Serial Killer vs. Multiple Murderer: What's the Difference?

There are serial killer crime novels. There are crime novels where the antagonist kills more than one person. I wouldn't lump the latter into the former. What's the difference? Here's my line.

1) If the protagonist offs a pile of people, then he/she is a multiple murderer.

2) If the antagonist kills over and over, then he/she is a serial killer.

Exception to 2): The killing is not done to satisfy some psychological condition.

That's about as clear cut as I can get. What about you?

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Well the FBI specialists would probably have a more comprehensive breakdown.

For example, there are "spree killers" such as Andrew Cunanan who kill a number of people over a short period of time. Spree killers and serial killers don't share a lot in common in regard to victim selection, motive, method, etc.

And I suspect there are sociopaths who kill for some type of gain over and over again (e.g., women who are in the habit of marrying and poisoning their spouses), and they don't have a lot in common with serial killers either.

So what's the difference between the Black Widow and Buffalo Bill? I can't see any.


You've posted a question about a subject I'm fascinated with: serial killers. As a matter-of-fact, I'm doing a series of posts on the topic on my blog beginning September 23rd. In response to your question, here's an excerpt from my first post.

Mass murderers kill their victims all at once. They choose a killing field and attempt to take as many victims as possible. They do not hunt, torture and then kill their victims. Serial killers do. One definition of a serial killer is “someone who commits three or more murders over an unspecified period of time.”

Here's the link to my blog. I hope you'll visit next month.

You might also be interested in watching my book trailer. Here's that link.

That's good information. The protagonist in my WIP kills a bunch of people, and I didn't want things to drift into the serial killer category. That's not what this person is, he just winds up killing a bunch of people.

Serial killers follow a pattern.  Their need to kill is psychological.  Carrying out the killing satisfies an inner compulsion.  Greed or revenge have nothing to do with it.  Their victims tend to belong to the same type and are strangers, and the m.o. is usually identical.  Serial killers may leave a signature, especially if they play an ego game with law enforcement.

A reader's question. In real life, there are "serial" killers, and "mass" murderers. The former, as IJ points out, kill because of some psychological need, and according to some pattern that makes sense to them.  A mass murderer, like the "Unabomber" kills a lot of people at one time perhaps for a political motive, or just plain rage.   Perhaps both types of killer are "sociopaths."  I would guess that a woman who poisons a series of husbands could be called a "serial" killer.  And I suppose someone who murders his or her entire family in one fell swoop could be called a "mass"murderer too----if the murders all take place at the same time.

But the "multiple" murderer----is this not a "construct" of the murder mystery?  Who kills, as you put it , a "pile" of people----the first victim, then the one who knows something, then someone else who saw something or  knows something, then someone else who knows something....I've never really believed in this kind of killer. :) But they turn up all the time in crime fiction!   But does this really happen in real life?  I wonder.


Ah, excellent point.  I thought about the same thing.  In murder mysteries this keeps the suspense alive and the danger high.  It also produces more needed clues (as does the fictional serial killer).  In real life, I think, crimes are simple and so are the killers.  The kind of clever plotting that would be needed to remove witnesses is generally beyond them.  Having said this, we have had local cases where star witnesses in murder trials were killed before they could testify. This is likely to happen in a culture of a closed society that protects its own. Gangs for example.

Dude, you need to watch Criminal Minds. Not only do serial killers have a psychological reason to abduct, torture and kill, that reason is almost always twisted sex. Profilers have names for all these sub-categories, too.

You may be a Dude, but we (women) are not. :)

We know that serial killers are "psychologically" motivated, and that the motivation is sexual.

But I'll bet the number of murders committed by men who decide to kill their wives ( or girlfrienhds)  far outnumbers the  total number of serial killers. Why, in Durham alone....let me amend North Carolina alone....wife-killing is just about the number one pasttime!  And we get the odd husband-killing as well.  (Ann Miller Kuntz, Barbara Stager).  We don't need serial killers to make headlines here. 

And the motivation for those crimes is either jealousy or an overwhelming need to escape a tiresome marriage but not get taken to the cleaners. Because I've often thought, wouldn't divorce be a simpler way out? But no....

I've always thought of a multiple murderer as more of a 'one time' killer - such as school shootings, the killings at an army base, etcetera.  I throw the "clean-up" murders in with the one-time aspect.

To me, multiple killers are trying to make a big statement or revenge an imagined wrong (regardless of how twisted or hard it is to understand) through their mass killings.  For the most part, they anticipate that the public will likely learn of their actions and identity and, in several cases, actually welcome that notoriety.


Whereas, I think of a serial killer as an on-going, need-driven killer.  Not driven by making a statement, but by a psychological need to kill; either for control, power, sexual satisfaction, etcetera.  To them, the kill is the important aspect, not any statement or reason.  And their goal is to not be identified so that they can continue killing.

Despite its crappy title, "Hunting Humans" is a very good book about this:


The difference is why and how the people are killed. Serial killers usually kill people who all have something in common and a lot of serial killers (though not all) kill everyone in the same fashion. So usually you have a serial killer whose victims are all women, strippers or prostitutes, etc. where they all might be strangled, hacked up or stabbed. Serial killers also plan their murders.

A multiple murderer can be just someone who happened to kill different people but didn't necessarily plan it. For example you can have a rapist or a burglar who never intended to kill but during their journeys ended up having to. Multiple murderers usually don't kill for pleasure but circumstance. They kill people who might get in their way and their murders might be spur of the moment so definitely different from a serial killer.

They definitely can be linked with some cases but totally different in how they do things and how the killings come about.

At least that's how I've always seen it. Serial is in a class all its own. Those folks kill because they think they have a higher purpose, are superior, hate their victims or because it brings them pleasure they can't get anywhere else. The thrill is the kill and something inside drives them to do it.


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