Few characters on television are as compelling as a serial killer. Fueled by some kind of trauma or pathology that makes them kill in ritualistic ways, these twisted murderers have made some of the best and scariest villains in TV history.
While many TV shows feature serial killers as major plot points, some actors have created especially compelling, unforgettable onscreen murderers. (In real life, these are the most depraved serial killers in history.)
To compile a list of the most memorable TV serial killers, 24/7 Tempo reviewed dozens of the most iconic horror, thriller, and detective shows featuring murderers. We selected the serial killer characters who were a major part of the plot either over the course of the entire series or for several seasons.
Though these characters are all killers, they are also quite different from each other. Some are disaffected loners on the fringes of society, like Norman Bates of “Bates Motel,” while others are seemingly normal members of society hiding a dark secret – for instance Dexter Morgan on the long-running (and rebooted) series “Dexter.” (These are the 20 best episodes of “Dexter,” according to IMDb.)
Many of the killers on this list get a special sense of satisfaction from keeping their identity a secret, taunting law enforcement for not being able to bring them to justice. Much like the real-life Zodiac Killer, some demented murderers entangle detectives into deadly cat and mouse games.
> Show: CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2000-2015)
> Played by: Matt O’Toole
Like most police dramas, “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” portrayed many serial killers and other sociopaths over the 15 years it was on TV. One of the most memorable was Paul Millander, who the public knew as Judge Douglas Mason. Millander was the archenemy of Gil Grissom, the scientist and CSI supervisor played by William Peterson. Millander kills people and stages the scene to look like a suicide, mimicking his father’s murder.
> Show: Bones (2005-2017)
> Played by: Deirdre Lovejoy
The Gravedigger haunted Booth, Brennan, and the rest of the “Bones” team over several of the early seasons of the series. This serial killer buried victims alive, demanding ransoms and leaving them to die if the demand were not met. Brennan eventually realizes the Gravedigger was state attorney Heather Taffet, who used her position to throw investigators off the case.
> Show: Dexter (2006-2013)
> Played by: Michael C. Hall
“Dexter” is one of the few shows on this list in which the serial killer is also the main protagonist. Michael C. Hall portrayed Dexter Morgan, a police forensic expert who moonlights as a murderer. Dexter harnesses his urge to kill to take out the worst people in Miami. The show was rebooted as “Dexter: New Blood” in 2001.
The Trinity Killer
> Show: Dexter (2006-2013)
> Played by: John Lithgow
Like Dexter Morgan, Arthur Mitchell was a seemingly-normal family man, but had a secret second life as the Trinity Killer, who murdered hundreds of people in groups of three throughout his life. Dexter eventually kills him, but not before the Trinity Killer has murdered Dexter’s wife, Rita.
> Show: The Mentalist (2008-2015)
> Played by: Xander Berkeley
Red John is the nemesis of the main character in the show, Patrick Jane. Red John and his many operatives have killed more than 70 people, among them Jane’s wife and daughter. The killer’s signature move is drawing a smiley face on the wall with his victim’s blood. Though Red John has been featured in every season, his identity is only revealed in the middle of season six.
> Show: The Bridge (2011-2018)
> Played by: Lars Simonsen
The Truth Terrorist – whose real name is Jens Hansen and/or Sebastian Sandstrod – is the mastermind antagonist in this Nordic noir crime drama. A former police detective, he has a mental breakdown when he finds out his wife is cheating on him with his best friend and colleague, Martin. He kills people as a way to bring attention to the problems of homelessness and child labor.
Dr. Oliver Thredson
> Show: American Horror Story: Asylum (2012)
> Played by: Zachary Quinto
Dr. Oliver Thredson is a psychiatrist. He is also a serial killer who grew up in an orphanage after his birth mother abandoned him. Longing for a maternal presence, he is seeking out women to replace his mother. When he deems them inadequate, he skins them and turns their skin into a mask, earning him the name “Bloody Face.”
> Show: The Following (2013-2015)
> Played by: James Purefoy
Joe Carroll is the main antagonist in “The Following.” He is the man behind the so-called Virginia Campus Murders, which claimed the lives of some 14 women. After the murders, he creates a cult of vicious serial killers, known as The Followers, who will do everything Carroll tells them to.
> Show: Hannibal (2013-2015)
> Played by: Mads Mikkelsen
In “Hannibal,” Mads Mikkelsen played a younger version of the legendary serial killer Hannibal Lecter from “Silence of the Lambs.” In the show, Lecter’s true identity as a murderer is unknown. He works as a forensic psychiatrist, helping Special Agent Will Graham hunt other serial killers, using his position to throw investigators off his trail.
> Show: The Fall (2013-2016)
> Played by: Jamie Dornan
Paul Spector is a bereavement counselor and also a serial killer known as the Belfast Strangler, targeting women in Northern Ireland’s capital. After his mother commits suicide, Spector grows up in an orphanage, where he is believed to have been abused by a priest. Known for meticulously planning each murder and always killing his victims in their homes, Spector was partially motivated by his need to control others.
> Show: Bates Motel (2013-2017)
> Played by: Freddie Highmore
“Bates Motel” is a psychological horror drama that tells the story of how Norman Bates, already made famous by the thriller novel and iconic Hitchcock motion picture “Psycho.” The series shows him slowly transforming from a shy and smart boy to a vicious serial killer with a split personality disorder.
> Show: True Detective (2014-2019)
> Played by: Glenn Fleshler
Throughout the first season of “True Detective,” Detectives Rust Cohle and Marty Hart pursued the elusive Yellow King, a serial killer who terrorized women and children in rural Louisiana over the course of many years. They eventually learn it is Errol Childress, a member of a secretive religious cult that has operated in the area for generations.
> Show: Wolf Creek (2016-2017)
> Played by: John Jarratt
“Wolf Creek” follows Australian outback serial killer Mick Taylor as he targets a new set of victims each season. The show was originally a pair of films that was spun off into a series, with the films’ star, John Jarratt, returning to portray the deranged Taylor.
> Show: The Loch (2017)
> Played by: Jack Bannon
The Scottish drama “The Loch” centers on a small town whose idyllic image is shattered when a serial killer strikes. Kieran Whitehead kills and removes parts of his victims, leaving them in plain sight for investigators to find.
> Show: Mr. Mercedes (2017-2019)
> Played by: Harry Treadaway
In the TV adaptation of the Stephen King book “Mr. Mercedes,” a killer uses a stolen Mercedes-Benz to run over his victims. The killer taunts recently retired detective Bill Hodges, sending him letters and emails to lure him into a cat and mouse game.
> Show: YOU (2018-)
> Played by: Penn Badgley
In “YOU,” Penn Badgley plays Joe Goldberg – a misguided romantic who is willing to do anything for the woman he loves. Goldberg easily becomes infatuated, stalking the object of his desires and killing anyone who he thinks might stand in the way of his potential relationship.
> Show: The Alienist (2018-2020)
> Played by: Bill Heck
“The Alienist” tells the fictional story of one of New York City’s first serial killers. In the late 1800s, John Beecham targeted and killed young boys throughout the city, and it is up to one of the first criminal psychologists, a secretary, and a newspaper illustrator to track down the culprit.
Dr. Martin Whitly
> Show: Prodigal Son (2019-2021)
> Played by: Michael Sheen
Michael Sheen stars in “Prodigal Son” as Dr. Martin Whitly, a charming doctor, family man, and secret serial killer. When his son Malcolm discovers his secret, he turns Dr. Whitly in to the police. Years later, Malcolm works as a criminal profiler working with the NYPD. After being estranged from his father for years, he has to ask for his help when a copycat killer emerges.
> Show: Big Sky (2020-)
> Played by: Brian Geraghty
In “Big Sky,” private detectives set out to Montana in search of two sisters who have gone missing. As they investigate, they realize the sisters may be linked with other disappearances tied to a serial killer – truck driver Ronald Pergman.
> Show: Ragdoll (2021-)
> Played by: Sam Troughton
AMC’s “Ragdoll” follows a team of detectives as they investigate the case of the Ragdoll Killer – a London murderer who kills and dismembers his victims, then sews their body parts together to form a gruesome spectacle.