Welcome and thanks for joining me!
So why this? Why a blog that reviews films and books on serial killers? A better question may well be why are we, culturally speaking, so fascinated with serial killers? It only takes one look at Netflix, which currently boasts an overabundance of feature films, television shows, and documentaries on serial killers to know we are hooked. The mass media around serial killers is truly massive. Books, movies, television series, podcasts, graphic novels. There are true crime conventions, trading cards, action figures, and collectors of all things serial killer. The boundaries seem endless. But why? Why are normal, everyday people who we know harbor no visions of brutally murdering a fellow human, fascinated with those that do?
Before we answer that question, let’s take a deeper look at the phenomenon that is known as serial killing.
The History —
The modern use of the term “serial killer” is largely attributed to FBI profiler Robert K. Ressler, who used it in 1974. But what constitutes a serial killer? Throughout the years, law enforcement, legislators, academia, researchers, and the media, have intensely debated its definition, making it not only difficult to determine its statistical occurrence, but difficult for law enforcement to investigate and for lawyers to prosecute. In 2005, at a multidisciplinary FBI symposium that brought together psychologists, law enforcement officials, and behavioral analysts, among others, a working definition of serial murder was developed as: “The unlawful killing of two or more victims by the same offender(s), in separate events.” Left out of the definition, were continually debated factors such as motivation, intent, and the relationship to the victim.
Many point to Jack the Ripper as the first documented case of serial killing. While the emergence of newspapers made widespread coverage of Ripper’s crimes more prevalent, serial killing as a concept has occurred throughout the ages. From Ancient Rome to Europe in the Middle Ages, to the United States in the 1800s, serial killers are not a modern phenomenon.
Of note: a serial killer is categorized differently than a spree killer and/or a mass murderer. Spree killing involves the murder of two or more people in different locations, without a ‘cooling off’ period (such as Andrew Cunanan who killed Gianni Versace), while mass murderers (like Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold) kill several people in one basic location within a very short time period. For our purposes, neither will be addressed here.
The causes of serial killing defy simple explanation and the scientific community has struggled not only to agree on root causes, but to convey what makes a serial killer kill. After having studied thousands of serial killer cases, author and forensic psychologist Katherine Ramsland states, there are “no set of characteristics or causes that provides us with a way to set them apart.” Further, Ramsland challenges long held myths about the psychological make up of these criminals, saying that “outdated studies” have perpetuated beliefs such as serial killers have “above-average intelligence, that they’re only sexually motivated…that they have a clear victim type, and that they’ve all been abused as children.” Robert Ressler agrees saying, “there are no hard and fast rules…for every attempt to state a truth, one can find counterexamples that undermine it.”
While there is no agreement on specific characteristics inherent in a serial killer (environment and free will play a factor), there are said to be certain biological, social, and psychological traits common to many, including:
- Sensation seeking
- A lack of remorse or guilt
- The need for control
- Predatory behavior
One notable, if not disturbing fact is that serial killers are less like the evil stranger we wish them to be and more like our neighbor next door. Described as “compartmentalization,” it’s the phenomenon when a serial killer is able to separate people into two categories. In one category, family and friends who they “treat with decency,” and in a second category, people whom they “have no relationship and therefore victimize with total disregard for their feelings.” Take Lillian Grexa, John Wayne Gacy’s neighbor, who called Gacy, “a really nice person, who’d give you the shirt off his back.”
In popular culture —
Dexter made a serial killer dashingly good looking and heroic, while Hannibal Lecter made him cultured. Patrick Bateman showed a serial killer could be a successful businessman, and Joe Carroll made him intellectual and charismatic. No doubt, all these portrayals are entertaining while sitting on your couch at home, but it’s important to note they serve a purpose. More accurately, they serve a story that a writer and/or director are trying to tell. Less a realistic portrayal of serial murder or the serial murderer, its main objective is to keep an audience watching or reading.
Current state —
It’s an exciting time for those interested in true crime. Recent DNA matching technology has more than likely uncovered the long sought after East Area Rapist/Golden State Killer (innocent until proven guilty), and homicide detectives around the country are utilizing the same methods to bring cold case killers to justice. Much more to come about this in future posts!
Now, back to the original question. Why are we fascinated with serial killers? Maybe we wish to understand the serial killer so we can be assured they are not like us. Maybe it’s a genuine desire to comprehend the extreme behavior that compels one human to kill another at random. Maybe looking into the dark side gives one an adrenaline rush. Or maybe we want to better prepare ourselves if we ever come face to face with one…you know, just in case. With probably no one answer, the question remains as elusive as its subject.
So, whether you’re a bibliophile, a cinephile, obsessed with serial killers, or merely have a passing interest in true crime, join me each week as I review a vast array of books (non-fiction and fiction) and films (documentary and feature). Throughout, we’ll evaluate the crimes, talk about the investigations, as well as assess how the media has covered them and how the public has viewed them. While never wanting to glorify either the horrific acts or the killers, I’ll also pay homage to the victims. For those interested, I’ll suggest further reading including research, articles, and books.
Here are just a few of the real and unreal serial killers, books, and films I’ll be covering: H.H. Holmes, Dexter, the Unabomber, The Silence of the Lambs, John Norman Collins, Ghostface, the Green River Killer, Zodiac, American Psycho, Lady serial killers, UK serial killers, the Golden State Killer, Peeping Tom, Jeffrey Dahmer, and not to mention the ‘Mind Hunters’ – the ones that hunt them. If you have any suggestions for upcoming topics, books, or movies send them my way!
To celebrate this most auspicious beginning of Unsubs Central, I’ve declared it a 2 for 1 week (cue the champagne)!!! Won’t you please join me, as we dive into our first serial killer: the Zodiac.
Serial Killers: that elusive entity we seek to understand but hope never to encounter.
Adjorlolo, Samuel and Heng Choon (Oliver) Chan. “The Controversy of Defining Serial Murder: Revisited,” Aggression and Violent Behavior” vol. 19, issue 5 (September 2014): 486-491. Can be found at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1359178914000731
Alvarez, Alex and Ronet Bachman. Murder American Style. Belmont, California: Thomson Wadsworth, 2003.
Giannangelo, Stephen, J. The Psychopathology of Serial Murder: A Theory of Violence. Westport, Conn: Praeger, 1996.
Ramsland, Katherine. The Human Predator. New York: Berkley, 2005.
Russell, Sue. Lethal Intent. New York: Kensington, 2002.
 Often referred to as murderabilia after Andy Kahan, director of the Houston Police Department’s Crime Victim’s Office, coined the term.
 Behavioral Analysis Unit, National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC), “Serial Murder: Multidisciplinary Perspectives for Investigators.” Edited by Morton, Robert J. and Mark Hilts, 9. PDF of symposium available at: https://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/serial-murder
 Katherine Ramsland. Inside the Minds of Serial Killers (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 2006), x.
 Jack Levin and James Alan Fox, “Normalcy in Behavioral Characteristics of the Sadistic Serial Killer,” in Serial Murder and the Psychology of Violent Crimes, ed. Richards Kocsis (Totowa, NJ: Humana Press, 2008), 6.
 “Bodies of Five Youths Found,” UPI archives, December 22, 1978. https://www.upi.com/Archives/1978/12/22/Bodies-of-five-youths-found/5871529432936/?spt=su