A Serial killer, the classification of someone who has committed 3 or more killings with cooling off periods in-between each attack. A phenomenon that can be traced back as early as Ancient Rome. It perhaps was not until the emergence of Jack the Ripper in 1888 that serial murder really captured public attention.
Fast forward a century, Jack the Ripper has been established as a folklore legend and the West found itself in the midst of a serial murder epidemic that witnessed the emergence of a host of notorious serial killers. This period in the late 20th century has been dubbed “the golden age” of serial murder. Whilst serial murder cases have dwindled since the turn of the millennium, the public fascination in serial killers has not.
Oxford Brookes University PhD researcher Simon McFadden explores factors which fuel interest in these morbid figures and reveals the serial killers who generate the highest degree of public attention in the 21st century.
Drawing from data collected between January 2004 and February 2022, it has been found that serial murder consumes three times the rate of public interest in comparison to spree killing; making serial killers the stars of the true crime world. This new research also explores the rate of public interest per individual serial killer. The following list counts down the 5 most searched serial killers:
Number 5: John Wayne Gacy, Richard Ramirez and the Zodiac Killer - Coming in with indistinguishable rates of information seeking activity, is John Wayne Gacy, Richard Ramirez and the Zodiac Killer. All three serial killers were active during the so-called “golden age” of serial murder. The Zodiac Killer and more recently Ramirez have had moments in the limelight with their cases being covered in high budget media productions. Interestingly, annual spikes of information seeking activity concerning Gacy were observed in the month of October –linked to Gacy’s legacy as a killer clown and Halloween festivities.
Number 4: Jeffrey Dahmer – Also known as the Milwaukee Cannibal. Dahmer was a prolific serial killer and sex offender who committed the murder and dismemberment of 17 men and boys between 1978 and 1991. Dahmers killings were typically accompanied with acts of cannibalism which separates his crimes from other serial killers as being particularly shocking. Dahmer’s status of fame has been elevated even further since the release of Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story.
Number 3: Jack the Ripper – The most notable serial killer active outside the 20th century and the only non American serial killer to make the top 5 list. Jack the Ripper was active in the Whitechapel area of London in 1888 and killed at least five women. The case still remains unsolved with Jack the Ripper’s identity remaining unknown, a factor which draws intrigue and adds to the mythical allure that the Ripper possesses. It has been found that the release of new theories concerning Jack the Ripper’s identity consumes particular public interest.
Number 2: Ted Bundy – A killer with some of the qualities of a conventional celebrity, such as charm and good looks. It was these qualities that Bundy used to lure women to their demise and provided a shock value that enthrals people to this day. Ted Bundy confessed to murdering upwards of 30 victims between 1974 and 1978.
Number 1: Charles Manson – Although widely regarded as a serial killer, Manson was largely a cult leader who inspired a series of killings in August 1969. This included the murder of actress Sharon Tate. Manson, who failed to find fame as a musician, certainly found infamy as a serial killer – coming in at number 1 on the list of most searched serial killers. Manson's crimes had it all; racial discord, sex, drugs and Rock n' Roll. The salacious and gruesome nature of Manson’s crimes still manage to capture public interest. Thus, the legacy of the Manson family murders lives on.
Findings of this study have linked the public's fascination with serial killers to the modern day true crime craze, which saw an upswing in 2014-15 following the release of the Netflix series Making a Murderer. Since there has been a wealth of true crime content released on Netflix and elsewhere.
Serial Killers make good TV serials. Serial killers are the focal point of a lot of this true crime content effectively making them the stars of the show. This content ranges from Hollywood movies which focus on serial killers back stories to episodic documentary series that tell the story of specific serial murder cases and how the case was solved. Each capitalising on the public’s appetite to understand serial murder on a deeper level.
Audiences in the 21st century are in effect being reintroduced to 20th century serial killers via this highly sensationalised content – and some, unfamiliar with the cases, are being introduced to these infamous figures for the very first time. Thus, the same way hit Netflix shows have the power to catapult unknown actors to fame overnight (Katherine Langford) and to put decades old music back in the charts (Running up that Hill); it also has the power to reignite historical serial killers as a trending topic. This phenomenon has been dubbed the “Netflix Effect”. Unsurprisingly the highest recorded spikes of information seeking activity on the majority of famous serial killers came immediately following the release of a TV show or movie where they featured.
Most notably, in May, 2019, Ted Bundy received particularly high levels of information seeking activity following the release of the movie Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, starring Zac Efron. In fact, in May, 2019, the public was searching for information on Ted Bundy at a higher rate to that of A-list celebrities such as: Cristiano Ronaldo, Kylie Jenner, Lionel Messi and Selena Gomez (the four currently most followed celebrities on Instagram).
Although, serial murder documentaries are not new, what has changed is how these documentaries are produced. Prior to the release of Netflix, feature length documentaries on true crime cases were relatively rare. However, Netflix has given documentary makers more time to tell the story of the case. Considering Netflix’s modern method of releasing full series’ in “one off dumps”, collective viewing habits have also changed with the uptake of “binge viewing”. Keeping up with this trend, true crime documentaries exploit the mystery present in crime cases as means to incorporate plot twists, cliff-hangers and allow audience members to play detective. Thus, the viewing of a true crime documentary is now a more thrilling experience than ever before.
Based on the findings of this research, the public interest in serial killers is unlikely to stop anytime soon. Jeffrey Dahmer is the most recent killer to take centre stage on Netflix. However, the True Crime craze is still in motion and the hit serial killer shows are set to keep coming.