Serial killers are monsters in human form. Most are masters of disguise, appearing charming, affable, and glib. Ted Bundy was a law student with a bright future in politics. In his spare time, he worked the phones at a crisis hotline. John Wayne Gacy was an upstanding member of his community, a Jaycee, and a Democratic party candidate who once shook hands with Rosalynn Carter. Jeffrey Dahmer was such a smooth talker that he was able to convince police that one of his victims was really his lover. The poor tortured boy was returned to Dahmer’s custody, only to be murdered.
- One of the first-known American serial killers was H.H. Holmes, a medical doctor whose real name was Herman Mudgett. Holmes built a macabre murder castle in Chicago in the late 1800’s. Complete with stairways to nowhere, blind passageways, rooms with no doors, and false partitions, the house was an elaborate trap for his victims, who were gassed, suffocated, and tortured. A handy chute sent their bodies down to the cellar, where their flesh was removed with lime and acid. Their skeletons and organs were sold to nearby medical schools. Holmes killed at least twenty people before he was caught, but estimates of his body count range as high as two hundred.
- The most famous “unknown” serial killer is London’s Jack the Ripper, followed by The Zodiac Killer.
- Serial killers are sociopaths–they have no conscience. Most kill out of an urge for power, control, and complete possession of their victims, and many are sexual sadists. Killing is the only way for them to get sexual release.
- Charles Manson is not actually a serial killer, although he’s often identified as such. He never killed or even helped murder a human being, and claims he had no part in the murders that landed him in jail. While he certainly influenced his sick family to kill in his name, he is closer to a deranged cult leader than he is to a serial killer.
- Aileen Wuornos is often identified as the “only female serial killer,” but this is not true. There have been many female serial murderers, including Amelia Dyer, one of the most prolific serial killers in history; Beverley Allitt, a nurse who killed at least forty of her patients; and Elizabeth Báthory, the Hungarian countess who bathed in the blood of servant girls. Many female serial killers are nurses who murder their patients.
- Murders once attributed to werewolves and vampires were most likely the work of serial killers.
- I have no proof, but I suspect Stephen King was inspired by John Wayne Gacy when he made the monster in his novel IT a clown. Gacy often entertained children at parties dressed as a clown (shudder). King admitted that the BTK Killer inspired his novella A Good Marriage. It’s a great story, but it pissed off Kerri Rawson, the BTK’s daughter.
Why is our society so enthralled with these serial murderers? Since I was a child, I devoured my mother’s true-crime books. I wanted to learn everything I could about what made these human monsters tick. Here are some common characteristics of serial killers, although there are always exceptions:
- Most came from horrific childhoods
- Most were bed-wetters, fire-starters, and were cruel to animals as children
- Most start with “lesser” crimes, including arson, stealing, peeping, and rape
- Many have something that keeps them from being able to fit in well with others during childhood–terrible skin, a bad stutter, anti-social tendencies, awkwardness, extreme height, etc.
- Most exhibit high intelligence. Edmund Kemper, who murdered his grandparents as a child and then killed several college coeds before slaying his own mother, is considered a genius. He is also 6’9.
A lot of people turn their noses up at true crime, but in truth, it’s an art form, and very few writers do it well. The best help us understand what created the monster, while not celebrating him or her. They also memorialize the victims, which is important, so I will end this post with the story of Georgeann Hawkins.
Georgeann was beautiful but tiny–she was only 5’2 and one-hundred and fifteen pounds. She was an exceptionally bright student at Seattle’s University of Washington, where she maintained a 4.0 grade-point average.
She was also very social, and belonged to the Kappa Alpha Theta Sorority. On June 10th, 1974, she went to a party and had a couple of drinks. On the way back to her dorm, she stopped to say goodnight to her boyfriend, who lived just six houses down from her. She was a very cautious girl and rarely walked anywhere alone, but the street was well lit and usually busy.
Many students were studying that night, so Georgeann wasn’t the only one awake at 12:30 a.m. She visited her boyfriend, borrowed some Spanish notes, and then headed for home. A friend called out of a window to her, and they chatted for a few minutes. She said goodnight and walked thirty feet away before he stuck his head back in through the window.
Two other male friends remembered seeing her cover the last twenty feet before disappearing around the corner. She only had forty feet left to go.
She never made it home.
A man in a cast asked her to carry his briefcase to his car. When she agreed, he knocked her out, shoved her into his car, and sped away. She came to before he killed her, and in her confused rambling, said she had thought he’d been sent to help her with her Spanish exam. He knocked her out again, then pulled over and strangled her.
Sadly, Georgeann Hawkins is most often remembered as a victim of Ted Bundy.
If this post interested you, you’ll also like this one about the Atlanta Child Murders.