maybe his wife is a coldblooded serial killer. Michael Myers plays Charlie, and Nancy Travis portrays his new significant other, Harriet.
What follows is a really fun ride, as Charlie attempts to determine if his girlfriend/fiancée/wife (depending on what point you’re at in the film) truly is the notorious ‘Mrs X’ killer (who has a habit of axe-murdering her husbands while Honeymooning). Again, we won’t spoil the surprises of this one for you.
Heavy Rain: The Origami Killer
The film-noir-inspired Heavy Rain game has a lot going for it, including its elusive serial killer antagonist: The Origami Killer. Over the course of the game, you’ll play as various characters attempting to crack the case, with working out the killer’s identity being the main narrative thrust. (No spoilers here, don’t worry!)
The Origami Killer’s MO is a particularly unsettling one. He has killed eight young boys by drowning them in rainwater. He always dumps the bodies in wastelands, leaving some origami in their right hand. Hence the name.
Another screen serial killer that needs little introduction is Michael C. Hall’s Dexter Morgan, from the much-loved Showtime series Dexter (which ran from 2006 to 2013). Not only was Hall’s performance top notch, but the premise was an absolute beaut.
The idea of a forensic technician leading a double life as a killer – knowing all the perfect ways to cover his own tracks – is an absolute slam-dunk. It’s no wonder that managed to squeeze eight seasons of blood splatter out of it.
As we mentioned at the start, this list isn’t necessarily ranked. (What score card would you use to rate psychopaths, anyway?) But we did save a few of our favourites for the end. And, of course, no list of pop culture killers would be complete without the iconic shower slasher and mum murderer Norman Bates.
Anthony Perkins originated the role in Hitchcock’s 1959 novel adaptation Psycho, and Freddie Highmore played Norman recently in Bates Motel. There was also that Vince Vaughn remake, which we’re sure you’ll remember.
It was Perkins quiet, creepy performance that set the tone, though, with help from Hitchcock and the stellar Psycho script from Joseph Stefano.
Seven: John Doe
Ughh. Even that still image is giving me the creeps. Kevin Spacey’s turn as John Doe in Seven (or Se7en, if you’re that way inclined) is one of the greatest serial killer performances of all time. David Fincher’s film, if you’re unfamiliar, features a string of killings linked to the seven deadly sins.
Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman put in decent shifts as the dicks trying to crack the case, but it’s Spacey that steals the show. John Doe, from the moment he hands himself in up to the final frame of the film, is an utterly magnetic screen presence.
And finally, the big daddy of pop culture serial killers. Hannibal Lecter, the cannibalistic killer created by Thomas Harris, is arguably the most iconic and unforgettable fictional mass murderer of all time.
Bryan Cox played the role first, with a memorable turn in Manhunter, but it was Anthony Hopkins that became best associated with Lecter, thanks to his utterly chilling performances in The Silence Of The Lambs, Hannibal and Red Dragon. Gaspard Ulliel then played a younger version in Hannibal Rising, and Mads Mikkelsen owned the role in TV’s Hannibal.
And that’s you’re lot – 25 screen serial killers! The next time you fancy some morbid entertainment, you could do a lot worse than checking out one of these films/TV shows/games.
If you need us, we’ll be enjoying a nice chianti…
The Evil Within 2 reaches shops on Friday the 13th of October.