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The Scariest Serial Killers on TV, According to Critics — IndieWire Survey

From carvers to cannibals, these completely disturbed TV killers acquired a "taste" for taking lives.

"Hannibal," "Nip/Tuck," "Dexter"

“Hannibal,” “Nip/Tuck,” “Dexter”

NBC, FX, Showtime


Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Tuesday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best show currently on TV?” can be found at the end of this post.)

This week’s question: Who is the scariest serial killer on TV? You define “scary.” Old and current shows fair game.

Daniel Fienberg (@TheFienPrint), The Hollywood Reporter

Landry from “Friday Night Lights.”

Damian Holbrook (@damianholbrook), TV Guide Magazine

OK, so he wasn’t necessarily a serial killer, but “Nip/Tuck’s” The Carver gave me a serious case of the scareds. After his first appearance near the end of Season 2, the porcelain-masked serial-slashing maniac who was all about slicing up hot people (because “beauty is a curse,” of course!) ran amok in Season 3 and the amount of series-regular characters he went after was kind of unprecedented. All of the leads met his blade – he even raped Christian, which btw, I don’t recall ever being addressed as a thing that happened. As the list of victims grew, the list of suspects shrank but thanks to a world where there was nary a social-media culture or spoiler-alert outlet, fans were able to be freaked out all the way to the season-finale reveal that it was penis-less plastic surgeon Quentin Costa (Bruno Campos), working in tandem with his detective sister Kit (Rhona Mitra), who was behind “The Strangers”-like mask.




Eric Deggans (@deggans), NPR

It would be bad form to reveal the TV serial killer who has scared me the most recently, but he’s featured in a pivotal scene from the last episode in David Fincher’s excellent Netflix series “Mindhunter” – a fictionalized take on the development of the science for profiling serial killers (don’t skip ahead to find him; you won’t really be creeped out unless you watch all the episodes in order). What’s really scary is how many serial killer characters there are to choose from on TV, from “American Horror Story’s” Bloody Face, who wore a mask of his victims’ hair and skin, to super creepy, inbred abused groundskeeper Errol Childress on the HBO’s first season of “True Detective” and the pop culture master of serial butchers, Hannibal Lecter on NBC’s “Hannibal.”

But for me, the two of the three scariest TV serial killers were on the same show; Showtime’s “Dexter” featured Michael C. Hall as Dexter Morgan, a serial killer who channeled his impulses into murdering murderers, hiding his dark secret with a public identity as a mild mannered forensic technician. But he nearly met his match with John Lithgow’s Arthur Mitchell, also known as the Trinity Killer, a brilliantly ruthless serial murderer who seemed a mild-mannered suburban dad on the surface, but had been killing people for 30 years when Dexter finally caught up with him (spoiler alert, Mitchell manages to kill Dexter’s wife before he dies, in the show’s best plot twist during its run). My final, favorite TV serial killer is Sylar, the murderer of super powered people on NBC’s “Heroes.” Besides introducing Zachary Quinto to TV fans everywhere, Sylar was the best villain during the heyday of NBC’s sorta superhero series, featuring a guy driven to kill other super-powered people to absorb their abilities. I guess, for me, the killers who look like everyday people are always the most frightening.

Paul Rhys, "Luther"

Paul Rhys, “Luther”

BBC America

Allison Keene (@KeeneTV), Collider

For me it’s not just one serial killer, but a host of them. The crimes featured on “Luther” almost exclusively featured young women getting butchered. The show’s focus on that, and the terrifying ways the killers often gained access to the women’s homes, made me check my locks, look under the bed, and investigate all closets before going to sleep. I love crime shows and I’m rarely freaked out by the criminals portrayed in them, but something about “Luther” really struck a chord with me. I later found out that it wasn’t just me — several of my friends admitted that they had trouble sleeping and were exceptionally paranoid about intruders after a “Luther” binge. There was just something particularly visceral about how the crimes happened and the intimate yet chaotic way they were portrayed that lingered with me long after I had watched.

Runners up worth mentioning: BOB from “Twin Peaks” (who is my forever nightmare) and the killer in the background from “Too Many Cooks.” I still find both terrifying.

Liz Shannon Miller (@lizlet), IndieWire

Hi, guys, time to revisit Season 1 of “The X-Files” and the creep-tastic experience that was Luther Lee Boggs in “Beyond the Sea.” Anyone who isn’t still haunted by Brad Dourif’s performance is someone who never actually watched the episode. But I feel sorry for you, because it’s a great episode of a great show.

Todd VanDerWerff (@tvoti), Vox

This is the biggest cheat of all time, but when I think about TV that’s scared me, I have to come back to all of the unsolved murders of “Unsolved Mysteries,” many of which were committed by serial killers. The series’ wide reach means that if you revisit some of its segments all these years later, they’ve often been solved. But there are still so many tantalizing stories that remain open, as mysterious now as they were in the ’80s and ’90s. And the low-rent aesthetic of the show, combined with Robert Stack’s intentionally flat narration, means that the segments about, say, two people out for a Sunday drive who pass by a man shoving bloody sheets down some sort of storm drain gain an unexpected and added terror. There’s just something about watching a famous case, one often involving a famous serial killer, in grainy, scuzzy “Unsolved Mysteries” vision to get my spine shivering.

Jesse Plemons, "Friday Night Lights"

Jesse Plemons, “Friday Night Lights”


Alan Sepinwall (@sepinwall), Uproxx

The scariest, deadliest, nastiest, meanest, roughest, toughest, most monstrous serial killer in the history of television is, of course, Landry “Lance” Clarke from “Friday Night Lights.” Lance developed his taste for killin’ while still a teenager, when he murdered the man who had assaulted the object of his desire, Tyra Collette. The two of them teamed up to hide the body. Lance felt remorse over that first killing, but when he confessed to his police officer father, Mr. Clarke helped get the boy out of it, and from then on, remorse became a thing of the past. Lance’s killing spree has spread across the country, from Texas, to New Mexico (where he murdered both a young boy on a dirt bike and a single mother, all while also helping to run the Southwest’s most lucrative meth lab, all to support his crush on an older woman), to Minnesota (where he helped his wife — another blonde who brought out his protective instincts again in the worst possible way — dispose of yet another corpse, this time monstrously chopping it up at the butcher shop where he worked when he wasn’t busy satisfying his own bloodlust). Landry Clarke is still at large, and should be considered armed and dangerous — especially if he’s fallen in love yet again.

April Neale (@aprilmac), Monsters & Critics

Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lecter in NBC’s series “Hannibal,” hands down! James Purefoy gets 2nd place for his role as Joe Carroll in Fox’s “The Following” (also canceled after 3 seasons like “Hannibal”!)

But I’m going Mads.

The Lecter character was introduced to the culture in Thomas Harris’s 1981 novel, “Red Dragon,” with Anthony Hopkins slaying the role in the 1991 film “The Silence of the Lambs” (to the tune of an Oscar for that performance).

When I heard about a broadcast network taking on this iconic villain, it was a joke to me UNTIL I saw the screener for the premiere. Mikkelsen took this role and ate it alive! I mean, his cheekbones alone could probably kill you if you kissed him too hard or at the wrong angle.

Three seasons wasn’t enough. This was a brilliant adult drama for broadcast, and it was a sad day when NBC announced it was over. At least his very talented castmate Richard Armitage is front and center in “Berlin Station” for EPIX. Mads is a fantastic actor with a complex range I would love to see more of his work, not just in film but TV too.



Dino De Laurentiis Company/REX/Shutterstock

Joyce Eng (@joyceeng61), TVGuide.com

I love any good TV murderer, but I’ll have to go with “Hannibal.” One, because Mads Mikkelsen completely made the character his own and kinda made you forget about Anthony Hopkins for a hot sec. Two, because he’s not traditionally scary, which is precisely what makes him so chilling. He’s so cool, unassuming, sharply dressed and before you know it, he’s having you for dinner. Related: His wordplay is on point.

Ben Travers (@BenTTravers), IndieWire

Guys, it’s Kevin Garvey. No one killed anyone who was more meaningful than Kevin Garvey, more often. Every one of his multiple suicides gave viewers such a scare because there was always the possibility he wouldn’t come back. No one even knew he could come back the first time he went… wherever he went. Remember the pain you felt when he drank the poison and Michael dragged him out of Virgil’s trailer by his feet? Or when he dunked himself into an Australian lake, not knowing if he’d ever come back out? Or when his father pushed him down into the bathtub, drowning him in a last-ditch effort to save the world? Every time was terrifying (especially when John Murphy shot him in front of his own dog) and if the trips he took weren’t so brilliant, it would’ve been downright cruel of Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta to make us agonize over the same death so many times. It still hurts just thinking about it. Better add a .gif for comfort.

The Leftovers - Eye Roll Kevin Garvey Justin Theroux

Q: What is the best show currently on TV?*

A: “Halt and Catch Fire” (five votes)

Other contenders: “The Deuce” (two votes), “Better Things,” “Bob’s Burgers,” “Mindhunter” (one vote each)

*In the case of streaming services that release full seasons at once, only include shows that have premiered in the last month.

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