Serial Murderer, Media Obsession and Control Over Victims

Ronald M. Holmes

Ronald M. Holmes

The serial murderer, perpetuator of homicide, which is a crime which has historically galvanised public attention to the work of law enforcement personnel.

In past decades, when the situational context of most homicides ensured or at least enhanced the probability of rapid solution, law enforcement personnel were lauded for their investigative skills.

In recent years, however, both the public and those in law enforcement have expressed frustration and concern regarding the growing number of unsolved murders in the United States of America.

Since 1960, the solution rate for homicides has declined from over ninety percent to approximately seventy-six percent in 1983 (Newsweek, 1984). This dramatic decline in the solution rate coincides with a period of increasingly sophisticated technology and an increase in the number of police officers per capita.

Given the increased technology available for scientific investigation of these violent crimes, a fair conclusion is that the decrease in the solution rate can be attributed more reasonably to the character of many contemporary homicides than to the ability of the investigators. While about twenty percent of all homicides today have no apparent motive, in 1966 only six percent of all homicides were motiveless. Many of the currently unsolved homicides are believed to have been perpetrated by serial murders.

Serial murder, the focus of this article, is not a totally new kind of criminal behaviour. Generally, however, this crime represents the emergence of a form of homicide which is very different from murders commonly investigated in earlier times.

Stranger-perpetrated, this form of murder often reflects neither passion nor premeditation stemming from motives of personal gain. More frequently, it tends to reflect non-rational or irrational motives or goals and its victims stand in a depersonalized relation to the perpetrator.

One alarming aspect of contemporary serial murder is the extent to which its perpetrators believe that violence against human beings is a normal and acceptable means of implementing their goals or motives. While the major purpose here is to describe a systematic typology of serial murders, an initial comment will be made on the significance of violence in the everyday social context as a possible contributory factor in the emergence of this form of violent crime.

There is growing evidence to support the view that social and cultural factors in postindustrial American society tend to enhance the probability of interpersonal causes and perpetuation of criminal violence. And it also seems likely that serial murder represents an advanced form if not an ultimate extension of violence; for here is a form of homicide which by rational standards is pointless and unaccompanied by remorse or a sense of responsibility on the part of the perpetrator.

Studies by Marvin Eugene Wolfgang and his associates on the subculture of violence (Wolfgang and Ferracuti, 1982; Wolfgang and Weiner, 1982) have clearly demonstrated the ways in which personal and contextual factors may interact to produce violent criminal behaviour. It is difficult to establish the specific mechanisms by which a culture of violence may be translated into specific criminal acts such as serial murder. But it seems likely that the basic processes of socialization which affect individual behaviour from childhood through adulthood are saturated with a potential for violence in interpersonal relations.

Both in terms of contemporary life in the United States of America and in terms of this society’s European roots, there is a fertile cultural seedbed of violent examples of behaviour. Currently, violence as a “normal” or appropriate response in many situations has explicit or implied approval in many facets of our North American culture. This may stem largely from the recurrent, extensive, and essentially “pointless” violence that is commonly portrayed in mass media.

There is a sensitivity-dulling exposure to it that reaches all age groups and pervades the waking hours of both children and adults. Television depicts violence in movies and in videos; rock stars, in their entertainment acts, make use of hammers, swords, clubs, etc.

One study of children’s television programs by a Senate Committee found sixteen violent incidents per broadcast hour. Such material connotes at least passive acceptance of violence. The news media provide further real-life examples of recourse to violence in politics, racial and ethnic relations, labour relations, and the North American family.

The role of television as an influence on personal acceptance of violence and as a precursor of violent behaviour is still being researched and debated: Historical and sociological study of North American life has provided many examples of violence throughout our history. From very early days in this society, a passive acceptance of violence has existed.

Our frontier was characterized by a poor system of law enforcement, little assurance that a judge would arrive in time for a hearing or trial, and a generally weak and uneven judicial system. In some areas, these conditions paved the way for initiation of a vigilante system.

Vigilantism was a unique and often violent response to the conditions of frontier North America. Often, vigilante leaders were social conservatives attempting to maintain what they perceived as a necessary social order.

Their victims, unfortunately, included a wide range of easily identified people-Blacks, Catholics, and others whose chief offence lay in their unacceptable or unwelcome status. Even in contemporary North America, the political ideology of the power tends to legitimize the use of violence to protect the interests of the powerful. Our cultural norm which grants some acceptance to this use of violence probably stems largely from the frontier ideology.

Widespread individual acceptance of the perpetration of violence appears to be more predominant in the South and the West; however, it is suggested that there is a general increase in acceptance of violence throughout the United States of America. Many urban minorities are arming themselves for protection against new urban predators who seek to take their property or take their lives.

The person growing up in North American society tends to learn subtle lessons about violence which reinforce the positive aspects of interpersonal violence in certain situations.

Many people believe that violence is justifiable under certain circumstances; witness, for example, the growing acceptance of executions during the past decade. While many are repulsed by the idea of taking the life of another person under any circumstances, others would justify this action in case of self-defence or other valid circumstances.

In terms of criminal behaviour, research clearly indicates that some have no reluctance whatever in resorting to violence in the course of crimes which are essentially property-related. Toward the polar end of the continuum of violence acceptance are those who see little or no intrinsic wrong in the murder of another human being. For example, serial killer Gerald Eugene Stano remarked that the killing of his victims was no different from stepping on a cockroach.

Aside from the contemporary social context and its possible contribution to violence, there exists a history of violence which includes commentary on an extreme form of violence-serial murder. A speaker recently introduced an address on this topic by saying that “Serial murder is a product of the 1970’s.” But this is not accurate. The notoriety of the contemporary serial murderer has been widely covered by the printed media and also by television. Thus, a general impression exists that this type of homicidal predator has emerged only in the last few years. But this perception is not supported by a careful examination of the literature on the topic, despite the fact that the names of contemporary serial murderers roll off the lips of criminal justice students like a litany of unholy saints-John Wayne Gacy, Scott Wilson Williams, Theodore Robert Bundy, Henry Lee Lucas, Toole, David Richard Berkowitz, and others.

But the historical study reveals other criminals who lived in much earlier times and committed atrocities of such magnitude that their names are not likely ever to be forgotten by serious students of homicide (Time, 1979; Science Diges; U.S. News).

Gilles de Montmorency-Laval, a fifteenth-century nobleman and confidant of Joan of Arc, is known to have tortured, raped, and killed more than eight hundred children. The gratification he received from his sadistic actions and necrophilia derived more from mutilation of the children than from traditional sexual relations.

In the latter part of the nineteenth-century, a man knows as the “ogre of Hanover”, whose real name was Friedrich Heinrich Karl Haarmann, sodomized and murdered scores of young boys. Friedrich Heinrich Karl Haarmann reportedly obtained sexual pleasure by ripping out the throats of his young unfortunate victims (Holmes, 1983). But probably the most famous serial killer in all history was Jack the Ripper who lived in late nineteenth-century England. His predilection for London prostitutes made his name a household word.

According to learned estimates, however, his victims numbered not more than seven. The crimes of Jack the Ripper pale in comparison with the serial murders committed by contemporary killers such as Theodore Robert Bundy, Henry Lee Lucas, and Ottis Elwood Toole.

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