Backstory: Q&A with WHY WE LOVE SERIAL KILLERS' Scott Bonn

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Scott Bonn's Why We Love Serial Killers, which came out at the end of October, looks at humanity's longterm fascination with serial killers, both real and fictional.

What are you reading now?

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Great movie, too.

What’s your favorite method of procrastination?

Catching rays in Central Park on beautiful summer days.

What's your writing process like, especially for a large nonfiction project like this?

I start by immersing myself in the literature--locating and reading everything I can find on the subject. Next, I develop a rough outline for the book with brief chapter summaries. Then I figure out who I want to interview and set those up. I am fortunate to have worked with some great student research assistants who help me to organize reference material. Ultimately, it is like putting together a mosaic that will hopefully appeal to my audience.

How far does the celebrity-making of serial killers go back?

Interest in serial killers is hardly new. Public fascination with serial killers probably dates back to the late 1880s when a series of extremely brutal, unsolved prostitute murders occurred in the Whitechapel area of London, England, and those killings gained worldwide notoriety. In the fall of 1888, a series of five grotesque murders were committed in London by an unknown individual who legend has it called himself Jack the Ripper in letters he allegedly sent to the London police and took credit for the crimes. Prior to the Jack the Ripper letters, the London newspapers called the unknown killer “Leather Apron” based on a suspicion that the killer was a local butcher.

As noted by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) in its 2005 report titled Serial Murder: Multi-Disciplinary Perspectives for Investigators, the name Jack the Ripper has become synonymous with serial murder over the years. This case has spawned many legends and myths concerning serial homicide and the killers who commit them. More than 125 years after his killing spree abruptly ended without his capture, the murders of Jack the Ripper continue to haunt and tantalize the world. In many ways, the Ripper killings are the greatest unsolved “whodunit” mystery of all time. In the 1970s and 1980s the exploits of high-profile serial killers in the U.S. such as the Green River Killer, Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer rekindled public interest in serial murder, which then exploded after the 1991 release of the now classic Hollywood film The Silence of the Lambs and its subsequent sequels and prequels.

Have you noticed a difference between how people react to real-life serial killers and fictional serial killers?

Not really. Serial killers have become major players on the public stage and in the media since the 1970s. I have a theory that serial killers are transformed into larger-than-life “celebrity monsters” through the combined efforts of law enforcement authorities, the news and entertainment media, and the public. I believe that exaggerated depictions of serial killers in the mass media have blurred fact and fiction. As a result, real-life killers such as Jeffrey Dahmer and fictional ones like Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter have become interchangeable in the minds of the public.

Tragically, due to the blurring of fact and fiction in the mass media, the harsh reality of serial homicide is comprehended by individuals only if/when a loved one is unfortunate enough to fall victim to a psychopathic predator like Jeffrey Dahmer. The social construction of celebrity monsters desensitizes the public to the actual horrors endured by the victims of serial killers and their loved ones. By turning serial killers into celebrity monsters, the news and entertainment media do a disservice to the victims’ families who have been deeply harmed and should not be re-victimized for the selfish purposes of commercial entertainment and financial profit.

What book was most useful to you in your research for this one?

Jenkins, P. 2009. Using Murder: The Social Construction of Serial Homicide. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

  • Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World's Most Savage Murderers

  • Mass Deception: Moral Panic and the U.S. War on Iraq (Critical Issues in Crime and Society)

  • The Silence of the Lambs (Hannibal Lecter)

  • Red Dragon (Hannibal Lecter Series)

  • Darkly Dreaming Dexter

  • Horror the Film Reader (In Focus: Routledge Film Readers)