There's a darkness that lives deep within all of our psyches, and that darkness often manifests as a certain kind of morbid curiosity that spurs us to binge watch every single true crime documentary on Netflix. It’s the thing that makes us slow down at a nasty car accident, the voice in our head that insists that we ask for the gory details of an untimely death. It’s not the best part of us, not by a long shot, but it’s definitely there. Probably one of the safest ways we can scratch that nasty itch that lives in the back of our minds is by reading about serial killers. A serial killer, by traditional definition, is a person who has murdered three or more people, but they have to have a resting period in between kills, or else they’re just spree killers. If the awesome TV show Criminal Minds has taught me anything, it's that serial killers are terrifying — no matter why they kill.
I’ve compiled a list of 12 nonfiction books that center on serial killers. These books are guaranteed to satisfy that terrible part of your mind that craves knowledge about the sociopaths and psychopaths among us:
1. The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule
Ann Rule has written about a million true crime stories, but none so insane as The Stranger Beside Me. The nonfiction account centers on Rule as she reports a story on a terrifying mass murderer — all without knowing that one of her close friends, Ted Bundy, was actually the person she was hunting. Ted Bundy murdered at least 30 women between 1974 and 1978, and had actually met Rule at a Seattle suicide hotline. This is one of the most definitive biographies of Bundy of all time, and it's made all the more chilling by the fact that she knew him so personally.
2. The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
H.H. Holmes was considered the first serial killer in the United States, and boy did he set the bar pretty high. Operating between 1888 to 1894, he was the most active during the World's Fair in Chicago, often preying on young women who came to the city for new opportunities. Utilizing the methods of only the most dastardly Batman villains, Holmes constructed a giant "Murder Castle" and often killed employees, lovers, and guests of the hotel in horrifyingly gruesome ways. The Devil in the White City alternates between tales of the fair's construction and Holmes' horrible crimes.
3. The Night Stalker by Philip Carlo
Known as "The Night Stalker," Richard Ramirez murdered at least 13 women between 1984 and 1985. When Ramirez was caught, his trial was probably one of the most sensational trials in history (which is saying something, given how people were such fans of Ted Bundy). In The Night Stalker , author Philip Carlo painstakingly details the crimes of this vicious serial killer over the course of three years and utilizes hundreds of hours of exclusive interview material with Ramirez conducted while he was on Death Row.
4. Killer Clown by Terry Sullivan with Peter T. Maiken
John Wayne Gacy was the kind of guy who used to dress up as a clown for charity events, parades, and parties in order to entertain the children. He was also the kind of guy who would viciously rape and murder 33 boys and young men, burying 26 of them underneath the crawl space of his home. John Wayne Gacy is truly the stuff of nightmares and is probably the reason why everyone is currently afraid of clowns. Killer Clown is also the type of book that creeps out even the most obsessive true crime novel readers, so you have been warned.
5. Deviant by Harold Schechter
Ed Gein may not have the same body count as most of the serial killers on this list, but he makes up for that by being the creepiest kind of person you can imagine. The inspiration for Norman Bates from Psycho, as well as Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Gein showed a fascination with dead bodies that would eventually lead to murder. When he was caught, his house had been turned into such a museum of horrors that not even Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs would have been able to stand it, mostly thanks to his love of robbing graves. Deviant tells the story of this terrifying murderer.
6. The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi
The aptly named "Monster of Florence" terrorized Florence, Italy, and murdered 16 people, all couples, between 1968 and 1985. In the year 2000, author Douglas Preston moved to Italy, only to discover that the olive grove on their property was the site for these infamous murders. He teamed up with an Italian investigative journalist named Mario Spezi, and set out to discover the identity of this vicious murderer. He didn't anticipate becoming the target of the investigation, though...
7. The Real Bluebeard by Jean Benedetti
In the 15th century, Gilles de Rais was a captain in the French army, companion to Joan of Arc, and a self-confessed serial murderer of children. While most details of his killing spree that led to the deaths of 140 children were erased from the history books, it's largely thought that de Rais was the inspiration for the fairytale "Bluebeard" by Charles Perrault. If you like your serial killers to be historical deep cuts, you'll love this book.
8. Jack the Ripper and Black Magic by Spiro Dimolianis
We all know Jack the Ripper at this point; he's basically one of the most famous (and terrifying) serial killers in the world. This mysterious man dispatched five prostitutes in Whitechapel, London during the tail end of the Victorian Era, and although he has never been caught, there are more theories about the identity of this murderer than there are stars in the the sky. But Jack the Ripper and Black Magic is different, because it dares to wonder if old Jack The Ripper was magical. Not even joking — this book is deadly serious. This is definitely the book you should read if there's even a tiny part of you that believes in the paranormal.
9. The St. Albans Poisoner by Anthony Holden
Graham Young was an English serial killer who preferred to use poison to dispatch his victims. He poisoned his family and up to 70 others, several of whom died. Obsessed with becoming the most famous poisoner in the world, Young actually kept a diary of observations on the reactions of his victims. He eventually became the youngest inmate at the infamous British asylum of Broadmoor. The St. Albans Poisoner tells the true story behind this enigmatic figure, showing a chilling portrait of a sociopath.
10. The Thames Torso Murders of Victorian London by R. Michael Gordon
What is it about Victorian London that really makes murderers spooky? Also, is there any name for a series of murders more terrifying than "Torso Murders"? Between the years 1887 to 1889 and a few times in 1902, a mysterious murderer left his victims as a pile of dismembered body parts. The Torso Murders were often overshadowed by those of Jack the Ripper, but this book posits that perhaps Jack and this murderer were one and the same. Although that's not canonical, it's still a pretty fascinating idea.
11. From Cradle to Grave by Joyce Egginton
With a few exceptions, female serial killers are often pretty different from their male counterparts, but the story of how Marybeth Tinning murdered all nine of her children in infancy is chilling all the same. Tinning drove a school bus and also worked as a nurses' aide in a hospital ward, which made the revelation of her murders all the more shocking.
12. Zodiac by Robert Graysmith
During the 1960s and 1970s, a murderer called the Zodiac Killer claimed the lives of 37 people in California and possibly Nevada. When the Zodiac Killer began sending letters to three different newspapers, he became even more unsettling. This serial killer has never been caught (although some people are convinced he's running for president), but there are many theories about him. Zodiac is one of the first complete accounts of the killer's reign of terror.
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