Why do we give nicknames to serial killers?
Nicknaming and popularizing serial killers encourages copycats
When Roll Stone magazine featured one of the Boston marathon’s mass murderers on their cover, magazine sales doubled. When they labeled him the “Boston Bomber,” I knew another serial killer had just been inducted into the “Celebrity Killer Hall of Fame.” Copycat killers yearning to have their face on a magazine cover and to earn their own nickname would take notice.
How many people will remember that cover photo of a young man with a youthful face and dark soulful eyes? How many more will remember the name Rolling Stone spread across one third of the page in bold type for dramatic effect – THE BOMBER? It is easy to see how the line between what THE BOMBER did, what he looks like, and what he is called, would blur. This man, accused of killing four people and injuring scores of others, will now share celebrity space with other famously nicknamed serial killers: Jack the Ripper, The Boston Strangler, The BTK Killer (Bind, Torture and Kill).
Labeling criminals with clever gimmicky names is nothing new. Most have at least one. So a couple of years ago, when I began doing research for a documentary about the popularity of serial killers, I was faced with a dilemma. When I write to them in prison, what is the proper salutation? Would “Pliers Bittaker,” the man who tortured and killed Southern California teenage girls, want to see Dear Pliers or Dear Lawrence?
After corresponding with dozens of killers, I learned that most prefer nickname identification. It is part of their superstar image and it works for them. These killers understand the media value of tapping into that fascination and they foster and promote their image at every opportunity.
Copycat killers are motivated by the attention lavished on other madmen and yearn to grab some of the spotlight for themselves. So they kill enough people to earn their own bloody label. Once it is secured and splashed across front pages in bold type, they kill more innocent people to bolster their celebrity status. They want to be on Rolling Stone’s cover like Charles Manson and the Boston Bomber. They want Hollywood to call and authors to write about them. And they will keep piling up bodies until they’re noticed.
And ‘publicity-wise’, it pays off.
John Wayne Gacy was known as the “Killer Clown.” Convicted of the sexual assault and murder of 33 teenage boys and young men, Gacy kept a close tally of his fame. “There’s been 11 hardback books on me, 31 paperbacks, two screenplays, one movie, one off-Broadway play, five songs, and over 5,000 articles,” he bragged.
Richard Ramirez was convicted in 1988 of thirteen murders and eleven rapes, yet womenwere infatuated with him and fought for his attention. He was “The Night Stalker.” Mysterious, dangerous, enticing. I corresponded with Doreen Lioy, Ramirez’s wife and with another lady who was one of his pen pals for many years. Richard was neither mysterious nor enticing but his aura loomed large.
Another bizarre copycat story involved Ken Bianchi one of the “The Hillside Stranglers.” In 1977, Bianchi and his cousin Angelo Buono kidnapped, raped and tortured ten females ranging in age from 12 to 28 years old. By the time Bianchi’s reign of terror ended, most Americans recognized his face and his nickname. While awaiting trial, he convinced a beautiful young woman, Veronica Compton, to copycat his crimes so the authorities would question whether or not the killer was still on the loose.
Veronica bought into the ruse and tried to strangle a women she befriended. She was caught, convicted of attempted murder and spent over twenty years in prison. I interviewed Veronica and asked how she could have been so manipulated by Bianchi. She talked about his fame and how she felt her career as a screenwriter would be enhanced by interviewing someone as infamous as him.
Fame. Fame. Fame. It’s the name of the game for killers and their copycats. Although we will never completely eradicate evil from our neighborhoods, we can stop promoting the celebrity of criminals by attaching headline grabbing monikers to them. We can douse the flames that encourage and embolden other copycat madmen to replicate horrific crimes and pursue notoriety by taking the life of others.
Joy Krause is the Director of the upcoming documentary film – Serial Killer Groupies – A Love Story.