By all rights, we should hate Hans Beckert, Fritz Lang’s classic child-hunting serial killer. The unnerving whistling, the suspiciously young and female targets, the sweaty brow. And yet, by the end of the film, you can’t help feeling a sort of sick affection for the man. When the town criminals snatch him, he protests that they all choose to break the law, where as he can’t help himself, compelled by the voices in his head. “Who knows what it’s like to be me?” he wails, and you almost believe him. Either way, we were relieved when the cops came and saved Beckert from being ripped to pieces by the criminals’ kangaroo court.
Dexter Morgan, Dexter
Who doesn’t love Dexter Morgan? Dexter is the classic example of a vigilante serial killer, someone who is motivated towards destruction by an uncontrollable urge, yet only kills people who have done unbearably horrible things themselves, thereby absolving himself — at least in the viewers’ eyes — and ostensibly making the world a better place. His sweet, understated personality and excellence at his day job make us like him, but his warped ingenuity and abject cruelty towards the evilest members of our society make us love him.
Hannibal Lecter, The Silence of the Lambs
Hannibal Lecter is one of the scariest villains out there — a brilliant psychiatrist who just so happens to be a cannibalistic serial killer — but he’s just so picture perfect that we can’t help but shiver with pleasure when he appears. The piercing intellect and high manners are as ominous as they are endearing, yet again and again, he almost tricks us into wanting to share a bottle of nice Chianti with him.
Sweeney Todd, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
In his original incarnation, in the 1846 Victorian penny dreadful The String of Pearls , Sweeney Todd was a crazed barber motivated by money, stealing his patrons valuables before sending them off to Mrs. Lovett to be made into pies. However, in Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 musical, which brought the story into national awareness, Todd is a tragic, if still insane, figure, motivated by revenge against the man who exiled him and raped his wife, and who is holding his daughter hostage. When Judge Turpin escapes him, Todd swears revenge against the whole world and begins to kill indiscriminately. We sympathize, and the ending — where Todd accidentally kills the one person he would have spared — breaks our hearts, though perhaps it’s the strange stylistic killings (and enchanting musical numbers) that keep us from counting him nothing more than a bloodthirsty maniac.
Patrick Bateman, American Psycho
Bret Easton Ellis’s Bateman is deliciously horrible — the kind of shallow, wealth-obsessed yuppie you love to see crash and burn, and yet so charming and bizarre that you can’t help but love the character, even if you hate the man. Pretty on the outside and dead on the inside, Bateman explains, “although I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel my flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable: I simply am not there.” The novel’s twisted irony is that though Bateman routinely confesses his crimes, no one ever believes him.
Norman Bates, Psycho
Norman? He just loves his Mother. Really, really loves her. Read: this is what happens if you coddle your children too much.