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All this discussion of discussion of life after death and rather the faithful should fear death : Why doesn't the verified existence of heaven change characters' attitude toward death? reminded me of an old story Idea of mine.

The basic premise is a serial killer who found religion, but can't overcome his need to kill; instead coming up with a rather twisted view of religion to fit into that need to kill (he doesn't think the killing is moral, but he is trying to do it as close to 'right' since he can't control himself anyways).

He reasons that Heaven is better than life, and so killing someone who is certain to go to Heaven is a mercy. However, killing the most pious individuals is not good because these people are helping to convert and thus save other individuals, a cause worthy of their 'suffering' in life a little longer to do His work. Instead the most important people to kill are those that are at risk of going to either location, if they can do something to just barely earn Heaven it's important to kill them immediately so they don't have time to backslide morally and end up in Hell.

Thus he finds, stalks, and studies morally ambiguous Christians, on the edge of earning Heaven or Hell in his mind, and eventually sets them up with a test. He creates a trap where his potential victim is given a choice to do something great, most likely save the life of someone they think is going to die, but only if they risk their own life.

If, and only if, the victim does the noble deed to save someone they should die, as in doing so they have committed an act good enough to earn Heaven and should be sent there immediately. If they don't risk themselves they must live, so they don't go to Hell yet and have chance to possibly find redemption and earn Heaven before their death.

What I need is a way for the killer to create convincing traps like this that will not lead anyone to believe there is a serial killer on the loose. That means the ones that fail his test and run away should have no reason to think they were being tested or the circumstances were arranged. Likewise those killed should have their deaths ruled as natural causes, accident, or anything other than murder. Since most of the victims come from the same church and are known to many within the church the manner of their death must have either enough variance or ambiguity that no one who has heard of the multiple deaths will notice enough of a pattern for church members to be suspicious.

Ideally there would be just enough of a pattern for the one cynical officer who suspects a subtle serial killer to identify individuals as possible victims without it being obvious enough to convince others or his identifying that they are all being tested before their killed yet.

How can the killer set up his tests without drawing undue suspicion on himself?

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    $\begingroup$ The Outer Limits version of this scenario would have the reader realize halfway in that the tested were in on it, and were trying to game the system to get in to heaven. At the end, the skeptical investigating officer realizes the high morality and good intentions of the killer and kills him, noting "there's a right way to do it". $\endgroup$ – Willk Jan 17 '17 at 18:14
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    $\begingroup$ This feels like the Trolley Problem, but with the intended victim being on the second track and pulling the lever. $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Jan 17 '17 at 18:17
  • $\begingroup$ @Will the intent is for the protagonist to be one of those morally ambiguous individuals who doesn't realize he has been talking to the killer in his investigation, and become the killers next target. At the end the protagonist is put into a variant of the test and 'fails'. It's left ambiguous rather the protagonist understood he was being tested and thus new he shouldn't try to help, or was just a coward who failed on his own. Then he basically convinces the killer to suicide-by-cop after the killer does a good dead to earn his own heaven despite being 'morally ambiguous' himself $\endgroup$ – dsollen Jan 17 '17 at 18:22
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    $\begingroup$ @Will in the Outer Limits reboot, the homage sequel reveals that everyone is morally ambiguous, and everyone has been assigned someone else to test, until there are just two people left, each daring the other to slip and do something nice. $\endgroup$ – SRM - Reinstate Monica Jan 17 '17 at 19:16
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    $\begingroup$ You are creating a better plot for Saw, basically. I like this. $\endgroup$ – T. Sar - Reinstate Monica Jan 30 '17 at 16:52
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Nothing is new under the sun.

You're probably looking for an extreme version of the Cathari movement (heresy), which provides all the justification which a serial killer could want.

Roughly speaking (and almost certainly a cartoonish oversimplification), Cathars believed the God of the old testament was evil, and had created a corrupt world. Everything material was created by him, so everything material is evil. Later, Christ came along, and he is a separate, good god. Also, souls are angels held captive by our (corrupt) bodies.

In practice, this seems to have led to a mostly-generic puritan lifestyle with a few quirks. Mostly, you had clean-living communities who worked hard and took care of each other. Some of those quirks were offensive to the church (refusing all sacraments, because they were worldly and so corrupt), some were neutral (no meat, dairy, swearing oaths, or killing), some were laudable at the time (frequent fasting), and one is exactly what you're looking for: the consolamentum.

Cathari society can be divided into the Believers and the Perfects. Believers are just regular guys. They try to live right and all, but they don't have any extreme requirements on them. Perfects are people who are dedicated to purifying themselves. They live a strict ascetic lifestyle; surrender all possessions to the community; preach, pray, and do charity work all day; etc. And when they die, their souls go free to become angels and hang out with Christ. The actual process of becoming a Perfect was a fairly mundane ritual named "the consolamentum," which I read as roughly comparable to a modern baptism: a certain aount of ritual, but nothing really exciting. After that, you just had to maintain the ascetic lifestyle until you died to get the good ending.

Any optimizer reading this would immediately see the loophole: behave however you want all your life, get this ritual on your deathbed, starve for however long it took you to finish dying, be an angel forever. It's not clear that it actually went this way very often, but it IS clear that the contemporary propaganda against the Cathars described them that way. There are also some specific charges that Cathars who timed this poorly (received a deathbed consolamentum, then recovered) were smothered by their friends to prevent them from screwing up. Libel or truth, that's your serial killer tie in.

So, you have this large, established body of doctrine to draw from. You have a creepy not-quite-business-as-usual religious vibe (including dormant angels inside people!). You have the standard serial-killeresque belief that everything worldly is corrupted (though with an established, existing religious belief behind it). And you have a very plausible excuse for killing people.

Also, it was based in France, so you might have to take a field-trip there for research ;)

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Not that I've given this much thought. No.....not at all....

Death by prayer

Setup a spot for your flock to pray with a cushion made of dodgy material and of poor craftsmanship. Having them sit or kneel is preferable, and making the surface small enough to force them into a single spot is needed. Have a highly radioactive material in a lead/water lined box with a hydraulic lid.

Have your murderer set up extensive surveillance on the next subject. Buy burner phones for your murderer, and have them call the victim with a message implying that if they don't pray for a loved one's safety, the loved one will suffer the "wrath of [deity]". Destroy the phone, and dispose of the remains. If they don't pray multiple times for them (and they checked!), the loved one will continually suffer unfortunate "accidents".

When they've prayed for the loved one enough, begin introducing radiation in doses to them as they prey using the hydraulic lid when they pray, and closing it when they aren't there.

This method will be slow enough to give enough time between cases that other churchgoers probably won't notice, especially with the variations radiation can cause. Bonus points for being in a location with a nuclear plant.

I may have more options later...

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What I need is a way for the killer to create convincing traps like this that will not lead anyone to believe there is a serial killer on the loose. That means the ones that fail his test and run away should have no reason to think they were being tested or the circumstances were arranged. Likewise those killed should have their deaths ruled as natural causes, accident, or anything other than murder

The trap per se need not be anything special. Any situation in which someone is in danger is a potential "trap", so our killers starts by:

  1. Devising ways of putting someone in apparent danger of death, from which they can be saved by someone else risking his life.

Things like trapping people in burning buildings or in cars sinking in iced-over lakes or hanging for dear life over chasms or having a foot trapped between the docks of a rail line.

Since the danger should only be apparent, the killer must either be ready to save himself those people in a non-suspicious way (e.g. pretending himself to be the selfless saviour), or he can himself impersonate the person in trouble (but this is tricky in case of subsequent investigations).

This allows to set up a trap, either with the same danger, or a different one.

For example the killer fakes being trapped in a car on a iced-over lake. The unsuspecting would-be saviour dares the ice himself; little does he know that the killer has a thermal diving suit on under his clothes, and that the ice has been mined so that it is solid, but will crack at the click of a button. The body of the helper will be found; that of the luckless helpee will not.

This will not be suspicious the first time. If the killer travels a lot, not even the second or the third.

The fourth time he'll have to come up with something different.

Choosing all victims from the same church is probably a dead giveaway; he can perhaps off two or three of them, but no more.

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