Ideas

Historian traces how we built a society obsessed with serial killers

What goes on in the mind of a serial killer? After two random encounters with serial killers, historian and professor Peter Vronsky is trying to answer that very question — who they are, what motivates them, and in the age of true crime fanaticism — why we're so obsessed with them.

After a random encounter with a serial killer, author Peter Vronsky began investigating their stories

'On average, a serial killer will commit his first murder around the age of 27, 28. However, their fantasies begin to develop as early as the age of five, six and seven,' says author and historian Peter Vronsky. (Penguin Random House/Peter Vronsky)

Serial killers are everywhere in today's pop culture — movies, books, documentaries and podcasts. It may appear they are a recent phenomenon but they go back centuries, at least the 1400s, according to Canadian historian Peter Vronsky.

Thanks to the mystery surrounding serial killers, much of what we know about them is based on press reports about their crimes with very little academic study — they have become somewhat mythologized in larger popular culture.

From Jack the Ripper to the Golden State Killer, there is no shortage of media that looks into the history, psychology and crimes of these serial killers. And in trying to understand them, we've inevitably created a culture that sometimes even appears to celebrate them. 

"There were all these genres of over-the-counter magazines, conventional magazines. One genre was the so-called 'sweats' — men's adventure magazines. They were called 'the sweats' because they use this type of paint that simulated the victims sweating in agony and the torture, as well," Vronksy explains in a 2019 lecture he delivered at Ryerson University in Toronto, called Serial Homicide: A Global Perspective.

"This was not under the counter material. And of course they're all celebrating this mutilation, torture and rape of female victims. Anywhere men gathered; barber shops, mechanics, waiting rooms; you would see these magazines."

In an interview with host Nahlah Ayed, the historian explains how the media and pop culture have shaped our fascination with serial killers. 

Here are some excerpts from his 2019 talk and recent interview with IDEAS. 

In this first excerpt Vronsky talks about how often the FBI would discover troves of true crime magazines with graphic covers in the homes of serial killers.

Here are some excerpts from his 2019 talk and recent interview.

Harvey Glatman was nicknamed 'The Lonely Hearts Killer' and 'The Glamour Girl Slayer' in the media. He posed as a photographer to lure his victims with the promise of a modelling career. (Wikimedia)

Lecture: Serial Homicide: A Global Perspective

"In fact we have one serial killer in the 1950s who would abduct women and pose them in his own version of True Detective magazine covers before he killed them — Harvey Glatman. Very often the model was gazing toward the buyer of the magazine. The message essentially is that for 50 cents, she's yours. So there begins this immediate kind of psychological connection between the consumer of this magazine and the victim portrayed in it, they're looking at each other.

"And there's yet a third genre which begins to emerge in the late 60s/70s and that's a very pornographic series of bondage magazines. These would be sold in adult stores. They were just explicit murder material, essentially. So you have a generation of kids to adolescents to young men who — some of them — have been essentially brought up on these magazines."

NA: In your lecture, you imply that there may be a causal link between the 'sweats' that you describe and serial killings that target women. Is there convincing evidence to support that implication?

"Well, the evidence that we have, I guess we can say it's anecdotal because no one has done a statistical study, but increasingly in the 50s and 60s as serial killers are being apprehended, this literature is in their possession. We begin to see that what they do is often scripted on the basis of what is depicted. In the same way as Jack the Ripper fantasies were scripted by a type of pornography that was appearing in 19th century, written in the time of the kind of Victorian oppression where pornography became more violent."

You also talk about New York in the 70s, being this dark, often dangerous place. And yet we know, obviously, that serial killers turn up in not so dark places. We saw Bruce MacArthur in Toronto, basically downtown and before him, Robert Picton B.C. Is there a sense in which the dark and gritty New York of the 1970s perpetuates some kind of dark romance media culture of a serial killer?

"There's some kind of nostalgia for that era of New York, when New York was 'dirty old' New York. I mean, there's even a Facebook page, Dirty Old New York that celebrates New York of the 70s. There was this sense that the law no longer prevailed, that anything was available, anything was allowed, anything was  possible. And certainly a hedonistic personality like Richard Cottingham (a serial killer from New Jersey) thrived on what New York was in that period.  

You point out that the public has this unending appetite for stories about serial killers, that we build mythologies around them, whether it's real ones like Jack the Ripper or fictional ones like the Joker? Why do you think there is this obsession? Why does it exist? 

Well, they are antiheroes. In a way, they challenge the norms of society. They're the rebels. One of the films that really projected the serial killer into a figure of this kind of counter-culture, anti-hero was Silence of the Lambs. Jodie Foster, the FBI agent starling was not the star of that movie, it was Hannibal Lecter — the charming serial killer. 

Actor Anthony Hopkins won an Academy Award for his portrayal of the fictional character, Dr. Hannibal Lecter in the film, The Silence of the Lambs. ( Phil Bray/MGM Pictures/Universal Pictures/Dino DeLaurentiis)

Is there any evidence, as far as you know, that the attention we have media give to serial killers somehow encourages others to become one as well?  

"Oh, of course, as much as there's evidence that the Bible does. So, yes, there are some serial killers that are inspired by what they read in the media, as they are inspired by what they read in the Bible. So everything inspires serial killers, potentially. It's never one thing. So if we ban media, if we ban the Bible, if we banned all literature, there would still be serial killers. They would just probably script their murders in a different way. They would take their inspiration from something else. 

An imagined portrait of the unidentified serial killer known as Jack the Ripper, circa 1890. At least five murders attributed to the killer took place in Whitechapel, London in 1888. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

"Following the Second World War, there was a tendency, just like in Jack the Ripper's era of England, to repress certain things. And one of the things that was repressed was the trauma of the fathers who were bringing up these generations of serial killers. Out of 900,000 soldiers that went to war, something like 37 per cent were discharged as neuropsychiatric casualties. All these guys were then bringing up children. And so as I began to look at that generation of serial killers, there were all these accounts of their fathers coming home and just remaining in kind of sullen silence. Fathers eventually just abandoning the family. 

"One of the other factors that you often see as well in serial killer biographies is a very strong mother figure. And certainly women in the Second World War were very much empowered by the virtue of what they had to do in the absence of many males on the battlefield. 

"What challenges all of us in terms of serial killers is that lots of kids have the same trauma in their childhoods. They don't become serial killers. So the issue here is despite all the studies we've done — and we've been now systematically analyzing serial killers since the FBI began to really look at that phenomenon in the late 1970s —  study after study we have not yet isolated that one single X factor — that one child undergoes all this trauma and yet becomes a functioning citizen, non-criminal, another becomes a serial killer.

"What is the X Factor? You know, perhaps old school, biblical evil. It's a little bit too early for us to discount this idea that there is something that's called evil. And maybe one day we'll be able to identify it. But right now, we don't know."
 

* Transcript was edited for length and clarity. This episode was produced by Tayo Bero.

Corrections

  • A typo in this story referenced 9,000 soldiers that went to war. It should read 900,000 soldiers.
    Sep 30, 2020 11:29 AM ET

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