Rarely do such nicknames come from inside the police teams trying to catch and convict these killers. It is almost always the media and tabloids who create and publish a nickname which then inevitably sticks in media circles and with the public. What is concerning about this habit is we are essentially making a serial killer famous, not only in the minds of the public but for the serial killer themselves who generally, it appears, very much enjoys this aspect of their activity.
Take a look at what makes anybody famous. It is their work and their behavior, whether it be novels, films, television or news reports, outspoken views or outrageous interviews, their name gets known, they become popular, talked about and referred to.
For serial killers their work is murder. In giving them a nickname, they are being popularized, created into celebrities based on their behavior of murdering other people and often in horrific and unthinkable ways. For many, the connection between the nickname the serial killer has and their actual name is lost. The BTK Killer for example, will rate highly among recognized terms, but Dennis Rader? Probably not.
While fuelling sales in newspapers and magazines may be the root cause of such nicknaming, it does feed into the human nature we have to give everything a label. Furthermore, it feeds into the section of the population who revel in the actions of serial killers, those who admire them and want to befriend them. A nice gimmicky nickname also fits their purposes very well.
Nicknames for serial killers don’t tend to be very inventive. They often focus on either the area in which they have committed their crimes or the manner in which they have killed; The Boston Strangler (Albert DeSalvo), The Hillside Strangers ( Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono), The Night Stalker (Richard Ramirez), The Freeway Killers (Patrick Kearney, William Bonin and Randy Steven Kraft), The Moors Murderers (Ian Brady and Myra Hindley).
Some are more ridiculous than others and have not caught on in the same way; The Hairy One (Augustine Chacon), Metal Fang (Nikolai Dzhumagaliev), Moon Maniac (Albert Fish), The Gay Slasher (Colin Ireland) and The Bedroom Basher (Gerald Parker).
In these cases, the need for a nickname appears to have taken over the need for sensible reporting. Some get their nicknames from an aspect of the crime itself, The Lipstick Killer is one example where the infamous message “For heavens sake catch me before I kill more, I cannot control myself” was scrawled on the wall in lipstick at one of the crime scenes.
Serial Killers Who Name Themselves
Of course, in some cases, the media has not had to come up with a clever nickname as the serial killer has already chosen one for themselves. They want their crimes to be associated with a particular name and they want that name published and advertised.
The Zodiac Killer, for example, is one of the most well-known unsolved serial murderers in America. This was a serial killer who committed a series of murders in 1968 and 1969 and has never been caught. The status of this killer has risen year upon year with countless theories on the number of victims, the motives behind the murders and of course the identity of the Zodiac. The killer named themselves ‘Zodiac’ in a letter sent to the San Francisco Examiner on 4th August 1969 which opened with ‘Dear Editor, This is the Zodiac speaking’. A number of other letters were received containing mysterious cryptograms with demands that they be published or further murders would be carried out.
From a media point of view, this was news story gold. A mysterious unknown serial killer in communication with the press, a headline-grabbing name coined by the killer, riddles, and puzzles to solve and threats of further harm to the public. The news stories leading with the headline of the Zodiac Killer came thick and fast and today over 40 years after the last murders, this is a story which still grabs headlines, creates films, books and websites and gains followers on a daily basis.
Many serial killers have chosen to contact the police or the media through letters to discuss their crimes, warn of their impending danger or simply taunt that they haven’t yet been caught and won’t be caught. These are the ones that tend to give themselves a name, which no doubt has been carefully selected to meet the image the killer wants to display.
Another known serial killer, David Berkowitz, was originally dubbed the .44 caliber killer after a number of shootings occurred carried out with the same weapon. This was a killer who crept up on his victims with a .44 caliber gun when they were in their cars or walking home on an evening. A number of his victims did survive the attacks, but with terrible injuries.
After five people had been killed in five separate shootings, the police received a letter from Berkowitz where he referred to himself as the Son of Sam, a name which like the Zodiac was picked up and thereafter was the name he became known by. David Berkowitz was arrested in 1977 after another murder had taken place. He claimed his neighbor, Sam, was the devil and sent him messages through his dog which told him to kill. Declared sane, he pleaded guilty to six murders and received a life sentence for each.
Some serial killers like to communicate directly with the media or police hunting for them, others like to collect the media articles and reports written about them and their crimes. Such attention feeds their desires and for those of them who are seeking fame, this is their ideal position.
The Celebrity Status of the Serial Killer
The culture of celebrities has grown out of the media. Tabloids offer a method of reporting, quoting, videoing which can be out to the world’s public in a click of a button. Once upon a time to be ‘famous’ a person had to have done something quite remarkable like win a Nobel prize.
In today’s world, people cannot get enough of reading about the daily lives of people who have become known for being on television or in a particular sitcom or worse, a reality show. Our society loves reality shows, peeking into the world of someone else where their lives, emotions, fears, and dreams can be compared with our own and checked against.
Serial killers represent the dark side of human nature. They carry out acts which most of us struggle to comprehend and because of this, we are drawn to the information that is available about them. We are curious as to why an individual would begin to kill, what motivated them and how they are able to carry out some of the more vicious and brutal attacks. Documentaries, films, newspapers all provide a constant stream of theories and opinions which people can tune into in order to answer their own questions and curiosity. Criminal profiling attracts attention as it attempts to answer such questions about why people kill.
When serial killers have a memorable and popular nickname, such curiosity peaks even higher. What such a process is doing is creating an almost celebrity style status for a person who is murdering other people. There is nothing celebrity about that behavior, but just as people follow the popstars and film stars of our day, there are some that do the same with serial killers. The question has to be asked, how can creating a celebrity persona for a serial killer be a good thing?
Serial murder is, in fact, the rarest of crimes but as serial killings are publicised and sensationalized in the media, they have become a much more common occurrence in the minds of the general public. There is most definitely a degree of fame-seeking from serial killers and the more the media and the public feed into that the more we are playing their game and essentially encouraging them to continue. How many serial killers, once caught, have sat behind bars with their fan mail, book deals, interview requests all wanting the hear directly from ‘The Killer‘ or whatever nickname has been assigned. Some ask to be called by their nickname, some demand to be called by their nickname, reveling in the limelight.
John Wayne Gacy, known as the Killer Clown, is one such serial killer who was known to adore the publicity over his case and regularly bragged about the number of books and films that had been made about him. Before his execution in 1994, his paintings completed in prison and often depicting himself as a clown highlight his delight with his nickname and fame and were sold for hundreds of pounds.
To own a painting painted by the hand of a serial killer which matches the persona created about his character is clearly of great attraction to some people. For those serial killers who have not yet been caught, the more publicity they have, the more they think they are known, the more they are spurred on in their crimes.
Undoubtedly such killers are very familiar with the fame, fortune, and notoriety achieved by other serial killers. Such nicknames and perceived fame can inspire copycat killers who are looking for the same level of fame and recognition.
The Dead Serial Killer
What is curious is many serial killers are immortalized through the popularity of their nicknames and through continued media reporting on their crimes. Most of the well-known serial killers have now either been executed or have died in prison and it appears a dead serial killer is even more appealing to many than a live one. The intrigue on their motives, the nature of their crimes, their modus operandi all seems to go up a level once a serial killer is no longer here to gloat, brag or correct.
The number of websites and blogs dedicated to dead serial killers is quite astounding and surprisingly a number of them express their love and admiration for the killer in question. Jeffrey Dahmer, for example, appears to be especially popular among women and he is more popular since his death in prison in 1994 than he was when he was alive.
Somewhere along the line, a ‘serial killer’ has become an identity entirely on its own. It is no longer an act of serial murder, it is an identity in itself and unfortunately, it is one that some admire and wish to aspire to. Some serial killers get their nicknames because their crimes are similar to someone else’s, Jack the Stripper, for example, is a slightly ridiculous nickname but it comes from the similarities in his crimes to Jack the Ripper. A series of murders took place in London between 1964 and 1965 where up to nine victims nude bodies were found all attributed to the same unknown killer.
Nicknames work best when the killers are still at large and no one knows their real name. In the most famous cases of Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, and John Wayne Gacy, they were all caught before the true nature or extent of their crimes became known and they are therefore known more by their real names.
Some nicknames have been attached to them; Jeffrey Dahmer, the Milwaukie Cannibal and better known John Wayne Gacy as the Killer Clown. However, unlike many others they are not known exclusively by these nicknames and most media refer to them by their real names.
In contrast, the BTK killer, who murdered 10 people between 1974 and 1994 around the Wichita area of Kansas, is known almost exclusively as the BTK Killer. Another serial killer who named himself, Dennis Rader sent a number of letters to police and local news during the time of his murders giving details of his crimes and signing each letter ‘BTK’ standing for ‘Bind, Torture, Kill‘ in reference to how he killed his victims. Caught in 2005, Dennis Rader pleaded guilty and is now serving ten life sentences in prison.
There have been many discussions recently reporting fears over events such as mass shootings being portrayed in the media and how that can influence some individuals to commit a similar act of their own. There are many troubled individuals in this world and some feel an affiliation with serial killers, spree killers, and mass murderers.
In most cases of spree killing, the killer either kills themselves or pushes the police into killing them. Their acts and subsequent suicide appears to inflate the interest in the case. Often notes, messages, manifestos or videos are found, left by the killers which give some clue into their motives or reasoning behind their attacks.
The more sensationalized the killer is, the better the nickname that appears. The more well-known and the more popular such a killer becomes, the more of a relationship an individual can build in their own minds with a killer.
The media present the serial killer as its own identity, they take away the notion that an individual has committed terrible crimes against others and replace it with a full identity with a catchy nickname. An identity which then travels around the world and meets with people who are looking for something to latch onto. The assignment of a nickname increases the serial killer persona, making it an available entity and for some, this is very attractive.
Guy, F. (2015, August 10) Serial Killer Nicknames: The Celebrity Status of the Multiple Murderer. Crime Traveller. Retrieved from https://www.crimetraveller.org/2015/08/serial-killer-nicknames/
But interestingly, I can't name any serial killer since 2000's with a catchy nickname.
Currently in Houston, there is a suspected sniper serial killer on the loose, at best he is referred as "Houston-sniper".
Maybe because there already have been sniper serial killers (John Allen Muhammad, killed 10 people in 2002, no nickname either), and the public has become desensitized. We've grown used to violence. In 1975, when Bundy was arrested, there weren't websites dedicated solely to such subjects, serial killers were not mainstream, it was new and fascinating, people were obsessed with serial killers. Every newspaper covered the trials of Bundy, Dahmer. Now, it's just another guy who killed and should be locked up.
Hi Liam, that is true! It seems in recent years we have settled with less catchy and more obvious names when it looks like a serial killer is on the loose, The Suffolk Strangler in England (2006), the Serial Shooter in Phoenix (2005-2006). The only more recent one I can think of with a more inventive name is the Crossbow Cannibal (2009-2010), again in England and I am not sure whether the media gave him that name or he named himself, either way he seemed very proud of it.
I think the increase in attention on serial killers over the years has increased their presence in the minds of the public and the wealth of websites and blogs dedicated to them are evidence of that. I suspect you are absolutely right, people around 1975 were more horrified by the emergence of a serial killer than we are today, we have grown used to such horrors occurring and it doesn't have the same impact as it once did. There are certainly now many groups, specialist magazines and media outlets which focus solely on information and discussion of serial killers, whether new or old which has grown into its own culture as such which weren't on the table years ago.
I think the public should be aware of all active serial killers. Stupid people will always follow someone whether they are given a nickname or not. Look at Charles Manson. The media coverage can save people’s lives by making them more cautious and by getting the information out there it could lead to their arrests. The public, at least some part of it, will always know something. Very few people commit crimes without bragging about it to someone.
They really make their criminal acts as a profession in a way that making a nickname for it. These guys are totally insane.