Skip to main content

Jack the Ripper and Serial Killers: What's the Cultural Appeal?



It is human nature to be fascinated with morbid things. Stories of serial killers and heinous crimes have captivated audiences for hundreds of years, whether it's depicted in books, movies, or television. We are a society fixated on crime, which is why we tune into the news every day or read the paper. Crime sells, and nothing sells better than gruesome tales of murder.

So what is the cultural appeal with serial killers? Why would a just and moral society have such a fascination with despicable crimes and the misanthropic murderers who commit them? The answer lies in the very question. We are a society that believes in justice, a society of people who hold dear the precepts of law and order. Yet within us burns a primal desire to kill, which has been suppressed by thousands of years of religious and social standards.

Serial killers appeal to us because they have acted out many of our fantasies. As much as we value the sanctity of human life, we have all at one time or another fantasized about the act of murder. Some of us fantasize about murder, not in a serious way, but as a psychological response to stress and anger. We feel better after entertaining grizzly thoughts, even though we would never act upon our primal impulses. It is our brain's way of letting off steam. Some of us, in a moment of daydreaming, have thought about ways to commit the perfect murder; which method they would use, how they would dispose of the evidence, and how they would avoid being caught. Psychologists tell us that this is normal, for it is how humans are mentally wired.
Yet sometimes the mental wiring is faulty, and people turn into serial killers. We are more fascinated with serial killers than those who have murdered out of anger or passion because serial killers have an element of emotional detachment. This lack of anger or passion is what fascinates us, because our own murderous desires are rooted in emotion. When a normal person entertains murderous thoughts, it is usually directed at someone who has wronged us: an unscrupulous employer, a cheating lover, a liar, a thief. This is not how a serial killer's mind works. We marvel at the idea that a human being can kill repeatedly with a total lack of emotion.

The cultural appeal of serial killers has spanned centuries, and will continue for as long as mankind endures. This appeal does not mean that we are monsters, or potential killers. On the contrary. For it is when we stop being fascinated by crime, when killing fails to arouse feelings within us, that we should be concerned.


Written by JOTB contributor Marlin Bressi

Popular posts from this blog

The Incest Capital of the World?

At the far eastern edge of Kentucky, nestled in Appalachia, resides Letcher County. In spite of its isolation and poverty (approximately 30% of the county's population lives below the poverty line), Letcher County has managed to grow at an impressive rate, from a population of just 9,172 in 1900 to a present-day population of nearly 25,000. However, even if Letcher County tripled or quadrupled its present population, there's still a pretty good chance that virtually all of the county's inhabitants would be related to each other-- thanks to one particularly fertile family whose astounding rate of reproduction can put even the friskiest rabbit to shame.

Around the year 1900, Letcher County was the home of a man by the name of Jason L. Webb, who made national headlines for having the one of the largest families in the world. According to newspaper reports of the era, Jason had 19 children, 175 grandchildren, and 100 great-grandchildren. Perhaps even more impressive was his b…

Remembering the ill-fated voyage of the Aerowagon

From 1917 to 1922, the Bolshevik-led Red Army battled the anti-Communist White Army during the Russian Civil War.  By the end of 1919 the Bolsheviks had taken the cities of Omsk and Kiev, and had successfully repelled the White Russian siege of Petrograd.  However, the Bolshevik's momentum would be short-lived as the White Army, after retreating across the Baikal, regrouped and joined forces with Gigory Semyonov's Transbaikal Cossacks.  As the Red Army's losses began to mount, especially in Poland, the Bolsheviks attempted to gain a competitive advantage by embracing new technologies, sometimes with disastrous results.  Such is the sad tale of young inventor Valerian Abakovsky and his Aerowagon.

Abakovsky was a Latvian-born inventor who earned his living as a chauffeur for Cheka, the state security organization created by Lenin.  His position granted him access to many high-ranking Soviets and, although details are scarce, Abakovsky most likely used his influence within t…

Jenny Hanivers, Mermaids, Devil Fish, and Sea Monks

Three centuries before P.T. Barnum attracted flocks of crowds with his mummified Fiji Mermaid (which turned out to be a papier-mâché creation featuring a monkey's head and a fish's body), sailors around the world had already began manufacturing "mermaids".  Known as Jenny Hanivers, these creations were often sold to tourists and provided sailors with an additional source of income.  These mummified creatures were produced by drying, carving, and then varnishing the carcasses of fish belonging to the order rajiformes- a group of flattened cartilaginous fish related to the shark which includes stingrays and skates.  These preserved carcasses can be made to resemble mermaids, dragons, angels, demons, and other mythical creatures.


Jenny Hanivers became popular in the mid-16th century, when sailors around the Antwerp docks began selling the novelties to tourists.  This practice was so common  in the Belgian city that it may have influenced the name; it is widely believed …