‘The Monster of the Andes’, ‘The Butcher of Rostov’, ‘The Wolf of Moscow’, The ‘Rippers’, Jack, Camden and Yorkshire. Serial killers, the very embodiment of brutality, bewitch the mind and ensnare the senses of the baying public like no other criminal type. Throughout history, serial killers have been sensationalised, their crimes detailed in explicit detail and even their nicknames are generated to invoke fear and panic.
Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed, the ‘Blood Lady’, is perhaps one of the most prolific killers in history. Born in Hungary in 1560, her years from 1590-1610 saw a murder spree arguably still unrivalled in ferocity and scale. A true narcissist, she is rumoured to have tortured and murdered as many as 650 young women and bathed in their blood to enhance her beauty. Practices such as beating, burning, starving and the insertion of needles into the victims’ bodies were all noted by the court when her aides were tried for murder. Hundreds of bodies were found in her palatial home when raided, and as a consequence, she was walled up for the remainder of her life in the confines of her killing fields – her own room. She became a legend upon publication of her story in the 1700s; although her sadism was well-documented, subsequent exaggeration resulted in speculation that she was a vampire. This culminated in comparisons with Vlad the Impaler, an influence on the modern-day Dracula we all know.
The mystery of Jack the Ripper (also known at the time as ‘Leather Apron’) has been fascinating Londoners and tourists alike since 1888. The allure of Jack, it is supposed, lies primarily in his anonymity and the shroud of mystery that cloaks his every action. From the number of potential victims – only five have been confirmed – to his motivation and even his name, few killers have reached his level of notoriety without an indication of their true identity. Theories about the ‘true’ Jack have stretched from members of the royal family, to a doctor (the precision of his murders suggested medical training), but despite the best efforts of ‘Ripperologists’, it is entirely possible that the mystery will continue.
Somewhat more obscure is Rodney Alcala – ‘The Game Show Killer’. Amidst a rampage in California that may have left as many as 130 women dead during the late 1970s, Alcala appeared in a game show similar to Blind Date – The Dating Game – and won. Despite only being prosecuted for eight murders due to a lack of evidence, Alcala has been compared to Ted Bundy in terms of ferocity and scale. His trial has continued for over thirty years; he was convicted for three additional murders in 2010.
Perhaps even more chilling are cases of sanctioned, yet brutal, murder. Souflikar, a ‘gardener’ (executioner) during the Ottoman Empire, was credited with the execution of 5,000 individuals. Rejecting traditional methods of hanging or beheading, Souflikar challenged his victims to a race to determine if their outcome would be death or banishment, and then strangled the unlucky with his bare hands.
Serials killers have a significant presence in literature due to the morbid fascination they incite, and perhaps the most famous is Hannibal Lecter. However his real-life counterpart is even more horrific, not least as he was incarcerated for fewer than ten years and is subsequently free, albeit rehabilitated. Nikolai Dzhumagaliev, or ‘Metal Fang’, is said to have killed and consumed over 50 women in 1980 in the former Soviet Union, and was so named for the set of metal teeth replacing his real ones. Much like Lecter, he is also said to have fed his victims to his friends. Similarly, Jeffrey Dahmer is notorious for the consumption, torture and sexual abuse of his victims, as well as the preservation of their skeletons.
Arguably, however, the most terrifying of all are the killers in the medical profession. The horror of killers lies in their anonymity; how then can a trusted doctor or nurse metamorphose into a murderer? Hospital orderly Donald Harvey – the self-professed ‘Angel of Death’ – murdered 87 patients. He initially claimed to be ‘easing suffering’ before, by his own admission, confessing to finding enjoyment in murder. And what of Miyuki Ishikawa, a maternity nurse who killed newborn babies without proper care facilities?
The horror of the serial killer prevails throughout history, and the central fear is of the anonymous, the everyman, the killer who is a neighbour, a friend or a passer-by on the street. The silent, invisible and yet ubiquitous criminal.