Background to Way Past Evil # 1: the rise of the serial murderer.

Dennis Nilson

In Way Past Evil Harry Hawkins is thrown, for the second time in his career, into the nauseating world of a merciless, savage killer of the serial variety. For the big man, who has always been much happier hunting down villains, and murderers in general, who killed for reasons he can understand, the moral depravity of the serial killer driven not by the usual human passions but by something else again presents an extra challenge. H, in short, neither understands the psychology of such people, nor wants to - but he has to engage them; and so, a little, must we.

As is well known, the ‘golden age’ of serial killers, i.e. the period in which they rose to prominence in the public mind and began to be seriously studied by criminal justice professionals (especially the FBI) and defined and profiled by psychologists (as discussed in Way Past Evil), was the late 1970s, going on into the 1980s. This was when the early major examples emerged as major media figures and modern monsters. Here we are talking about the sickening exploits of the likes of Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer or John Wayne Gacy in the U.S. (which has of course always dominated in this area) and Peter Sutcliffe (The Yorkshire Ripper) or Dennis Nilson in the UK.

Jeffrey Dahmer

It is worth dwelling for a moment on one of the most gruesome but thought-provoking cases on the record - that of Dahmer, who killed, butchered, sexually interfered with and sometimes ate parts of 17 men and boys between 1979 and 1991 and who, thankfully, was beaten to death by a fellow inmate in 1994 having been sentenced to 15 consecutive terms of life imprisonment in 1992. Despite a lot of talk at his trial about borderline personality disorder, schizotypal personality disorder and a psychotic disorder, he was eventually declared sane and fit to face charges.

From trials like Dahmer’s - and unfortunately there were plenty of others - the central problems of the whole serial killer phenomenon emerged: How could a sane person do what he did? Was he just plain evil? What was it about the 70s/80s that produced all these monsters?

For a long time it seemed like there were almost as many theories about what made serial killers as there were people studying them, and the overwhelming majority of these were about individual psychology. And though it still seems like the more research there is on these characters, the more we realize how little we know, in recent years more attention has been paid to the social factors that may have come into play in the three or four decades after the Second World War as possible explanations for why the whole thing blew up when it did.

The first thing to note here is that many societies (and perhaps especially the highly individualistic English speaking countries) have become much more anonymous. Neighbourhoods and communities fragment, people move around much more (for work and/or because many people now decide where they’d like to live), assisted greatly by things like the building of the Interstate Highway System in the U.S. (which meant, among other things, a massive upsurge in long-distance hitch hiking). What this means, in the end, is that we now come across many, many more strangers than our predecessors did.

Social historians have suggested that in the pre-modern world, before mass migration to urban centres, strangers were rarely encountered, and when encountered were the subject of rumour and suspicion. The average medieval citizen might have only met 100 strangers during the course of their entire life. (Incidentally, Steven Pinker, in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, argues - somewhat controversially - that medieval Europeans faced homicide rates ten- to one-hundred times greater than today’s Europeans do, depending on when and where you look - which would seem to point to an awful lot of up-close-and-personal murder of familiars).

The point of all this is that a defining attribute of serial killers is that they prey on strangers (something that distinguishes them from the vast majority of homicides, which typically involve some form of prior relationship between killer and victim). Thus dense modern urban environments represent ideal settings for the everyday impersonal encounters that operate as a hallmark of serial killing.

So there’s that – much more opportunity, in the modern world generally and 70s/80s America specifically. But what else may have been involved? Peter Vronsky, one of the most interesting and knowledgeable writers on the topic, has a few ideas.

It is ‘likely’ (since no one really knows for sure) that some at least of the following played their parts: First, there is good data to suggest that there was a general increase in violent crime in North America in the 70s and 80s (and a decline since then, believe it or not, which we’ll come to in a later email), so people on the whole were readier to commit violent crime than they had been before or have been since. Next, the police lagged behind the trend because they lacked the resources - large-scale computerised databases and investigative data banks that could help them link similar crimes; and DNA wasn't used until the mid-1980s for forensic purposes, making it harder to track killers. This gave the serial killers - a term only coined in the 1980s - a kind of head start.

Vronsky - along with many others - also mentions the emergence of a massive culture of celebrity and the media and public fascination with monstrous killers, creating a snowball effect. Vronsky’s other ideas include everything from the way the violent sexualized imagery of post-war pulp fiction may have provided ‘scripts’ for the disturbed children of broken homes headed - or abandoned - by traumatized returning veterans who suffered wartime psychological problems at a time when PTSD was not yet a thing: ‘At the core of it is trauma, familial breakdown, and then a cultural scripting of the fantasy [they later act out],’ he said in an interview. ‘In the post-war decades…the surge in suburbs and the complete makeover of the demography of the country lead to a lot of transience, a lot of mobility, a lot of broken families, which is where many of these people came from.’

At the end of the day, Vronsky and the other experts seem to agree that we are looking at a cocktail of things, and never any specific thing, that spurs these killers to get going with the mass homicide. As criminologist Michael Arntfield says, ‘The most significant factor is the serial killer's personal decision in choosing to pursue their crimes. We're not entirely sure when and why that switch gets thrown.’

Well, that's a comfort.


Stephen Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity

Peter Vronsky, Sons of Cain: A History of Serial Killers from the Stone Age to the Present

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