Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World's Most Savage Murderers

Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World's Most Savage Murderers

Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World's Most Savage Murderers

Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World's Most Savage Murderers


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For decades now, serial killers have taken center stage in the news and entertainment media. The coverage of real-life murderers such as Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer has transformed them into ghoulish celebrities. Similarly, the popularity of fictional characters such as Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter or Dexter demonstrates just how eager the public is to be frightened by these human predators.

But why is this so? Could it be that some of us have a gruesome fascination with serial killers for the same reasons we might morbidly stare at a catastrophic automobile accident? Or it is something more? In Why We Love Serial Killers, criminology professor Dr. Scott Bonn explores our powerful appetite for the macabre, while also providing new and unique insights into the world of the serial killer, including those he has gained from his correspondence with two of the world’s most notorious examples, David Berkowitz (“Son of Sam”) and Dennis Rader (“Bind, Torture, Kill”). In addition, Bonn examines the criminal profiling techniques used by law enforcement professionals to identify and apprehend serial predators, he discusses the various behaviors—such as the charisma of the sociopath— that manifest themselves in serial killers, and he explains how and why these killers often become popular cultural figures.

Groundbreaking in its approach, Why We Love Serial Killers is a compelling look at how the media, law enforcement agencies, and public perception itself shapes and feeds the “monsters” in our midst.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781629144320
Publisher: Skyhorse
Publication date: 10/28/2014
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 691,805
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Dr. Scott Bonn is a professor of criminology at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. His expert commentary has appeared in the New York Times, the Huffington Post, Headline News Network, and more. Dr. Bonn hosts a weekly college radio show and has recently appeared as an expert analyst in the A&E documentary The Long Island Serial Killer. The author resides in Manhattan, New York.

Read an Excerpt



A serial killer is frequently an unassuming everyman or everywoman who could easily be a next-door neighbor or co-worker. Such was the case of the late John Wayne Gacy, a prolific and psychopathic serial killer born in Chicago in 1942. He was named after his mother's favorite Hollywood movie star, the legendary John "The Duke" Wayne. As a young adult, the outgoing and sociable Gacy became a successful building contractor, husband, and father. He was well known and respected in his suburban Chicago community. He became heavily involved in local politics and was named a Jaycee (Junior Chamber of Commerce) "Man of the Year." He even escorted President Jimmy Carter's wife, Rosalynn, on one of her visits to Chicago.

John Wayne Gacy was also a ruthless predator who tortured, raped, and strangled thirty-three young men between 1972 and his arrest in 1978. He buried twenty-nine of his victims in a crawl space under his house. Gacy was caught after a surveillance detective assigned to the case noticed a suspicious smell emanating from a heating duct in Gacy's home. The floor boards of Gacy's house shook as forensic anthropologists attempted to excavate the twenty-nine bodies buried in the crawl space due to millions of worms that were feeding on the corpses. Gacy pled not guilty by reason of insanity but was determined to be legally sane by the court. He was convicted of the serial rape and murder of his victims and sentenced to death on March 13, 1980.

Gacy became known as "The Killer Clown" because his favorite pastime when he was not killing involved entertaining children at parties and hospitals dressed in a clown costume and full-face makeup. His clown alter ego was named Pogo. The late FBI profiler Robert Ressler, who interviewed Gacy after his conviction, said Gacy told him that his victims were "worthless little queers and punks." Ressler challenged him on that statement, asking "Aren't you a homosexual, too?" Gacy responded that his victims were young runaways while he was a respected and successful businessman. Gacy also explained that he was too busy at work to date and romance women following his divorce, so he settled for quick sex with transient young men. Unremorseful until the end, Gacy's final words before being executed by lethal injection on May 10, 1994, were, "Kiss my ass."

Serial killers tantalize, terrify, and entertain the public. Since at least the 1970s they have been frequent and chilling actors on center stage in the news and entertainment media. Massive and highly stylized news coverage of real-life serial killers such as David Berkowitz (the "Son of Sam"), Ted Bundy, and Jeffrey Dahmer transforms them into ghoulish popular culture celebrities. Similarly, fictional serial killers such as Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter in TheSilence of the Lambs and the "Tooth Fairy" in Red Dragon created by author Thomas Harris have also become popular culture icons. More recently, the tremendous success and acclaim of the Showtime television series Dexter and The Millennium Trilogy global media phenomenon based on author Stieg Larsson's book The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo demonstrate how eager the public is to be frightened by serial killers.

Interest in serial killers is hardly new. Public fascination with serial killers probably dates back to the late 1880s when a series of extremely brutal, unsolved prostitute murders occurred in the Whitechapel area of London, England, and those killings gained worldwide notoriety. In the fall of 1888, a series of five grotesque murders were committed in London by an unknown individual who legend has it called himself "Jack the Ripper" in letters he allegedly sent to the London police claiming credit for the crimes. Prior to the Jack the Ripper letters, the London newspapers called the unknown killer "Leather Apron" based on a suspicion that the killer was a local butcher. The following provides the unedited content from the most infamous of the letters allegedly written by Jack the Ripper:

Dear Boss,

I keep on hearing the police have caught me but they wont fix me just yet. I have laughed when they look so clever and talk about being on the right track. That joke about Leather Apron gave me real fits. I am down on whores and I shant quit ripping them till I do get buckled. Grand work the last job was. I gave the lady no time to squeal. How can they catch me now. I love my work and want to start again. You will soon hear of me with my funny little games. I saved some of the proper red stuff in a ginger beer bottle over the last job to write with but it went thick like glue and I cant use it. Red ink is fit enough I hope ha. ha. The next job I do I shall clip the ladys ears off and send to the police officers just for jolly wouldn't you. Keep this letter back till I do a bit more work, then give it out straight. My knife's so nice and sharp I want to get to work right away if I get a chance. Good luck. Yours truly,

Jack the Ripper

As noted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in its 2005 report titled Serial Murder: Multi-Disciplinary Perspectives for Investigators, the name Jack the Ripper has become synonymous with serial murder over the years. This case has spawned many legends and myths concerning serial homicide and the killers who commit them. More than 125 years after his killing spree abruptly ended without his capture, the murders of Jack the Ripper continue to haunt and tantalize the world. In many ways, the Ripper killings are the greatest unsolved "whodunit" mystery of all time. In the 1970s and 1980s the exploits of high-profile serial killers in the US such as the Green River Killer, Ted Bundy, and Jeffrey Dahmer rekindled public interest in serial murder, which then exploded after the 1991 release of the now classic Hollywood film The Silence of the Lambs and its sequels and prequels.

Today, when we hear a television news account of an unidentified serial killer on the loose somewhere, many of us have a mental image of a thirty-something-year-old white, male loner, who preys on unsuspecting, young female strangers. This popular image has been reinforced in the fictional portrayals of serial killers such as "Buffalo Bill" and the "Tooth Fairy" to such an extent that it has become a persistent stereotype in our society. If not entirely untrue, this overly simplistic popular culture image of serial killers is so omnipresent and trite that many of us think we know a lot more about real-life serial killers than we actually do.

The Truth About Serial Killers Is Not So Simple

The reality of serial homicide in the US bears little resemblance to the popular mythology of it that is fueled by law enforcement authorities and the mass media. Throughout this book I attempt to explain and dissect the complex reality of serial homicide and debunk many of the popular myths that surround serial killers. For example, there has been considerable debate among experts over the exact criteria and definition of serial murder. During the past forty years, multiple definitions of serial murder have been used by law enforcement officials, clinicians, academicians, and researchers. While these definitions normally share common elements, they differ on specific requirements such as the number of murders, the killer's motives, and the temporal aspects of the murders.

Typically, definitions of serial murder specify a certain number of murders, varying from two to ten victims, as noted by the FBI in its 2005 report on serial murder. This quantitative requirement distinguishes a serial murder scenario from other categories of murder, especially single homicide, which is by far the most common act of murder. Most of the definitions also require a period of time between the murders. This pause or break between killings is necessary to distinguish between a mass murder, which is a one-time event, and a serial murder, which has multiple incidents. Moreover, serial murder requires a temporal separation between the different murders which is variably described as separate occasions, a cooling off period, or an emotional cooling off period. I use the term cooling off period throughout this book to refer to the temporal requirement.

As explained by Peter Vronsky in his 2004 book Serial Killers: The Method and Madness of Monsters, the term "serial killer" was probably coined by the late FBI agent and profiler Robert Ressler, who said that he believed the term "stranger killings," which was frequently used during the mid-twentieth century, was inaccurate because not all victims of serial killers are strangers. Ressler was lecturing at the British police academy at Bramshill, England, in 1974, where he heard the description of some crimes as occurring in series, including rapes, arsons, burglaries, robberies, and murders. Ressler said that the description reminded him of the movie industry term "serial adventures" which referred to short episodic films featuring the likes of Batman and the Lone Ranger that were shown in theaters on Saturday afternoons during the 1930s and 1940s. Each week, youthful matinee audiences were lured back for the next installment in the series by an inconclusive ending known as a "cliffhanger" that left them wanting more. As reported by Vronsky, the FBI agent recalled from his youth that no episode had a satisfactory conclusion and the ending of each one increased rather than decreased the tension in the viewer. Similarly, Ressler believed that the conclusion of every murder increases the tension and desire of a serial killer to commit a more perfect murder in the future — one closer to his/her ideal fantasy. Rather than being satisfied when they murder, serial killers are instead agitated toward repeating their killings in an unending "serial" cycle.

Defining Serial Killing

Perhaps due to the debate among professionals over the exact definition of serial murder, the government actually attempted to formalize it through legislation on one occasion. In 1998, a federal law was passed by the United States Congress, titled Protection of Children from Sexual Predator Act of 1998 (Title 18, United States Code, Chapter 51, Section 1111). This law includes the following definition of serial killings:

The term 'serial killings' means a series of three or more killings, not less than one of which was committed within the United States, having common characteristics such as to suggest the reasonable possibility that the crimes were committed by the same actor or actors.

This federal law provides a definition of serial murder but it is limited in its usefulness because it was only designed to establish criteria for when the FBI could assist local law enforcement agencies with their investigation of serial homicide cases.

At a symposium on serial homicide in 2005, the FBI reduced the minimum number of victims from three to two in its own definition of serial murder. The FBI did this for its own purposes and to satisfy its own needs — that is, to afford itself greater flexibility and breadth in determining when and how to pursue potential serial murder cases. This certainly makes sense from a law enforcement perspective where the goals are the identification and apprehension of a killer. However, criminal investigation is not the purpose of this book. The focus here is on how and why serial killers become grizzly high-profile celebrities in society. Therefore, I have retained the classic criterion of three or more victims to define serial murder because it more precisely delineates the notorious serial predators that are the subject matter of this book. This position is supported by the acclaimed former FBI profiler, Roy Hazelwood, with whom I corresponded during my research for this book.

In addition to lowering the minimum number of murder victims in 2005, the FBI also eliminated the cooling off period from its list of required serial homicide criteria. Similar to the rationale it used in lowering the number of victims, the FBI argued that the cooling off period is not a useful requirement for the purposes of criminal investigation. However, from a social-psychological perspective, the emotional cooling off period between murders is a key behavioral characteristic that distinguishes the most infamous serial killers from all other murderers. It is central to the research I present in this book, so the cooling off period is included in my definition of serial homicide.

During the cooling off period between murders, a serial killer disappears from the public eye and resumes his or her seemingly normal routine and life. Incredibly, the life of a serial killer during the cooling off period, particularly if he or she is a psychopathic killer, like Ted Bundy, may appear completely normal to the unsuspecting observer. To summarize, given the goals of this book, I employ the following three criteria to define serial homicide:

1. At least three victims.

2. The murders take place in separate events, at different times.

3. The killer experiences an emotional cooling off period between murders.

When you bring up the name of an infamous real-life predator such as Jack the Ripper or Jeffrey Dahmer in conversation with a group of people, it is clear that serial killers are a very hot topic. Some folks actually become gleeful in their demeanor while discussing them. Why is that, I wonder? Could it be that some of us have a macabre fascination with serial killers for the same reason that many of us are morbidly drawn to stare at a catastrophic automobile accident? Therein lies the central question of this book. Why are so many people, including myself, fascinated by serial killers? Answering this intriguing sociological question and shedding light on serial killer myths, while providing compelling new insights into serial homicide, are the primary objectives of this book.

In order to understand why so many people in society are captivated by serial killers, it is necessary to examine the social agents and processes that promote them. Unlike other books about serial killers which only focus on the behavior of the criminals, this book offers an exploration into the dark nature of society itself and its powerful appetite for the macabre, while also providing new and unique insights into serial murder. The groundbreaking approach in this book provides a penetrating sociological look at the public's fascination with serial homicide.

Overview of the Book

Why We Love Serial Killers includes the following key elements:

• An in-depth examination of serial murder realities versus myths in the US and a comparison of serial killing to other types of multiple homicide, such as mass murder and spree killing.

• A discussion of antisocial personality disorders, including sociopathy and psychopathy, and an examination of how such conditions are manifested in serial killers.

• A comprehensive analysis of criminal profiling which is used by law enforcement professionals such as the FBI to identify and apprehend unknown serial predators.

• An examination of the role of key social agents, including the news and entertainment media, state officials (law enforcement authorities and politicians) and the general public in the construction of the public identity of serial killers.

• An investigation of important social processes, including crime news reporting, that may help to explain how and why serial killers often become grizzly popular culture celebrities.

• A compelling examination of the lives of two notorious, incarcerated serial killers, including an analysis of their involvement in the construction of their own public identities, gained through extensive correspondence and personal interview.

• A fascinating look into the curious and obsessive world of serial killer fans, groupies and collectors of so-called murderabilia — the original artwork and artifacts (including clothing, personal items and weapons) of serial killers.

• An argument that the sudden appearance of a serial killer on the public stage, driven by massive news media coverage and journalistic hyperbole, can create public anxiety or "anomie" (conflicting or contradictory social norms) when the public is confronted by an alleged super predator that defies all conventional wisdom concerning criminal motivations and behavior.

• A second argument that the stereotypical representation of serial killers as monsters by law enforcement authorities and the news media reduces anomie or public anxiety by clarifying moral boundaries and defining evil, while also establishing the serial killer as the "other" in society — that is, an aberration of nature that is separate and distinct from decent people.


Excerpted from "Why We Love Serial Killers"
by .
Copyright © 2014 Scott Bonn.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword Diane Dimond xiii

Preface xvii

Part 1 Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Serial Killers (But Were Afraid to Ask) 1

Chapter 1 The Strange Allure of Those Who Kill and Kill Again 3

Chapter 2 Debunking Popular Myths about Serial Killers 17

Chapter 3 Is Criminal Profiling a Science, Art, or Magic? 37

Chapter 4 Inside the Pathological Mind of the Serial Killer 57

Chapter 5 The Motives, Rituals, and Fantasies of Serial Killers 73

Part 2 Up Close and Personal with Two Infamous Serial Killers 95

Chapter 6 From Son of Sam to Son of Hope: The Strange Journey of David Berkowitz 97

Chapter 7 The Unrepentant Sexual Psychopath Known as "Bind, Torture, Kill" 115

Part 3 The Sociology of Serial Murder 137

Chapter 8 The Profound Impact of Serial Murder on Society 139

Chapter 9 Subjective Reality, Moral Panic, and Atrocity Tales 155

Chapter 10 The Making of Celebrity Monsters 169

Chapter 11 Collectors of Murderabilia and the Son of Sam Laws 193

Chapter 12 What We Can Learn from the Monsters We Make 211

Endnotes 231

Bibliography 237

Index 241

About the Author 247

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