The Macabre True Stories Behind 33 Of The Worst Serial Killers Of All Time
By Kaleena Fraga | Edited By Jaclyn Anglis
Published September 14, 2023
Updated November 9, 2023
From Ted Bundy to Pedro Lopez to Gary Ridgway, go inside the disturbing true stories of the world's worst serial killers.
The worst serial killers in history are more terrifying than any horror movie. No make-believe monster will ever match the ferocity of murderers like Ed Kemper, who killed 10 people in California, including his own mother, or Belle Gunness, who lured hopeful bachelors to her Indiana farm only to murder them and feed them to her pigs.
So, who is history’s worst serial killer? There are certainly many candidates, including Luis Garavito. The so-called “Beast” of Colombia, Garavito murdered anywhere from 100 to 400 boys, all between the ages of six and 16, and he may be the most prolific serial killer in human history.
Then again, there are other depraved serial killers, such as Gary Ridgway. Between 1982 and 1998, he targeted women in Washington State as the so-called “Green River Killer,” killing as many as 71 people before he was caught. By some estimates, Ridgeway is the worst serial killer in U.S. history, though his record may be surpassed by the prolific murderer Samuel Little.
Still, though Ridgway or Little may be the deadliest serial killers that America has ever seen, many believe that the “worst serial killer” title surely belongs to Ted Bundy. While Bundy didn’t have quite as high of a kill count — he murdered an estimated 30 women in the 1970s — his ferocity toward his victims has made him one of the most infamous criminals of all time.
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Edmund Kemper's murders began in 1964 when, at 15, he killed his own grandparents, saying he "just wanted to see what it felt like to kill Grandma." Released in 1969, Kemper soon terrorized California, raping, murdering, and desecrating the corpses of eight women. One of his victims was his own mother, whom he bludgeoned to death with a claw hammer before defiling her severed head. Surprisingly, Kemper soon turned himself in to the police. He was ultimately sentenced to life in prison, where he remains to this day.Wikimedia Commons
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Rodney James Alcala was a lady-killer — in more ways than one. The outwardly charming Alcala landed a spot on The Dating Game in 1978 while in the middle of his murder spree, later earning him the nickname "The Dating Game Killer." Alcala was eventually convicted of murdering six women and a teenage girl, and he was given the death sentence in California for his crimes. The killer ended up dying of natural causes while behind bars, but not before suggesting that he'd actually killed somewhere between 50 and 100 people.Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images
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Leonarda Cianciulli murdered three women in Italy in 1939 and 1940 — and turned their bodies into soap and teacakes. Her murder spree started after a visit to a fortune teller left her convinced that she had to perform human sacrifices to keep her son alive as he fought during World War II. She killed three women, dismembered their bodies, and used their remains in teacakes and soap, which she later gifted to her friends. Her sloppy third murder led to her getting caught by the authorities, who would later sentence her to 30 years in a prison and three years in a criminal asylum. She died in the asylum.Wikimedia Commons
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From the 1920s to the 1950s, Nannie Doss, a.k.a. "The Giggling Granny," murdered several of her own family members. She killed four husbands, two children, two sisters, her mother, two grandsons, and a mother-in-law. When she was finally caught, Doss could hardly talk about the murders without cracking a smile and laughing, hence her bone-chilling nickname.Bettmann/Getty Images
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Pedro Rodrigues Filho
By the time he was 18, Pedro Rodrigues Filho had already committed 10 murders in his native Brazil. He was just getting started, though — he would kill at least 71 total before he was arrested in 1973. But Filho lived by a code: He only went after criminals and those who had personally wronged him. That included his own father. When Filho found out his father had killed his mother, he cut out his heart and ate it. Because of this, he's sometimes called the "Brazilian Dexter." After serving 34 years in prison, he was released in 2007 and became something of an anti-crime crusader before being gunned down by an unknown assailant in 2023.YouTube
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Gilles De Rais
French nobleman Gilles de Rais was considered a hero for his service in the military alongside Joan of Arc — until the world found out that he had murdered more than 100 children in the early 1400s. De Rais is believed to have kidnapped, sexually assaulted, and mutilated young peasant boys in his attempt to summon demons. He was hanged for his crimes in 1440.Wikimedia Commons
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Even among serial killers, Richard Chase's story is especially disturbing. Dubbed "The Vampire of Sacramento,"
Chase killed at least six people in California in the 1970s — but he didn't stop there. After they'd died, he defiled their bodies, drank their blood, and ate their internal organs. Ultimately, Chase was caught and sentenced to death by gas chamber, but he ultimately killed himself in prison in 1980.YouTube
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The "Monster of the Andes," Pedro Lopez was convicted of killing 110 girls, but some criminologists believe he may have killed as many as 300. Lopez traveled between Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador throughout the late 1970s and 1980, targeting street children and members of Indigenous tribes and then raping and murdering his victims. But the most disturbing part of this story is the aftermath. Not only was he released early from prison in Ecuador in 1994 for "good behavior," but he was later released from a psychiatric hospital in Colombia in 1998 after being declared sane. Soon after, he mysteriously vanished, and his current whereabouts are still unknown.YouTube
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Former sex worker Aileen Wuornos killed at least seven men in Florida between 1989 and 1990. Sometimes, she tried to claim that every murder was in self-defense after the men tried to rape her. But other times, she said that she was trying to steal all their money. Wuornos was eventually sentenced to death by lethal injection and was executed in 2002.YouTube
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John Wayne Gacy
John Wayne Gacy is known as the "Killer Clown" for his hobbies of painting clowns and performing at birthday parties as Pogo the Clown near his home in a Chicago suburb. Gacy is believed to have murdered at least 33 boys and young men in the 1970s. He buried many of his victims' bodies in the crawl space under his house before he was finally caught and later executed by lethal injection in 1994.Tim Boyle/Getty Images
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Richard Speck left America in terror in 1966 when he murdered eight nursing students in a single night. By that point, Speck already had a lengthy criminal record of robbery, rape, and murder when he broke into the Chicago townhouse where the nursing students were living. He tied up and stabbed or strangled eight of the women before fleeing at dawn. Speck would spend the rest of his life in prison before dying of a heart attack on the eve of his 50th birthday in 1991.Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
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In the remote Alaska wilderness, Robert Hansen kidnapped and murdered at least 17 women in the 1970s and '80s. Inspired by the short story "The Most Dangerous Game," Hansen released his victims into the wilderness and hunted them like animals. Hansen was eventually apprehended in 1983. He spent the rest of his life in an Alaskan prison, where he died in 2014.Wikimedia Commons
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Many people call Luis Garavito "The Beast" — and he truly earned his gruesome nickname. Between 1992 and 1999, Garavito preyed upon street children in his native Colombia, most of them orphans who had lost their parents in the country's civil war. He also targeted victims in other South American countries. Eventually caught in 1999, Garavito was found to have murdered anywhere from 100 to 400 boys. Though he was initially sentenced to 1,853 years in prison, this sentence has been reduced multiple times due to term limits and Garavito's cooperation with the police. Shockingly, he will be up for parole in 2023.Wikimedia Commons
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Known as Russia’s “Red Ripper,” Andrei Chikatilo murdered up to 56 women and children between 1978 and 1990. Often, he would gouge his victims' eyes out, somehow convinced that his image would be left on the eyes of the dead. Ultimately, he was caught and executed in 1994.Georges DeKeerle/Sygma/Getty Images
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One of the most infamous serial killers in history, Ted Bundy has been linked to at least 30 murders and rapes committed across the U.S. in the 1970s. And Bundy didn't stop when his victims were dead — he liked to decapitate them and have sex with their remains. This grisly murderer eluded law enforcement for years, even escaping from custody twice and going on to kill again. But finally, in 1978, a captured Bundy was put behind bars for good. He was later executed by electric chair in 1989.Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images
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"Candy Man" Dean Corll terrorized Houston in the 1970s as he and two teenage accomplices raped and murdered no less than 28 boys and young men. Corll lured these victims into his van with candy, alcohol, and promises of parties, then forced them to write postcards to their families falsely saying they'd ran away — before torturing and killing them. Eventually, the nightmare ended when one of Corll's accomplices, unwilling to kill anymore, stole his gun and shot him in the head in 1973.Wikimedia Commons
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In the early 1900s, Fritz Haarmann, "The Vampire of Hanover," embarked on a series of 27 savage murders in Germany. He cannibalized his victims, who were mostly young boys, by biting into their throats. And if the rumors are to be believed, he may even have sold some of their flesh as "pork" and "beef" to unsuspecting customers. It took until 1924 before Haarmann was finally apprehended. Soon afterward, he was executed by guillotine.Wikimedia Commons
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Myra Hindley, once dubbed the "most evil woman in Britain," helped her lover Ian Brady sexually assault and murder five children in the mid-1960s. In committing the so-called "Moors Murders," the couple lured children into their car under the pretense of offering them a ride home. From there, the couple would brutally murder the children and bury their bodies in the English countryside. The two were caught in 1965 and put in prison, where Hindley died in 2002.Greater Manchester Police via Getty Images
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Jeffrey Dahmer, the "Milwaukee Cannibal," murdered 17 boys and young men between 1978 and 1991, many of whom were gay minorities. He would dismember his victims, eat their flesh, and sexually violate their corpses. In some cases, he would try to "zombify" his victims by drilling holes into their heads and pouring in hydrochloric acid. Even other murderers were disgusted by his crimes. In 1994, Dahmer was murdered in prison by another inmate.Curt Borgwardt/Sygma/Getty Images
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Joseph James DeAngelo
It took over 40 years, but in 2018, the suspected "Golden State Killer" was finally arrested based on DNA evidence. Joseph James DeAngelo is believed to have committed at least 12 murders and more than 50 rapes between 1974 and 1986. DeAngelo, a former police officer and mechanic, pleaded guilty to 26 charges in a rape and murder spree in 2020. He's been serving a life sentence in prison ever since.Sacramento Police Department/Wikimedia Commons
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Dennis Rader taunted the police and the media for years. He sent them letters, calling himself the "BTK Killer," an acronym for his modus operandi: "bind, torture, kill." Using that method, Rader killed 10 people in Kansas between 1974 and 1991, all the while blending into society as a church-going family man, before he was finally caught in 2005. He is currently serving life without parole.El Dorado Correctional Facility/Wikimedia Commons
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Like many serial killers, Arthur Shawcross had a troubled childhood. He struggled with below-average intelligence and depraved sexual tendencies, including bestiality. Those dark urges turned into a killing spree in 1972, when he raped and murdered his first victim. It wasn't until 1990 that police in New York State would stop this 300-pound killer. By that point, he'd already killed at least 14 people, most of whom were women. He ultimately died in prison in 2008.Getty Images
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"The Green River Killer," Gary Ridgway, committed up to 71 murders in and around Washington State in the 1980s and 1990s. Like many serial killers, Ridgway targeted sex workers, hitchhikers, and runaways, many of whom he would strangle and then dump near the Green River. Police finally caught Ridgway in 2001 (years after Ted Bundy had helped authorities profile the suspect), at which point he was sentenced to life in prison.Wikimedia Commons
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Alexander Pichushkin was dubbed "The Chessboard Killer" for his love of the game, but his real hobby was something far more sinister: murdering people. By the time he was caught in 2006, Pichushkin had already killed at least 48 people in his native Russia, but he'd planned on killing more. His goal, he confessed, was to get 64 kills: one for each square on a chessboard. He was eventually sentenced to life in prison.Sergey Shakhidzanyan/Laski Diffusion/Getty Images
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Macedonian serial killer Vlado Taneski evaded police for years by using his day job as a journalist to stay in the loop on homicide investigations. Neither his coworkers nor his wife of 31 years ever could have imagined that he was living a double life, torturing and murdering at least three women who worked as house cleaners between 2005 and 2008. His secret life was revealed when police connected his DNA to semen at the scene of one of his crimes. With everything lost, Taneski killed himself in his prison cell.YouTube
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The "Beast of Ukraine," Anatoly Onoprienko confessed to killing 52 people between just 1989 and 1996. And unlike most serial killers, Onoprienko didn't wait until his victims were alone. On multiple occasions, he executed entire families at once. But Onoprienko was finally stopped by police in 1996. He later died in prison of heart failure in 2013.YouTube
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British doctor Harold Shipman was only officially convicted of killing 15 of his patients, but some estimates put the number of victims he murdered at more than 250. "Dr. Death" worked as a general physician in England from 1975 to 1998, during which time he would often falsify his victims' medical records to show them to be in poor health, then administer lethal doses of diamorphine. Shortly after his conviction and sentencing to life imprisonment in 2000, Shipman hanged himself in his prison cell.Wakefield Prison/Wikimedia Commons
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Over a span of more than 20 years starting in 1955, German serial killer Joachim Kroll committed at least 14 murders, going after victims as young as four and as old as 61. The brutal Kroll preferred to strangle his victims before having intercourse with their corpses. He also confessed to police that he would slice off parts of the victims' flesh to eat. He was arrested in 1976 after police learned that the guts from one of his victims had clogged the plumbing in his apartment. Kroll was later sentenced to life in prison, where he eventually died of a heart attack at age 58. YouTube
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Russian serial killer Sergey Golovkin raped and murdered 11 young boys between 1986 and 1992. Golovkin would kidnap his victims at knifepoint and drag them into remote areas near Moscow before unleashing his brutality. Mere murder, though, became dull for him. Golovkin, wanting to prolong his victims' suffering, turned his basement workshop into a dungeon. There, he could torture his victims for as long as he wanted before killing them. Finally, in 1996, after his capture, he became the last person in Russia to be executed before capital punishment was abolished.YouTube
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Tiago Henrique Gomes Da Rocha
Tiago Henrique Gomes da Rocha carried out an estimated 39 murders in his native Brazil between 2011 and 2014. He would ride up to one of his victims on a motorbike, shoot them, and speed off. They were like gangland killings, except that his targets were people he'd never met. In the end, he was convicted of 11 of his alleged 39 murders, and was only given a 25-year sentence for his crimes.YouTube
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The most prolific serial killer in modern Chinese history, Yang Xinhai was found guilty of 67 murders carried out between 1999 and 2003. Authorities believe that Xinhai would enter the homes of his victims at night and use tools like axes and shovels to bludgeon them to death, sometimes raping them in the process. He was eventually arrested and then executed by firing squad in 2004.YouTube
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Tommy Lynn Sells
Tommy Lynn Sells was only convicted of one murder, but authorities believe that he's responsible for over 20 additional murders. The perpetually homeless Sells hitchhiked back and forth across the United States throughout the 1980s and 1990s, killing those who were unfortunate enough to cross his path. He was apprehended when one of his victims managed to escape and describe him to police. He was executed by lethal injection at Texas State Penitentiary in 2014.Texas Department of Corrections/Wikimedia Commons
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Over the course of just one year between 1984 and 1985, Richard Ramirez had the cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles in a near constant state of fear. Ramirez, dubbed the "Night Stalker", was a Satanist who burglarized homes at random and killed 13 victims. He used a variety of weapons to carry out his twisted crimes. It wasn't until he fled a convenience store in Los Angeles after seeing his face on a newspaper that he was eventually captured in 1985. He died of complications from B-cell lymphoma while still on death row in 2013.San Quentin State Prison/Wikimedia Commons
The Macabre True Stories Behind 33 Of The Worst Serial Killers Of All Time
Luis Garavito: "The Beast" Of Colombia
In 1997, a mass grave was discovered in Pereira, Colombia, with 25 bodies in such a brutal state that police initially suspected a Satanic cult was behind it. But it was the work of a single man: Luis Garavito. And the corpses in that grave made up just a small portion of his hundreds of alleged victims.
Born in 1957, Garavito and his brothers were allegedly abused by their father. And as an adult, Garavito started abusing young boys himself. He targeted homeless and orphaned young boys, many of whom had ended up on the streets because of a decades-long civil war that tore through Colombia.
Garavito preyed on hundreds of boys across dozens of Colombian towns, though he focused largely on Pereira. There, he often disguised himself as a priest, farmer, elderly man, or street vendor, and lured in his unsuspecting victims with promises of money, candy, or employment.
Public DomainLuis Garavito, who may have killed as many as 400 children, is widely considered one of the worst serial killers in history.
Once he got them away from the crowds, Garavito earned their trust by asking them questions about their lives. Then, he attacked.
As Colombian police would eventually discover, Garavito often subjected his victims to horrifying torture before murdering them. He'd tie them up, rape them, bite them, and sometimes cut off their genitals.
By the time he was arrested in 1999, Luis Garavito had brutalized hundreds of victims. He confessed to killing 147 boys, and drew maps to lead police officers to their bodies, but Colombian authorities suspect that Garavito's victim count is much higher. In fact, he may have killed as many as 400.
That makes Luis Garavito one of the world's worst serial killers, judging by the jaw-dropping number of his victims. But in the United States specifically, that title belongs to another murderous monster.
The Horrifying Crimes Of The "Green River Killer"
In the United States, the worst serial killer may be Gary Ridgway, who is commonly known as the "Green River Killer." Between 1982 and 1998, he murdered at least 49 women and girls in and around Washington State — but may have actually killed more than 90 victims total.
Born in 1949, Ridgway had a seemingly normal childhood marred by his chronic bed-wetting. His mother reportedly washed his genitals after these incidents, which is why some psychologists believe Ridgway developed a deep hatred of his mother (who escaped his killing spree) and other women.
After stabbing a boy at the age of 15 just to see how stabbing "worked," Ridgway became a murderous adult who targeted vulnerable women and girls. He started killing in 1982 by murdering 16-year-old Wendy Lee Coffield, a foster home runaway, and his crimes rapidly escalated from there.
Getty ImagesGary Ridgway was sentenced to life in prison in 2003, after narrowly avoiding the death penalty.
Ridgway often targeted runaways and sex workers, who he usually picked up at bars or truck stops along Highway 99 outside of Seattle. He would try to earn his victims' trust by talking about his son. Then, Ridgway would have seemingly normal sex with them before strangling them to death and then dumping their bodies, typically near the Green River.
By the time he was finally arrested in 2001, Ridgway had reportedly lost count of his victims. He was eventually convicted of 49 murders, but he confessed to 71, and he may have killed even more people. "I killed so many women, I have a hard time keeping them straight," Ridgway admitted.
Gary Ridgway is certainly one of America's worst serial killers and has long been considered the most prolific murderer in the country. But there's another killer who might have gruesomely outdone him: Samuel Little.
Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times via Getty ImagesSamuel Little being convicted of murder on September 2, 2014, in Los Angeles Superior Court.
Little confessed to killing 93 women between 1970 and 2005 across multiple states, and the FBI was able to verify that he'd been involved in the deaths of at least 60 of his alleged victims. Eerily, the authorities were able to confirm many of Little's kills thanks to drawings he'd made of his victims.
When it comes to the worst serial killer in the United States, then, both Gary Ridgway and Samuel Little are potential candidates given their large (and somewhat vague) number of victims. But based on notoriety alone, the worst killer in the United States might be Ted Bundy.
Ted Bundy: One Of America's Worst Serial Killers
All of the killers in the gallery above murdered people in horrible, gruesome ways. But Ted Bundy stands apart for the depraved ways he slaughtered his victims. In just four years between 1974 and 1978, Bundy raped and murdered dozens of women across multiple states. He confessed to killing 30 young women and girls, but his true victim count could be much higher.
Bundy, who was born in 1946 and had a turbulent childhood, attacked his first known victim in 1974. Then, he broke into the apartment of 18-year-old Karen Sparks in Washington State and bludgeoned and sexually assaulted her with a metal rod from her bed frame. Sparks survived the brutal attack — just barely — but Bundy's future victims would not be so lucky.
Bettmann/Contributor/Getty ImagesTed Bundy waves to television cameras during his trial for the assault and murder of several women in Florida in 1978.
He continued attacking young women in Washington and Oregon, often luring them in by pretending to struggle with crutches or a stack of books near his infamous Volkswagen Beetle, before he left to study at the University of Utah. There, Bundy continued to kill, often targeting teen girls.
While traveling to other states like Idaho and Colorado, Ted Bundy continued his spree. Arrested in 1975, he was able to escape from prison twice — murdering more victims while on the run — before his final arrest in 1978 ensured that he'd never walk free again. One investigator noted: "I would describe him being as close to being like the devil as anyone I ever met."
But Ted Bundy, Gary Ridgway, and Luis Garavito are just a few of the world's worst serial killers. Look through the gallery above to learn about more real-life monsters who once stalked the dark streets in the night.
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.