Inside the Mind of The 'Celebrity' Serial Killer Ian Brady

Why some serial killers attract media attention while others remain unknown

Posted May 16, 2017

BBC News and other media are reporting that the so-called 'Moors Murderer', Ian Brady, who tortured and killed five children with Myra Hindley in crimes that shocked the UK possibly more than any other depravity of the 20th Century, has died.

This image or file is a work of a Federal Bureau of Investigation employee, taken or made as part of that person's official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain in the United States.
Source: This image or file is a work of a Federal Bureau of Investigation employee, taken or made as part of that person's official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain in the United States.

The 79-year-old, it is reported, passed away at Ashworth Hospital, a secure psychiatric unit in Merseyside where he had been detained since 1985.

The BBC report that the Mersey Care Trust was unable to confirm the precise cause of Brady's death.

In 1966, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley (a female accomplice who has already died and who it is said fell under the spell of Brady and who might have been instrumental in luring the child victims) were convicted of the abduction, sexual assault and murder of Lesley Anne Downey (10), John Kilbride (12) and Edward Evans (17). The victims’ bodies were buried on Saddleworth Moor outside of Manchester, leading to their notorious nick names, the 'Moors Murderers'.

Some academics are now suggesting that there is a huge psychology attached to that kind of 'nick name', which some serial killers get branded with by the media, and which then determines which crimes the public becomes aware of, and which remain unknown to us.

In 1985, Brady and Hindley eventually confessed to the murders of Pauline Reade (16) and Keith Bennett (12), who had gone missing in the same area at the same time. The police escorted them back to the Moors in order to locate the missing bodies. Pauline Reade was discovered, but the body of Keith Bennett has never been found. 

The press had reported back in 2013, the last time he hit the headlines, Ian Brady was providing his first public explanation for why he murdered five children in the 1960s, in evidence to a mental health review tribunal. In 1985, he was diagnosed mentally ill and transferred to a secure psychiatric hospital. The tribunal was considering his request to be moved from hospital back to prison.

Brady, it is reported, had requested the transfer to be allowed to kill himself by starvation. But was he truly bent on suicide, or was this all a charade to get media attention?

Serial killers do have a higher rate of suicide. A recent study of 483 serial killers, by David Lester and John White, published in the Journal ‘Forensic Science International’, found that 6.2% committed suicide. Those who killed themselves were found, in the study entitled, ‘Which serial killers commit suicide? An exploratory study’, to come from more dysfunctional homes. Their sexual behaviour in the murders appeared more deviant, involving more bizarre sexual acts and more often the taping of the murder.

This did fit the Ian Brady case in terms of his background, and the way he carried out his crimes. Also, he had confessed to reaching under the settee looking for his loaded revolver, when the police first arrived in his home. He had apparently resolved to shoot the officers, and then himself, but discovered he had misplaced the gun.

Yet the fact is that Brady had been on hunger strike since 1999 - this could have been less an act of suicide and more a need to control those around him - causing problems for the authorities at Ashworth Hospital, asserting power in the only way open to him. At the heart of his crimes were issues of control over others.

Mental health review tribunals are never held in public, and Brady fought a court case to become the exception. This won him the public platform, which he had used that week to have his views splashed all over the media, a self-justification and a proud exposition of his personal philosophy.

This was part of a consistent pattern of behaviour on his part - not a new departure. Brady published a book in 2001 entitled ‘The Gates of Janus: Serial Killing and Its Analysis,’ in which he analysed other serial killers.

David Schmid, an Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of Buffalo in New York, had published an in-depth analysis of Brady’s book, in a chapter entitled ‘A Philosophy of Serial Killing: Sade, Nietzsche, and Brady at the Gates of Janus’, from the volume ‘Serial killers: Being and killing’, published by Wiley-Blackwell.

David Schmid argued that to properly understand Ian Brady you needed to grasp how numerous books from his personal library (including volumes on Nazism, torture, and the Marquis de Sade’s novel ‘Justine’) were introduced as evidence during the original trial.

At the time, the books by de Sade were touted by the prosecution barristers during Brady’s cross-examination, as evidence of pornography - they were referred to merely as ‘dirty books’. But, David Schmid maintained they are much more significant than that.

Perhaps de Sade’s central concept is that the individual who transgresses society’s rules is a rebel, in search of freedom and pleasure — a ‘transcendence’ — which society, in its ignorance and repressiveness, denies him.

In ‘The Gates of Janus’, Brady argued that the fact he knew that he would die in prison, actually conferred greater freedom upon him than most so-called free people. This was because, according to his analysis, ‘no hellish circles of social graces and ersatz respect bind me to censor beliefs. I am not under the least obligation to please by deceit any individual whomsoever.’

The Marquis de Sade (1740 -1814) was a French erotic writer and prose stylist, from whose name the words “sadism” and “sadist” are derived. De Sade himself was incarcerated in various jails and an insane asylum for about 32 years of his life. Just like Brady’s book, many of de Sade’s were written in prison.

The heroes in De Sade’s books are, like Brady was, addicted to self-justification. At the slightest provocation, they will pause in the midst of their debauchery and undertake the most exhaustive (and repetitive) justifications of their actions.

De Sade was probably more exploring ideas, not advocating the killing of people. But Brady adopted his ideas at face value, and mixes them into a hotch-potch of theories from nihilistic philosophers and right-wing extremists. He topped this off at the tribunal with a dose of moral relativism, describing himself as a ‘comparatively petty criminal’ alongside ‘global serial killers and thieves like Blair or Bush’.

David Schmid contended that a characteristic of de Sade’s heroes shared by certain sadistic serial killers - awareness of repugnance from others - is one of the sources of pleasure to be derived from their acts. David Schmid’s belief was that Brady derived a perverse pride from being the most hated man in Britain. When The Daily Telegraph newspaper splashed the headline: ‘Public are obsessed with me, like Jack the Ripper, says Brady’, it sounded like the newspaper was reporting a complaint, when in fact, it was probably more of a boast.

Brady is reported to have told the mental health tribunal that his killings were ‘recreational’. He enjoyed them - and enjoyed perverting a young woman into becoming his accomplice. Whether or not the beginnings of psychosis played a part, his crimes are those of the sadistic psychopath - enjoying dominating others to the point of extinguishing them, with little capacity to appreciate the feelings of others or to experience guilt or remorse.

Sensationalist reporting invokes the religious concept of ‘evil’, and those with a fondness for psychobabble talk about the deprivations of his childhood. But the fact is, some people are born like that. That is the way their brains are wired.

Brady ended up not saying anything new at the tribunal about his actions or motivations, yet he still found a large and rapt audience in the media and among the general public, who hung on his every word over fifty years after his conviction. Brady understood this fact and played his role accordingly.

In a study entitled 'The Strange Case of Ian Stuart Brady and the Mental Health Review Tribunal', the case of Trevor Hardy, a UK serial killer remarkably similar to Ian Brady in many respects, is discussed as to why some serial killers receive saturated media attention, while others remain relatively anonymous, ignored by modern 'celebrity' culture. 

The authors of the study, Dr Ian Cummins, Dr Marian Foley and Dr Martin King point out that Hardy died in prison in 2012 having been sentenced to a whole life tariff for the murders of three young women, Janet Stewart (15), Wanda Skalia (18) and Sharon Mosoph (17).

The authors of the study, based at Salford University and Manchester Metropolitan University describe how all the victims were subjected to horrific and harrowing violence, while the Judge sentencing him described Hardy as “hopelessly evil”.

Just as with Ian Brady, the case included a female accomplice and terrifying sexual violence.

The question the authors of this study, published in The Internet Journal of Criminology, considered, was why the serial killer Trevor Hardy never received the same level of attention and coverage as Ian Brady did.

Four journalists based in Manchester, who covered the case were interviewed to understand the apparent anonymity of Hardy, in a study entitled, 'When serial killers go unseen: The case of Trevor Joseph Hardy'.

The study, published in the academic journal, Crime Media Culture, concluded that factors explaining why this serial killer never garnered the media attention that others such as Ian Brady did, include the fact, unlike the 'Moors Murderer', Trevor Hardy did not have a “catchy nickname”.

In addition, point out the authors of this study, David Wilson, Harriet Tolputt, Nick Howe and Diane Kempthere, there were no photographic images of Hardy that could be deployed by the press, thus depriving journalists of their need for that media staple – “the face of evil” portrait. 

In the study entitled, 'The Strange Case of Ian Stuart Brady and the Mental Health Review Tribunal', the authors point out that during the summer of 2012, the case took another turn that led to yet more media attention, when Brady’s mental health advocate, Jackie Powell, was arrested following her appearance in a Channel 4 documentary about him.

The authors of the study, Dr Ian Cummins, Dr Marian Foley and Dr Martin King report that Jackie Powell had revealed she had been given a letter by Brady, which was to be given to Winnie Johnson, Keith Bennett’s mother, but only to be passed to Mrs Johnson after Brady’s death.

This prompted a raft of media speculation that this document must therefore contain the details of where Brady had buried Keith Bennett’s body.

In the documentary, the letter, the hunger strike and the MHRT (Mental Health Review Tribunal) are described as a “victory dance” by Brady.

Winnie Johnson died just before the transmission of the film. Her family and supporters continue to search for Keith Bennett’s body.

It's important that with the passing of Ian Brady we might learn a sobering lesson, in terms of justice for their victims, whose savage deaths and merciless mutilation of their bodies, in the case of serial killer Trevor Hardy, was not sufficient to make them interesting to the media. 

It would seem that we now live in an age where some serial killers, and the journalists who decide to make them famous, have learned to manage the audience with precisely the same media skills as required by any modern celebrity.

A version of this article formerly appeared in The Huffington Post.


When serial killers go unseen: The case of Trevor Joseph Hardy D Wilson, H Tolputt, N Howe, D Kemp - Crime, Media, Culture, Vol 6, Issue 2, 2010

‘A Philosophy of Serial Killing: Sade, Nietzsche, and Brady at the Gates of Janus’, by David Schmid, from the volume ‘Serial killers: Being and killing’, published by Wiley-Blackwell (2010).

The Strange Case of Ian Stuart Brady and the Mental Health Review Tribunal By Ian Cummins, Dr Marian Foley and Dr Martin King. Internet Journal of Criminology, 2016.

Which serial killers commit suicide? An exploratory study. D Lester, J White - Forensic science international, 2012 - Elsevier. Volume 223, Issues 1–3, 30 November 2012, Pages e56–e59