If your tastes run a bit on the macabre side, watching the Showtime original series Dexter can be a lot of fun. For the uninitiated, Dexter is a serial killer who hunts the scum of the earth and, leveraging his day job in blood spatter forensics, he preys on the predators. Pretty cool, huh?
Thing is, most serial killers are nothing like Dexter. Dexter is a sanitized version of serial killers, the kind you can root for. In truth most serial killers have some common unpleasant characteristics. Game masters may find these pointers useful in fleshing our adversaries who get their kicks from killing people. Please note: I’m hardly an expert, I just read a lot of books on the subject in writing my own role-playing supplement on slashers.
To begin with, a huge majority of serial killers experience a pattern of abuse. Dexter’s biggest problem was that he witnessed his mother cut up with a chainsaw at a young age – traumatizing certainly, but that event alone isn’t enough to turn someone into a serial killer. Serial killers arise from prolonged abuse, and it manifests as the Macdonald triad: animal cruelty, pyromania, and bedwetting beyond the age of 12. Dexter’s peculiar belief in protecting the innocent has little place in serial killer psychology.
There are two kinds of serial killer types, the organized and the disorganized. The first type is the smooth-talking Hannibal Lecter. These serial killers, like Dexter, adopt a carefully constructed façade. They are the smiling neighbor next door whom nobody suspects.
Disorganized killers are like Jason Voorhees – so malignantly abused and monstrous that they become monsters themselves, incapable of fitting into normal society. They are ambush predators, because they can’t fast-talk their way into someone’s good graces first. These are the typical killers portrayed in horror movies.
Serial killers kill from a deeply self-centered, emotional need known only to them. There’s usually a sexual element involved too. Like Dexter, serial killers are fond of collecting tokens from their victims to help them relive the experience. Unlike Dexter, a blood sample is highly unlikely to suffice.
Finally, serial killers escalate. Their crimes, deeply rooted in their own fantasies, become more and more urgent as each time they murder a victim the high wears off. Like a drug, their kills become increasingly erratic. Their murders and methods may even morph over time.
What most horror genres prefer is the slasher, who is murderous to the point of being suicidal. The slasher is the serial killer stripped of his emotional baggage, a one-note murder machine. Perhaps the biggest difference between the two is that serial killers have a very specific type of victim they pursue, while slashers tend to kill everybody in their path. A serial killer, confronted with armed force, is likely to either give up, lie, or flee. A slasher, on the other hand, picks up the knife and charges at his gun-wielding opponents.
Slashers, like Dexter’s anti-hero, are actually quite tame compared to the real thing.
Your Turn: Have you ever used serial killers – not slashers – in your game?