14 Criminal Minds Episodes That Were Actually Based On Real Serial Killers

Criminal Minds has featured some of the most disturbing murders ever seen on television. You might wonder, "How do they come up with all these sick, twisted ways of killing people?" As it turns out, many Criminal Minds episodes are ripped from the headlines. There are plenty of real killers who have provided great material for this show.

If you're one of those people who's seen every episode of Criminal Minds, you might already know which ones were based on true stories. But for those who don't, here's a list of episodes based on real serial killers. Readers beware. 

  • The Thirteenth Step Is Based on Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate

    In Season 6, Episode 13, the team investigates a spree committed by a newlywed couple, both of whom have a serious drinking problem. This couple was based on Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate, who went on a spree back in the 1950s. 

    The real culprits were much younger than the actors in the episode - only 19 and 14, respectively - and they weren't actually married. But the murders in the gas station at the beginning of the episode are relatively true to what the real people did. In real life, the first person who Starkweather and Fugate killed when they ran away together was a gas station attendant.

  • The Big Wheel Is Based on The Lipstick Killer

    In Season 4, Episode 22, the Behavioral Analysis Unit takes a case after a local police department receives a video from a serial killer. The video shows the killer going about his day, including murdering one of his victims. In the video, the man writes a message in red ink: "Help me." The team soon discovers the UnSub - or unknown subject - has obsessive compulsive disorder and cannot stop himself from killing. His message "Help me," really meant "Stop me."

    This is similar to the case of William Heirens, otherwise known as "The Lipstick Killer." Heirens was dubbed the Lipstick Killer because he wrote a message in lipstick on the wall of a victim's apartment. The message said: "For heaven's sake catch me before I kill more. I cannot control myself." The killer in the Criminal Minds episode doesn't use lipstick, but he does write in red ink. Linked here is a picture of this message from a real crime scene.

  • Omnivore Is Based on the Zodiac Killer

    Omnivore Is Based on the Zodiac Killer
    Video: YouTube

    If you're a Criminal Minds fan and you know your serial killer trivia, you may have already figured out that The Reaper from the TV series is based on the Zodiac Killer. The Reaper, whose real name is George Foyet, appears in multiple episodes, but in the episode "Omnivore" it features striking similarities to the real-life case.

    The main similarity between the Zodiac and the Reaper is they both send messages to the police that often contain codes and attempt to bargain with authorities.

    The first message from the Zodiac Killer took credit for two shootings and demanded his note be printed in three local papers, or he would kill a dozen people that weekend. The Reaper on Criminal Minds communicates with authorities in a similar way. "Omnivore" begins with Agent Hotchner visiting an old, dying colleague, who informs him that he made a deal with the Reaper 10 years ago: The Reaper would stop murdering if the police agreed to stop "hunting" him. Hotchner takes over the case because the contract expired with his colleague's death. The Reaper offers Hotch the same deal in a message delivered via telephone, but Hotch refuses to take it.

  • Our Darkest Hour Is Based on The Night Stalker

    Our Darkest Hour Is Based on The Night Stalker
    Video: YouTube

    In the final episode of Season 5 and the first episode of Season 6, the BAU has to contend with a serial killer who uses the rolling blackouts during the hot Los Angeles summer as opportunities to break into people's homes and murder them. The UnSub brutalizes the adult victims in the house but doesn't injure the children.

    The serial killer in this episode is based on Richard Ramirez, also known as "The Night Stalker." Ramirez was so named because he only ever killed at night, just like the killer in the episode. Ramirez was active in the Los Angeles area, and he butchered his adult victims but didn't physically harm children. Ramirez was eventually stopped by an angry mob of citizens who recognized him from the sketches in the papers.

  • To Hell...And Back Is Based on Robert Pickton

    "To Hell..." "And Back" may be two of the most disturbing episodes of Criminal Minds ever made. A serial killer is targeting the homeless, sex workies, and addicts - people who nobody will theoretically miss - decapitating them, and feeding their bodies to the pigs on his farm. The team eventually figures out that the killer actually suffers from a cognitive disability and doesn't understand the crimes he is committing. He is experimenting on and killing the victims by request of his quadriplegic brother, who is searching for a cure for his condition.

    This case is loosely based on a serial killer named Robert Pickton. Pickton was a wealthy pig farmer who killed sex workers and addicts, and he did, in fact, feed some of the bodies to his pigs. The writers of Criminal Minds made the story more complex, turning one killer into two, but the profile of the victims and the means of disposing of the bodies clearly came from the Pickton case.

  • The Tribe Is Based on the Manson Family

    The Tribe Is Based on the Manson Family
    Video: YouTube

    In Episode 16 of Season 1, the BAU chases a "pack" of killers who are attempting to frame Native American tribes for murder. The team calls in an expert in Native American culture who determines the killers have combined together the most brutal rituals of several different tribes. The team suspects the killers are trying to turn public opinion against Native Americans.

    A group of killers with a similar motive was the Manson Family cult. Charles Manson believed that a race war between whites and blacks, which he referred to as Helter Skelter, was imminent. Manson directed his followers to commit several murders in order to get the race war started, believing that they would be able to seize power after the war.