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15 of the Most Famous Psychopaths in History

These killers performed murders you'd think could only happen in horror movies.

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Harold Olmos/AP/Shutterstock

Ed Gein

Norman Bates (from Psycho), Leatherface, (from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), and Buffalo Bill (from Silence of the Lambs) are three of the most iconic fictional horror characters of all time—and they’re all loosely based on one man: Ed Gein. Also known as the Butcher of Plainfield, Gein collected women’s bodies through grave-robbing and murder from around 1945 to 1957, when he was finally caught. He used the women’s remains to decorate his isolated Wisconsin farm and to make various items of clothing. Gein passed away in 1984 in a mental institution.

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Little Billy's Letters, USA

Charles Manson

One of the most infamous ringleaders in history, Charles Manson used psychopathic manipulation to gain his cult followers in the 1960s. Not only did he murder people on his own, but he convinced his deepest admirers to commit the same brutal acts he did, resulting in some of the most notorious murders of celebrities and entertainment industry heads, including director Roman Polanski’s wife, Sharon Tate, as well as coffee heiress Abigail Folger. Manson and his cronies were sentenced to death, but California abolished the death penalty afterward; they’ve spent their lives in prison instead. Use this test to figure out if someone is a psychopath.

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Ted Bundy 1977, Aspen, USA

Ted Bundy

Ted Bundy is one of those names that is practically synonymous with “serial killer” and “psychopath.” He was known to be very sly and charming, which was the shiny veneer he used to lure his many victims. He killed at least 30 people across the United States, but it took years for the authorities to catch him, because no one was able to believe such an “upstanding” young man could do such horrible things. He is most famous for his necrophiliac tendencies, and his own lawyer described him as a “heartless evil.” Here are a few weird things that psychopaths do.

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Night Stalker Dies, Los Angeles, USA

Richard Ramirez, aka”The Night Stalker”

According to thoughtcatalog.com, Ramirez’s victims ranged in age from nine to eighty-three, and he did not have a particular preference for gender. He ravaged Los Angeles in the ’80s with his brutal, Satanic killings, simply because he was fascinated by it. That’s not to say it had nothing to do with his upbringing, however. When he was just 11-years-old, he witnessed his cousin murder his wife—and was asked to participate in the clean-up afterward. Find out how a detective caught a high school stalker.

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Man walking in a old mystic dark alley

Jack the Ripper

London’s Jack the Ripper was never properly identified, but he is world famous. Not only did he kill prostitutes in the late 1800s, but he removed their sex organs as well. Not much is known about him, but it is clear that he had a severe hatred of women, particularly prostitutes, which has led some people to theorize that his mother might have been one as well. He left his victims on full display on the street for police and citizens to discover. Read about 15 other crimes that will never be solved.

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Frank C Curtin/AP/Shutterstock

Albert DeSalvo, aka “The Boston Strangler”

Albert DeSalvo was a serial murderer who killed women by strangulation, many times using a simple ruse to get through their front doors, according to the Boston Globe. At an early age, he would torture animals—one of the classic warning signs of a psychopath. His extreme misogyny increased as he got older and had difficult relationships with the female figures in his life. DeSalvo ended up being stabbed to death in prison in 1973.

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Police mugshots

Jeffrey Dahmer

Part of the reason psychopath and serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer captivated the world was because he appeared very polite and unassuming. According to the New York Times, he evaded police detection simply because they believed whatever excuse he fed them. Dahmer is most famous for being not just a killer, but a cannibal. When the authorities finally raided his home, they found human heads in the refrigerator. Dahmer was murdered in prison in 1994. Learn why psychopaths are more likely to take their coffee black.

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Zodiac Killer DNA, San Francisco, USA - 03 May 2018
Eric Risberg/AP/Shutterstock

The Zodiac Killer

Like Jack the Ripper, no one knows who The Zodiac Killer really is. Unlike Jack, the Zodiac did not seclude himself to the shadows, however. One reason that his murders were so sensational was that he would frequently reach out to various media outlets, teasing them with codes and riddles. The killer was active in the ’60s and ’70s, but there has been no trace of him since his final letter to the press in 1974. Even though psychologists never had the chance to examine him, his crimes showed the lack of empathy of a psychopath.

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Universal History Archive/Shutterstock

Vlad the Impaler

This 15th-century Transylvanian ruler is the basis for the Dracula myth. He didn’t have the bat wings, but he was extremely brutal and bloodthirsty. As his name suggests, he would often leave people impaled and put on display outside his castle as they suffered a slow, painful death. It is estimated that he impaled roughly 20,000 people and killed a total of 80,000.

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Usa Btk Murders - Feb 2005
Larry W. Smith/EPA/Shutterstock

Dennis Rader, aka “The BTK Killer”

Bind, torture, kill—that’s what Dennis Rader was known for. Like The Zodiac Killer, he played games with the press. Where the two differ is that Rader got caught while he trying to be clever. The police were able to trace a disk he had sent to the media back to his church in 2005. His killings were centered around the sexual thrill and fantasy of bondage scenarios. Read about how his daughter came to terms with being the child of BTK.

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Historical Collection 6

Elizabeth Báthory

Her name isn’t up in lights like Bundy’s or Dahmer’s, but Elizabeth Báthory is history’s most prolific female serial killer. She murdered at least 600 young girls in an effort to retain their youth (after submitting them to torture, she would drink and bathe in the blood of her victims). Báthory was a Hungarian countess, though, and because of her social standing, she was never officially put on trial. Instead, she was under house arrest until her death in 1614. Learn about the most notorious killers in each of the 50 states.

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David Berkowitz, aka “Son of Sam”

In the mid-1970s, New York City-based serial killer David Berkowitz sent the entire city into a panic when he began randomly shooting people—mostly young women with long brunette hair—with a .44-caliber revolver. No one knew when or where the “Son of Sam” would strike next, which is what made him so terrifying. He actually started off as a serial arsonist but was not caught until he went on his killing spree. Berkowitz might have displayed signs of psychosis rather than psychopathy—he has since become a born-again Christian in prison and started acting as a peer mentor for fellow inmates.

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Albert Fish

Albert Fish was a ferocious serial killer in the early 1900s. Like Dahmer would do many years later, Fish cannibalized his victims. What made him especially horrifying and depraved was the fact that he would send letters to his victims’ families, describing in extreme detail the terrible things he did to their loved one. Self-regard can be a trait of a psychopath: Find out the 12 best ways to spot a narcissist.

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Portrait of man in shadow. Black and white silhouette
Art of Life/Shutterstock

H.H. Holmes

In the late 1800s, America’s first serial killer appeared. He called himself H.H. Holmes, and he was a doctor, as well as the architect of a huge Chicago hotel that would later become known as the “Murder Castle.” He built the hotel for the very purpose of murdering and concealing his victims, constructing labyrinthine passageways and trap doors only he knew about. He’s not just fascinating because he was the first known serial killer in America, but because he was such a methodical, efficient psychopath.

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Aileen Wuornos - The Selling Of A Serial Killer - 1993

Aileen Wuornos

Several documentaries have been made about Aileen Wuornos, otherwise known as one of America’s most famous female murderers. What made her such an intriguing figure was her eccentric, outgoing personality and the way she would sometimes admit her guilt, and at other times completely deny it. One moment she would seem friendly, the next, vengeful. She was put to death in 2002 after murdering men she found on the highways while working as a prostitute. Make sure you know how to spot 13 signs you’re dealing with a psychopath.

Taylor Markarian
Taylor Markarian is a regular contributor to RD.com covering culture, advice, travel, pets and all things weird and haunted. She is the author of "From the Basement: A History of Emo Music and How It Changed Society," which analyzes the evolution of punk and mental health. She holds a B.A. in Writing, Literature and Publishing from Emerson College.