I’m currently having a bit of a Jack the Ripper phase. Despite previously knowing very little about the grisly east end murders of 1888, now – I confess – I’m hooked. Tempted as I am to try my hand at a bit of armchair detective work, I am actually more interested in why myself and most people are fascinated with serial killers, rather than actually who Jack the Ripper was. After all, if I told you that the Ripper was ‘Joe Bloggs’, a 43 year old butcher who lived in Whitechapel, would that really satisfy your curiosity? Would the ‘who’ without the ‘why’ bring us any sort of closure?
Just to clarify, I’m pretty sure there was no 43 year old butcher in the Whitechapel area called Joe Bloggs at the time of the murders. If there was, then it looks like I’ve found a new and lucrative career as a psychic.
So why is it then, that normal people with relatively happy lives and childhoods can become so excited by something as horrific as murder? The Ripper mystery has gripped us for over a century now, and since the 1970s serial killers (both real and fictitious) have captivated our collective imagination, resulting in a sort of near-mythical, almost celebrity status. Consider our love of the character Hannibal Lecter – I say ‘love’ because, while we are morally opposed to his cannibalism, his charisma and intelligence (brought to life by actors including Sir Anthony Hopkins and, most recently, Mads Mikkelsen) are uncomfortably irresistible. We, the public, as well as the press and the media all obsess over these men, picking apart their childhoods, psyches and actions in meticulous detail, spurred on by an innate morbid fascination with mortality and morality.
Perhaps it is precisely because the majority of us are normal, happy, healthy human beings that we find serial killers and their victims so inherently fascinating. We go to work, eat, sleep, watch one too many episodes of our favourite show on Netflix, count down the days until the weekend, and then we do it all again. To us, serial killers seem about as far removed from real life as you can possibly get – we see them as ruthless, heartless monsters, stereo-typically either evil geniuses or severely mentally unstable. They seem to operate outside the confines of civilized human nature, symbolizing the very extremes of what one person can do to another and yet, despite all this, they are still human. They are still people. They also go to work, eat, sleep and exist in the same world that we do. Often, in the case of Hannibal or real-life murderers like Ted Bundy, they can be charming, or even charitable*. That, then, is the niggling question: how does a seemingly normal person become so twisted? Is it in their nature or their nurture? Is anyone capable of committing such atrocities, or are these people anomalies?
Our obsession with serial killers, therefore, seems to stem largely from our innate human desire to explain the seemingly inexplicable. Part of the reason we are so advanced as a species (I think) is our deep-rooted curiosity. We are constantly questioning, challenging, experimenting – at our best we don’t accept things at face value, but we constantly probe for a better, richer understanding of the world around us. Serial killers both entice these questions and deny us the answers: we are desperate to apply logic to their actions, although in most cases this is unlikely to ever be found. Even if we were one day able to identify Jack the Ripper, it is doubtful that we would be able to ascertain why he did what he did – the reasoning is not only lost in time but likely lost in translation. Would we ever really be able to understand, let alone accept, why he did what he did? The motivation behind such violent, terrible atrocities are likely to be as incomprehensible and unclear as the identity of Jack the Ripper himself.
And yet we continue on, perpetually attempting to solve an unsolvable puzzle. Who knows when – or if – the ghost of the Ripper will finally be laid to rest…
*John Wayne Gacy (March 17th, 1942 – May 10th, 1994) seemed an upstanding American citizen: he was married, he was in full-time employment, he was the vice-president of the United States Junior Chamber – a civic organization focusing on community service – and he also voluntarily visited sick children at a local hospital, dressed as a clown. In July 1978 it was revealed that he was also responsible for the rape, torture and murder of at lest 33 teenage boys in Chicago.