Top 5 Most Famous Serial Killers Of All Times

Famous serial killers are gruesome animals, and yet we’re fascinated by them and can’t look away: what makes them attack and murder, again and again? What sets them off, what makes one person a victim while another walks away unscathed? Our morbid curiosity keeps us watching television shows, following news stories, and remembering their names. Whether it's the chilling details of their crimes or the psychological intricacies behind their actions, the allure of infamous serial killers continues to captivate our collective imagination.

List Of Serial Killers

The Evolution of Serial Killing

The fascination with famous serial killers is undeniable, and their presence in society raises unsettling questions about the darker aspects of human nature. It’s likely that serial killing is part of human nature and therefore has always been part of human society. The definition of criminal profiling has evolved alongside our understanding of aberrant behaviors and the individuals who commit them. Stories of serial killers, often included in the list of serial killers, are rare but the aberrant behavior that prompts murders, such as sociopathy, is always present in communities to some small degree. Media attention has amplified the actions of some famous serial killers, and it’s possible that a few continued to kill because they enjoyed the notoriety. Despite the infamy surrounding these individuals, understanding the complex interplay of psychology, societal factors, and individual motivations remains a daunting challenge.

Key Periods and Milestones in the Study of Serial Killers

Our knowledge of the motives and mindsets of top serial killers is very recent, as the study of human psychology only began formally about 140 years ago. That provides the ability to research individuals for whom a historical record exists, but such descriptions of crimes are rare. Psychologists may also provide insight into a killer’s next steps if police have a mysterious pattern of disappearances or murders they’re trying to solve.

Similarly, our understanding of police work has evolved over time. Historically, policing focused more on providing general security for individuals rather than on detective or forensic work. It wasn't until 1903 that fingerprinting became a state-of-the-art policing technique. However, the advent of DNA science in the mid-1980s revolutionized criminal records and investigative practices. DNA analysis enables detectives to link crime scenes using traces of human tissue, such as blood droplets, hair, or semen, providing a powerful tool for solving crimes and bringing perpetrators to justice.

Characteristics of Serial Killers

The list of serial killers reminds us how these dangerous predators can hide among us without being noticed. Top serial killers are hard to spot, even when living right next door. They often lead dual lives, including holding a steady job and having a seemingly normal marriage while secretly killing victims. Commonalities among serial killers include difficult relationships with parents, childhood victimization, and oftentimes, childhood sexual abuse.

List Of Serial Killers

Jack the Ripper

The dark alleys of the Whitechapel area of London in 1888 were ripe for a sordid crime: desperately poor immigrants flooded into London, filling the ghettoes. Some turned to prostitution to feed themselves and their families. In the shadows of city streets, five young female sex workers were found dead in the same area within several months, a sensational crime wave that newspapers exploited to their best advantage, featuring lurid details of each death. 

The murderer became more notorious as time went on because the police did not catch him. Many more women died in the following months and years, with most of their deaths attributed to the mysterious and elusive killer, whom newspapers dubbed Jack the Ripper. The name came from a fake confession letter.

The first five murders in Whitechapel and nearby Spitalfields were linked by similarities, including throats slashed and the disemboweling of three victims. Six murders that followed were similar but police were unable to conclusively link them to the first five. The murders remain unsolved, and a focus of fascination, even 150 years later.

Ted Bundy

In the free-flowing, “free love” period of the 1960s and ‘70s, a good-looking young man became one of the United States’ most notorious murderers. Theodore “Ted” Bundy killed at least 30 young women, mostly college students, and mostly in western states.

Bundy was a successful law student employed by a political campaign when something snapped in him. He abruptly cut off contact with his fiancée, dropped out of school, and began attacking young female college students in their dorm rooms and apartments. Most were sexually assaulted and bludgeoned to death.

Police bungled Bundy’s case. A woman he dated reported him to authorities many times because he fit the description of the person they sought in the disappearance of many women. And, after acting as his own attorney in a court case, he escaped out the window of a courthouse library and went to Florida to commit more abductions and murders.

Techniques used by Bundy to find victims ranged from pretending to be injured (using crutches or a sling) to gain sympathy to asking for help with something to simply overpowering the young women. He strangled, drowned, or beat most to death. In Colorado, he repeatedly visited bodies he stashed in a remote area. He could not recall all of his victims at the time of his execution. He was described by a biographer as a sadistic sociopath. He was executed for his crimes.

John Wayne Gacy

In 1978, police opened the door of Chicagoan John Wayne Gacy’s home and discovered the remains of dozens of young men in the crawlspace under the building.

A Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise manager, Gacy was a respected member of the community before he sexually assaulted a colleague’s teenage son in 1967. He spent time in jail for the assault, but it did not stop him from seeking more homosexual encounters, usually with underage boys and usually by force. At times he lured boys into compromising situations by offering alcohol and the opportunity to watch sex movies. He also lured many victims to his house from the Chicago Greyhound Bus terminal.

Gacy made himself and his later cleaning/remodeling business part of the community, including hosting giant parties at his home. He used the business to meet young men. At times he would offer to show them a trick using handcuffs, which generally ended in Gacy trying to assault them. His murder technique varied but often included suffocation by drowning or with a rag in the victim’s throat, or by strangulation while raping the victim. Most of his victims were killed between 1975 and 1978. He was convicted and executed for the murders.

Jeffrey Dahmer

As a boy, Dahmer indulged in a fascination with dead animals and dissection. He fantasized about the sexual domination of other young men and coupled the thoughts with the concept of dissecting bodies. He killed his first victim around high school graduation. Dahmer joined the U.S. Army but was discharged dishonorably for excessive drinking and disorderly conduct.

For several years, Dahmer used the money to lure young men to his grandmother’s house, where he was living, and killed them during sexual acts. Dahmer became best known for dismembering corpses and keeping portions of some of his victims. He took photos of the corpses before and during the dismemberment process. When one of his would-be victims escaped during an encounter with Dahmer, police intervened and found the photos along with body parts in his refrigerator. He killed 17 young men between 1978 and 1991. He was executed for his crimes.

Aileen Wuornos

A victim of childhood sexual abuse and abandonment by both parents, Aileen Wournos allegedly began performing sex acts before age 12 in exchange for small items. She had a child and was a sex worker by age 14. She attempted suicide many times and began a string of petty crimes by age 20.

While working in the sex trade in Florida, Wuornos murdered 7 men in a single year, all by gunshot. Although she originally claimed she killed in self-defense she later admitted to robbery as her motive for killing. She was caught after she and a girlfriend were seen running from an auto accident involving her last victim’s stolen vehicle. All of her victims were found in remote places, shot multiple times in the chest, and their vehicles and other belongings were often pawned quickly. She was convicted and executed.

The backgrounds of those on the infamous list of serial killers often involve troubled childhoods marked by abuse and neglect. However, it's important to note that not everyone with a difficult upbringing turns to violence. Mental health issues, such as psychopathy or antisocial personality disorder, play a significant role in the actions of famous serial killers. While a challenging past may contribute, it's the combination of psychological predispositions and environmental factors that shape their behavior. Understanding these complexities is crucial for identifying warning signs and implementing preventive measures in our communities.


Who Was The First Documented Serial Killer, And When Did These Crimes Gain Attention?

A French nobleman, Gilles de Rais, is history’s first documented serial killer. De Rais lived in the 1400s and fought in the Hundred Years War. Born into wealth, de Rais spent much of his life squabbling with others about property. He was convicted and hanged for crimes that included retaking a disputed property by force and the murder of up to 140 children, probably young boys. Some believe that the murder charges were false, as clear documentation is difficult.

What Impact Do Media Portrayals of Serial Killers Have on Public Perception?

Since Jack the Ripper, serial killers have received massive amounts of media attention. This fixation on the details of each murder by every media outlet makes us feel that these sorts of crimes are commonplace, happening almost daily when in fact they’re rather rare.

What State Has The Most Serial Killers?

States with the most itinerant or seasonal residents and workers have the most serial killers. Alaska is tops for such crimes, with Nevada and Florida following.

Why Do People Become Serial Killers?

Serial killers often seek to dominate their victims in brutal ways. Psychology suggests they try to relive portions of their childhoods or are haunted by memories of humiliation and poor relationships with their parents