The Origin Of The Term 'Serial Killer' And Its Effects On Society

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The term 'serial killer' is one that the majority of people know. Whether they don't follow the news, whether their language isn't English, they will be aware of 'serial killers' in some semblance of the phrase. Serial murders are by far one of the most brutal and violent crimes possible, but advancements in the field of criminal profiling in the last century have seen a significant rise in the capture and prevention of them. Serial killers tend to dominate Western countries, such as the United States with 2743 cases of serial killings, and the U.K. with approximately 19 times less, at 145. The Eastern world has considerably less, with Australia, Russia, and India all having recorded case numbers below 80. [1]

The concept of crime has existed for centuries, and it's a notion that every modern society has recognised. The earliest account of a formal acknowledgement of crime comes from the Sumerian people in 2100-2050 B.C. who were the first to establish a base for criminal law as we know it today [2]. Whilst the idea of what constitutes as an illegal criminal act has evolved greatly over the years, the definition of murder and its lawfulness has remained principally undisputed.

What has been a topic of change, mainly throughout the western hemisphere, is what we consider mass killings by one or a few persons to be. Many factors have played into the deliberation of how to divide cases with multiple victims. Early consideration of the name was Mass-Murderer - A title still used to this day and is largely confused with the term serial killer. However, a mass-murderer is nowadays considered to be a separate title to that of a serial killer, despite mass-murderer having provided an umbrella term for both acts in the past. The most basic definitions that can be used to divide the two terms into what they're known today are:

Mass Murderers are one or few individuals who kill only on one occasion. There is little to no chance of a repeat offence, and the perpetrators often welcome the legal implications following the crime. [3] Serial Killers can also be one or few individuals, but who kill three or more times over a short or long period. Their repeated acts of brutal murder often leave investigators with little clue to their identity. [3]

The most widely accepted origin of the phrase 'serial killer' is by FBI agent Robert Ressler during the 70s. His pioneering work on behavioural psychology not only gave popularisation to the term, but it gave serial killings recognisable criteria that could be put into the practice of criminal profiling. Ressler worked alongside F.B.I agent John E. Douglas, and Ann W. Burgess, A psychiatric clinical nurse specialist who consulted with the FBI agents during their investigations into serial killings. [4] The widespread attention of the trio's work, not only in policing circles but in media too, cemented the influence of the term serial killer on a substantial amount of the media and law that followed.

During the late 1960s, serial killers were on the rise. This incline on the frequency of serial killings didn't stop until the 1980s, peaking at at least 200 active in the US. [5].

During the late 19th century, the media had just brought to light the existence and potential for serial killings. The first reported use of a word echoing 'serial killer' was the term 'multi-murderer', first used to describe H.H.Holmes [6]. Whilst, of course, unrecognised serial killings did exist before H.H. Holmes, Holmes' case was highly popularised by the media, stirring names such as 'Torture Doctor' and 'Monster of 53rd Street' [7].

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H.H. Holmes was particularly sensationalised for the sheer amount of techniques he used to satisfy his instinct to kill. Holmes built a three-story building, dubbed 'the castle', that would house not only many of his business ventures, but also rooms tailored to kill. Holmes used many brutal techniques to incapacitate and murder his victims. His more notable methods included vats of acid, live cremation, and stretching racks, all of which he would use on his victims alive [7].

Holmes' case truly exposed how smart killers could be. Holmes was a doctor, a wealthy businessman, and had successfully changed his identity multiple times, having left his first family in New Hampshire to start another with a new woman, and enchanted many more women outside of his three marriages.

H.H.Holmes was a major attention grabber for the newspapers. It is highly probable that the hysteria surrounding Holmes and the continuous build-up of theories and incorrect statements regarding how many victims Holmes actually had was a result of Roswellian syndrome [8]. Roswellian syndrome, when a subject that was once of high public interest reemerges just as popular or even more so, created new, more thrilling theories for Holmes, many being stirred by H.H.Holmes himself when he capitalised off of his crimes through his book 'Holmes' Own Story: Confessed 27 Murders, Lied Then Died'.

It's possible to hypothesise that serial killers became more pre-eminent as societies became more populated. H.H.Holmes killed in the years when the population of his city became advantageous to his crimes [10]. During the 1980s, Chicago's population boomed, increasing by 600,000 people, reaching a population of 1.7 million by 1900. [11] By acting in densely populated areas, H.H.Holmes could easily satisfy the aspect of a serial killer's profile that requires them to have a specific target group. He chose targets that would be noticed if they went missing for an extended period of time, also satisfying the idea that serial killers build a profile around whether or not they wanted public attention for their criminal acts. [10]

Later on, during the 20th century, serial killers reemerged as a topic of change for investigative criminal services. There was an obvious and concerning rise of serial killers, especially those most prominent in the press such as Ted Bundy, Charles Manson, and the Zodiac Killer (whose identity remains a popular mystery to this day), most of which operated throughout the 60s and 70s.

Not only was there a rise in serial killers, but there was also a rise in unsocial behaviour being normalised by families. America and, by the USA's influence, the rest of the western world were grasped by the extreme political ideas leftover from Senator Joseph McCarthy's 'red scare' era, the Vietnam War, and the Civil Rights Movement. On top of these politics came the sexual revolution, along with with the assassinations of important political figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and President John F.Kennedy. The disruption of political ideas that had controlled the western world for decades foregrounded an atmosphere of instability [11].

However, it wasn't the case that serial killers were on the rise simply because of political upheaval. The rise in serial killers may well have had everything to do with advancements in the United States policing during the 60s and 70s. Partially due to federal law enforcement's engagement in tracking crimes that crossed state lines, the National Crime Database was created, along with an expanded database of missing persons in 1975. A rise in centralisation aided the identification of links between crimes that weren't initially clear- Multiple homicides from broader geographic areas and obscure but common trends between modus operandi. [12]

By the time that FBI agents Robert Ressler and Henry Teten, two of the FBI agents behind the groundbreaking behavioural analysis unit founded in 1972, the United States were well into the golden age of serial killers. Their studies on the behaviour, experiences, and psychology behind criminals became the forefront of solving and preventing future cases of serial murders and other violent crimes.

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The Origin Of The Term ‘Serial Killer’ And Its Effects On Society. (2022, Jun 09). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 13, 2024, from
“The Origin Of The Term ‘Serial Killer’ And Its Effects On Society.” Edubirdie, 09 Jun. 2022,
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