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"Saw it in a movie once. There was this serial killer running around, and the police detective, he puts this big map on the wall and puts pushpins in each of the murders and reckons the killer's writing out a sign of the zodiac. Capricorn or Cancer or sumthin'. Once he figures that out, he's able to track down the killer and stop him from killing the next victim, who just happens to be the cop's girlfriend. Cop shoots the killer just in time, but 'course he ain't dead the first time. He gets up when nobody's looking, even though he's got six bullets in him, and the girlfriend ends up having to shoot him a coupl'a more times."
—Gil's All Fright Diner by A. Lee Martinez
There's a Serial Killer on the loose! He may or may not be the poetic kind, but there is one thing we know about him: he picks his locations very carefully. So carefully, in fact, that it's almost inevitable that each death connects with each other death to make the shape of... something. Maybe it's a inverted pentagram or just a big arrow.
Alternatively, there's no killer, just a lot of weird stuff happening. To find the Weirdness Magnet, you have to map out where all the weird stuff is and find the exact center.
- Detective Conan has a variation with criminal fires to write the kanji for well... "fire".
- Also in the movie "The Raven Chaser" has connected murder cases with Mahjong tiles placed near the victims. It's later found out the crime scenes mapped out a star constellation.
- Dramatically done in the Fullmetal Alchemist manga- it turns out all of the conflicts that had excessive bloodshed involving the government in the history of Amestris could be connected to form a giant human transmutation circle that spans the whole country.
- In Count Cain, the evil organisation Delilah were buying up properties which, when plotted on a map, formed a pentagram in order to use the entire city of London in a resurrection spell.
- In the second episode of Re Cutey Honey, one of the villains goes on a rampage in the city, trashing buildings in a pattern which forms a kanji message insulting the heroine when viewed from above.
- One theory, which is also presented in the Alan Moore graphic novel From Hell, is that Jack the Ripper's murders were to draw a pentagram on the London map.
- Another theory is that he actually did draw a cross, and was attempting to draw one of those Jesus Fish, as well, in some sort of Satanic Take That against Christianity. This theory hasn't exactly caught on in most academic circles. To put it mildly.
- Also used in the Indigo Prime story "Killing Time", although with added killer rabbits, multidimensional trains and death-by-harp.
- A Justice Society of America arc had the Rival (an evil speedster and arch-enemy of Jay Garrick) run through the United States, killing people in a certain pattern. It spelled out "Edward Clariss," the Rival's real name...and Jay immediately figured out that the last target was Keystone City, and his wife.
- One of the best (though it's not on a map) is in Grant Morrison's Marvel Boy, in which the title character — the hero, mind you — rampages through NYC to spell out a message to humanity. The message? "FUCK YOU."
- Not quite the same, but in Return of the Joker, the Joker marks on a map possible targets for his Kill Sat, and totally NOT coincidentally they form a smiley face.
- Silence of the Lambs has a variant — the pattern is random, but "desperately random," as Lecter put it ? both the killer and his first victim were from the same area; later victims were abducted from random locations in an attempt to hide that fact.
- Film, and thus, Real Life subversion: In Zodiac, despite the best attempts of Paul Avery, David Toschi, Robert Graysmith and pretty much everyone else involved, there is never a real perceivable pattern in the Zodiac Killer's killing, and thus, the real killer is never found.
- In Night Watch (the film, not the book) mapping the vampire attack incidents gives a pentagram.
- In Split Second, the monster kills its victims in specific places in order to draw a dot-to-dot version of an astrological symbol on the city map.
- In January Man, the killer is murdering one woman per month starting in January: when seen on a map, the sites of the eleven murders form the constellation Virgo, and when photographs of the buildings are lined up, the floors on which the murders were committed are the notes on the scale that form the song "Calendar Girl". Yes, really.
- Arachnophobia uses this when Dr. Jennings is figuring out where the spiders' nest is. Naturally, given his crippling fear of spiders, it's his own house.
- Happens in the 2009 Sherlock Holmes movie, due to the villain trying to make it look like he is an Evil Sorcerer and therefore marking out a pentagram with the murders.
- The above quote comes from one of the Genre Savvy characters in A. Lee Martinez's Gil's All Fright Diner. He does exactly that and finds that the diner itself is the Weirdness Magnet.
- Agatha Christie liked to play with this trope. Often, the murderer is following a pattern to conceal his/her real target.
- The ABC Murders: A serial killer is murdering victims in alphabetical order.
- A Pocket Full of Rye: The killer is following the nursery rhyme.
- Three Act Tragedy
- Judge Dee is unsurprised to discover that two or more of his murder cases are actually linked to the same criminal plot — even when the victims involved seem to have no connection at all.
- In the second Mercedes Thompson book the Big Bad is demon-possessed and causes violence by just being nearby. The good guys try to locate him by tracking the outbreaks of violence but no pattern is visible at first. The pattern shows up when they look at day-time incidents only — being a vampire, the villain can't move around to cover his tracks in daylight.
- The organizing principle of Reginald Hill's Dialogues of the Dead. There's just one problem: while Dalziel and Pascoe figure out the connections, they never realize that they've mistaken the killer's identity.
- Jorge Luis Borges's short story Death and the Compass is an early subversion. The Amateur Sleuth carefully deduces that a series of three murders (that seem kabbalistically-related) committed at regular intervals in the North, East and West areas of the city, imply that a fourth murder will take place in the South, completing a perfect rhombus that symbolizes the four-letter name of God. He goes to the expected place at the expected time hoping to prevent the murder, only to find out that it was all a Xanatos Gambit by a personal enemy of him to lure him to this deserted spot, and kill him.
- Which ironically winds up playing this straight anyway: the pattern itself holds up and ironically even for the exact same reasons as the Amateur Sleuth thinks they do; it's just that the pattern is not the main motivation for the killer.
- In The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray, the location of a series of murders forms the shape of the Chackh'morg—basically an Eldritch Abomination.'
- Averted in Ellery Queen's Cat of Many Tails; while the deaths are plotted on the map, the pattern is irrelevant.
- In Terrier, Beka Cooper maps out the Shadow Snake kidnappings, since she knew her lord did something similar with his big cases, looking for patterns.
- Michael Slade's Ripper, serial killings in Vancouver are arranged to trace a pattern of triangles derived from a Tarot card.
- The "weirdness magnet" version shows up in Good Omens, where Anathema Device is charting ley lines, and discovers said lines are forming a spiral converging on the town of Lower Tadfield.
- Done in the Angel episode "Apocalypse, Nowish" using a map of recent mystical disturbances to find out where the Beast was heading.
- Practically every episode of Numb3rs
- In one of the early episodes, the main character develops an algorithm which, based on the inherent human inability to produce random numbers/circumstances, uses a map with pushpins to find where the next murder will/would have occurred.
- In a double episode of Diagnosis Murder, serial bomber wrote the name of her dead father on the city map. The absurdity of this is Lampshaded by Detective Steve Sloan, who draws a pig in the same pattern, though of course Dr. Sloan is right.
- One Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode had a killer lining up the arms on his victims to resemble a line of paper dolls when the crime scene photos were placed side by side.
- Law & Order: Criminal Intent once featured a murderer who tried to randomize his crimes, but plotting them on a map showed repetition of a certain irregular shape. He was found out because he had autistic tendencies, and constantly arranged things into that shape without realizing it. The cops spotted him because they noticed things all over his house placed in the same pattern—right down to the pushpins on his bulletin board.
- In the teen newspaper drama Press Gang, Linda was locked in an airtight vault with a half-broken phone. When she didn't turn up at work and four co-workers all reported the same weird phone calls in the middle of the night, they drew a cross to find that X marked the spot.
- Averted on CSI, when confession-notes left on bathroom stall doors provided a clue to track a truck-driving serial killer. Although the graphic showing how all the restrooms' locations lined up resembled a Connect-The-Deaths diagram, the killer's girlfriend/accomplice is the one who left the clues, and the line merely plotted out the trucker's delivery route rather than a symbol.
- Inverted on CSI New York, where a killer is identified because he'd turned on the lights in his downtown office suite, breaking the pattern of lights in which the victim had spelled out "Marry Me", as a grand romantic gesture.
- In an episode of the Austrian series Kommissar Rex, the main characters face off against a satanic cult that murders women and leaves their bodies so that they form a giant pentagram.
- Kamen Rider Decade used this in the Kuuga story arc. The Grongi are killing policewomen as part of their Gegeru ("game"); Tsukasa/Decade, posing as a policeman, suggests that the victims' birthdays spell out "Kill everyone" in goroawase, letting them know who the fifth victim will be. Later he meets with a female detective and reveals that he lied about his first theory to cover up the truth, that the murders are based off of proximity to the Grongi's sealed leader — which is precisely where they are. Then he spoils the Gegeru by punching the detective in the face, since an additional rule was to avoid bloodshed.
- Fringe actually did this with the mysterious Pattern in the first series finale. Each of the Pattern incidents were located near existing weak spots in the fabric of reality, and the Weirdo of the Week was attempting to open a doorway to another universe at these weak points.
- An episode of RoboCop had a mad bomber, The Spider. When they plotted out his bomb sites, they turned up a picture of a particular type of spider web.
- Parodied on People Like Us, when Roy follows around a police officer. One of the senior officers explains that a map of the borough covered with pins represents a string of recent thefts, and they're looking for a pattern. When Roy asks if they've found one, the officer replies. "Yeah — it looks like a rabbit." It does, in fact, look exactly like a rabbit.
- An episode of The X-Files had a killer whose pattern formed an upside down number nine (which was to be the intended number of victims). He was apparently unconsciously acting according to some numerological idea rather than doing it deliberately.
- Averted/Played With in an episode of NCIS: Los Angeles, when crossover guest Abby was the only person to discerned that a serial killer's victims were unusually random mixes of ages, races, and sexes (and possibly killing techniques). When he captures her, he notes that he'll be able to cross "Caucasian Female" off his list.
- Parodied brilliantly in obscure BBC buddy cop show spoof Lazarus And Dingwall; What appears to be a serial killer with strange variations in his MO turns out to be two serial killers, using corpses whose names end with 'o' or 'x' to play a giant game of Noughts and Crosses on the map. To prevent the next murder, they must find the correct person with a name ending in 'o'... In the middle of the city's Italian district.
- Subverted/criticised in Jonathan Creek, where a TV crime show decides that a serial killer is killing women if their names are the names of flowers, dubbing them the Daisy Chain Killer, purely because it makes a good story. In the end it turns out the killer was just generally disturbed and killing randomly, and only one of their victims had a flower name—the second victim that supposedly started the pattern was killed by someone else for unrelated reasons, using the serial killer as cover.
- In Young Blades, Siroc connects several kidnapping sites on a map and adds another point to form an obelisk, predicting that this point is the site where the victims are being held.
- In Sue Thomas FB Eye, Sue realizes that the sites of a serial killer's murders form a constellation. One point doesn't fit the pattern, which leads them to a copycat killer.
- In the Criminal Minds episode "Masterpiece", Reid connects the sites of a series of murders to a Fibonacci spiral, with an incrementing number of deaths at each location, all centered around what he concludes must be the murderer's house.
- Example: Lucas Helder, who planted a number of pipe bombs in mailboxes in May 2002, with the intent of forming a smiley face.
Lewis Black: God only knows what devastation would have been brought if he succeeded in applying the adorable curly hair.
- Police Quest III goes for the old standard pentagram killings. In defiance of the top quote, the player doesn't figure it out until after his wife stabbed into a coma.
- Discworld Noir plays this trope straight.
- In World of Warcraft, this can be done by players. Unlike most other things in the game, player corpses do not despawn; they sit there on the ground for up to a week until reclaimed by their owners. This has, naturally, been abused for everything from rude jokes to gold advertising, by leaving elaborate patterns of corpses lying around a major city.
- You and the other main characters TRY to do this in Persona 4, they end up being utterly unable to prevent anyone from getting thrown into the TV world, and really can only do anything once the next victim has been thrown in (then again, if nobody got thrown into the TV, you would not have to dungeon crawl and there would be no real game, still, you can't help but feel that your party members are idiots)
- Strange example: The cover for the US manual of Heavy Rain has the deaths forming the shape of one of the origami figures. This...has absolutely nothing to do with the case at all in-game.
- In Order of the Stick, Nale arranges a series of murders so that a map of their locations points to the city park, where he's setting a trap for Elan.
- In Eight Bit Theater, Thief and Black Mage attack a series of towns so that their rampage will spell out "You are next" on a map of the Dwarven Kingdom (when we're shown the map, the t is still missing). In cursive. Naturally, the Dwarves can't figure it out.
- Parodied in this Sluggy Freelance strip, where Torg puts together a map with push pins during his search for Oasis, but the pins don't actually represent anything.
Torg: "It's just a collage I threw together, but it sure makes me feel on top of things!"
- Parodied (what else) in The Simpsons episode "Homer The Vigilante": the police are investigating a series of robberies (not murders) using the map technique. After the titular family reports theirs and the police add it to the map...
Chief Wiggum: Well...there doesn't seem to be any pattern yet... But I take this one and move it here...[moves a pin]...and I move these over here...[moves more pins] Hello! It almost looks like an arrow!
- The Magician: one villain sets fires in the city, Ace goes to the police station and shows that the locations form the letter M — as in Multifire (the name of the villain in question), then the officer arrests Ace, for being "the Magician" (his sign was also a M).
- In one episode of Inspector Gadget, a series of very minor crimes committed by MAD agents, when plotted out on a map of Metro city, spell out MAD. The intent of this plan was for Gadget to figure this out and be waiting for them at the final crime scene, where they had laid a trap for him.