In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Serial Murder

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Defining Serial Murder
  • Case Studies
  • Characteristics of Perpetrators of Serial Murder
  • Serial Murder Typologies
  • Theoretical Explanations of Serial Murder
  • Healthcare Serial Murder
  • Serial Murder, Popular Culture, and the Media
  • Serial Murder Internationally
  • Investigating Serial Murder

Criminology Serial Murder
Corey Call
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0315


Serial murder is one form of multiple murder. The term “serial murder” has only been part of the vernacular since the 1980s, when the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) began to differentiate between various forms of multiple murder. Serial murder involves the killing of multiple victims in separate events over a period of time. That period of time between murders can be characterized as a “cooling-off” period where the offender returns to a normal, generally law-abiding, routine before committing their next murder. As a form of multiple murder, serial murder can be contrasted with mass murder, which involves the killing of multiple victims in one event, and with spree murder, which involves the killing of multiple victims in separate events without the cooling-off period. This definition of serial murder is still somewhat vague, because there is no standard definition of serial murder. For instance, there is debate about how many victims are necessary before the label of “serial murder” should be applied. Statistically, serial murder is a rare occurrence. It occurs less frequently than other types of violent crime and only makes up a small percentage of murders. The nature of the offenses and the impact on victims and communities, however, results in serial murder receiving substantial attention in the media. The attention is not just from the news media. Despite the heinous nature of the offenses, serial murder is a prevalent subject in entertainment media, and some serial killers have achieved a celebrity status in popular culture. Serial murder has also received significant attention from academics, with many attempts made to better understand the characteristics, backgrounds, and motivations of serial killers.

General Overviews

Several quality books have been written that provide overviews of serial murder and touch on a variety of issues related to this phenomenon. In one of the pioneering works on the subject, Ressler, et al. 1988 uses interviews with thirty-six incarcerated offenders to discuss multiple aspects of serial sexual murder. Fox, et al. 2019, focusing on both serial murder and mass murder, contains a section that compares and contrasts the two types of multiple murder before devoting separate sections to each form of multiple murder. The edited volume Holmes and Holmes 1998 offers chapters from several notable scholars on topics such as subpopulations of serial killers, the minds of serial killers, and serial murder investigations. Holmes and Holmes 2010 is most notable for its chapters devoted to categories of serial killers (see Serial Murder Typologies), but also features chapters focused on female serial killers, healthcare serial killers, victim’s issues, and serial murder investigations. Schechter 2003 provides a thoroughly researched overview of serial murder, with multiple case studies of specific serial killers and chapters dedicated to theories of serial murder, characteristics of serial killers, serial murder investigation, and serial murder’s place in popular culture. Hickey 2016, using the author’s own data set of approximately seven hundred serial killers, also offers a first-rate overview of serial murder, with chapters devoted to theoretical explanations of serial murder, serial murder and sex offending, subpopulations of serial killers, serial murder victims, and serial murder internationally. Newton 2006 is an encyclopedic reference work with entries devoted to specific serial killers and subjects related to serial murder. Those interested in the history of serial murder will find Vronsky 2021 beneficial, as it is divided into chapters covering serial murder during specific time periods in US history. For those looking for a more concise, but still comprehensive, overview of serial murder, Miller 2014a and Miller 2014b are two articles in a series that covers multiple aspects of serial murder, including offender characteristics, typologies, theories, and investigation.

  • Fox, James Alan, Jack Levin, and Emma E. Fridel. 2019. Extreme killing: Understanding serial and mass murder. 4th ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    This book is an overview of both mass and serial murder. The first three chapters differentiate between the two types of multiple murder and discuss the public’s fascination with multiple murder. The section of the book specifically about serial murder contains nine chapters that focus on characteristics of serial killers, types of serial killers, theories about serial murder, cults, and apprehending serial killers.

  • Hickey, Eric W. 2016. Serial murderers and their victims. 7th ed. Boston: Cengage Learning.

    Hickey utilizes a data set of nearly seven hundred serial killers operating between 1800 and 2014 to provide a comprehensive overview of serial murder. Following an introductory chapter on the phenomenon of serial murder, the chapters in this book cover theoretical explanations of serial murder, the relationship between serial murder and sex offending, characteristics of serial killer subpopulations (healthcare killers, team serial killers, etc.), victimization, and serial murder investigation.

  • Holmes, Ronald M., and Stephen T. Holmes. 1998. Contemporary perspectives on serial murder. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    Edited volume organized into four sections. The first section contains chapters profiling serial killers in general, African American serial killers, and female serial killers. The second section contains chapters examining the thought processes of serial killers. The chapters in section three focus on serial murder investigation. The final chapters, in section four, look at future trends in serial murder investigation.

  • Holmes, Ronald M., and Stephen T. Holmes. 2010. Serial murder. 3d ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    The initial chapters of this book define serial murder while differentiating it from mass murder and spree murder before giving general characteristics of serial murder and offering various theories related to serial murder. The book dedicates several chapters to different categories of serial killers (visionary, power/control, etc.) as well as female serial killers, international serial murder, serial murder by healthcare professionals, serial murder victims, and serial murder investigations.

  • Miller, Laurence. 2014a. Serial killers: I. Subtypes, patterns, and motives. Aggression and Violent Behavior 19.1: 1–11.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.avb.2013.11.002

    First part of a two-part article on various issues related to serial murder. This part defines serial murder and provides a brief history of the phenomenon. The article then describes various characteristics and typologies of serial killers before ending with a discussion of some specific subpopulations of serial killers (such as female serial killers and homosexual serial killers).

  • Miller, Laurence. 2014b. Serial killers: II. Development, dynamics, and forensics. Aggression and Violent Behavior 19.1: 12–22.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.avb.2013.11.003

    Second part of a two-part article on various issues related to serial murder. This part begins by examining the developmental histories of serial killers. The article then covers different theoretical explanations of serial killer behavior, including explanations related to neuropsychology, psychology, and sociology. The article concludes with an examination of the merits of behavioral profiling in serial murder cases and the use of the insanity defense among serial killers.

  • Newton, Michael. 2006. The encyclopedia of serial killers. 2d ed. New York: Facts on File.

    Encyclopedia with over 250 entries on case histories of specific serial killers as well as subjects related to serial murder (cannibalism, history of serial murder, etc.). Includes appendices listing over two thousand serial killers with brief characteristics organized by solo serial killers, team serial killers, and unsolved serial murder cases.

  • Ressler, Robert K., Ann W. Burgess, and John E. Douglas. 1988. Sexual homicide: Patterns and motives. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

    Utilizing FBI interviews with thirty-six incarcerated offenders, this book provides an overview of serial sexual murderer. The book begins with several chapters reviewing the literature on the subject (offender backgrounds, offender behavior, offender motivation, etc.) followed by chapters on the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, the FBI’s serial murderer typology, criminal profiling, interviews with the offenders, and victim’s issues.

  • Schechter, Harold. 2003. The serial killer files: The who, what, where, how, and why of the world’s most terrifying murderers. New York: Ballantine Books.

    This book provides an overview of serial murder, with chapters focused on defining serial murder, characteristics of serial killers and serial murder, the history of serial murder, case studies of serial killers, theories of serial murder, serial murder investigation, and serial murder in popular culture.

  • Vronsky, Peter. 2021. American serial killers: The epidemic years 1950–2000. New York: Berkley.

    Vronsky provides a history of serial murder in the United States, with chapters devoted to specific time periods. These chapters provide case studies of serial killers operating during these time periods as well as significant social and cultural events that may have shaped those killers. The greatest attention is given to the years between 1950 and 2000, which Vronsky argues was the peak or “golden era” of serial murder.

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