In the first episode of Mindhunter, Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) connects the string of patterned murders sweeping the country into a unified phenomenon. Now, we’d call the perpetrators of those crimes “serial killers.” But back in the ‘70s, the time when serious research on these individuals was just beginning, the phrase “serial killers” hadn’t been invented. Instead, the incidents were called “mass murders,” which didn’t quite capture the killers’ pattern, premeditation, and their seeming lack of motive.
“We need terminology to distinguish a Kemper from a Speck. One drives around with ropes, knives, and plastic bags in his trunk and returns to a specific hunting ground looking for specific prey, while the other just happens upon his victims,” she says, comparing the killers Edmund Kemper and Richard Speck.
“Sequence killer is wrong for someone like Kemper. It feels too cadenced,” Tench replies. Later, he clarifies what Kemper does as, “A series of killings.” From there, Tench quickly lands on “serial killer.” Everyone else in the room freezes with satisfaction. Tench found what they were looking for.
In TV land, this phrase is a convenient byproduct of a collective brainstorming session. But that’s not quite how the phrase came about in real life. In his 2003 book Serial Killers: The Method and Madness of Monsters, Peter Vronsky writes that the term “serial killer” was the brainchild of FBI agent Robert Ressler. Along with John E. Douglas, the author of the book Mindhunter, upon which the Netflix series is based, Ressler was the first to really study serial killers in earnest.
In 1974, Ressler was a lecturer at a police academy in Bramshill, England. After hearing about a particularly gruesome string of crimes, Ressler recalled the serial adventure films he’d grown up watching in movie theatres in the ‘30s and 40s. Each episode ended on a cliffhanger that compelled moviegoers to keep coming back.
According to Psychology Today, Ressler connected this movie-going phenomenon to the feelings that compelled certain killers to commit murder over and over. These people, Ressler thought, are stuck in a serial cycle of completing the perfect crime.
“The conclusion of every murder increases the tension and desire of a serial killer to commit a more perfect murder in the future—one closer to his/her ideal fantasy. Rather than being satisfied when they murder, serial killers are instead agitated toward repeating their killings in an unending ‘serial’ cycle,” writes Scott Bonn in Psychology Today.
It took six years for the phrase to enter the mainstream lexicon. “Serial killer” first appeared in a 1981 Times report discussing Wayne Williams, who was implicated in the murders of 31 children in Atlanta between the years of 1979-1981.
Despite Ressler’s claims that he coined the phrase, there’s reason to think that someone beat him to it. While researching an article for Serial Killer Quarterly, Harold Schechter, a true crime writer and serial killer expert, found a document that proves the phrase “serial killer” actually was coined in the ‘30s — in Berlin, Germany.
At the time, Ernst August Ferdinand Gennat, director of the Berlin Criminal Police, was in the process of developing a homicide squad dedicated to solving crimes like the ones seen in Mindhunter. The writer Margaret Seaton Wagner, who covered Gennat’s work, attests that he created the phrase “serial killer.” In German, the word Gennat used was “serienmörder.” Wagner translated this to “Series-murderer” in English.
Ultimately, no matter who coined the phrase, the gruesome serial killing phenomenon existed far before the phrase "serial killer" did.
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