“Serial murder fascinates. It is so premeditated, methodical, vicious, and uncommon that we cannot escape its allure, its capacity to astonish and horrify its power to instill fear”- Joseph C. Fisher, Killers Among Us
Serial murder is surprisingly difficult to define. Definitions that are inclusive also tend to be broad beyond the point of usefulness, while narrower ones tend to have at least one glaring and significant exception. However, the National Institute of Justice has defined serial killing as:
“a series of two or more murders, committed as separate events, usually but not always, by one offender acting alone. The crime may occur over a period of time ranging from hours to years. Quite often the motive is psychological, and the offender’s behavior and the physical evidence observed at the crime scenes will reflect sadistic, sexual overtones.” (Newton, 205)
“In November 1983, Time magazine described serial murder as “a new breed of killer,” and while such comments were routine in 1980s, they are also grossly inaccurate (Newton, 100).” The term serial killer was first used by British author John Brophy in 1966 in his book The Meaning of Murder (Newton, 205). However serial murder is not new. Many have called Jack the Ripper the first serial killer. This is still way off the mark (Newton, 100). There are records of serial killers back to at least 69 A.D. The first recorded case of serial murder is from the Roman Empire in 69 AD and involved a female serial poisoner named Locusta. Since then there are reports of serial killers of every type in the intervening years. No continent except Antarctica has escaped the menace of serial killers (Newton 78). They come from all over the world, every social class, and both genders from wealthy Yemeni Zu Shenatir in the 5th century, to the English servant and cook Margaret Davey in the 16th century, or wealthy Frenchman and cohort of Joan of Arc Gilles de Rais (Newton, 100-101). So serial murder is not a 19th or 20th century phenomenon, nor is it unique to the West.
Violence and murder are regular parts of society that elicit reactions. However murder is common while serial murder is a “rare phenomenon” (Fisher, 13). As an example of their rarity, though estimations vary widely, there may be only 10 serial killers active in the US in any year and they may account for just 1% of the homicide count. Yet serial murder receives a lot of media attention, in both fact and fiction. Serial murder has a unique ability to captivate and terrify the public as is evidenced by the popularity of such entertainments as Robert Lewis Stephenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from the 19th century (Schlesinger, Foreward).
Serial murder is distinct in several ways. While the murders are ongoing and the murderer remains on the loose it is distinct because of the ongoing threat of the murder. As Joseph Fisher said, “serial murder has a unique capacity to awake fears and keep them alive. A single homicidal incident, while tragic, has a sense of finality. In serial murder cases the fear is active and the threat continues, causing fear to grow exponentially (14).” Serial murder is terrifying in the sense of threat to the public, and often its most vulnerable members. For example, in the case of Jack the Ripper, women of the East End were faced with an ongoing threat and the constant knowledge that they could be the next victim. While other horrific murders could instill fear, the knowledge that there was an active murderer in the community and able to conduct both daily life and horrifying crime was threatening. The serial murderer is terrifying while active because he or she continues to kill undetected. It is both horrifying and inconceivable that a member of the community could commit such an act of murder with premeditation and rational planning.
Both during and after the period of the murderer’s crimes the incomprehensible mix of the rational and irrational make the serial murderer a peculiar phenomenon, an object of fascination. “At the core of the fear caused by serial murder is the incomprehensibility of what is happening. The killer’s motivations and actions are beyond the experience of daily life and impossible to understand. In this way, serial murder differs fundamentally from everyday violence that is tolerated with such sangfroid…” (Fisher, 15) The mix of the rational member of society able to blend in in daily life and with enough intelligence and skill to remain undetected long enough to strike again, and the irrational figure of the murderer, committing the most horrifying acts is foreign and bewildering. It is this enigma that gives serial killers their lasting relevance. Forever after the murders audiences look to the killers’ stories for some explanation and justification for their crimes, and finding none satisfying continue to wonder and investigate. So serial murder is a distinct phenomenon that triggers fear and obsession like no other. The 19th century culture of murder as captivating and entertaining exploded in a new way when confronted with instances of serial murder, seemingly as inexplicable as they were horrifying and fascinating.