When we read about serial killers, which many of us do, they are commonly known by a nickname assigned to them either by the media or themselves during their murderous rampage.
A nickname for the media is memorable, it provides a more gritty engaging headline and it gives reporters a way to return to the story over and over while continuing to reel in their readers to the unfolding events.
A nickname for a serial killer, is like a badge of honour. It has become a status symbol for some and a method of monetizing their crimes, maintaining their sense of importance and influence even when convicted and behind bars.
Serial Killers and the Media
The act of serial murder changes the attention of the public from the innocent victims of these crimes to the serial killers themselves. Who are they? Why are they killing people? The media know the public have a fascination with violence and murder. If they can create a story, add to it over time as new murders are committed; publish psychology pieces about the motives, modus operandi and psyche of the killer, they are going to get more exposure.
They receive more readers and more interest as the public join them in questioning and pondering different theories about the killer in the spotlight. The addition of a catchy nickname to refer to the killer in question only adds to this creation and increases its allure.
When the serial killer is caught, there is the trial, the verdict and the sentence to be reported on. Further publicising the case and more importantly adding a face to the now familiar nickname. While this serves the curiosity of the public, it also serves the fame-seeking of some of the serial killers themselves. While they are committing their crimes, the publicity around them can spur them on and feed their egos.
“How many times do I have to kill before I get a name in the paper or some national attention?” – Letter from “BTK” Killer (Dennis Rader) to KATE-TV (1978)
As highlighted by Professor of Sociology and Criminology Jack Leven, “…once they are identified with a superstar moniker, their frequency of murder increases”. Once a serial killer has been assigned a nickname they have identity to maintain and keep up with.
Richard Ramirez, for example, nicknamed the “Night Stalker”, killed 13 people in Los Angeles in 1985 and he is reported to have told one victim, “You know who I am don’t you? I’m the one they’re writing about in the newspapers and on TV”. Once they have that fame and notoriety, they have expectations to meet and can be encouraged to continue their criminal acts in order to do so.
For many serial killers part of their motivation is the notoriety they expect to receive by committing such heinous acts. Many have been influenced by serial killers before them, who they have followed and identified with, and they are attracted by the attention in which they received. This can be why serial killers send letters directly to the media, police or news outlets often demanding attention or trying to steer the publicity towards the ideal in which they seek.
Theodore Kaczynski, the “Unabomber” was caught after releasing a lengthy manifesto which he demanded be printed in the media. When it was printed, his writing style was recognised by his brother who reported him to the authorities.
The unidentified “Zodiac Killer” has sent 21 letters to newspapers in the areas of his murders giving details of his crimes. Some letters have included code and cryptograms suggesting solving them would reveal his identity. The Zodiac also sent a Halloween card to one reporter who regularly wrote articles on the case, along with the rather creepy message “Peek-a-boo, you are doomed.”
Serial killers after their conviction often follow the media interest in their case. Once sentenced and in prison, these are individuals who have lost their control. They have been known to boast and gloat about their crimes in an attempt to keep their internal self-worth alive through their persona as a revered serial killer. Peter Tobin for example, a British serial killer convicted of three murders has reportedly boasted to his psychiatrist that he has killed 48 people and taunted them to “prove it”.
The Power of a Serial Killer Nickname
John Wayne Gacy, a serial killer convicted of 33 murders, is known to have very much enjoyed his “Killer Clown” identity. Gacy was an active member of his community in Chicago, Illinois, regularly dressing up as a clown to entertain the local children at various charity events. Meanwhile behind closed doors, he was a brutal killer who strangled most of his victims inside his home and buried 26 of them under his house between 1972 and 1978.
Given the death penalty in 1980 he spent 14 years on death row. During this time he revelled in this identity. He painted portraits of himself as “Pogo the Clown” to sell to the public, who for some reason wished to pay hundreds of pounds to get their hands on such an item.
In an attempt to stop criminals from profiting from such horrific crimes, laws have been enacted in America to prevent them from taking advantage of the media attention and public interest in their cases, and receiving sizeable monetary rewards from it.
David Berkowitz was a man who killed six women in New York between 1976 and 1977 and wounded seven others. He coined his own nickname by leaving a note at the scene of one of his crimes which claimed “I am the Son of Sam”. Leaked to the media he thereby became known as “Son of Sam” across the world as each new media article was published using this nickname in its headline.
In one summer, the “Son of Sam” brought terror to the City of New York before he was arrested in August 1977. So big was the media interest in his case, publishers were scrambling for his story, offering huge figure sums. The laws created to prevent this, now known as the Son of Sam Laws, have been used multiple times in America since their implementation.
The “murderabilia” trade is another aspect of the development of serial killers into popular culture celebrities. Items relating to famous serial killers are offered for sale and of course the common feature in the names of items? The serial killers nickname. Certainly this is an area capitalized on by John Wayne Gacy with his numerous clown paintings before his execution in 1994, and he was not the only one. Richard Ramirez and Henry Lee Lucas have both been known to sell their artwork to the public.
Although in most cases it is a third-party vendor who makes any profit from such items rather than the criminal themselves. Murderabilia has been a controversial issue but items for sale with connections to high profile criminals and most often serial killers, can range from their hand-prints, to their writings, mugs and t-shirts with their image on it and signed copies of their books.
Sadly in amongst all of this media frenzy over serial killers, the desperate rush to coin the most appropriate and marketable nickname for them and the scramble for their stories, is a complete disregard of the victims of these crimes. People can name serial killers, the amount of people they have killed, what sentence they have received but they would struggle to recall the names of their victims. Innocent people whose lives have be taken in often the most brutal of manners, suffering painful and horrible deaths are essentially ignored, while the person responsible, is created into a celebrity figure.