Quick, picture a murderer in your head. Darting, sketchy eyes, bulging muscles, slack-jawed and slobbering over the thought of going all Jason Voorhees on a pack of unsuspecting teenagers, then speeding off into the night in a stolen car… Now throw that image in the trash, because actual serial killers come in basically all shapes, sizes, colors, and genders.
One of the things that fascinate us as a whole about serial killers is that we really don’t know why they do it. Sure, we have tons of movies and documentaries putting serial killers on display for public consumption, but still, we’re no closer to understanding what makes them tick. We have rough ideas, of course. Family problems, bad childhood, problems “Fitting in,” a few screws loose in the ol’ noggin, but again it’s just all guesswork.
Serial killers as a topic of interest get even more fascinating when we consider that it really is sometimes the ones we least suspect. They often work regular jobs, speak like regular people, and give no indication of what they’re truly capable of. There’s seemingly no demographic that hasn’t included a serial killer among its ranks, be they doctors, soldiers, farmers, or even children’s entertainers.
Whether it’s the charming, preppy good looks of Paul Bernardo, Dorothea Puente’s “Sweet old granny” exterior, or John Wayne Gacy’s ability to hide his true nature in plain sight, sometimes it really is the most “Normal” ones you need to watch out for. Let’s take a closer look at some of the killers who were more likely to deliver your mail than go bump in the night.
15 Charles Cullen - A Nurse Who...
We’re starting this list off with a doozy. Charles Cullen, while relatively unknown in pop culture, managed to get himself a place on Netflix’s popular, Nurses Who Kill program. Cullen, a nurse working in New Jersey until he was caught, may in fact, be the most prolific serial killer in American history. He’s serving a 127-year sentence for the murder of 29-35 patients with insulin or another drug-related overdose, although experts claim the number’s closer to a chilling 400. Cullen escaped detection partly because of his outwardly professional demeanor, and the fact that there was no real way to track hospital employees with histories of mental illness back then. Although Cullen was suspected of malpractice, the fact that he hung onto his jobs, and even had a semi-successful career in the Navy, sure makes it seem like he was just normal enough to slip through the cracks.
14 H.H. Holmes - Murder Castle Curator
A doctor with a gruesome habit, H.H. Holmes appears in old photographs to be the typical mustachioed, 19th-century gentleman. Besides being a completely terrifying serial killer, Holmes was also a petty con artist and bigamist, and although he was also known for telling tall tales, what he actually did was chilling enough. After purchasing a building in Chicago, Illinois, Holmes set about making the mixed-use building into what could only be described as a “Murder Castle” in Englewood. He killed his accomplice in crime there, as well as possibly 20-200 others. It’s hard to get a clear idea of his actual crimes, due to his seeming pathological need to lie and exaggerate. Holmes never fit the mold of a serial killer, he was even erroneously described as having mistreated animals in his youth, so the truth is nobody really knows why Holmes built his den of murder.
13 Jeffrey Dahmer - A Media Star?
During the 1990s, Jeffrey Dahmer was a household name. A handsome and charismatic young man who supported gay rights in his home state of Wisconsin, nobody would ever have suspected that Dahmer was not only a serial killer but an abuser and cannibal as well. Dahmer lured young men into his apartment, drugging them, taking their lives, and then storing some in his fridge. Amazingly, police had found an incoherent young man who escaped from Dahmer’s clutches, only to return him to his apartment after Dahmer claimed he was his boyfriend. One of the most written-about killers on this list because of the nature of his crimes, Jeffrey Dahmer was known to have 17 victims and was in jail serving 16 consecutive live sentences when he was murdered by a fellow inmate in 1994, once his identity and crimes became known.
12 Andrew Cunanan - Hustler Turned Killer
An attractive male hustler who hung out with millionaires and lived the good life, Andrew Cunanan nevertheless harbored some dark thoughts and a good deal of resentment towards his wealthy partners. He came from a military family, a common theme on this list, and was also found to have an IQ of 147, another trait that many serial killers seem to share. Although his victim count was relatively low (5), at least by the standards of this list, what ultimately led to Cunanan’s notoriety was his murder of fashion mogul Gianni Versace, as well as Lee Miglin, an elderly Chicago Real Estate Tycoon. After his death by suicide, his houseboat was searched, turning up a surprising lack of personal possessions and no suicide note. Despite his outward good looks, the ugliness of Andrew Cunanan’s mind was what ultimately decided the course of his life and ultimate fate.
11 Karl Denke - Your Friendly Neighbourhood "Butcher"
Who would suspect the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker, your local merchants and shopkeepers, of being vicious killers? Sadly, not the people of Munsterberg, Germany, who counted "Papa" Karl Denke among them in the early 20th century. Well-liked by his local community and fellow church parishioners, where he was the organist, Danke nonetheless picked them off one by one, 42 in total, pickling some and selling the meat of others as pork at a local market. Little is known about Karl Danke’s childhood, save that it was fairly normal for the time. He was only imprisoned after attacking a fellow citizen with an ax at his house, but even then Danke claimed that he was protecting his property from a burglar. He hanged himself in his cell days later, after a search of his home turned up his gruesome culinary tendencies.
10 Richard Angelo - Angel Of Death
Normal people seek the respect of their peers, and to live a harmonious life in society. Richard Angelo only looked normal, in fact, he looked downright unexceptional, appearing to just be another bearded, heavyset everyman. The truth was, the New York City nurse also called the “Angel of Death,” wanted to be a well-regarded hero so badly that he poisoned his patients with Pavulon and Anectine, only to revive them in order to save the day. In the end, Angelo killed 8 and poisoned another 26 who were rescued. A former Eagle Scout and volunteer fireman, it’s clear that Richard Angelo had some kind of pathological need to be recognized. Before he was outed as a murderer, he was no doubt regarded as someone who was “Just trying to help.”
9 Albert Fish - The Gentleman Killer
Albert Fish “The Gray Man,” was a distinguished elderly man, never seen without a suit, cane, and hat. This turned out to be a ruse, however, as Albert Fish killed kids. Hundreds, according to him, although he was only convicted for three murders. Fish, after he was caught, confessed to crimes that nobody even had names for, and would make Hannibal Lecter queasy. Often posing as a wealthy benefactor (people were a lot easier to fool back in the day) to gain access to his victim's homes, Fish took sadistic pleasure in sending some of his victim’s parents detailed and perverted notes, and he believed that God was telling him to do an assortment of pretty insane things. He was able to gain the trust of his victim’s families until the end, as his well-kept, grandfatherly exterior ensured that he would avoid detection. Kind of makes you wonder who else on the subway is hiding behind a well-tailored suit.
8 Dennis Nilsen - Not So Kindly
Known as the “British Jeffrey Dahmer,” “The Muswell Hill Murderer,” and notably, “The Kindly Killer,” Dennis Nilsen strangled and drowned young men that he lured to his North London apartments, the “Kindly” in his name referring to his thought that strangling and then drowning his victims was the most humane way for them to go. Not a guy you'd let watch your pets, in other words. An army boy, Dennis appeared to his fellow troops to be shy, which Dennis attributed to his mixed and complicated feelings towards being homosexual. He would later dispose of his victims at his flat, flushing some parts down the toilet. This was what got him caught by a plumber, although he had been promoted through the ranks of the army even during his spree that left 12 to 15 men dead. Nilsen was considered an introvert and somewhat awkward, but a murderer? His peers sure didn’t think so.
7 Michael Swango - The Poisonous Physician
A trusted physician, Michael Swango nevertheless managed to poison 60 of his peers and patients. An ex-marine, Swango had a lifelong commitment to physical fitness and exercise. Sadly his commitment to health didn’t extend to his patients, as even in his years at medical school some of his patients would regularly code or even die, although he was not suspected of any wrongdoing. Despite a seemingly lazy, but actually murderous career in medicine, Swango was able to consistently find work, even after having to change his name to gain further employment after a short jail sentence for poisoning his co-workers. Swango clearly gave off the impression that he was an excellent doctor at first, although he was forced to leave the States for Zimbabwe after patients just couldn’t seem to stop dying around him. He was finally incarcerated in 2000 near Florence, Colorado, and currently resides in a Supermax jail, which honestly is a big relief.
6 Paul Bernardo/Karla Homolka - Not Your Average Couple
Paul Bernardo and his accomplice Karla Homolka, prove that Canadians aren't all friendly, as the pair became notorious in the Canadian media for their weird, sick crimes. The Toronto duo kidnapped, abused, and then killed four girls from 1990-1992, videotaping as they went. The two appeared, for all intents and purposes, to be the typical suburban, van-driving couple. Although Bernardo’s family life and childhood were highly dysfunctional, Paul was described in a book about him as always smiling, just a fresh-faced, dimpled youth whose cheeks the neighbourhood moms would pinch. He secretly harboured dark fantasies however, and weirdly enough managed to meet Karla Homolka, with whom he had sadism in common, Karla going so far as to help Paul murder her sister Tammy (must have made family reunions awkward). The Homolka family found Paul charming and encouraged his and Karla’s relationship, not knowing what the pretty boy was hiding behind those dimples.
5 Dorothea Puente - Grandma Death
Dorothea Puente, the “Death House Landlady,” looked like the kind of grandmother who dishes out hard candy and bakes a mean rhubarb pie. She’s those things as well, but Puente was actually a serial killer who ran a boarding house, killing her elderly and disabled renters and cashing their social security cheques. While she was considered somewhat of a crotchety landlord, she was nevertheless praised by her (living) elderly tenants for her delicious homemade meals. She ended up killing at least three of them, sometimes making it look like suicide. Bodies were eventually found under her boarding house, and Puente was accused of murdering them by giving them sleeping pills and then suffocating them. The prosecution at Puente’s trial had to continually remind the jury that, “Things aren’t always what they seem,” or else they may never have convicted her. She looks like she'd never hurt a fly!
4 Dean Corll - Gave Candy To Strangers
Dean Corll’s family owned a candy plant in Houston, but that’s not the only reason he was called, “The Candy Man.” Corll was considered a friendly guy in the neighbourhood, probably because he lived at a time before handing candy out to small children would have been considered extremely creepy (Corll died in 1973). Of course, this is an article about serial killers, so you can see where this is going. Corll killed at least 28 kids, and even got some older kids in the neighbourhood to help him round them up. Corll was later shot by one of the kids who worked for him (and who he also abused), which is the only thing approaching a silver lining in this story. Just reading about Dean, “The Candy Man” Corll is enough to make the thought of a passing ice cream truck cause a serious case of the creeps.
3 Robert Lee Yates - The Family Man
A military man with an 18-year career, Yates grew up in a middle-class family and worked as a prison guard. While being that close to a jail cell might seem like a bad move for a criminal, Yates trusted that nobody would find out about his murderous habits, after all, he, “Looked normal.” Yates killed 16 prostitutes in Spokane, Washington, often plying them with drugs beforehand. When later asked for a DNA sample by police, Yates refused, as the thought of being a suspect in a murder was offensive to a, “Family man.” Yates' attorneys claimed that because he had a compulsion toward necrophilia, he couldn’t help but be a murderer. Yeah, that was bizarre as hell and didn’t work, and Yates’ many appeal attempts have been rejected. He’s currently serving out his 408-year sentence on death row, as the Governor of Washington currently refuses to carry out the death sentence.
2 John Wayne Gacy - Not Clowning Around
One of the most notorious figures in all of pop culture, even inspiring shock rocker Marylin Manson, John Wayne Gacy was the “Killer Clown." A man held up as something of a pillar of the community by his peers, Gacy killed 33 boys and young men, burying them mostly in the crawlspace of his ranch house. Why his wife didn’t notice the smell is unknown, but an extreme case of denial is suspected. While he wasn’t offing the local kids, he was performing for them at parties as Pogo the Clown, forever ruining the whole idea of clowns and making Pennywise look like a slacker. Working as a manager at several Waterloo, Iowa KFCs, Gacy tirelessly worked for local charities and civic organizations, proving that the worst serial killers often need the most cover when it comes to public life. After he was found out, his psychiatric evaluation determined Gacy had, “Antisocial personality disorder,” which sounds like a bit of an understatement. He was deemed a danger to society, who nonetheless was able to fit in perfectly.
1 Ted Bundy - All-American Guy, Killer
Ted Bundy. A name synonymous with serial killers, Bundy was a sociopath who was nevertheless considered handsome and charismatic by women, had a genius-level IQ, and was even a registered Republican who worked on election campaigns. On an extra-creepy note, Bundy was also a phone counselor for a women’s crisis help line. He was presumably taking notes, as he later posed as an injured man who needed help getting his groceries into a van, after which he would overpower his victims (of which there were at least 30). A former state Republican party chairman who hired Bundy as his assistant said of the man, “If you can’t trust someone like Ted Bundy, you can’t trust your parents, your wife, anyone.” If anything, that seems like a helpful guide to navigating public life, where men like Bundy hide in plain sight, working their way into the fabric of society. Be safe out there everyone, and never, ever help strangers with their groceries.