There has always been a public fascination with horror. Natural Born Killers is just a newfangled penny dreadful.
Given that, who do y’all see as the most significant multiple murderers of modern times (excluding warriors in the field, such as W. T. Sherman) in terms of their impact on popular culture or collective psychology?
Important caveat: I don’t intend to spawn discussions of who were the “greatest” monsters, or get into descriptions of the gruesome details. I guess I can’t stop hijacking or snarking – all I can do is ask folks to take this topic for what it is, or leave it.
My choices, coming from a late 20th century American perspective:
Adolph Hitler: Not for launching WWII, but for the exterminations, which were not part of the battle campaign. While Stalin did more killing, Hitler’s systematized eugenic program, together with the holocaust remembrance movement in its wake, makes him an icon both for those who are still fueled by his ideology and those who vow “never again”. The psychological studies of the relationship between implied power and obedience that were performed after the war remain classics.
Jack the Ripper: An icon and a byword for senseless violence for over a century, Jack’s ticket to fame was not eviscerating five prostitutes, but flaunting it and getting away with it. He became nameless fear incarnate, and the subject of hundreds of books, stories, films, even plays.
Ed Gein: A partial model for pop culture classics Psycho, Silence of the Lambs, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, in the 1950s Ed Gein brought Jack the Ripper to the heartland, and gave him a face. In doing so, he solidified the popular image of the serial killer as a twisted loner, a quiet but deranged outsider.
Charlie Starkweather / Charles Whitman: Starkweather, immortalized in the Sheen/Spacek movie Badlands and the Springsteen album Nebraska, and Charles Whitman, who gave us the phrase “climb a bell tower”, became pop images of the regular guy who “snaps” and goes on a spree of senseless violence. “Going postal” is just another iteration of the Starkweather/Whitman phenomenon.
Charles Manson: The sheer insanity of the Manson family’s motives and the audacity of their crimes against celebrity victims made for instant and lasting fame. The legal issues surrounding prosecution of Manson for the actions of his associates also made his trial a landmark case.
Ted Bundy: Along with John Wayne Gacey, Bundy shifted popular conception of the serial killer to something much more frightening than the weirdo loner, the impulsive spree killer, or the loony druggie. Handsome, disarming, even charming at first blush, and with apparent middle-class credentials, Bundy made Wednesday Addams’s joke possible – that serial killers look just like everybody else. His multi-state years-long killing binge, two escapes, and eventual execution made him even more iconic than the “old school” Son of Sam.
Jim Jones: The Jonestown massacre revived interest in the kind of psychological studies of power and charisma that flourished after WWII. It also solidified the popular image of modern cultism. “Drink the Kool-Aid” has become a pop phrase (especially in business) for committing oneself totally to an ideology.
The Zodiak: Heir apparent to the Ripper, The Zodiak, while losing mind-share among the general public, still holds a powerful grip among those who (for good or ill) seek out the extremes of senseless violence. His coded, taunting letters, including references to (even artifacts from) the crime scenes, are like something from a cheap movie. Yet he was never caught. The image of the cold, calculating, savvy, elaborate, even cartoonish killer still finds a place in films like Se7en.
Osama bin Ladin: I don’t think this one needs elaboration.