In movies such as "Silence of the Lambs" and TV shows such as "Dexter," fictional serial killers who butcher scores of victims have become objects of popular fascination.
But unfortunately, serial murder isn't just something concocted by the imaginations of screenwriters and producers for our entertainment. It happens in real life.
In the U.S., victims have suffered horrible fates at the hands of serial killers such as Ted Bundy, the handsome, charismatic murder who killed more than 30 women, and Randy Kraft, a Californian who may have taken the lives 65 other men. Around the world, other killers have amassed even higher body counts, with some of them killing hundreds of people.
Why are some humans driven to kill repeatedly? In various accounts, many serial killers are depicted as people who experienced childhood traumas and sexual abuse — though that doesn't explain why others with similar experiences don't turn into violent monsters. In 2014, Psychology Today reported that the experts in FBI's Behavioral Science Unit, which studies criminal minds, believe that serial killers program themselves in childhood by engaging in an escalating series of fantasies [source: Bonn].
Here are 10 of the world's most prolific serial killers, and what we know about their motivations. As the countdown rolls on, the body count gets higher.
Between 1973 and 1978, Bundy — the subject of the Ann Rule true crime book "The Stranger Beside Me" — killed at least 30 women.
Bundy's modus operandi was to lure female victims into his Volkswagen, sometimes by pretending that he'd been injured in an accident and needed their help. Once inside, he would pull out a crowbar and knock them unconscious, then rape them before beating and strangling them to death. He liked to kill his victims under the light of a bright moon or in the illumination of his car's headlights.
After a failed abduction attempt in 1974, he was arrested in Utah and convicted of aggravated kidnapping and attempted murder. But while being transferred to Colorado to face murder charges there, he escaped from a courthouse library and went to Florida. While there, he broke into a college sorority house, attacked four women students and beat two of them to death before breaking into a nearby home and beating another woman who fortunately survived. Bundy committed one more murder — kidnapping and killing a 12-year-old girl, before he was caught. He was executed in 1989 [source: Truesdell]
Rocha had had a rough childhood in which he was sexually abused by a neighbor when he was 11 and bullied by other students at school. But neither really explains why the killer began his spree in his early 20s.
Rocha chose to hunt down mostly longhaired girls and women between the ages of 13 and 29. His method was to ride up to them on a motorcycle and shoot them. He finally was caught when police set roadblocks on the streets and intercepted him.
"I never heard of a person with such coldness," said Alexandre Barros Bruno, commissioner of the police unit involved in the investigation, to the BBC [source: Lissardy].
Ahmad Suradji, an Indonesian known as the "Black Magic Killer," reportedly started his murder wave in 1986, when he said that his late father appeared to him in a dream and ordered him to kill 70 women.
For the next 13 years, he did his best to achieve that goal, killing 42 women and girls. Suradji practiced witchcraft, and some of his victims came to him, in hopes that his magic would help them to solve their problems.
Instead, he lured them into a field and convinced them to let him bury them up to the waist, which they believed was part of his magic cure. Instead, he strangled the helpless women. After they were dead, he drank their saliva, believing that it would enhance his powers. Finally, he buried them completely, with their heads pointing toward his home.
In 1998, after police discovered some of the bodies, Suradji was arrested and eventually convicted of his crimes. In 2008, he was executed by firing squad. One of his three wives, all sisters, was also convicted and sentenced to life as an accomplice [source: Bell].
A native of what is now the Ukraine, Andrei "The Maniac" Chikatilo endured a difficult childhood during the 1930s and 1940s. He and his family survived the famine years caused by Soviet leader Josef Stalin's ill-conceived agricultural policies, as well as the brutal invasion by the Germans during World War II. Chikatilo also reportedly suffered from congenital problems that caused him genital and urinary-tract problems throughout his life.
But none of that fully explains the mental illness that drove him to murder 56 women, whom he befriended at train stations and bus stops and then lured into wooded areas, where he would rape and mutilate them with a knife. Sometimes he cut their eyes out or ate pieces of their bodies. All this while working first as a school teacher and then as a traveling factory clerk.
Police arrested Chikatilo in 1984, but were unable to make the charges stick. (He had a rare condition where the blood type in his blood was different from the type in other bodily fluids, like semen. DNA techniques at the time could not have determined this.) He finally was caught again in 1990, and confessed to 56 murders. He said he did them for sexual gratification. At this trial, he behaved bizarrely, at times singing and talking gibberish, and even exposed himself to people in the courtroom. In 1992, he was convicted and in 1994 executed with a gunshot to the back of the head [source: Biography.com, Bovsun].
In the 1970s and early 1980s, Kraft, a bland-looking computer consultant with an IQ of 129, picked up hitchhikers and plied them with drugged beer, so that he could torture, sexually abuse and kill them, before dumping their bodies on freeway ramps.
He was caught when he was stopped by California Highway Patrol officers on a freeway in 1983. Inside Kraft's Toyota, the officers discovered a dying young Marine, a hitchhiker whom Kraft had picked up and drugged.
Also in his car, investigators found what apparently was a coded list of victims. At his Long Beach home, they further discovered snapshots that he had taken of them, and a collection of their possessions — trophies of his murders.
At Kraft's trial, his lawyers unsuccessfully argued that his violent acts were caused by brain damage. In 1989, he was convicted by a jury of 16 murders, and after prosecutors introduced evidence that he had killed as many as 65 men, he was sentenced to death. Decades later, Kraft is still on death row in San Quentin, as his case makes its way through the appeals process [source: Hicks, Kiger].
As BBC News reported in 2004, Yang's three-year killing spree ranged across the provinces of Henan, Anhui, Shandong and Hebei. He used a hammer to kill, and sometimes murdered entire families.
In an interview shown on Chinese television after his trial, Yang said that he was a misfit who simply enjoyed committing murders.
"When I killed people I had a desire (to kill more). This inspired me to kill more. I don't care whether they deserve to live or not. It is none of my concern," Yang said.
"I have no desire to be part of society. Society is not my concern," he said.
Chinese police finally got lucky, catching Yang when they detained him during a routine inspection of entertainment venues. After he confessed to the crimes, his trial only lasted an hour before he was found guilty in 2004.
A few weeks after the verdict, Chinese state media announced that Yang had been executed, though it didn't detail the method used [source: BBC News].
In the 1980s and 1990s, investigators struggled to catch the infamous "Green River Killer," who preyed upon prostitutes and teenage runaways in King County in Washington state. The killer would strangle his victims while having sex with them, and then dump their bodies in remote areas near the Green River.
Police suspected a truck-body painter named Gary Ridgway for years, but they couldn't make a case against him until DNA advances enabled them to link him to some of the victims in 2001. To avoid the death penalty, Ridgway confessed to 48 of the murders in 2003, and received multiple life sentences. In 2011, a 49th body was found, and linked to Ridgway, who received yet another life sentence.
Since then, Ridgway has confessed to many additional killings. ABC News reported in 2013 that he claimed a body count of close to 80. He claimed that he had found religion and wanted to bring closure to the victims' families. Charlie Harger, a radio journalist who interviewed him and was skeptical of his claims, said he believed that Ridgway actually was out to impress people that he was superior to the more famous serial killer Ted Bundy [source: Dolak].
Harold Shipman was a trusted, respected physician in England who treated more than 3,000 patients in his career. But underneath that conventional image, the father of four was a drug addict with multiple convictions, who somehow managed to keep practicing medicine.
Shipman also harbored a secret urge to kill women, which he satisfied by making house calls to elderly female patients and giving them lethal injections of the opiate diamorphine. Most of his victims were found sitting in their living rooms, as if they had died quietly of natural causes. After authorities grew suspicious and exhumed bodies to test them, Shipman was arrested in 1998. Two years later, a British court convicted him of 15 murders, making him the most prolific serial killer in that nation's history. But a later investigation linked him to a total of 215 deaths [source: BBC News, Hoge].
Why he killed so many people remains a mystery. Prosecutors portrayed him as an arrogant man who considered himself intellectually superior to others, and who reveled in the sense of power that he got from taking lives. "He was very definitely not doing it for excitement, far from it," said forensic psychologist Dr. Richard Badcock in a BBC report. "He was doing it mainly to try and resolve something within himself ... to get rid of an anxiety but an anxiety which he might not even have let himself think about" [source: BBC News, Hoge].
In 2004, Shipman hanged himself in his jail cell [source: BBC News].
Colombian serial killer Garavito, dubbed "The Beast," reportedly liked to dress up in disguise — sometimes as a beggar or a disabled person, other times as a monk or an official from a charitable foundation — so that he could stalk impoverished children. After he talked his victims into going for a walk with him, he sexually abused them and slit their throats [source: Guardian].
Police finally caught him, and in 2000 he was convicted and sentenced to prison for 40 years for rape and murder of 111 children between 1992 and 1999. But he reportedly admitted to other murders as well, and some believe he may have killed more than 300 people [source: O'Driscoll].
After his conviction, Garavito helped lead authorities to the sites where he had buried several of his victims, in exchange for a reduced sentence. But after a public outcry, a Colombian judge ruled in 2011 that the killer would not be released early [source: O'Driscoll].
El Tiempo, a Colombian newspaper, obtained the results of a prison psychological examination in which Garavito was asked why he had killed so many. His reply: "I felt pleasure, even though when I had killed, the guilt came over me" [source: Heyden].
The "Monster of the Andes" is considered to be the world's most prolific serial killer. Lopez was the son of a Colombian prostitute who tossed him out in the streets, where he reportedly suffered sexual assaults from a man who took him in. Lopez vowed to do to girls what had been done to him. In the 1970s, he turned into an international predator, roaming across Colombia, Ecuador and Peru in search of vulnerable pre-pubescent girls [source: Biography.com, Wilson and Seaman]. In 1980, after a river overflowed its banks near the mountain town of Ambato in central Ecuador, four makeshift graves were uncovered, and the bodies of some of Lopez's victims floated free. Not long afterward, Lopez was cornered by a street vendor and her neighbors as he tried to abduct yet another potential victim, the vendor's 11-year-old daughter [source: Biography.com, Wilson and Seaman].
Lopez confessed his crimes to an undercover detective and led police to the graves of 59 of his victims. But the actual death toll was much higher — estimated at 350 to 360. A very sick man, Lopez said he only killed the girls in the daylight: "It was only good if I could see her eyes." [source: Associated Press, Laytner].
Even so, Lopez only served 14 years for his crimes in Ecuador, and another four years in a Colombian mental institution. After being released in 2002, he vanished, and his whereabouts are unknown [source: Biography.com].
Broken Harts is a new serial podcast that delves into the tragic deaths of the Hart family. HowStuffWorks finds out more.
Author's Note: 10 of the World's Most Prolific Serial Killers
I'm a little uneasy with the subject, I confess, because I've actually met one of the killers on this list, as well as relatives of his victims. As a young newspaper reporter in California in the late 1980s, I covered the trial of serial killer Randy Kraft, and once paid a brief visit to him in jail in an unsuccessful effort to get an interview. On the other side of the glass barrier, I got to see how his placid, almost meek demeanor could morph suddenly into a frightening rage, as he slammed down the phone and stomped off. But what affected me more was meeting and spending time with the mother of one of his victims, and I saw for myself the unending torment that the killer's sadistic cruelty had inflicted upon her. Even so, she was so gentle and kind that she was reluctant to see her son's murderer receive the death penalty. Those experiences taught me lessons about both the darkest, most disturbing part of human nature, and its highest, most noble side as well.
More Great Links
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