The Serial Killer Phenomenon

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

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'. …

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