Are people born evil or are they made that way, nature or nurture? This is frequently a question people ask themselves when it comes to serial killers. Science is still developing in its understanding of what makes a serial killer tick, what drives them, and why they carry out the things they do. True crime media has become an enormous industry, with books, documentaries, podcasts, music, board games, trading cards, and websites providing a plethora of material amounting to a macabre fandom. These items can even extend to one’s fashion choices; a quick look online will reveal plenty of t-shirts, buttons, and patches emblazoned with the likes of Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Ed Gein. A subset of less conventional merchandise that has gained a foothold among the more extreme fans is murderabilia or items that had belonged to or were created by serial killers, murderers, or other perpetrators of violent crime: clothing, personal effects, artwork, photos, music, sometimes even the murder weapons themselves. What is the fascination with serial killers?
Some compare it to seeing a car wreck and being unable to look away. Some darker theories say people experience their morbid thoughts vicariously through these murderers because they are incapable to commit such acts themselves. It is possible it is just the unknown and unimaginable that strike the curiosity of millions and the want to comprehend why.
Various authorities apply their own criteria when designating serial killers. While most set a threshold of three murders, others extend it to four or lessen it to two. The Federal Bureau of Investigation defines serial killing as ‘a series of two or more murders, committed as separate events, usually, but not always, by one offender acting alone.’ This definition is problematic for a variety of reasons. One reason being that it does not fit the conventional understanding of the term. Suppose a gang member ends up shooting three people in street fights with members of other gangs over a ten-year period with plenty of cooling down periods.
Strictly speaking, this gang member is a serial killer by the previous definition, but he would not fit the general conception of what a serial killer is. A serial killer very frequently has a deviant sexual motive. The National Institute of Justice provides a definition of serial killing that is closer to the traditional conception. According to them, it involves committing two or more murders with a psychological motive and sadistic sexual overtones. On this conception, serial killing can be understood as a type of sex crime, a monstrous version of normal male sexuality. There are multiple problems with this definition as well. It seems to apply to only male serial killers. Female serial killers often are not motivated by sexual gratification but rather by a twisted sense of love, sympathy, or altruism. A stereotypical example of a female serial killer is a nurse who kills her suffering patients because she wants to end their suffering. The sex-crime definition of a serial killer is also too narrow to capture the general conception of serial killing even for males.
The Zodiac killer was not driven by any obvious sexual movies but rather by his ability to generate fear and terror. Ultimately, the idea of serial killers being sexually motivated does not always extend to killers who suffer from psychosis. There may be an internal hallucinatory voice that assures him that he must do this to stay alive. Although psychological gratification is the common motive for serial killing, and most serial killings involve sexual contact with the victim, the FBI states that the motives of serial killers can include anger, thrill-seeking, financial gain and attention seeking.
Serial killings account for no more than 1 percent of all murders committed in the U.S. Based on recent FBI crime statistics, there are approximately 15,000 murders annually, so that means there are no more than 150 victims of serial murder in the U.S. in any given year. The FBI estimates there are between twenty-five and fifty serial killers operating throughout the U.S. at any given time. If there are fifty, then each one is responsible for an average of three murders per year. Serial killers are always present in society, however the statistics reveal that serial homicide is relatively rare and it represents a minor portion of all murders committed in the U.S.
Often serial killers fall under two categories, psychopathies or sociopathies, diagnosing them with antisocial personality disorder. An antisocial personality disorder is defined by a pervasive and persistent disregard for morals, social norms, and the rights and feelings of others. Individuals with this personality disorder will typically have no compunction in exploiting others in harmful ways for their own gain or pleasure and frequently manipulate and deceive other people, achieving this through wit and a facade of superficial charm or through intimidation and violence. They may display arrogance, think lowly and negatively of others, and lack remorse for their harmful actions and have a callous attitude to those they have harmed.
Irresponsibility is a core characteristic of this disorder: they can have significant difficulties in maintaining stable employment as well as fulfilling their social and financial obligations. People with this disorder frequently live exploitative, unlawful, or parasitic lifestyles. Those with antisocial personality disorder are often impulsive and reckless, failing to consider or disregarding the consequences of their actions. They may repeatedly disregard and jeopardize their personal safety and the safety of others and place themselves and others in danger. They are often aggressive and hostile and display a dysregulated temper and can lash out violently with provocation or frustration. Substance abuse and addiction, and the abuse of various psychoactive substances, is common in this population. These behaviors place such individuals into frequent conflict with the law and they often have criminal infractions stemming back before adulthood.
Serious problems with interpersonal relationships are ordinarily seen in those with the disorder. Attachments and emotional bonds are weak and interpersonal relationships often revolve around the manipulation, exploitation, and abuse of others. While they predominantly encounter no problems in establishing relationships, they may have difficulties in sustaining and maintaining them. Relationships with family members and relatives are often strained due to their behavior and the frequent problems that these individuals may get into.
One of the first infamous serial killers in recorded history was Jack the Ripper, known for committing gruesome murders from August 7 to September 10 in 1888. Jack the Ripper was the culprit responsible for the murders of five prostitutes that all took place within a mile of each other. Despite countless investigations claiming definitive evidence of the brutal killer’s identity, his name and motive are still unknown.
The moniker ‘Jack the Ripper’ originates from a letter written by someone who claimed to be the Whitechapel butcher published at the time of the attacks. Adding to the mystery of the affair is the fact that several letters were sent by the killer to the London Metropolitan Police Service, also known as the Scotland Yard, taunting officers about his gruesome activities and speculating on murders to come. Various theories about Jack the Ripper’s identity have been produced over the past several decades, which include claims accusing the notable Victorian painter Walter Sickert, a Polish migrant and the grandson of Queen Victoria. Since 1888, more than 100 suspects have been named, contributing to widespread folklore and ghoulish entertainment surrounding the mystery. Tourists still flock to the Whitechapel area to tour the crime scenes.
John Wayne Gacy was an American serial killer and rapist. Gacy, also known as the “Serial Killer Clown,” killed 33 boys and young men, the majority of whom had been buried under the house and garage. Others would be recovered from the nearby Des Plaines River. Gacy was a clown performer at children’s parties; when he killed, he sometimes dressed as his alter ego ‘Pogo the Clown’. He lured his victims with the promise of construction work, and then captured, sexually assaulted and eventually strangled most of them with rope. Mullock’s Auctions in Shropshire, U.K., auctioned off a number of Gacy’s artwork as well as crime scene pictures from Gacy’s trial. Three of Gacy’s paintings, including two originals of “I’m Pogo the Clown” and “They Call Him Mr. Gacy,” sold for £4,000.
Known as the ‘BTK killer,’ Dennis Rader murdered 10 people from 1974 to 1991, often leaving clues to taunt authorities. Dennis Rader lived a double life: Devoted family and company man by day, murderer by night. He terrorized the Wichita, Kansas area as the ‘BTK killer’, for ‘bind, torture, kill’. Rader’s alter ego resurfaced in 2004, but his fondness for offering clues led to his arrest and life imprisonment the following year. Rader’s story inspired the Stephen King novella A Good Marriage, which was published as part of the 2010 collection Full Dark, No Stars and later became a feature film. In 2016, forensic psychology professor Katherine Ramsland published Confession of a Serial Killer: The Untold Story of Dennis Rader the BTK Killer, which revealed the notorious murderer had planned to claim an 11th victim before he was arrested. In October 2017 Netflix’s crime drama, Mindhunter, was released to critical acclaim. One of the serial killer characters, known as “ADT Man” on the show, is based on Rader.
David Berkowitz, known as “Son of Sam”, is one of the most notorious serial killers in America. He murdered six people in New York City from 1976 to 1977, claiming he received orders from a demon-possessed dog. At the scene of his last shootings, a witness observed a man getting away in a car that had a parking ticket on it. Only a handful of tickets were given out that day, and one of them was for Berkowitz. On August 10, 1977, authorities detained him. According to The New York Times, Berkowitz said, ‘Well, you’ve got me’ when they hauled him into custody.
During questioning, Berkowitz explained that he had been commanded to kill by his neighbor Sam Carr, who sent messages to Berkowitz through his dog, a demon-possessed Labrador retriever named “Harvey.” Due to his outrageous claims, Berkowitz underwent numerous psychological evaluations, but was declared “competent” to stand trial. In 1978 Berkowitz pled guilty to the six killings, as well as nearly 1,500 fires he had set in and around New York City. He received 25-years-to-life for each murder. Berkowitz’s sentencing hearing was dramatic as he tried to jump out of a window of the seventh-floor courtroom upon hearing the judge’s decision.
American serial killer and rapist Ted Bundy was one of the most notorious criminals of the late 20th century. Bundy was a 1970s serial murderer, rapist and necrophiliac. He was executed in Florida’s electric chair in 1989. His case has since inspired many novels and films about serial killers. Ted Bundy admitted to 36 killings of young women across several states in the 1970s, but experts believe that the final tally may be closer to 100 or more. The exact number of women Bundy killed will never been known.
While there is some debate as to when Ted Bundy started killing, most sources say he began his murderous rampage around 1974. Around this time, many women in the Seattle area and nearby Oregon went missing. Stories circulated about some of the victims last being seen in the company of a youthful, dark-haired man known as ‘Ted.’ He often lured his victims into his car by pretending to be injured and pleading for their help. Their kindness proved to be a fatal mistake. Ted Bundy’s charm and intelligence established him something of a celebrity during his trial. Bundy fought for his life, spending years appealing his death sentence. He tried taking his case as high as the U.S. Supreme Court, but he was turned down. He also offered information on some of unsolved murders to avoid Florida’s electric chair, but he could not delay justice forever. Ted Bundy was executed on January 24, 1989. Ted Bundy’s life has been the subject of countless books and documentaries trying to shed light on this brutal killer’s crimes. An infamous national figure since his Florida trials, he remains a source of fascination.
Jeffrey Dahmer was an American serial killer who claimed the lives of 17 males between 1978 and 1991. Over the course of more than 13 years, Dahmer sought out men, mostly African-American, at gay bars, malls and bus stops and lured them home with promises of money or sex. He then gave them alcohol laced with drugs before strangling them to death. He would subsequently engage in sex acts with the corpses before dismembering them and disposing of them, often keeping their skulls or genitals as souvenirs. He frequently captured photos of his victims at various stages of the murder process, so he could recollect each act afterward and relive the experience. Dahmer was captured in 1991 and sentenced to 16 life terms. He was killed by fellow prison inmate Christopher Scarver in 1994. Dahmer’s killing spree ended when he was arrested on July 22, 1991.
That day, two Milwaukee police officers picked up Tracy Edwards, a 32-year-old African American man who was wandering the streets with a handcuff dangling from his wrist. They decided to investigate the man’s claims that a ‘weird dude’ had drugged and restrained him. They arrived at Dahmer’s apartment, where he calmly offered to get the keys for the handcuffs. Dahmer’s refrigerator and Polaroid photographs became inextricably associated with his notorious killing spree. In 1996, following Dahmer’s death, a group of Milwaukee businessmen raised more than $400,000 to purchase the items he used for his victims, including blades, saws, handcuffs and a refrigerator to store body parts. They promptly demolished them in an effort to distance the city from the horrors of Dahmer’s actions and the ensuing media circus surrounding his trial.
Just a few months after Jeffrey Dahmer’s arrest, The Jeffrey Dahmer Story: An American Nightmare, by Donald A. Davis, was published. The Shrine of Jeffrey Dahmer, by Brian Masters, was. Notable films on Dahmer’s life and killing spree include Dahmer, a biographical film starring Jeremy Renner, and My Friend Dahmer, a film about Dahmer’s alcoholic pre-killing juvenile years based on the graphic novel of the same name by Derf Backderf. A documentary, The Jeffrey Dahmer Files, covers the summer of Dahmer’s arrest.
Ted Kaczynski, also known as the “Unabomber,”, was a mathematics prodigy. Kaczynski taught at the University of California at Berkeley before retreating to the Montana woods to live a survivalist lifestyle. Between 1978 and 1995, Kaczynski mailed bombs to universities and airlines, slaying three people and injuring 23 more. FBI agents arrested Kaczynski in 1996, and two years later he was sentenced to life in prison. The U.S. government auctioned off the Unabomber’s notorious leather jacket, sunglasses, and several other items to aid his victims. Discovery aired an eight-part miniseries Manhunt: Unabomber,
Aileen Carol Wuornos was a serial killer who had killed seven men, widely believed to be the United States’ first female serial killer. She was sexually abused and thrown out of her home as a teen. Having been involved in previous incidents with the law, she made a living as a sex worker on Florida’s highways, and in 1989 she slayed a man who had picked her up. She went on to kill at least five other men that she claimed raped her. She was ultimately caught, convicted and placed on death row. Though her sanity was questioned, Wuornos was executed by lethal injection in 2002. In addition to documentaries, books and an opera, her story was depicted in the film Monster. There are countless serial killer horror stories to sift through.
These are just a few of the most prolific, notorious murderers. Along with their stories comes the haunting murderabilia. Buyers typically seek collectibles that are either artifacts used or owned by murderers and items (often artwork) created by them. According to crime writer Leigh Lundin, buyers may be interested in the macabre, but many believe such artifacts offer power and control. Virtually anything formerly owned or created by mass murderers or serial killers can be marketed, like vehicles, artwork and weapons used in crimes. Clothing is also in high demand, particularly clothes worn during crimes themselves.
People typically go to museums to learn, appreciate beauty, and celebrate history, but there are many museums dedicated to the macabre. The most notable would be the creepy Museum of Death in Los Angeles. Housing the broadest collection of artworks that was created by serial killers, it is certain to get under even a tough person’s skin and into their subconscious. Photos of actual grisly crime scenes and the autopsies that followed them are not for the weak of stomach. There are rooms filled with funeral paraphernalia and embalming instruments, execution photos, exhibits graphically highlighting various murder cases, and a room strictly centering on death by suicide. Still not frightened after witnessing all of this? Then try watching the videos that they have on display featuring people actually dying or see the actual guillotined head of the Blue Beard of Paris.
While in most instances these murderers suffered terrible childhoods that is not always the case. So, then is it logical to assume that they suffer from a predisposition of psychopathy, or nature instead of nurture? Some research suggests that this is true, stating that something minor could occur to set them off because the condition already exists. Researchers are currently studying brain scans, claiming that they can pick out which scans belong to psychopaths, but this type of research is still in its infancy. Until further advances in science, particularly psychology it will be difficult to pin point what makes a serial killer tick. It may never be known what it is exactly that draws in the masses, but the fact remains that America is eternally fascinated.