IF YOU weren’t familiar with the crimes committed by Jeffrey Dahmer, you likely came to be introduced to such horror by way of Netflix’s Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story. Released on September 21st of 2022, the ten-part series recounts with vivid and gory detail the 17 teen boys and young men who were murdered by Dahmer over more than a decade. With a chilling performance from Evan Peters, viewers witnessed just how ghastly a killer Dahmer was, with his crimes often involving necrophilia, cannibalism, and cranial experiments performed on unconscious victims.
And yet, despite the disturbing subject matter and figure at the centre of the series, audiences couldn’t look away. The series became Netflix’s biggest show debut since season four of Stranger Things, amassing a staggering 196.2 million hours of viewership in just part of its first week. But the public fixation on serial killers isn’t confined to Dahmer alone. In recent years, streaming services have sought to cater to what appears to be a growing appetite for true crime and serial killer television, offering insights into the minds of criminals like Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy.
Critics have been quick to voice concern, claiming our appetite for such series sees the truth take a backseat to dramatic flair. Perhaps more concerning however, is the notion that these series can exploit or diminish the voices of victims and survivors. Ultimately, audiences aren’t so much fascinated by the crimes as they are the backstory, forever scrutinising a character’s childhood and upbringing if only to understand “why”. Though we might never know such answers, it seems inevitable that streaming services will continue to churn out series after series on serial killers of decades past. With that in mind, here are the individuals who rank as the world’s most notorious.
Jack the Ripper
To this day, the identity of England’s most horrific serial killer remains a mystery. All we know is the nickname: Jack the Ripper, given to the figure who operated in and around the Whitechapel district of London. As one of the most famous unsolved mysteries, Jack the Ripper is believed to have been responsible for the brutal murders of at least five women, all of whom were prostitutes. The murders were gruesome and often involved mutilation of the victims. As a result, the people of Whitechapel lived in terror as fear spread amongst the community of the serial killer at large.
During the time, police conducted numerous investigations and followed a number of suspects. But the true identity of the serial killer was never established, proving fertile ground for its depiction in books, films, and television shows.
A British doctor whose modus operandi involved administering lethal doses of prescription medications – most often opioids—to his victims, Harold Shipman’s crimes have put him in a league of the world’s worst serial killers. Active in the 1970s and 1990s, many of his victims were elderly women whose records he falsified in an effort to cover up his crimes.
For years, the murders carried out by Shipman went undetected in the medical industry. It wasn’t until a fellow doctor noticed irregularities in the high number of cremation forms Shipman had countersigned that suspicions were raised. This led to an investigation that ultimately saw Shipman arrested in 1998. He was found guilty of 15 counts of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment before committing suicide in his prison cell in 2004.
To this day, it’s believed the number of his victims could be significantly higher. As a result, Shipman’s case put a spotlight on the medical profession, specifically concerns over the regulation and oversight of practitioners. A number of changes were implemented following his arrest to ensure the actions of doctors were more heavily scrutinised.
John Wayne Gacy
Known as the “Killer Clown”, Gacy stands as one of the worst sex offenders and serial killers in the history of the United States. He dressed as “Pogo the Clown” and performed at children’s parties, but between 1972 and 1978, Gacy lured at least 33 young men and teenage boys to the Chicago area. Often, he did so under the pretence of offering them work, money, or a place to stay. After gaining their trust, Gacy then sexually assaulted and murdered them, burying their bodies in the crawl space beneath his house.
For years, Gacy got away with his crimes but when he was arrested in 1978 for an unrelated offence, complaints of a strong odour began to surface from neighbours. An investigation then discovered the source: the bodies decomposing in his home. When the remains of his victims were discovered, Gacy was arrested and convicted of multiple counts of murder. In 1994, he was executed by lethal injection.
The arrest of Ted Bundy captured global attention, even more so when he escaped twice from custody. Widely regarded as one of the most infamous criminals in history, Bundy operated during the 1970s and was responsible for the murders of countless young women. Bundy manipulated his victims, often approaching by way of offering assistance or impersonating an authority figure. When he had earned their trust, he abducted them, only to sexually assault, torture and murder them.
Across Washington, Oregon, Utah and Colorado, Bundy continued to evade capture as his murder spree continued. Eventually, he came to be arrested in 1975 and convicted of several counts of murder. Representing himself in court, he eventually confessed to killing 30 women, though it’s believed the true figure is much higher. In 1989, Bundy was executed in the electric chair at Florida State Prison.
Linked to more than 300 murders in South America, what makes the story of Pedro Lopez all the more haunting is the fact the serial killer might still be out there. Across Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, Lopez lured impoverished, vulnerable young girls away, only to sexually assault and then murder them. Known for his chilling calmness, he’s said to have shown no remorse while exacting his reign of terror across the region.
Lopez was first arrested in 1980, at which point police then found the graves of more than 50 of his preteen victims. He later confessed to killing over 300 girls and was convicted of the murders of 110 girls in Ecuador. The maximum penalty at the time in Ecuadorian law, Lopez was sentenced to just 16 years in prison. Now, his whereabouts are unknown, with some believing he was released from prison and others suggesting he was deported to Colombia.
Widely recognised as one of the most infamous killers in history, Jeffrey Dahmer operated during the 1980s and 1990s in Milwaukee and Wisconsin. While much has been made of his crimes, they remain one of the most horrifying and gruesome. Police first discovered photographs of dismembered bodies in Dahmer’s apartment, along with evidence of horrific acts of violence and necrophilia.
Dahmer was arrested in 1991 following the discovery. A search of his residence revealed the remains of numerous young men, often from vulnerable or marginalised communities, who Dahmer had lured to his home and then murdered. While it’s believed the number of his murders is much higher, Dahmer admitted to killing 17 young men and was found guilty of 16 murders in Wisconsin. He was sentenced to 16 consecutive life terms in prison without the possibility of parole, but was killed by a fellow inmate while incarcerated.
A charismatic con artist and medical doctor, H.H. Holmes is one of the first documented serial killers in the United States—and one of its most notorious. Operating in the late 19th century, he constructed a hotel in Chicago that has since come to be known as the “Murder Castle”. Across three storeys, the building featured hidden passages, soundproof rooms and a myriad of devices that were used to torture his victims. There, he lured many victims, most of whom were young women, before carrying out his murders.
With Holmes, the exact number of victims remains something of a mystery, but he’s believed to have killed at least nine people, with many believing the number to be far higher. His crimes only came to light when he was arrested in 1894 and confessed to the murders. In 1896, after confessing to the murder of his business partner, Holmes was sentenced to death.