4. Norman Bates – Psycho
*Note – This entry focuses primarily on the origin of the character as portrayed in the original Psycho.
Next up on our list we have Norman Bates, the killer from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece Psycho. Audiences were creeped-out by the film when it was released (that shower scene in particular did for hotel showers what Jaws did for the ocean) and a big part of that is due to the character of Norman Bates.
This was one of those choices that I debated even including, but in the end I felt I had to go with Bates. He’s not like a lot of other movie serial killers, in that he doesn’t go out purposefully to find victim after victim. He is – as the title suggests – a psychopath who has a split personality: one of whom is himself, a mild-mannered hotel manager who just happens to keep his mother’s skeleton in his house. The other personality is that of his mother’s “spirit,” which Bates preserves by taking her on as a second personality.
Norman’s murderous path first started when – as we find out at the end of the first Psycho - he murdered his mother and her new husband in an act of jealousy. It’s at that point that his mother became an integral part of his psyche.
It’s the mother side of Norman’s mind that is the “real” serial killer, although admittedly he is the vessel used to carry out the heinous deeds. When we first see poor Marion murdered in the shower during that now-iconic scene (up until that point everyone thought she was the focus of the film), it’s at the hand Norman’s “mother.” He even wears a wig and a dress to further the delusion.
Norman kills because the mother side of him is threatened. She kills Marion because Norman paid attention to a woman who wasn’t her. “Mother” wasn’t going to allow her son to get involved with a woman – a stranger at that – when he should devote himself entirely to her and her alone.
But the Norman persona isn’t entirely innocent either, as after he discovers what his “mother” has done he always cleans up her mess, in order to avoid the destruction of the relationship he has with her.
“A boy’s best friend is his mother,” as the saying goes.
It could be argued Hitchcock’s film overshadows the serial killer in question but that doesn’t necessarily take away from the character. There’s something insanely creepy about Norman Bates – even as he simply sits and talks to someone in the reception area of the hotel, there’s always something going on behind those eyes that we can’t quite describe. It’s just one of the many reasons Norman Bates is still as chilling today as he was half a century ago.
3. Leatherface – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Leatherface was first seen in Tobe Hooper’s terrifying 1974 film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The subsequent films in the franchise may have waned in quality, but the iconic figure of Leatherface is still as effective today as he was back when he was first unleashed upon the world.
This particular killer could be lumped into the crazy camp. He comes from an inbred cannibalistic family and kills “on their behalf.” He is a lumbering giant of a man who wears human skin as a mask and whose only mission – whenever he sees a potential victim – is to chase them, catch them and either kill them on the spot or take them home to his basement to save them for later.
His weapon of choice is (of course) a monster chainsaw, which he lifts with little effort, even – as seen at the end of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – swinging it around with one hand.
Despite him being a fictitious movie killer, Leatherface is grounded in reality not only by the gritty and realistic way he carries out his work, but also by the fact that he’s partially inspired by real-life serial killer Ed Gein.
What sets Leatherface apart t from other serial killers portrayed in movies is that he’s not motivated by the usual impulses – sexual sadism or overwhelming sexual urges and so forth. In fact, he’s portrayed as mentally challenged and is, “a big baby,” as director Tobe Hooper has previously described him. He has a primeval urge to kill that can be easily manipulated, in this case by his family.
A terrifying and iconic killer, Leatherface more than earns his place on this list.
2. John Doe – Se7en
Probably the most intelligent and methodical serial killer on this list is John Doe, the mysterious character from David Fincher’s masterpiece, Se7en. Unlike previous crazy killers on this list, this is one killer who knew exactly what he was doing and planned it to perfection.
Just one of the many strokes of brilliance in Se7en is the fact that we don’t see the killer until near the end. It isn’t until he gives himself up by walking into the police station covered in blood do we see the true face of who was responsible for the meticulous killings seen throughout the movie.
This killer’s convictions and reasons for killing are of the strictest and simplest kind – to spotlight those who commit one of the seven deadly sins. They are (in the order that the killings happen): Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Lust, Pride, Envy and Wrath. By most people’s standards these sins aren’t even an issue – people don’t even give them a second thought. But in John Doe’s mind, committing one of these sins is unforgiveable and, indeed, punishable by death in the most horrendous of ways.
Although Doe’s actions are obviously wrong, you can’t help but admire his commitment to “his work.” It really is astounding the patience and the drive he has to pull off what he thinks he has to do. For instance, with the “Sloth” killing: he keeps a man on basic life support for an entire year, watching him gradually waste away. Now try and tell me that doesn’t amaze you even just a little.
As Morgan Freeman’s Detective Somerset says in the midst of the hunt for Doe, “This guy’s methodical, exacting and worst of all, patient.” The way Doe goes about killing and his twisted logic for doing so makes him, in my eyes, one of the most memorably chilling serial killers in movie history.