Serial killers: to show case or shut away?
In today’s society, we are growing ever more fascinated with the terrifying presence of the serial killer. This fascination has been compelled by the vast number of media representations of real life serial killers. From books documenting their heinous crimes, through to films, documentaries and stories told by victims’ loved ones. Whilst it is undoubtedly important to make people aware of the existence of such dangerous individuals, this article asks whether we should be concerned with the way serial killers depicted. They are frequently sexualised and glamorised in media representations, whilst sensationalism plays a large role in invoking the horror we feel toward them. Together with serial killers desires for notoriety, the vulnerability of some social groups yet increasingly ready access to potentially triggering content, this article will explore problems and potential solutions that could be applied to media representations of serial killers.
The victims of the perpetrators are sadly only fleetingly acknowledged. In re-enactments we are often exposed only to the point of attack by the criminal, for purposes of time and climactic effect. This can, however, misconstrue the accuracy of the events. Whilst the suffering of a victim is represented for a couple of minutes, for instance, in reality their ordeal may have lasted for a far greater period of time. The serial killer is made the point of central interest, rather than that of the innocent lives they have robbed or the sufferings of family. Consequently, the media emphasises aspect that play on the audience’s fears, and quickly we breathe a selfish sigh of relief that at least we were not the victims. Arguably, then, the media is simply feeding the perpetrators desires for attention. Serial killers are characteristically narcissistic, manipulative and calculating, feeding off the horror they elicit by their actions and thriving on the attention they derive from their actions, regardless of these being of utter disgust.
It is not, however, only the existing perpetrators that the media may be feeding. Psychological studies have shown that some individuals are at greater risk of carrying out violence and murder. For instance, brain scans have revealed that individuals with less grey matter in the outer frontal lobes are less likely to empathise and feel emotion toward the suffering pf others. An individual with these tendencies may therefore vie a programme about serial killers and be drawn to the power seemingly gained by the killer through murder, yet not feel any sympathy toward the victim. This predisposition physiologically, when combined with abuse in childhood, substance abuse, or is not accepted by civilised society, increases the likelihood of such an individual committing crime.
There is evidence of this in the form of so called ‘copycat killings’, where an individual mimics the crimes of a previous murderer. This has been seen in cases such as that of ‘Jack the Ripper’. Harold Jones, for example, was nicknamed the ‘Yorkshire Stripper’. Having been inspired by the actions of the infamous and unidentified ‘Jack the Ripper’, he was prosecuted for the killings of a number of sex workers during the 1960s. He admitted that he would resist all rehabilitative programs, as he wished not to ‘lost his desire to kill’. This, too, was true for Yorkshire ripper, Peter Sutcliffe. Both Jones and Sutcliffe claim to have been abused by violent, drunken fathers during their adolescent years. This has led many specialists in fields such as criminology and psychology the view that both turned to murder as a way of revenging a society which had, in their eyes, failed to protect them when they themselves were victims. In Jones’ case, it seems that this individual, feeling victimised by his father who had for many years belittled and ridiculed him as part of his abuse, desired the ‘fame’ And ‘power’ that’ Jack thru Ripper’ had in his warped view. He developed obsession collecting all media articles on the serial killer. Here, then, whilst we cannot say for certain that Jones would not have committed crime if he had not followed ‘Jack the Ripper’ so admirably, we can arguably be justified to suggest here that the media certainly played a role in the brutality of the crimes he wold go on to commit with its close documentation of ‘Jack the Ripper’.
Serial killers often relish creating such powerful and immortal self-images. Perhaps no serial killer ever relished or participated more heavily in this than the BTK Killer. Dennis Rader was determined to establish a brand name for himself and attract public notoriety like the Boston Strangler and the Son of Sam, so he brazenly contacted the news media in the fall of 1974 and left a letter for authorities at the local public library that instructed his pursuers to call him “Bind, Torture, Kill.”
in this letter, Rader’s expression of concern for society is laughable in its insincerity. He wrote …I’m sorry this happen to society. They are the ones who suffer the most…
Contrary to his written statement, his actual goals in writing to authorities were narcissistic and self-gratifying, remaining true to the common characteristics of serial killers in his desires to create terror, gain notoriety, and demonstrate intellectual superiority. By giving publicity to these individuals through the media, are we not just both satisfying the sick thrill these individuals get from negative attention, and potentially shaping the minds of potential future killers?
There have been cases where the media has been blackmailed by an unknown perpetrator. for example, the self-labelled ‘Zodiac Killer’ who remains unknown to this day, demanded in the 1960s and 1970s that letters and cryptograms he wrote be published on the front pages of three major American newspapers. The consequence of his requests being ignored, he threatened, would be him on a
"cruse [sic] around all weekend killing lone people in the night then move on to kill again, until I end up with a dozen people over the weekend."
Similar to ‘BTK’, the ‘Zodiac Killer’ received tremendous notoriety by contacting his pursuers and, just like them, he would go on to murder again.
So, then, we need to consider solutions to this problem. Do we limit the age of access for individuals who can view such materials? Media is readily available on the internet today that often regulating age groups means simply ticking a box, with no need for physical proof. Or what about individuals with mental illnesses? An undiagnosed or relapsing schizophrenic may struggle to differentiate between reality and unreality. Together with voices compelling them, to act out similar acts of violence, are they liable to blame? Peter Sutcliffe, for example, explained that he killed so any women because he heard God in his head telling him to murder prostitutes. He would later be diagnosed with schizophrenia. Are we, then, exposing potentially predisposed violent individuals who are essentially vulnerable, and a disaster waiting to happen? No longer are people having to go into a shop, where visually we may see that one is vulnerable to negative influences of this kind of media. So then we turn to blame parents, or even the government.
But again, the underlying problem seems to be, as outlined at the beginning of this article, the glamorization of the offender. If we were to concentrate more on their incarceration, or life on death row where they have nothing for company but the reality of impending death, perhaps people would not be so drawn in. Yet this is not often how media representations go. With the new film depicting serial killer Ted Bundy, Zac Efron stars as Bundy, the lawyer who evaded capture for over what is estimated to be thirty murders, and who arrogantly acted as his own defense at trial. With a Hollywood star playing the perpetrator, and the emphasis being his charismatic, intelligent and seemingly ‘normal’ nature, one cannot help but think that people will walk away considering how well Efron played the role, or will be left with the impression of the glamorized, sensationalized impression of the killer. This arguably reduces the audiences’ remembrance of the suffering Bundy inflicted on his victims and their loved ones. After all the hurt they have caused, should we not at least seek to serve justice to the individuals to a greater extent?
We must also ask ourselves whether we should allow open publication of texts written by the criminal. For example, Ian Brady published his texts, yet he was inspired in earlier life by Hitler’s Meinkampf and books on sexual sadism. Of course, there should be freedom of expression and speech. However, he question is, rather, should these individuals, having removed the right to life from their victims, be so willingly handed such freedoms themselves? This of course is a larger problem of whether we are too lenient with (UK) prisoners, an area subject to great debate itself. But to touch on it here, perhaps this is a further area we need to be considering. Subjecting the victims loved one and families to the often self-absorbed, narcissistic and essentially unnecessary opinions of those like Brady by publishing their often self-indulgent works is arguably never fully enabling the victims’ loved ones be free of the grasp of that individual. Whilst they cannot cause physical harm any longer, they can cause psychological through their published, and thus public, presence.
Of course, companies making these films have to profit, but is this not the problem at the very core of this dilemma? Other motives, other than to show society the evil it harbours within its structures, come into play. Titles need to captivate, and abstracts need to draw interest. Newspapers use adverbs such as ‘Ripper’ and ‘Strangler’, for example, to catch our attention; to play on our worst fears and engage us in what their story will tell us.
Indeed, this article itself is guilty of this. The alliteration its title is used to draw readers; to make us think about serial killers and their actions in both their glamorized and unglamorized terms. However, because its purpose to make people recognise these aspects of sensationalism, it serves a positive purpose and seeks to unglamorized serial killers.
Perhaps, then, media representations nee to give a clearer message that makes its content more appropriate, if a large and diverse audience base are going to access it. Whilst media can continue to use its catchy titles and allure viewers, there should be greater content of the downfall of the perpetrators, rather than their inflated sense of self, depicting their decline from animus fame and notoriety, to an individual removed from society and serving life sentences. This will potentially challenge the illusory ‘power’ that is often connoted in media cases documenting serial killers.
In today’s society, we are made to feel afraid and the perpetrator in many ways wins. Most of us look with horror at serial killers’ actions, and would never imagine committing and rime similar. But, when we consider those most vulnerable, we have to bear in mind the consequences. If we are not careful, are we not just as guilty as the perpetrators, adding fuel to the beginning sparks of a potentially fatal fire?
This article was written by Emily Evans
Braudy, L. The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and its History, (Oxford University Press, 1986).
Brogaard, Berit, ‘The Making of a Serial Killer: possible causes of psychopathology’, Psychology Today, (02.07.2012).
Heggerty,, Kevin, & Ellerbrok, Ariane, ‘The social study of serial killers,’ Centre for Crime and Justice Studies.
Knightley, Alan, Ian Brady; The untold story of the Moors Murders, (Oxford University Press, 2017).
Nock, S. The Costs of Privacy: Surveillance and Reputation in America, (New York, 1993).
Wilson, D. Serial Killers: Hunting Britons and Their Victims, 1960–2006, (Winchester, 2007).
Gareth Penn, Times 17: the amazing story of the Zodiac murders in California and Massachusetts, 1966–1981, (Foxglove Press, 1987).