The Serial Killer Phenomenon

By Whittington-Egan, Richard | Contemporary Review, Autumn 2008 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

The Serial Killer Phenomenon

Whittington-Egan, Richard, Contemporary Review

THE concept of evil, long devalued, derided, and dismissed by psychiatrists and psychologists, seems to have undergone a measure of re-evaluation. The prolonged contemplation of certain varieties of some mass murderers and serial killers has given pause to the easy moral dismissal.

Dr. Michael Welner, a forensic psychiatrist and professor at New York University, has observed that: 'People say evil is like pornography: they know it when they see it, but can debate whether or when it is harmful'. This, he maintains, 'is not true. We are finding widespread agreement about what is evil'.

The old order of murder has changed. The cosy domestic poisonings of Victorian and Edwardian England, the almost jaunty blood-letting with knife, gun, and blunt instrument, the tidier ligatures with rope, cord, and thin-biting wire, all these purposive acts, motivated by comprehensible, if not excusable, human passions of love and malice, greed and gain, profit and loss, jealousy and revenge, elimination or conviction, which is to say killing for an idea or an ideal, have been overshadowed. Today, we have the gang wars, the drug-borne slaughterings, and the reigns of the terrifying silencers of the lambs, the random repeat, or serial, killer, slaying total strangers, for the sheer recreational love and lust for killing per se.

What, then, precisely is a serial killer? How does he or, more rarely, she, differ from a mass murderer? Is it a mere matter of semantics? Both, surely, are simply multicides. The determining differential diagnostic feature depends upon the identification of the psychological motivation of the killer. The mass murderer kills numbers of people for any one, or any combination of the normally recognised classic motives. The serial killer kills primarily for a compulsive sexual reason, often a repulsive one, Lustmord, although, just to make things more complicated, adjunctive benefits may, accidentally as it were, accrue.

The term serial killer was coined, so the story goes, in the 1970s, by FBI agent Robert K. Ressler, for the engagingly homely reason that such multiple murderers, killing in series, brought back to him childhood memories of the cliff-hanger film serials, like Flash Gordon and The Phantom, which he watched at the Saturday kiddie matinee movies at the cinema in his home-town.

The serial killer concept may be modern American, but it is really no more than a present-day recognition of a phenomenon that stretches back, unflagged, over the centuries. There used to be talk of 'monsters'. The judges prated of 'Evil'. One of the pioneer exponents of the now identified stereotypic sado-sexual mode was British-the sadistic sexual serial killer, Jack the Ripper, back in 1888. The earliest generally recognised American serial killer was Chicagoan Dr. H.H. Holmes aka Herman Webster Mudgett, of 'Holmes' Castle' (1895). Other British-bred produce includes John Reginald Halliday Christie, the Notting Hill Necrophile (1953); Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, the Moors Murderers (1966); Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper (1981); Dennis Nilsen, the Cricklewood Scourge of the Gay (1983); and Harold Shipman, the murderous 'Dr. Jekyll' of Hyde (1998)-albeit his motivation appears so mixed as to make his taxonomic niche a gargantuan puzzlement.

Our latest British ornament to the genre is 49-year-old Steven Wright, the Ipswich Strangler, who was sentenced last February by Mr. Justice Gross to a whole life term rather than the fixed, minimum 30-year option, for the murder of five unfortunates-Gemma Adams (25), Tania Nicol (19), Anneli Alderton (24), Paula Clennell (24), and Annette Nicholls (29).

An ordinary looking man of chubby build, more than six feet tall, balding, with residual silvery-grey hair, and a biggish nose, he does not, beyond vehement denial, have much to say. His court room eloquence extended to supplying 53 times to 53 prosecution questions the same coruscant riposte-'It would seem so, yes'.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

The Serial Killer Phenomenon


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?