6 Real-Life Villains That Are More Evil Than Bookish Ones

Want a comprehensive guide to some of the most infamous murderers of all time? Look no further to read about those and more featured in Aaron Mahnke’s novel.

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Aaron Mahnke’s popular podcast Lore rose to notoriety with its insightful look into the real stories behind legendary folklore. It became so popular, in fact, that Aaron Mahnke published a series of books exploring even further into different topics like Monstrous Creatures, Dreadful Places, and Wicked Mortals. The World of Lore: Wicked Mortals dives into those famous serial killers, torturers, and legendary murderers, giving the reader chills that span far beyond your average bookish villain. Here are six of the most spine-tingling stories to keep everyone except the most dedicated true-crime fans awake and alert far into the night.

Bela Kiss

Bela Kiss was a small-town Hungarian tinsmith who lived alone with his elderly female housekeeper. His wife had just run off, leaving him lonely and dejected. He started keeping the company of various women, never allowing them to stay for more than one night. Eventually, he was enlisted in WWI, never returning to his old abode. While this may seem like a normal story, it was far from it.

A man scarily running in a dark forest.

After several years, Kiss’s landlord decided that Kiss just wasn’t coming back and began cleaning his house to rent it out again. While cleaning, he discovered something extremely odd. This landlord found dozens of fuel drums just sitting in Kiss’s house. He called the old housekeeper, who explained that Kiss was hoarding gasoline because of the upcoming war. Satisfied with her answer, she called for the drums to be taken away and donated to the war effort. Because they had been sitting for so long, however, he had to ensure that they were safe enough to move. Several soldiers showed up at the house and began poking small holes in the drums to safely release any pent-up gas. Instead of gasoline, though, what they smelled coming from those tiny holes made their blood run cold.

A white dirty wall with barrels stacked on the right and a staircase on the left.

A dreadful odor of decay and rot escaped the lid, and the soldiers immediately emptied the drums. Inside each and every barrel was the rotting corpse of long-dead women. Twenty-four in total, the police discovered that Bela Kiss had been luring single women back to his home, strangling them and killing them, one by one. The police searched endlessly for Kiss and almost caught him several times, but he managed to escape their clutches. Oh, and by the way, those bodies? They showed plain as day, marks that indicated strangulation, but there was something else. Each corpse had two small puncture marks on the sides of their necks. They had been completely drained of their blood.

H. H. Holmes

I’m sure you’ve heard of H. H. Holmes at some point in your life. He was an infamous serial killer credited with the creation of the famous Murder Hotel. But not everyone knows the whole story.

Two people in scrubs perform surgery, viewed from what looks like a shelf, as there are blurry items in the foreground blocking the scene except for where the two people are.

H. H. Holmes, born Herman Mudgett, was a surgical prodigy. Left to his own devices in medical school, he started his nefarious lifestyle by stealing corpses from the morgue and passing them off as tragic victims of accidents. For each corpse, he would pose as an insurance salesman and scam family members out of life insurance money. To evade capture, he eventually moved out of town and married into a wealthy family that owned a drugstore. After some mysterious deaths (which totally had nothing to do with him), Holmes once again moved and began construction on his most famous project, what he called The Castle.

Black and white image of an building, the site of H. H. Holmes's hotel.

Cycling through hundreds of construction workers and keeping the building plans a secret, his new hotel only took a couple of months to complete. Holmes allegedly built the three-story structure as a hotel for single, traveling women, with his drugstore on the bottom floor and his office on the top. As you may suspect, his motives were far darker than that. After several disappearances from his hotel, Holmes got cocky with his new murder house.

His first mistake was impregnating the wife of a man who worked for him. While the man did file for divorce afterward, he thought it strange that both the wife and their young daughter disappeared after that, and no mention was made of a newborn baby. Soon after, Holmes tried to pass off one of his murders as an accident so he could collect insurance money (apparently his true passion) and was apprehended at last, the consequences of his actions finally catching up with him.

A skeleton inside an open concrete coffin.

With Holmes safely in jail, investigators began their search of his hotel, finding what could only be described as a house of horrors. Each floor was littered with secret passageways, doors that opened into brick walls, and stairways that led to nowhere. In the basement, they found body parts and bones, jars of poison, and even personal items belonging to the victims. They even found a contraption they called the Vault, a horrifying room made to fit only a single upright person. This chamber, equipped with metal walls and a trap door below, was designed to gas victims to death before shooting them down to the basement. The death toll from this and other torture devices amounted to as many as 200 people, a harrowing number.

A black and white image of a skull, with what looks like rocks or concrete on either side of it.

When confronted about his sadistic actions, Holmes said, “I was born with the Devil in me. I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing. I was born with the ‘Evil One’ standing as my sponsor beside the bed where I was ushered into the world, and he has been with me since” (24). Yikes.

Supernaturally-Motivated Killers

A close up on two hands, with black nail polish, holding a lit white candle. They are wearing all black.

There are three murders, only one of them solved, that challenge what we know about traditional motives. They involve accusations of witchcraft, dark magic, and even the influence of Irish folklore. It’s pretty cool what the mind can come up with when fear is involved.

Michael Cleary

One of these cases involves the legend of a changeling, a fairy that snatches a baby and takes its place. On a rainy day, Michael Cleary’s wife Bridget came home from a business venture with a terrible cold. Bridget was known for being an independent and self-made woman, something that was very upsetting to men in the 19th century. One of Michael’s friends took one look at Bridget after she came home that rainy day and decided that she was not Bridget.

A woman with pale skin, messy black hair, and a dirty loose long sleeve shirt stands in the right third of the frame. She is looking at someone whose back we can see, but that's the only part.

He claimed she was a changeling, and the real Bridget had been taken away. Apparently, that’s all it took for Michael to begin a string of tests and torture on Bridget, trying to get a confession out of her. Eventually, he lit her on fire and tossed her in the chimney, claiming that because she was a changeling, she would ascend up the chute. Instead, she burned to death in front of her family and close friends. Not a good way to go.

A close up on a gray bundle of wood with orange sparks and small flames coming from it.

The next two cases have to do with witchcraft, and neither are solved. The first one is slightly more “naturally” explainable, and it has to do with a man named Charles Walton.

Charles Walton’s Death

Charles was kind of a hermit, living alone and drinking in solitude every night. He lived on a farm, but instead of raising cattle or crops, he raised frogs. As you may know, frogs tend to be associated with witches. Because Charles didn’t seem to have any close friends or family and was occasionally seen talking to birds, the town jumped to the conclusion that he was a witch. When he was found dead with a pitchfork pinning his neck to the ground, the police didn’t have to investigate much to come to the conclusion that a sick member of society had had enough and decided to take matters into their own hands.

A man with shoulder length brown hair holds a young girl in anger against a tree. Only their chests and up are visible.

Now, some of you have probably read The Crucible or at least know a little about the Salem Witch Trials in the 17th century. So you might think that this kind of activity was probably because of the country-wide paranoia stemming from those trials, infecting the minds of common people who had no reason to believe witchcraft wasn’t a common evil. Well, that is where you would be wrong. Because this happened in 1940, almost three hundred years after the Salem Witch Trials.

A black and white, grainy photo of a man with glasses standing at a long desk in what looks like a courtroom. Everyone around him at the desk and behind him is sitting. He is looking sternly at a man whose face is off to the left, almost completely off camera.

The Killing of Nora Marionette Fornario

This next case has a less obvious solution than townsfolk paranoia and is all the more frightening. This case involves a secret society called the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. This group, formed in 1887, was focused on the study and practice of the occult, eventually branching off to form several separate chapters. One of these chapters was called the Alpha and Omega, and it was this group that Nora Marionette Fornario dedicated her life to. Fornario, under the influence of this occult group, traveled to Scotland in 1929 for a pilgrimage. The problem with that, though, is that she never returned. What happened there eventually led to her demise.

Close up of two hands with black painted fingernails holding a glass chalice with a dark liquid in it.

During her pilgrimage, Fornario described being hunted by dark and sinister forces and went out every day to perform rituals researching these dangerous energies. One day, she never returned to her boarding house. The landlady went out looking for her, and a search party spent two hours trudging through the moors where she was last seen. What they found puzzled them so much that they decided it could only be supernatural, and thus, her case was never actually solved.

A person dressed in a black dress with black paint on their hands holds an animal skull by the horns in front of their face.

Her body was discovered, naked, sprawled out on top of a carved cross-like symbol in the ground. A knife was found nearby, but no blood or puncture wounds. In fact, the medical examiners failed to draw any conclusions about her cause of death. A final hint, though, can be found in her legs. On her legs and feet were long scratches and cuts, which seemed to indicate that she was running away from something. But who (or what) was she so scared of?

Elizabeth Bathory

This last killer was the infamous Elizabeth Bathory. Theorized as one of the early inspirations for the legend of the vampire, she was a notorious alleged serial killer from the Hungarian nobility. Elizabeth Bathory married into the family of a count and inherited a large castle, becoming wealthier than she had ever dreamed. She had an assortment of maids and housekeepers but still hired more to keep up with daily duties. Little did those servants know that the “daily duties” in the Bathory household involved much more than laundry and dishes.

A cobblestone path leading to a castle on the right, with trees and grass off to the left.

You see, Elizabeth Bathory wasn’t into reading, horseback riding, or music. She was actually quite fond of torture. Along with her hired handmaiden, Anna Darvulia (who already had a reputation for witchcraft and sorcery), she would invite local girls to her castle under the guise of a job offer, from which they would never return. Bathory would take these “new hires” and torture them until she was satisfied enough to let them die. For example, she would bring a girl outside, strip her naked, lay her in the snow, and pour cold water on her until it froze to her skin. Then, she would just leave her to succumb to the elements. Warmer weather didn’t stop her from using the natural elements for torture, though. In the spring, she would bring a girl out into a field, pour honey on her, and let insects bite and sting her entire body.

A dark, gray forest with two trees in view that have arms wrapped around them.

After Bathory’s husband died, the torture and murder got exponentially worse. She became obsessed with youth and vitality, believing that human blood would make her all but immortal. She would have Anna Darvulia bring servant girls to her room, cutting and burning their flesh and even biting them. There is a famous addition to the story that involved Bathory literally bathing in blood, but that could be a severe exaggeration.

Eventually, Bathory got cocky; as the local village girls became more scarce, she turned to nobility, which garnered her much more attention in the public eye. She was found out, and more and more witnesses and accomplices came forward to testify against her and make their confessions. Eventually, each person who worked for and with Bathory was convicted, but Bathory herself was never touched. Her wealth and status made her immune to every charge brought against her, while every person who helped her was burdened with murder charges.

A dark, painted-over small brick room with one window at the far end.

That’s pretty much where the story ends, as Elizabeth Bathory was forced to live out her days confined in a boarded-up bedroom, prevented from leaving or even peeking out of a window. This is where she died, taking all of her strange motives and explanations with her.

We’re still not 100% sure why she did what she did; what switch got flipped in her mind that caused her sudden bloodlust. What we do know, however, is that she wrote down the names of each girl she killed in her diary, a sort of death toll. When her journal was recovered, investigators found those names belonging to each victim, along with more belonging to bodies that were never recovered. In total, there were over six hundred names. That just leaves you to wonder: What did she do with the rest of the bodies?

A black and white photo of a woman peering at the camera beneath floorboards.

Along with these famous killers must be hundreds more that we have never found. How many supposed “accidental deaths” could have been the handiwork of an undiscovered serial killer? As for the ones we know about, how many victims do we have yet to discover? The world might be a lot darker than we think.

Want to read more about serial killers? Check out our article about essential true-crime reads.

For more chilling tales, check out our bookshelf of horror reads.