The term “serial killer” is one that we are all familiar with. The phenomenon is not a new one, but the term itself is recent and simply did not exist just 50 years ago.
Robert Ressler, Federal Bureau of Investigation agent and member of the FBI psychological profiling team, is often credited for coining the term “serial killer” in the 1970s. He used the phrase to describe those who murder several victims, obsessively, and often with a deviant sexual motive.
Before then, a killer who murdered in this way was known as a “mass murderer.” Today, we characterise killers differently. For instance, a “mass murderer” is now someone who kills four or more people at the same time (or in a short period of time) in the same place, and then we have “spree killers”, who murder randomly over multiple locations and usually within a short period of time.
Serial killers are different – they often work alone and have no attachment or connection to their victims. Many serial killers pretty much kill for the sake of killing. Today, they are generally defined to be someone who kills three or more people, one at a time, over a relatively short period.
Jack the Ripper is widely regarded as the father of the modern-day serial killer as he is the first early example of this type of murderer. He was not a prolific killer; he is thought to have murdered five victims, more or less.
Many other British serial killers have murdered more, and these notorious criminals are, unfortunately, household names. For example – Peter Sutcliffe, Dennis Nilsen, Harold Shipman, and the serial killing couple, Fred and Rose West.
Peter Sutcliffe, usually attacking his victims from behind with a hammer, killed 13 people, but attempted to murder a further seven. Carrying out his attacks and murders in the north of England between 1975 and 1981, he is better known as the “Yorkshire Ripper.”
Dennis Nilsen, “the Kindly Killer”, murdered 15 young men between 1978 and 1983. Fred West, with his wife Rose, killed at least 12 individuals, but before committing suicide in 1995, he admitted there were more victims. Harold Shipman, also known as “Doctor Death,” murdered his patients probably in excess of 250, from 1975 to 1998.
Serial killers fascinate and repel. We seek to understand how and why these chilling psychopathic personalities could do such things. But in many ways, they are very ordinary people. The Byford report in 1981 described Peter Sutcliffe as “an otherwise unremarkable young man.”
Since the 1970s, the FBI has collected and recorded a mass amount of data on serial killers. According to recent reports, there have been over 400 serial killers in the United States alone in the past century, and an estimated 2,500 to 4,000 victims. In truth, there is no real way of telling just how many serial killers are active at this precise time.
What is alarming is that the serial killer seems to be on the rise over the last 35 years. 80% of the 400 serial killers of the past century have emerged since 1950. Some have suggested the increase has been down to a rise in violent pornography, a suggestion agreed with by notorious serial killer Ted Bundy, who brutally murdered 30 young women over a four year period in the 1970s. Other experts have dismissed this suggestion and simply state that there is no real answer as to why some people become serial killers.