Even if you’re not interested in true crime, odds are you’re familiar with at least one or two serial killers—figures like Jack the Ripper, the Zodiac, or the Golden State Killer. You’ll notice a trend here, too; frequently, serial killers are known by nicknames, rather than by their true identities. Have you ever wondered why that is, though? Well, it’s a complicated question with a complicated answer—and in more ways than one.
The FBI defines serial murder as “the unlawful killing of two or more victims by the same offender(s), in separate events.” The “in separate events” bit is what separates serial murder from spree murder; while spree murders also consist of the killing of two or more victims by the same person or people, there’s no “cooling-off period,” as the FBI puts it—the murders all occur during the same event, at the same time.
The number of active serial killers at large in the United States at any given time ranges between 2,000 and 4,000, according to reporting published at The Atlantic in 2019. But whether or not the perpetrators are brought to justice, the cases often have another thing in common besides the definition of the crimes: The murders, the killers, or both often end up with catchy monikers by which they become widely known.
To answer the question of why serial killers are so often given nicknames, we first need to look at where those nicknames come from. They might have a number of sources, but typically, they arise from these three: the media, law enforcement, and the killers themselves.
Nicknames and the Media
Many serial killer nicknames emerge from the media coverage of ongoing cases. These nicknames are often descriptive of the nature of the murders, characteristics of the victims, and other details relating to the crimes.
Between 1935 and 1938, for example, the dismembered remains of the victims of a set of serial murders were found in the Kingsbury Run area of Cleveland, Ohio; the press dubbed the killings the “Cleveland Torso Murders,” and the perpetrator the “Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run.” In the 1910s, nearly two dozen young Black women were killed in Atlanta, Georgia; the papers dubbed the perpetrator (or perpetrators—it was never conclusively determined whether the crimes were committed by one person or several) as the “Atlanta Ripper.” Prior to his arrest, Richard Ramirez, who carried out a series of late-night home invasions in California between 1984 and 1985, killing 14 people, was referred to as the “Night Stalker” in media coverage.
In each of these cases—and many, many more—the nickname initially appeared in the press and subsequently spread to the public at large.
Shorthand and Law Enforcement
Sometimes, though, it isn’t the media that gives these killers their nicknames, but law enforcement. Christopher Beam at Slate points to Ted Kaczynski, aka the “Unabomber,” as one of the best-known examples of this particular phenomenon; the FBI investigation into the crimes termed the perpetrator the “University and Airline Bomber,” giving the case the identifier of UNABOM.
(Kaczynski is considered a domestic terrorist, rather than a serial killer; he does, however, also fit the definition of a serial killer: Three of his bombs killed three different people—Hugh Scrutton, Thomas J. Mosser, and Gilbert Brent Murray—in three separate incidents.)
Of course, the case identifier didn’t become the perpetrator’s nickname until the media got ahold of it, but it remains a case in which the original source for the nickname was the FBI itself.
[IMAGE OPTION: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Examiner-letter.gif (the “This is the Zodiac speaking” letter mentioned in the next section)]
The Mythologizing of the Self
Letter sent by the Zodiac Killer to the Examiner The Zodiac Killer / Public domain
Lastly, some serials killers actually name themselves, typically in letters or other correspondence sent to the media, law enforcement, or both.
The “Zodiac,” for example, who terrorized Northern California during the 1960s and ‘70s, identified themself by that name in one of their earliest letters: The letter received by the San Francisco Examiner on Aug. 7, 1969, began, “Dear Editor: This is the Zodiac speaking.” David Berkowitz similarly identified himself as the “Son of Sam” in a letter, although this one was addressed to Joseph Borrelli, the captain of the NYPD. It was not actually mailed, but rather, found near the bodies of victims Alexander Esau and Valentina Suriani on April 17, 1977.
Meanwhile, Dennis Rader, who pled guilty in 2005 to ten counts of first-degree murder carried out between 1974 and 1991 in Wichita, Kansas, identified himself with the initials BTK—which he said stood for his M.O., “bind, torture, kill”—in letters sent to various news outlets beginning in 1974. Rader’s true identity was revealed to the public upon his arrest in 2005. (He pleaded guilty to ten counts of murder in June of that year and is currently serving ten consecutive life sentences.)
When Serial Killers Don’t Have Nicknames—and What That Tells Us
However, not all serial killers end up having nicknames—or even if they do, they’re known primarily by their given names.
Ted Bundy, for instance, might occasionally be referred to as the “Lady Killer,” but he’s most widely known simply as Ted Bundy. Similarly, John Wayne Gacy has been called the “Killer Clown;” however, he, too, is most commonly referred to by his full name. The same is true of Jeffrey Dahmer and Aileen Wuornos; you might see the names “the Milwaukee Cannibal” or “the Milwaukee Monster” attached to Dahmer or the moniker “the Damsel of Death” pegged to Wuornos, but typically, they’re known by their real names.
Sometimes the lack of nickname has to do with the killer’s notoriety; if they’re notorious enough, they may not need a nickname. However, as Harold Schechter, a writer and professor at Queens College of the City University of New York whose work largely focuses on serial killers, told Slate in 2011, a lot of the time, it comes down to whether the killer is currently at large or whether they’ve already been fully identified: If we already know who they are, there’s no need to give them a nickname.
From all of this, we can arrive at a few conclusions as to why, exactly, serial killers have nicknames—most of which, perhaps surprisingly, are relatively practical in nature. For the media, nicknames can be useful for the continued coverage of the crimes: It’s easier to keep reporting on strings of seemingly related murders if you have one moniker by which to describe the otherwise unknown person or people committing them. Law enforcement, similarly, might use nicknames during their investigations—for case identification, for example, or simply as shorthand. And with both the media and law enforcement typically being positioned as figures of authority, the use of the nicknames in question tends to trickle down to the general public—and voila: a pretty clear view of how and why serial killers often come to be known by a gruesome nickname, rather than their own names.
The Case Against Nicknames
It’s worth noting, of course, that these aren’t hard-and-fast rules. Some serial killers are given nicknames after they’re caught; Nannie Doss, for example, became known as the “Giggling Granny” in the press after she was arrested in 1954—even though she had already been apprehended and therefore solidly identified. Ed Gein, too, was termed the “Butcher of Plainfield” and the “Plainfield Ghoul” only after he was arrested in 1957.
What’s more, there’s actually been an effort in recent years to halt the trend of nicknaming serial killers. As both True Crime Magazine and the website Crime Traveller [sic] point out, nicknames ultimately have the effect of glorifying killers and raising them up to celebrity status—which is troubling for a whole host of reasons.
For one thing, if a killer is still active, knowing that they’ve earned the dubious “badge of honor” of having a nickname can spur them on, encouraging them to increase their heinous activity. For another, granting killers—even those who have been caught—with the celebrity status a nickname can bring actively rewards the perpetrators for their crimes.
Nicknames can also have the effect of being, at best, insensitive towards the victims of the crimes and those who are affected by their deaths. The descriptive nature of the nicknames can contribute to the sensationalizing of the crimes, turning them into lurid entertainment meant to titillate, making it easy to lose sight of the fact that real people have been harmed in the process. Furthermore, treating the killers as celebrities centers the narratives around the perpetrators of the crimes, rather than around those affected by them—an effect which can be considered ethically dubious.
Interestingly, in recent years, the nicknames for serial killers that have emerged have been somewhat more subdued. Consider the Long Island Serial Killer, for example, or the Golden State Killer: Both describe only the geographic areas of the crimes—not the crimes themselves. Indeed, the Golden State Killer is actually a revision of the name previously given to the perpetrator of the crimes in question: For decades, the Golden State Killer was referred to as the “Original Night Stalker.” (Joseph James DeAngelo Jr. was apprehended for the Golden State Killer crimes in 2014 and, on June 29, 2020, pleaded guilty to 13 counts of first-degree murder and special circumstances and 13 counts of kidnapping.)
The conversation on the subject is ongoing—but it’s worth considering all the same. Consider it food for thought the next time you turn on a true-crime podcast.