You are flipping through the channels, luminescent shades of blue, red, and yellow splashing on your face as the TV shows flash by, one mindless program after another. Finally, one catches your eye, and you are instantly hooked into the narrative of a murder. You immediately recognize the killings, linking them to the mystifying murders of the infamous Jack the Ripper. The narrator’s mysterious voice transports you back in time. . . .
You look around, noticing the dark, rank sludge painted all over the streets. The pungent smell of feces dances in the air. Scantily dressed women work the late shift so they can afford a bed that night, unsure of what darkness is lurking around the corner. While exploring the gritty streets, you find a newspaper whose headline shouts, “The Ripper Strikes Again!”
“I bet he is a doctor!”
one rugged man on the street argues. “The victims have been pretty cut up.
Clearly the murderer is someone who has enough money to educate themselves in
such a craft!”
A cleaner, upper-class
gentleman chimes in: “A butcher can cut as well as the Ripper. He must be of a
low class! No gentlemen of a higher class would commit such atrocities!”
“I bet he is Jewish!” a
policeman yells. “We have had a big influx of Jews. He came here to escape
persecution, but now he is persecuting the Christians.”
As the men continue their heated debate, you start to see the fault lines within British society. The biased police officer continues his manhunt for his next suspect, his hatred causing him to look specifically for Jewish men. The two men from seemingly different worlds debate, based on insignificant details, how each other’s class could create such a monster.
You are brought back to
your warm, clean-smelling couch, and as the program goes on to talk about the
biases of the case, you slowly start to understand how British bigotry allowed
Jack the Ripper to run free. As crazy as it sounds, this actually did happen,
and probably will happen again and again.
Serial killers have made history for centuries, intriguing historians and murder junkies alike. Some killers show disturbing yet interesting habits, while others have unthinkable stories before and during their murder spree. Personally, I believe the most fascinating serial killers are the ones who reflect the problematic, deep-rooted issues of a society. These issues can contribute to the rise of serial crime because of biased participants using political sway to divert attention from a clear suspect. In simpler terms, serial killers hold a mirror up to societal issues, which should spark a need for change in our lives, including new laws and a move away from idealization of serial killers.
How do serial killers show the flaws of the societies in which they live? First, let’s look at the infamous British serial killer, Jack the Ripper. Jack the Ripper was a killer during the late nineteenth century, a time of deprivation in Whitechapel, the stage for the grisly murders. While wealthier areas of London were improving, areas like Whitechapel saw an increase in poor conditions, setting the scene for the murders, as seen in the political cartoon below, where Father Thames introduces his “children,” which represent various diseases, to the “fair city of London.” The streets were filled with sewage and the city was getting an influx of immigrants, especially Jewish immigrants fleeing persecution. People were so poor, and housing was so limited, so many people resided in common lodging for about four pence (approximately five cents) a night. This common lodging was like a dormitory, except instead of a cramped room with one or two roommates, people would share a larger room with eighty people and lay in beds that resembled coffins. Because jobs were hard to get and paid poorly, many women turned to prostitution–and female sex workers were Jack’s primary victims.
These harsh conditions
set the scene for the horrors witnessed by citizens of Whitechapel. Once Jack
the Ripper had become a household name, people started claiming the role of
detective and made their own suggestions on who the horrific slayer was.
Because there was such an influx of Jewish immigrants, many believed, due to
their outright antisemitism, that the Ripper had to be a Jewish man
(Walkowitz). John Pizer, a Jewish man accused of being the Ripper, turned
himself in to clear his name, and was immediately ruled out as a suspect
(Historic UK). Nevertheless, hatred flowed through London as people beat and
even killed Jews because of their religious association to Pizer.
was everywhere among British citizens, even the unidentified Ripper himself.
After discovering two murdered women in the same night, police found at one of
the crime scenes, next to a trail of blood, a message written on a door frame
feet away from the victim: “The Jews are not the men to be blamed for nothing.”
This evidence was quite damaging to the theory that the Ripper was Jewish, as
the message was inferring Jews never own up to their problems. While most would
take this evidence into consideration since it seems to be linked to the crime,
the head of police at the time, Sir Charles Warren, ordered it to be cleaned
up. This is especially important since the Ripper left few clues as to who he
might be (Historic UK). Although this evidence might have proved helpful, it did
not go along with Warren’s theories to the case and thus was never further
looked at and immediately destroyed.
Antisemitism was just
one problem in London. Tension between social classes was increasing as well, which
showed in the accused suspects. Lower working classes often accused the upper
classes of producing the murderer. Since some bodies had missing organs, they claimed
someone with clear experience in dissecting bodies had to be the killer. Wealthier
classes argued that a true gentleman would never commit such crimes and that the
Ripper must be someone of lower class. The tension between classes promoted the
outspoken anger of the working class, while the wealthy refused to take responsibility
for making improvements in London’s infrastructure (Walkowitz). If the police had
focused more on important evidence and the people had not tried to blame a
specific group that fed into their biases, maybe they could have found and
arrested the real culprit.
Similar to the biased
police of London, the Soviet Union’s homophobia and nationalism bred the Red
Ripper, also known as Andrei Chikatilo. Andrei Chikatilo was a serial murderer
in Soviet Russia from 1978 until his arrest in 1990. Chikatilo confessed to fifty-six
murders and targeted mostly children. Chikatilo was even in custody during the
investigation for suspicious activity but was later released. So how did he get
away with fifty-six murders when he was clearly suspicious? The easiest answer
is that the authorities of the Soviet Union denied the presence of a killer in
their midst and looked for suspects that fed into their biases.
To understand how the Soviet Union got in the way of solving a huge serial killing case, one needs to understand the complexities of the Soviet government. The murders took place during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union was constantly competing against the U.S. to prove its superiority. Soviet society was meant to be a perfect model of life, without flaw. If there was a crime in a society, that crime signified a weakness, proving that the Soviet Union was not perfect. Obviously, the Soviet Union did not want to seem flawed while proving they were superior to the U.S., leading to numerous problems, including the Red Ripper’s decade of being unsolved. During an interview I conducted with Garret McDonald, a Soviet Union historian, we discussed how the Soviet Union did not believe in crime and saw murder as “a decadent Western phenomenon” (McDonald). Not only did they believe that crime would not occur in the Soviet Union, but also that it was specifically a byproduct of Western ideals, like capitalism. The Soviets denied the serial killing and did not support the detective who believed he needed more materials to find and convict the serial killer.
The denial of crimes
also isolated the Soviets from reaching out to other countries for help. In Citizen X, a movie from the point of
view of the detective assigned to Chikatilo’s case, the head detective begs his
superiors to reach out to other countries, especially the U.S., to use their technological
advances in DNA to help solve the case. Due to the Cold War tensions and the Soviet
Union’s image they desperately want to uphold, they denied him every time,
giving up a piece of technology that could have reduced the decade-long search
for the Red Ripper to a few months (Newell).
Not only did the Soviets deny the presence of a serial killer and refuse any help to find the killer, but they also introduced personal beliefs into the suspect list. Once the list of victims began including young boys, authorities started targeting and arresting innocent homosexual men. They also pushed the men to confess, even though they did not know any details about the crime. Even when the authorities had arrested Chikatilo for suspicious behavior in the area, they released him due to his political affiliation to the Soviet party (McDonald). This special treatment of certain Soviets and the denial of crime in the Soviet Union allowed for the Red Ripper to continue killing for a decade before getting caught.
At the same time of Chikatilo, an American killer was on the rise. Ted Bundy is now known for his crimes in multiple states and his eerily similar murder victims, who all tended to resemble an ex-girlfriend of his. Occasionally referred to as the Lady Killer or the Campus Killer, Bundy confessed to murdering thirty women before his execution; however, the definite number of victims is unknown (Blanco). He typically lured women by faking disabilities and injuries, or by pretending to be a man of authority, such as a police officer. After the victim was caught in a web of lies, he would strangle or strike the victim, place their body in his car, and drive away. He was also known to mutilate his victims and, in some cases, have sex with their corpse (Crime Museum).
At a young age, Bundy struggled with fitting in, even being bullied in high school, but once he attended college, confidence took over his shy and awkward demeanor. As described by Bundy’s ex-girlfriend of six years, Elizabeth Kloepher, Bundy was “sweet and charismatic” (Biography). Bundy even got a letter of recommendation from the governor of Washington after working on his campaign.
Despite the grisly details of his crimes, women would fall for him, as Kloepher mentions, attending his trials and watching in fascination and even occasionally passing notes to Bundy’s lawyer to give to him. He even managed to attract Carole Ann Boone while being convicted of these crimes and married her during the trial (because of an old Florida law that stated if a judge was present while he, Bundy, declared marriage, it would be legitimate). The two had sex while Bundy was in custody, and Boone had Bundy’s child while he was on death row. She stood by his side until three years before his execution, when she filed for divorce and never saw him again (Margaritoff).
But surely these sympathizers have since changed their minds, just like Boone, right? Disturbingly, Bundy fans are far from gone. Just search “Ted Bundy fans,” and one of the top results is a Pinterest board (Image 1) dedicated to collecting and organizing different pictures of Bundy, from family photos to execution pictures (Pinterest).
There is no shortage of Ted Bundy merchandise either. Image 2 shows a phone case with a picture of Bundy and his infamous car, and a text box which reads, “That’s just Ted” and under it, “Fridays at 9pm.” At the time of writing this paper, there are only two left in stock (Etsy). This disturbing design does not only come in phone cases, though: it also comes in laptop covers, tote bags, and mugs. Image 3 shows a baby in a shirt featuring one of Bundy’s famous quotes: “What’s one less person on the face of the planet?” This is a morbid quote for children’s clothing in general, but if that is not disconcerting enough, the quote is Bundy’s justification of his crimes. By doing this, consumers are not only lessening the severity of murder, but in a sense, glorifying it, making it seem attractive. Bundy used his good looks and captivating personality to lure victims and future fans, downplaying his murders and spicing up crime to make it seem appealing—a shocking look into American society.
Another serial killer whose fans seem to glorify is the Son of Sam. Also known as David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam was a Yonkers native who terrorized couples in New York City from 1976 to 1977. Despite the difficulty authorities faced hunting down the previous killers, Berkowitz was found relatively quickly and when arrested said, “Well, you’ve got me” (Worthen). Berkowitz also claimed that he had been told by a demon to kill, one that manifested inside Berkowitz’s neighbor, “Sam” Carr, and his neighbor’s dog, which is how he got his infamous nickname. Because of the bizarre story behind Berkowitz’s slayings, many companies offered him money to write books and create TV programs based on his story. He not only earned money to write, but also profited from his book while in jail. This caused many Americans to question the morality of books written by prisoners about their own crimes in order to earn money, as doing so glamorizes and rewards their crimes. Berkowitz would earn a lot of money in selling his story, promoting the moral that if you commit a crime you could earn a small fortune. This not only fails to protect the victims and their families, but it allows the person who harmed them to profit.
Unlike other serial
killers, this problem caused New York State to react immediately, instituting
Son of Sam laws, preventing future criminals from profiting from their crimes.
While the law does not prevent criminals from telling their stories, the
victims and their families will be compensated before anyone else (Worthen).
Most states have followed in the path of New York, instituting similar laws.
Recently, this law was extended to include criminals no matter their plea or
In essence, numerous serial killers from all different times in history have shined a light on the darker aspects of society. Jack the Ripper got away with killing because of the constant scapegoating of various groups, while the Red Ripper was allowed to kill for over a decade because of the fragile ego of the Soviet Union. Ted Bundy acquired fans that still support him until this day, downplaying and glorifying his crimes, while the Son of Sam earned a profit from selling his story about his gruesome murders. Altogether, these four killers are just a few of the many examples in society that bring darker flaws to light.
This paper might be finished, but this idea has miles to go. You have a chance to contribute to this study. For example, are there any theories to understand why all the killers mentioned are male? Why does this work need to be studied, other than the fact that these reflections are still present, even today?
You are flipping through the channels, luminescent shades of blue, red, and yellow splashing on your face as the TV shows flash by, one mindless program after another. You stop on your new guilty pleasure, the crime channel, and watch a new serial killer case unfold in front of you. You analyze the case, the evidence, the missteps, and you reflect, thinking, “What does this say about me? What does this say about the world we live in?”