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date: 21 April 2021

Serial Killing and Representationlocked

  • Phillip L. SimpsonPhillip L. SimpsonEastern Florida State College

Summary

Serial killing is an age-old problem, though it was not popularly known by that name until the 1980s. It took the rise of mass media and the mechanisms of mass production to create the conditions for the rise of serial murder in the modern world. The mass media representation of a series of murders arguably dates back to the notoriety accorded to the so-called Jack the Ripper killings of prostitutes in London in the autumn of 1888. The Ripper murders stand at a particular nexus in the representation of true crime, where fact and legend immediately fused in popular media to create a terrifying new modern, urban mythology of a preternaturally cunning human super-predator: one who strikes from the shadows to commit ghastly murder with impunity and then retreats back into that darkness until the next atrocity. Since the days of Jack the Ripper, a ghoulish pantheon of other serial killers has captivated the public imagination through representation in media: the Zodiac Killer, David Berkowitz, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy Jr., Henry Lee Lucas, Richard Ramirez, and Jeffrey Dahmer, just to name a few. However, the term “serial killer” did not enter the American popular vocabulary until the 1980s, so in another sense, the true representation of what we now know as serial killing could not begin until it had this latest, proper name. In tandem, as cultural consciousness of serial murder expanded, fictional serial killers proliferated the media landscape: Patrick Bateman, Norman Bates, Francis Dolarhyde, Lou Ford, Jame Gumb, Mickey and Mallory Knox, Leatherface, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, Dexter Morgan, Tom Ripley, and a host of others. Serial killers as they exist in the popular imagination are media constructs rooted in sociological/criminological/psychological realities. These constructs originate from collective fears or anxieties specific to a particular time and place, which also means as times and the cultural zeitgeist change, the serial killer as a character epitomizing human evil is endlessly reinvented for new audiences in popular media.

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