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There are killers who have a specific type of victim, and there are killers who leave behind calling cards.

But for some, this just isn't dramatic enough. No, he has to pattern his kills after a famous set, like the seven deadly sins, or a work of fiction. The killer will choose victims who match up with the set and/or he will kill them in manners befitting the set. Note that the killer will avoid repeating methods of murder: each death will represent, in some way, another portion of the set or story.

The motives of the killer for choosing the set can vary. If the motive is revenge or punishing a sin, then the killer is also a Poetic Serial Killer.

Examples of Theme Serial Killer include:

Comic Books

  • Issue #14 of Neil Gaiman's The Sandman featured a convention of Serial Killers. While a variety of serial killer stereotypes were explored, one in particular fits this trope. At one point, two serial killers (one calling himself "Fuck You!" and the other calling himself The Connoisseur, are comparing victim counts, and when Fuck You laughs at The Connoisseur "score" (he's only killed five people, as compared to Fuck You's 130+), The Connoisseur admits that he has very refined tastes when it comes to victims.

  "There was something about pre-operative transsexuals that fascinated the Connoisseur..."

  • In an issue of The Maze Agency, a killer starts murdering members of the Ripperologists (a club of people interested in Jack the Ripper) in an order based on Jack the Ripper's famous poem:

 "I'm not a butcher, I'm not a Yid,

"Nor yet a foreign skipper.

"I am your own lighthearted fiend,

"Yours truly, Jack the Ripper."

  • In Azrael, the Crusader murdered members of the Order of Purity in ways based on the martyrdom of various Christian saints.
  • The Joker once decided to kill everyone in Gotham whose name was a palindrome. Like most of Joker's crimes, this theme was selected on a whim.
    • Another Batman villain, Calendar Man, loves to commit crimes relating to certain holidays. He helps Batman track down another holiday-themed killer in The Long Halloween.
  • Batman once fought a villain called the Inquisitor, who was murdering priests using methods based on the seven deadly sins.



  • In Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, the deaths were patterned after the "Ten Little Indians" rhyme.
    • Another work of hers that uses a similar motif is A Pocketful Of Rye, which has the deaths based on the nursery rhyme "Sing a Song of Sixpence". Subversion, as this is really a Red Herring.
    • In another Agatha Christie novel, The ABC Murders, the killer murders alphabetically, starting with a woman whose name began with A in an A town, then a person whose name began with B in a B town, etc. He always leaves an ABC Railway Guide next to the body. But as in "A Pocketful of Rye", this is a red herring, the killer really did have a specific target.)
  • In The Name of the Rose, the killings follow symbolism from the Book of Revelation. A subversion, however, as it turns out this pattern is a total coincidence.
  • One of the earliest (if not the first) examples in English literature is S.S. Van Dyne's The Bishop Murder Case, where the killer murders his victims based on classic nursery rhymes.
  • In The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl, the killer mimics the punishments of sinners in Dante's Inferno in post-Civil War Boston.
  • The killings in Lestrade by MJ Trow are all based on the cautionary tales in Heinrech Hoffmann's Straw-Headed Peter.
  • In The Executioner by Jay Bennett (no relation to the Mack Bolan series), four drunken youths are in a car crash, which kills one of them. A mysterious killer enacts his revenge by plotting the murder of the three survivors, the first one by fire, the second one by water, and the third by earth.
  • The killer in Angels and Demons used the classic 4 elements as a theme to his murders... and for the locations. Earth, Fire and Water were easy; Air took a little creativity. He punctured the victim's lungs.
  • The killer in Boris Starling's Messiah murders his victims based on the apostles. A man named Philip is hung, a James is beheaded, a Peter is crucified upside-down and so forth.
  • Ellery Queen used this one a lot:
    • In Ten Day's Wonder, the theme was the Ten Commandments.
    • Double, Double used the children's rhyme Rich Man, Poor Man, Beggarman, Thief.
    • In A Cat of Many Tails, the murderer was a doctor who was systematically killing the people whose birth he had presided over.
  • The killer in The Bone Collector bases his murders on turn-of-the-century crime novels.
  • C J Sansom's Revelation uses imagery from the Book of Revelation for his killer's inspiration.
  • Parodied in Making Money with the Dyslexic Alphabet Killer, who only got as far as A and W.

Live Action TV

  • Penn, a vampire in Angel constantly reenacted the killing of his own family while under the wing of his sire, Angelus.
  • The pilot episode of Castle features a murderer that patterns his killings after ones detailed in the titular author's mystery novels. Subverted in that the actual murderer was only doing it to frame another character and cover up his own crime.
  • There was an episode of Bones where the killer based his killings on those in Bones' recent book, but the manner of the killings was different each time. It turned out it was a Strangers On a Train Plot.
  • Criminal Minds has had a few of these, for example a man who targeted people he considered having escaped justice by calling themselves victims of society, public hysteria, or anything else.
    • They also did the "crimes based on a work of fiction" plot in "Empty Planet".
  • CSI: NY had Shane Casey, who targted victims involved in his brother's conviction, and dressed them in cryptic t-shirts. (also a Poetic Serial Killer)
  • CSI's Paul Millander, who chose victims based on their birthdays. Grissom was to be his last victim at one point.
    • To elaborate, Millander chose victims who's birthdays were the same day his father died.
      • There was also the Miniature Killer.
  • Expect a killer with the Freudian Excuse to choose victims who remind him of his parents, like the Criminal Mind Games killer of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, as well as Fin's step-son.
  • Plenty of Millennium episodes revolve around this type of killer.
  • A Serial Killer on Numb3rs chose victims with the same names as the 12 apostles and killed them in the way each apostle died. Some of them were pretty gruesome, too.
    • The same thing occurred in a TV crime drama called Messiah.
    • So how exactly did they do St. John who died peacefully of old age?
      • Presumably by choosing someone very old, and saving him until last.
      • Messiah had the killer actually not kill John — instead, he exhumed the body of somebody named John who fit the other criteria.
      • Alternately, imprison them in a deserted island/area?
  • The Trinity Killer.
    • Likewise, the Ice Truck Killer. He chops up prostitutes and leaves their parts scattered because he watched while his mother — and, by extension, Dexter's — met the wrong end of a chainsaw at the hands of drug dealers.
    • The Doomsday Killer kills his victims based on his interpretation of the Book of Revelation. He believes that if he can complete the sequence on a certain day, he will bring on Apocalypse.

Roleplaying Games

  • A scenario in the Blood Brothers supplement for the Call of Cthulhu RPG involves a killer murdering his victims in ways that symbolise the nine muses of Greek Mythology.

Video Games

  • The Phoenix, the villain of In Memoriam murders members of a religious catholic sect in specific locations visited by a murdered philosopher, arranging their corpses in ways corresponding to the philosopher's theories. He then uses the victims as puzzles to lead the player towards finding him.
  • The Origami Killer in Quantic Dream's Heavy Rain has a rather unique way of killing his victims. He kidnaps his victims in public places ( a local park for example), though no one ever actually sees him. His victims disappear for four days (still alive throughout the time period) and then are found dead in a wasteland-like environment, drowned in rain water with an orchid on their chest and an origami in their hand.
    • Gets even better. His father indirectly caused his brother to die, drowned in rainwater, so he's putting fathers through perverse tests, to see if they can actually succeed at doing what his father did not. He keeps the children he kidnaps in a gutter, and lets it fill with rainwater. He was always a fan of Origami, as his brother made little origami dogs. His mother also grew orchids, which his brother loved, so he places one on the victims chest as an apology.
  • Discworld Noir features a parody of Theatre of Blood, with the plays of Hwel, the Disc's version of Shakespeare.