The Faces of Evil

by Alafair Burke

Thanks to some truly memorable writing by a guy called Thomas Harris, and some wicked good acting by a dude called Anthony Hopkins, many of us picture this guy when we think “serial killer.”

Or if we take our models from the real world, we might conjure up images of these fellows.  








The paradigmatic “serial killer,” as we tend to use that term, is, by definition, both evil and genius.  We know he is evil because he not only takes life, but does so repeatedly and often methodically.  We know he must be genius because he is able to get away with his acts, repeatedly and methodically.  Ted Bundy convinced grown women to get in a car with him.  Charles Manson controlled his own cult.  The Zodiac Killer was never caught.  And Hannibal Lecter?  Well, he managed to outwit even Clarice Starling.  How wiley is that?

But I spent some time last week thinking about our fascination with the particular type of romanticized evil epitomized by the pop culture figure of the serial killer.  My thoughts were first sparked by this season’s insanely delicious performance by John Lithgow on Dexter, based on the groundbreaking novels by Jeff Lindsay.  Dexter himself was a terrific twist on the usual serial killer depiction: He only kills people who deserve it.  And, in some ways, the killer portrayed by Lithgow checks off all the usual boxes: methodical, intelligent, manipulative – check, check, and check.

Except … he’s also married.  And he sings loudly and earnestly at church.  And he wears goofy shirts.  And he gets angry when a new acquaintance lingers too long near his dead sister’s ashes.  And he totally wigs out when he hits a deer with his creepy kidnapper van.  And he looks like this.

Not wiley.  Not genius.  Just a little off.  And kind of dorky.
I was also thinking about serial killers when I dusted off an old war story for my criminal law students this week.  When I was a young Deputy District Attorney in Portland, I prosecuted a guy called Sebastian Shaw.  The facts?  He threw an onion at his sister with such force that it, in her words to the police, “exploded.”  (No offense to my siblings, but you all did way worse to me, and I never called the cops.)  

In all honesty, I might have only pushed the necessary papers on the case had it not been for persistent phone calls from a friend of the defendant’s family (coincidentally, a writer you’ve probably heard of).  She warned me and anyone who would listen that Shaw was dangerous.  We had to do something.  To the best of my recollection, Shaw was convicted of assault and received what was probably a typical sentence for the crime of injuring another person.    

I moved on to the next case (or hundreds) and never thought of it again until the First Assistant called several months later, asking for information about a guy called Sebastian Shaw.  “Oh yeah,” I said, “the exploding onion case.”  I could tell from the First Assistant’s response that my levity was misplaced.  (I know.  It probably still is.)

You see, Shaw had been stopped by police in a car that happened to have the following items in the trunk:  a blindfold, plastic zip ties, duct tape, mace, a knife, a lead weight in the end of a sock, ski masks, latex gloves, and pornographic magazines.  That’s all the police needed to know to conclude that Shaw was up to no good.  But it wasn’t proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

Fortunately, Shaw smoked.  And littered.  After he flicked a cigarette butt to the ground outside a grocery store, police linked him through DNA evidence to a rape and two unsolved murders.  The last time I checked, Shaw claimed to have killed ten or fifteen people, and law enforcement continued to connect him to bodies.   

It wasn’t until after he’d been identified as a serial rapist and murderer that all the stories started to come together.  The threat to his roommate’s life during an argument about the dishes.  The eerie statements that had gotten him suspended from his cable company job.  The outburst at his co-workers when he was a security guard.  And don’t forget about the exploding onion.

All that time, all those stories.  Apparently his family suspected something was deeply wrong.  But I imagine that, to the people who had only superficial encounters with him, Sebastian Shaw seemed sad.  Bizarre.  Pathetic.  Lonely.  A loser.  

Not evil.  Not wiley.  Not genius.

Now police in Cleveland have found eleven bodies in the home of this man, who had lived with his stepmother and did not drive.  Sad.  Pathetic.  Not wiley or genius.

All of these stories were bouncing against each other in the pinball machine I call my brain when I asked my Facebook pals what I should blog about.  I got some great suggestions that I may use later, but one stood out when my friend, Steve, said, “How about the banality of evil?” 

It shouldn’t have taken Steve’s suggestion for me to tie John Lithgow to Sebastian Shaw to Anthony Sowell in Cleveland.  I grew up in Wichita, Kansas, terrified of a murderer who called himself BTK.  Bind.  Torture.  Kill.  Thirty years without capture.  Evil.  Wiley.  Genius.

But then they caught him because he was stupid enough to send police a CD-rom initialized with his full name.  In his job enforcing low-level code violations in his tiny little town, he was known to measure grass with a ruler.  Not wiley.  Not genius.  Just a sad loser.  But still evil to the core.

So if evil doesn’t usually come in a super-smart, fava-bean eating package, why are we so fascinated with the prevailing paradigm?  Maybe it’s simply because characters like Hannibal Lecter make for much better fiction than overweight landscaping police.  But I suspect our preferences run deeper.  We want to believe that evil is both recognizable and rare, not the nondescript guy in the next office.

If you’re fascinated by real-life serial killers, which ones fascinate you and why?  And, as a reader (and perhaps writer), how do you respond to fictional portrayals of evil?  Which ones stick with you?

36 thoughts on “The Faces of Evil

  1. FictionFan


    Great post, I enjoyed reading it! Hannibal Lecter surely is a serial killer no one will ever forget. A great character by Thomas Harris and an Oscar well-deserved for Sir Anthony Hopkins.

    Besides all the other ones you already mentioned, one fictional character that did catch my eye and I would rather not run into in the middle of the night is Theodore "T-Bag" Bagwell. As Prison Break’s seasons continued, he got creepier and creepier. There were some scenes where he really had *that look* in his eyes! Great performance by Robert Knepper.

    A real life serial killer that stuck with me was Andrei Chikatilo. After watching a documentary about him, this Ukrainian serial killer and sexual sadist got me scared! He also looked the part, especially towards the end! (

    I think in the end it’s the look in one’s eyes that does it for me. Whether it’s an actor playing the part or the real life killer. Once there’s this shimmer of evil in their eyes,… they’ll have me freaked out.

    For some reason fictional serial killers to me are a little "less frightening", perhaps because the characters are slightly "romanticized". Or then perhaps it’s because I *know* it’s the actor playing the part and I know the actor from his other (perhaps less violent) roles.
    In that sense I might actually say "I liked Hannibal Lecter", though I really mean "I liked Anthony Hopkins playing Hannibal Lecter". He really had me going there, I believed him.

    I think that’s why I prefer reading crime novels, because then the killer doesn’t have a "familiar face" and he really IS evil, not an actor playing evil.

  2. Jake Nantz

    I think one of my favorite twists on "evil" was the end of the book Mystic River. Finding out it was those two kids caught me off guard (I know, shouldn’t have, but it did). Just the concept of that rotten little shit got me.

  3. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alafair

    For a country that’s only the size of Florida, we’ve had our share of sickos and pyschos in the UK. Fred West and Dr Harold Shipman spring immediately to mind, not to mention the Rippers – of both Jack and Yorkshire varieties.

    But the most proflific killer who sticks in my mind later became a mild-mannered historian. She was born in the Ukraine in 1916 and her name was Lyudmila Mikhailivna Pavlichenko. When she was 14, her family moved to Kiev and she became a member of a shooting club, achieving sharpshooter status.

    At the outbreak of war, Pavlichenko joined the Red Army and became one of 2000 Russian female snipers. At the end of the war, she was one of 500 survivors, a decorated Major with 309 recorded kills, including 36 enemy snipers. She is noted as being the most prolific female sniper of WWII.

    So, a killer, yes. But evil? I expect the enemy thought so …

  4. Alafair Burke

    Jake, Mystic River is my favorite crime novel of the past decade.

    T-Bag from Prison Break was such a well done character. Truly creepy but still very human. Zoe, you’ve given me some new subjects to Google when I’m looking to procrastinate!

  5. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Killer post, Alafair, I mean, really.
    I too am quite fascinated by this topic. It seems we need to justify why one person would kill another, and to us rational folk there would have to be a darned good reason behind it. So we create stories that give these characters the proper motivation to kill. And, since we can’t imagine killing many people without leaving clues that investigators would use to capture us, we think that these killers must be very smart to get away with killing so many people for such a long time. But that’s storyland. Often it’s just dumb luck that keeps them from getting caught. Maybe their lives are so pathetic and dull that they simply drop off our radar. They become the "quiet neighbor" across the street.

  6. JD Rhoades

    It’s telling that most fictional serial killers are what’s described as "organized." They have a plan and a reason for doing what they do. Even if both of those are insane, there’s at least some internal logic to them. There’s a pattern, a code. The intellectual puzzle for the reader is in cracking that code, or watching the protagonist try to do it, and success brings pleasure, because pattern recognition is comforting.

    I think we want fictional killers to be smart because it makes murder seem a lot less random and stupid than it usually is.

  7. Louise Ure

    I think we want our villains to rise to genius status in order for our protagonists to be tested to the nth degree. But my guess is that evil is more often packaged like your Shaw … a deeply disturbed individual whose isolated pre-criminal activity would have looked weird but not evil to those around him. And those guys scare me even more than the "geniuses."

  8. JT Ellison

    I really do try to shy away from the serial killer as evil genius, exactly for the reasons you provided – they are wily, and cunning, and charming, and twisted, but rarely genius. The organized offender versus the disorganized — I think it’s more interesting to watch someone plan a murder than act on a compulsion.

    But my fascination in all of this lies in the fact that we do such horrible things to one another. And for those monsters who plan that out rather than kill in the heat of the moment – well, that’s what we’re all trying to figure out, isn’t it?

    Great topic today, Alafair!

  9. Allison Brennan

    Fantastic post, Alafair. Like JT, I’m fascinated by why people do horrible things. We can go all the way back to Cain killing Abel, and even in the bible the REASONS are mentioned. As human beings, we have a compelling need to find out why. What makes us tick. (Hmm, like Sylar?) Why would someone rape. Kill. Brutalize another. Not just murder, but also con artists. How can one guy lie and manipulate and steal the retirement of an 80-year-old woman, leaving her penniless and destitute? Is that any better than killing her outright? I also think that we look at the motivations of others and try to figure out what circumstances, if any, would move us to behave the same. Could we kill to save the life of our child? Our own life? A stranger? If we’re capable of murder for a justifiable reason, could we be capable of it for less justifiable reasons? I also think we, as humans, want to make things right. We know there are killers out there, rapists, child predators, con artists, and we want to find out how they turned out that way so we can stop it from happening again. Possible? No. But all it takes is saving one to make it worth the time.

    On the flip-side, as you well know (and probably ever other writer here), many serial killers–both the geniuses and the not-so-wiley–were brutalized as children. Molested, abused, emotionally broken. So we look at how can Child A be abused and grow up to become a serial killer, and Child B who was abused just as badly grow up and NOT be a killer? What makes Child B special? What makes Child A turn evil? Likewise, looking at a killer who had a seemingly perfect childhood–no gross abuse or negligence–how did that child end up a killer? Are they truly born evil? A bad seed?

    The psychology of the criminals as well as those who pursue them–often to the detriment of their own families and health–fascinates me. As far as individual cases, Dorathea Puentes–the elderly woman who killed her boarders for their social security and disability money then buried them in her backyard in downtown Sacramento. She’s the last person you’d look at and think "serial killer." Elizabeth Bathory, the "vampiress" in the 15th century (I believe) who killed virgins, had her servants drain their blood, and bathed in it so she would have youthful skin. Killing pairs also are intriguing because of the dynamic between the killers (usually two men or a man and woman.) I could go on and on . . .

  10. TL Faruque

    I always read and am fascinated by the many ways an author can use their characters to outsmart serial killers, or any killer. I like ending up feeling that no matter how smart the killer imagines him or herself to be, they are not smart enough to keep from getting caught. Killers that go undetected for years like the BTK killer make me very uncomfortable. I want to think that all one has to do is glance at them to see them for what they are.

    I am also uncomfortable with the way that television today portrays these people. I have zero interest in watching a show that would make a serial killer (or any killer for that matter) seem like a "normal" person or regular Joe. I don’t want to feel sorry for them, I want to believe that you can see evil ooze from their core. And I want them removed from society, not think about them living next door to me.

  11. Alafair Burke

    Exactly. The idea that someone like Dennis Rader (BTK) could not only live next door to people, but be a leader in his church and a husband and father, all while having a private tool shed in his yard that he used for his journals, photographs, keepsakes, etc…. well, you just don’t want to think that stuff happens.

    Allison, I forgot about Puentas. Precisely NOT the kind of person we think about when we imagine the worst of the worst.

    JT, we do tend to focus on the planners in our books, but so few acts of violence are organized or rational. Without spoiling my own books for people who haven’t read them, I have used our assumptions about violence to create a few surprises in some of my novels.

  12. TL Faruque

    Yes. One of the reasons I choose to read the authors that I like is I have come to know the character(s) and am familiar with the many ways they have outsmarted the killers in their books.

  13. Fran

    I remember walking through the dungeon in Madame Tussaud’s in London, and being stopped dead in my tracks by one of the "rooms" displaying killers. It was an ordinary sort of room, and the man (whose name I’ve totally forgotten) had a disturbing habit of marrying women and then killing them in the tub. It was easier to clean up. He was practical, certainly.

    But what struck me, had me just frozen in place, was how very ordinary he looked. Mousy, even. Balding with glasses, he looked like the accountant most folks wouldn’t particularly notice passing on the street. He’s the guy you’d choose to sit next to in a crowded restaurant because he looked "safe". And I guess he was, as long as you didn’t marry him.

    Here was this man who had done horrible, horrific things, and he didn’t look evil at all. And that may be the most terrifying part of all of it. This guy wouldn’t hiss "Clariiiccce". He’d just look at you, kind of owlishly. Scary as hell.

  14. pari noskin taichert

    Great post.

    I’m interested but not fascinated with serial killers because what they do is so incredibly horrific to me that I just can’t stay with works that feature them for very long.

    Of course, I was also the kid who continued to have nightmares about Bambi for years.

  15. Patty

    Having lived in suburban Chicago my entire life, the term "serial killer" means only one person:
    John Wayne Gacy. At the time of his arrest, I knew one of the Cook County cops who was working the scene. He wasn’t fascinated just mortified that Gacy had done these horrific things that went undetected for years. I also am not fascinated but at some place deep inside of me I am terrified by man’s inhumanity to man. What has happened to this person that has brought him to the point of committing the utmost crime?

    I never watched all of Bambi and, at 61, still haven’t watched the whole movie.

  16. Pammy D

    Great post Alafair.

    Patty, I also lived in the Chicago area. John Wayne Gacy was creepy. I also think of Richard Speck and the incredibly hellatious video of him living the fine life in prison. (Beyond freaky.)

    Don’t forget our dear Jeffrey Dahmer, who would troll Chicago gay pride parades looking for victims. Look how the police totally messed up in his case. They could have saved that young boy running down the street screaming for help with holes in his head. (Holes in one’s head is not a run-of-the-mill domestic dispute.) But that’s what the police called it, and let him go back into Dahmer’s ‘custody’. So sad.

  17. Alafair

    Dahmer, like this current guy in Cleveland, is an example of someone who got away with it for so long not by being clever, but by targeting vulnerable people whose disappearances don’t trigger nation-wide manhunts and whose statements to police are shrugged off.

    John Wayne Gacy’s clown pictures are some of the scariest things I’ve ever seen.

    The Richard Speck videos are absolutely damning for our criminal justice system.

  18. Jill James

    I always think of Scott Peterson. It wasn’t a serial killer (yet) but I think he could have been. Once he killed Lacey and their child it opened up something in him and Amber would have been next.

    I was terrified reading Ann Rule’s book about Ted Bundy. He was her friend, she worked by his side, and never noticed anything. Women must have thought he looked normal, they got into his car with him.

    And closer to home, Phillip Garrido. A serial rapist who lived such a normal life not even his neighbors knew about Jaycee and her babies. I lived in Antioch most of my life and that one scared the crap out of me.

  19. toni mcgee causey

    Sorry I’m late to the discussion.

    Where I live, there were two serial killers active about the same time. Several of the women who were killed (eviscerated, raped and killed) all lived within a few blocks of me. I fit the prototype of the looks of the victim. You can bet I became hyper conscious of my surroundings, of people who approached me seeming normal, but maybe weren’t.

    What was horrific was that once the most vicious of the two were caught (they were not working in conjunction), I learned that he’d been responsible for the murder of a very sweet dear friend of mine years earlier. He’d been working that long–and I hadn’t even realized it. I’d always known there were details they hadn’t released about her murder, but I had no idea it was so gruesome. She was an elderly lady, born with one hand, who never, for a minute, let that slow her down. She was beautiful, both in spirit and in the way she treated the people around her. Gracious to a fault.

    There is absolutely nothing in that killer’s background that can explain what he did to her. Nothing. So yeah, I have a really hard time with the romanticized idea of serial killers, particularly trying to explain the "why" of their background. Some people are just crazy, vicious and cruel.

  20. Jake Nantz

    Toni said, "Some people are just crazy, vicious and cruel."


    This is what gets me. People want so desperately to "understand the why of it all." They want to find the reason that it all went bad, because surely there has to be a reason. Were they abused? Did they do the wrong drugs, or otherwise have some break with reality? What could POSSIBLY have driven someone to do this, because it’s not normal and therefore there MUST BE AN EASILY UNDERSTANDABLE AND CATEGORIZABLE REASON FOR IT????

    And it’s not just the serial killers. People look at even the ‘slightly’ aberrant things others do ALL THE TIME and ask whywhywhywhywhy?

    And not once is it acceptable to look at someone who’s done something horrifying, like what happened to a friend of mine’s relative, like a 13 year-old breaking into an 80 year-old woman’s home, punching her in the face twice and fracturing her cheek and orbital bone because just robbing her wasn’t good enough, because he wanted to feel what it was like to do that to someone (and was too much of a chickenshit to try it on someone who might make him pay dearly for it, like me). Not once is it okay with people who cry "WHY?! Did he have a bad home life? Was it genetic? WHY?!" to answer:

    "Because he’s a cruel-hearted, vicious, worthless, absolutely-no-value-to-society-in-this-lifetime-or-any-other little bastard who deserves EVERYTHING that happens to him when he’s caught, because he’s not just mean he’s fucking crazy, that’s why."

    Oh, and Zoe? I loved the research I found some time ago on Pavlichenko, as well as Nina Alexeyevna Lobkovskaya and the other women trained at Central Women’s Sniper School in Veshnyaki. It’s where I got a lot of info for one of my own characters. And if you’re pointing at sheer numbers of kills, there’s Simo Hayha of Finland (nicknamed "White Death") with 505 confirmed sniper kills, more than anyone else with sniper-specific kills confirmed. Mikhail Surkhov is given credit for 702, but people will always claim those numbers are inflated by the Soviet propaganda machine of WWII.

  21. r4 ds

    I see and read your article about the face of evil.The men showing in this photo is make so much crime and they no any murcy shown to people.They look really like the evils.

    r4 ds

  22. Alafair Burke

    Jake and Toni, I agree that there’s often no answer to the "why" question. There’s some fascinating academic work that asks whether in some cases it’s anomalies in the frontal lobe. I find myself desperately wanting that research to be undermined because I hate the idea of what such findings would do to our assumptions about criminality and the fairness of punishment.

    Jill, you mention Scott Peterson. On a lighter note, I mentioned him last month in my criminal law class, and many of my students couldn’t remember the case (hard to believe, I know). In my impromptu attempt to find a description, I found myself saying he looked like Jon Gosselin. He really does.

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