There is something that humans seem to find oddly fascinating with the gory and macabre. The morbid fascination when watching horror movies or violent news stories make viewers unable to turn away, even if they are afraid. It is this enchantment with horror that makes serial killers so fascinating to so many, and it is why it is crucial to understand how these criminals think when they communicate with a public who both fears them and awes at them. Killers like the Zodiac, the BTK (Dennis Rader), and the Unabomber (Ted Kaczynski) are unique in that they communicated with the public and with law enforcement, unlike other criminals who wish to remain anonymous. The Zodiac Killer, the BTK, and the Unabomber were able to instill a desired reaction of fear and unrest among their targeted audiences by manipulating and establishing power over civilians and law enforcement in their letters, as well as boasting about their crimes and attempting to appear more intelligent than others. These men were able to tempt, taunt, and terrorize communities in writing as well as in person, and to understand how they did it would be to further delve into the human psyche.
Serial killers have become popularized in media outlets and Hollywood alike, to the point where real criminals such as Jeffrey Dahmer and fictional characters such as Hannibal Lecter have become interchangeable in the minds of many. This morbid fascination with serial killers seems to stem from the innate human appetite for the macabre. They are fascinating in the same way as horror movies and violent news stories, eliciting the same feelings of curiosity and thrill, and “appealing to the most basic and powerful instinct in all of us—survival” (Bonn, 2014). The randomness with which they seem to act implies that no one is safe, and the fact that there are “around twenty serial killers acting at any given time in the US” means anyone could be a victim (Hickey, 2013). Drawing the most attention are the serial murderers that write letters, sending them to news outlets to be shared with the rest of the public or even to law enforcement in the areas where they have committed their crimes, in an attempt to elicit a feeling of fear and helplessness from the people in the community and from those attempting to apprehend them. The Zodiac Killer, the Unabomber, and the BTK are three of the most infamous of these criminals, each with distinct styles and messages aimed toward an overall similar purpose: to engender panic and a feeling of impotence within readers and potential victims. Each displaying traits resulting from or comorbid with narcissistic and/or antisocial personality disorder (psychopathy), these notorious criminals attempt to establish positions of power over others by manipulating their emotions and perceptions, as well as by boasting about their crimes, not sparing any gruesome details, and attempting to appear more intelligent than others. These methods serve the same purpose (to acquire the desired reactions from both civilians and police forces), but for different reasons, depending on the dispositions of the individual killers and the content of their sadistic fantasies. Because serial killers resonate to such an extent with average people due to how ingrained they have become in popular media and pop culture, to understand the meaning behind their use of language would provide insight on the inner workings of their minds, and, in turn, on the minds of the millions who have become fascinated with them. The Zodiac Killer, the BTK, and the Unabomber were able to instill a desired reaction of fear and unrest among their targeted audiences by manipulating and establishing power over civilians and law enforcement in their letters, as well as boasting about their crimes and attempting to appear more intelligent than others.
POSITIONS OF POWER
In an attempt to achieve their primary goal of instilling fear in the hearts of potential victims, as well as discomfort and frustration in law enforcement, it is common for serial killers to try to establish a position of power over authorities. Oftentimes, this desire to appear more formidable than they really are stems from an inferiority complex, which itself comes from personality disorders common in serial killers (Zodiac and BTK). These criminals can also, however, be under the influence of delusions of grandeur, meaning they truly believe that they are superior to others in some aspect, and simply wish to prove it through the rhetoric in their letters (Unabomber). This also plays a large role in the reason behind the crimes themselves, since “power/thrill is a motivation in which the offender feels empowered and/or excited when he kills his victims” (Mortom and Hilt, 2008).
The Zodiac Killer, one of the most well known and elusive serial killers in history, evaded capture by the police for years while terrorizing and murdering numerous people in the San Francisco area. Though little is known about this particular offender, because he was never caught and his identity is still subject to speculation, it is evident that his ability to live out his sadistic fantasies with no consequences caused his ego to grow. The Zodiac was known for sending letters to the San Francisco Police Department, taunting them by revealing details of his murders and boasting about never being caught. In one particular letter, he finishes with, “SFPD – 0,” and keeps score from then on about how many kills he is able to get away with while avoiding capture (Guillen, 2002). The Zodiac Killer utilizes a carefree, humorous tone in many of his letters in an attempt to appear untroubled by the possibility of being apprehended, contributing to his mysterious reputation and making it seem as though attempts to discover his identity were futile. In this way, he is able to grasp further control of the investigation. The Zodiac also often makes it a point to demonstrate that anyone could be a victim, once even asking citizens to “keep [their] sisters, daughters, and wives off the streets and alleys,” because killing civilians is not enough of a challenge (Zodiac Killer, personal communication, November 29, 1966). The killer wants to personalize his crimes for everyone in the community, even the men who knew that his preferred targets were women. He wanted people to feel as though he was inescapable, that there was no way to prevent his wrath, whether it be in the form of losing a loved one or losing one’s own life. By making others aware that he views killing as more of a game than an actual challenge or an uncontrollable compulsion, the Zodiac Killer is able to plant a feeling of helplessness in potential victims, which many serial killers find rewarding. This feeling of power attracts those who feel deprived of it, such as menial individuals that live lackluster lives and perceive themselves as unexceptional in some way. This feeling of inferiority, when combined with a lack of regard for human life, yields a remorseless, bloodthirsty individual with no mind for consequences and no inhibitions, otherwise known as a serial killer.
Similarly, Dennis Rader, otherwise known as the BTK, communicated with media and law enforcement in an attempt to grasp control and establish power over others. Rader is a prime example of a killer whose reason for attempting to establish dominance over others stems from a feeling of inferiority or insecurity. The BTK was not satisfied with just killing, he wanted attention, recognition, because to him this was a form of praise. He would grow frustrated when he was overlooked by the media, asking, “How many do I have to kill before I get my name in the paper or some national attention?” because part of the reason for his torturous and unique method of killing was to gain attention, a way to break away from the mediocre and the ordinary that plagued his life (Rader, personal communication, 1978). Rader even made up his own moniker, informing the Wichita Eagle that “The code words for [him] will be … Bind them, Torture them, Kill them, B.T.K., you see be at it again. They will be on the next victim,” in an attempt to appear more intimidating, as well as playing to the common conception of serial killers as demented and sadistic (Rader, personal communication, 1974). It is not uncommon for serial killers to use the reputation that others have acquired throughout history to their advantage, and Rader is no exception, claiming that he was under the influence of the, “same thing that made Son of Sam, Jack the Ripper, Havery Glatman, Boston Strangler, Dr. H.H. Holmes Panty Hose Strangler OF Florida, Hillside Strangler, Ted of the West Coast and many more infamous character kill” (Rader, personal communication, 1978). This list of names seems like a desperate attempt to convince others to take him seriously, as his idols have been taken before him. By comparing himself to a list of murderers known to make people shiver at just the thought of them, the BTK hopes to elicit the same feeling as they did through a twisted method of classical conditioning.
Unlike the Zodiac Killer and the BTK, the Unabomber, otherwise known as Ted Kaczynski, did not attempt to establish a position of superiority over others in order to make them afraid of him, but instead to make them join him. This can be explained by a key difference from the others regarding his psychological evaluation: while both the Zodiac and the BTK display symptoms of personality disorders (both narcissistic and antisocial), the Unabomber is practically a textbook schizophrenic, and would have been classified as “paranoid” before the latest amendments to the DSM. Kaczynski, a mathematical prodigy and Harvard alumni, became obsessed with the detrimental effects of technology on society and the need to revert back to a pre-industrial way of life, as he writes his 35,000 word manifesto, Industrial Society and Its Future, “damning the industrial and technological world, and certain of its agents” (Zuk, 2000). His hands-off approach to violence demonstrates that the Unabomber’s aggression was instrumental rather than purely hostile. In his manifesto, Kaczynski attempts to utilize his intelligence to establish leadership over like-minded environmentalists, in an “attempt to create a sense of shared identity in “us-versus-them” terms” (Barnett, 2015). He appeals to readers’ emotions as well as a way to seem like a sort of savior, a solution to a problem they did not know they had. Near the beginning of his manifesto, as Kaczynski addresses his main purpose for his crimes and his writing, he states, “We therefore advocate a revolution against the industrial system,” (Kaczynski, 1995). Having sent this anonymously, he knew the media was not aware that he was only one man living in a remote cabin in Lincoln, Montana. Therefore, the Unabomber writes his manifesto using the pronoun “we” instead of “I” to make it seem like he is part of a group of like-minded individuals willing to kill to achieve their goal. This also allows the bomber to appear more intimidating and make the issue seem more urgent in the eyes of the media. Authorities will feel more obligated to do as the manifesto says if they believe there are multiple people behind this cause. Knowing this, the Unabomber employs an inclusive pronoun to make others more willing to join him and dissenters more fearful of the cause.
If there is one trait that a significant amount, or even the majority, of serial killers share it is a feeling of pride for their crimes, often viewing them as their life’s work and a means of self expression. It is no surprise, then, that these killers often boast about their crimes throughout their letters as a way of engendering further discomfort and terror within potential readers. The inclination to gloat about morbid achievements is more prominent in killers such as the BTK Strangler, who, when the police suspected others for his murders, ensured that he “did it by [himself] and with no one’s help,” in a letter to the Wichita Eagle (Rader, personal communication, 1974). The purpose of this letter, and of most of the BTK’s letters, was to draw attention to himself, to his crimes, in order to make people fear him. In this way, Dennis Rader was able to feel as though he was accomplishing something. He also made it a point to include as much gory details when describing what he did with the bodies of his victims, such as Joseph Otero, whom he killed with “the old bag trick and strangulation with clothesline rope” (Rader, personal communication, 1974). By describing the methods of killing he used, the BTK manages to taunt police pursuing him and repulse civilians, so that his victims are not only those he physically harms, but anyone who reads his letters. Including the gruesome details of his actions was a way to gloat about what he considered to be accomplishments. The feeling of control which came with torturing and killing people led to a need to express and rejoice about these emotions through correspondence with media to increase his audience, as well as with police to further utilize this newfound power and control.
Similarly to the BTK, the Zodiac Killer enjoyed expressing his supposed superiority over others by gloating about how easy it was for him to commit his crimes. The Zodiac often boasted about how simple it was to kill people, even expressing frustration at the lack of a challenge in his letters to the San Francisco Police Department, viewing his crimes as hunting, even asking the public to not “make it to easy for [him]” (Zodiac Killer, personal communication, November 29, 1966). Always able to avoid arrest, the Zodiac grew more confident with every kill, as can be seen by the increasingly taunting tone that he used in his letters to the police, managing to frustrate them further. He also tried to portray himself as calm and collected when recounting his crimes. Once, when referring to his murder of Cheri Jo Bates, while he was luring her to her death, he describes her as completely unaware of his intentions, an easy kill, and recalls what he said to her during the incident: “… I SAID IT WAS ABOUT TIME. SHE ASKED ME “ABOUT TIME FOR WHAT”. I SAID IT WAS ABOUT TIME FOR HER TO DIE.” (Zodiac Killer, personal communication, November 29, 1966). This heightened sense of self worth, bordering on delusions of grandeur, manifested itself in the Zodiac’s writings and his recollection of events. In actuality, it is very unlikely that the exchange went as he describes in his letter, as it would have been extremely difficult to stay this confident and relaxed while committing first degree murder. It is more likely that he was attempting to portray himself as calm and collected when he was about to commit one of his first murders in order to make a more lasting impression on the public, especially since it was during this time that many horror movies, such as Psycho and Black Sunday were growing in popularity in the United States, contributing to public fear and fascination with serial killers. It is also no coincidence that the surname of this victim was Bates, the same as the last name of the infamous, fictional serial killer Norman Bates, made popular by the 1960 film Psycho. There is a possibility that he was simply trying, once again, to seem like he was unphased by his gruesome murders in order to make the public fear him and his capabilities.
Unlike other killers, the Unabomber did not boast about his serial murders in order to make the public fear him to feed his sadistic fantasies, but instead to make himself seem like a formidable leader who people would be willing to follow. In this case, the fear that Kaczynski was attempting to instill on the public was more similar to a fear of God, meaning reverence. To the Unabomber, the “message was one that was legitimate, somewhat messianic, one that would have the support and endorsement of a deity” (Zuk, 2000). In this way, gloating is a tool used in an attempt to garner more support for his cause, which was the purpose of his manifesto. Throughout his manifesto, which is really a lengthy persuasive piece, the Unabomber attempts to convince others to join his cause. In his writing, the boasting is much more subtle. Rather than outright depicting his pride in his actions, Kaczynski writes his entire manifesto with an underlying tone of superiority and self importance, as if he knows what other people are not intelligent enough to figure out. Kaczynski’s arrogance is evident when he describes technophiles, stating “they are unaware of […] the fact that when large changes […] are introduced into a society, they lead to a long sequence of other changes, most of which are impossible to predict” (Kaczynski, 1995). Here, Kaczynski implies that others are too nearsighted compared to himself, that he sees what they are too ignorant to see. His so-called omniscient and condescending tone is further disguised by Kaczynski’s choice of pronoun: “we” rather than “I.” Rather than revealing that he is acting alone, he opens his essay by stating “we […] advocate a revolution against the industrial system,” which makes all the opinions he voices throughout his manifesto seem like they are coming from a group of like-minded individuals, not one man in a log cabin in Montana (Kaczynski, 1995). Had Kaczynski addressed that he was working alone in his writing, his message would have seemed much more patronizing, thus, the manifesto would not have resonated the same way with the reader.
Fear is the ultimate emotion that serial killers feed off of, and boasting about actions that most sane human beings would consider repulsive will surely make these killers seem unhinged and demented in the eyes of potential victims. Both the BTK and the Zodiac gloated about their offences to further feed to the image that people had of them and make civilians more afraid than they already were. However, the Zodiac boasted due to his superiority complex, while the BTK did the same to compensate for his feelings of inferiority, two distinct rationales. The Unabomber, instead, bragged about his crimes as a means to achieve a superordinate goal. Either way, serial murderers separate themselves from other criminals because of their lack of inhibitions or remorse as well as an overall enjoyment of manipulating and taking life, and express this in their communiques through proud statements of accomplishment rather than guilty ones.
APPEARING MORE INTELLIGENT
The most common sentiment one feels when encountering someone significantly more intelligent than them is one of inferiority. Serial killers feed off this natural reaction to the intellectually superior by attempting to make civilians, law enforcement, and possible victims believe that they are not as intelligent as the serial killers that plague their streets and minds. Perhaps the most obvious attempt to use intelligence as a weapon or tool against potential victims and his audience is the Zodiac Killer’s infamous cyphers. Because many of his letters were written in codes that only he knew, the killer was able to feed his desire for attention while maintaining a degree of mystery by making them difficult, and sometimes impossible to read. To the citizens of San Francisco in the 1960s and 70s, the idea of having a rampant, psychotic killer on the loose was not as unnerving as that of having a cunning, calculating, and clever criminal hunting them for sport. The Zodiac’s ciphers were his calling card, a “unique, personal expression or ritual demonstrated by the offender while he is committing the offense and is based on the offender’s fantasies,” which is also “an aspect of the offender’s personality” (LaBrode, 2007). In this case, the “personality” the Zodiac was attempting to portray was that of a fearsome puppet master rather than that of a human being who could be apprehended and brought to justice. By making himself appear more intelligent than everyone else, he was able to instill a sense of impotence in everyone in the community, making them all victim to the idea of him rather than just his physical weapons.
Unlike the Zodiac Killer, the BTK attempted to seem more astute than he knew himself to be. Knowing that he was not as shrewd or sagacious a killer as his predecessors, the BTK attempted to make himself seem smarter through feeble attempts at pointing out his own achievements. Despite his declarations that he committed his brutal murders “all by [him]self,” it is easy to see that Rader possessed below average intelligence (Rader, personal communication, 1974). Throughout his many attempts at communicating with news outlets, there are several instances of grammatical errors and misspellings which explain his attempts to compensate for his self perceived intellectual inadequacy. While claiming sole responsibility for the murder of an entire household, he denied that it was the work of “those three dude” the police were questioning at the time (Rader, personal communication, 1974). In a different piece of correspondence, he claimed that “it hard to control myself” and that he was misunderstood. (Rader, personal communication, 1974). When third graders have better writing abilities than the serial murderer plaguing the streets, this makes him seem less like an evil mastermind and more like an immature man on a violent tantrum.
The Unabomber’s case is unique compared to that of the Zodiac and the BTK because his purpose for killing was not the same as the other two. While still a cold blooded murderer, Kaczynski did not kill to live a sadistic fantasy or to make himself feel more powerful or solely to make others fear him. His aggression was instrumental, a means to achieve a larger goal, one that he believed more important than himself or his own sense of fulfillment. He is one of the most intelligent serial killers in history, with a genius-level IQ and a degree from Harvard University, and he utilizes this skill throughout his manifesto in attempts to garner support and followers. His “strategy was to begin with a series of emotional appeals, playing to fears and concerns that he believed readers held, then try to substantiate those emotions with a series of rational appeals, offering verifiable evidence” (Barnett, 2015). By organizing his manifesto in a way that could effectively convince others to join his cause, Kaczynski also demonstrates his intellectual superiority to the newspapers that he requested publish his manifesto, making himself seem like he was capable of convincing and leading a large group of like minded people. His efforts to seem more intelligent serves another purpose: to make potential supporters believe they, too, would be more intelligent for joining him. By suggesting “adherents to his radical environmentalist ideology were more intelligent than non-adherents,” he is able to “create a sense of shared identity” (Barnett, 2015). This in-group/out-group mentality works to unify people by making them believe they have something in common. Kaczynski’s target audience was impressionable, probably young, people who felt they were smarter than their peers, and therefore superior. He wanted to unite a group of people who felt misunderstood and make them believe they were saviors, because “the human race has at best a very limited capacity for solving even relatively straightforward social problems” by themselves (Kaczynski, 1995).
Mental capacity is an important tool, even when one does not possess it. Either by demonstrating the intelligence they really have or deceiving others into believing they are more astute than they really are, serial killers have been able to utilize intellect as a weapon to make them more powerful or achieve their goals while striking fear and helplessness in the hearts of potential victims and feelings of frustration and inferiority in law enforcement.
In essence, the real life malicious villains that are serial killers attempt to use different methods in their writing to further affect members of the community which they cannot physically reach. From a rhetorical standpoint, serial killers who write letters differ from those that do not because they seek attention, fear, or praise. They need validation from others in order to feel fulfilled, validation which the public provides in the form of an ongoing fascination with the merciless criminals. By understanding how these killers attempt to make people fear them more than they already do, we would, in turn, understand what it is that awes so many about them and what inspires countless films and television programs based on their crimes. By establishing a position of power over communities in their writing, killers amplify the feeling of helplessness felt by the members of these communities and taunt the officials that apprehend them. By boasting about their crimes as if they were achievements, they feed off of preconceived perceptions of serial killers as psychopathic and bloodthirsty, and by attempting to appear more intelligent than others, sometimes even more intelligent than they truly are, these murderers lose their humanity in the eyes of potential victims and frustrate law enforcement. Our innate interest in crime and gore will likely persist for the amount of time that we do, but to understand this awe for the dark and morbid would further uncover how our minds work. To learn detect the methods used by criminals to attempt to control people’s thoughts and feelings would make these methods ineffective, and therefore lessen the power these killers possess. Eventually, serial killers will not be able to taunt civilians with gory details of their crimes or fool them into thinking they are mad geniuses. To shed light on the tricks of serial killers is to step out of the darkness that is fearing them and free ourselves of their mental control.
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