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Why Many Serial Killers Crave Public Notoriety

Narcissistic predators are often self-promoters.

Key points

  • David Berkowitz, aka Son of Sam, was delighted his threatening letters were published in New York City newspapers throughout his killing spree.
  • Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer, was driven by a need to show off his ability to outsmart his pursuers.
  • The Zodiac Killer (identity unknown) loved his public image as a celebrity monster and helped to construct it.

Due to massive media exposure and hyperbole, certain serial killers such as Ted Bundy become what I call “celebrity monsters” in our popular culture. However, the media are not alone in creating celebrity monsters. Some serial killers actually seek out public notoriety and actively engage in the creation of their public image.

Among this ilk, Bundy, David Berkowitz (Son of Sam), Dennis Rader (Bind Torture Kill or BTK), the Zodiac Killer, and the Boston Strangler come immediately to mind. In fact, Berkowitz and Rader were so obsessed with the notoriety that they actually penned their own serial killer monikers.

The Night Stalker

One of the most gruesome but enduringly popular serial killers among true crime fans is the late Richard Ramirez, dubbed the “Night Stalker” by the press. He was convicted of killing 13 people (and suspected of killing 6 others) during a home invasion crime spree in Los Angeles in 1984 and 1985.

Men were shot or strangled and women were brutally raped and mutilated. At the crime scenes, the Night Stalker left occult symbols such as an inverted pentagram drawn on a wall with a victim’s lipstick as his personal signature.

Ramirez, who was an avowed Satanist, never expressed any remorse for his crimes after his capture. Instead, he gloated about his brutal crimes to reporters and mugged for the news cameras at his trial. Ramirez contributed greatly to his satanic public image by wearing all black in the courtroom and donning sunglasses throughout his trial. At one point he said that he aspired to be “100 percent evil.” He loved the news media attention and played up to the crowd.

At his sentencing, Ramirez praised Lucifer and told the judge, jurors, and a packed courtroom that included some of his victims' relatives, the following:

You don't understand me. You are not expected to. You are not capable of it. I am beyond your experience. I am beyond good and evil….I don't believe in the hypocritical, moralistic dogma of this so-called civilized society....You maggots make me sick! Hypocrites one and all....I don't need to hear all of society's rationalizations. I've heard them all before....Legions of the night—night breed—repeat not the errors of the Night Stalker and show no mercy. I will be avenged. Lucifer dwells within all of us….See you in Disneyland. That’s it.

Superior Court Judge Michael Tynan, who upheld the death sentence imposed by the jury, remarked that Ramirez's deeds exhibited "cruelty, callousness, and viciousness beyond any human understanding." Following his sentencing, Ramirez remained defiant in prison where he wore a perpetual sneer and enjoyed the attention of his female groupies who sent him a steady stream of love letters through the mail. When asked about his appeal to women, Ramirez said:

I think the girls are attracted to me because they can relate to me. The girls are nice when you're in my situation, but since I'm in here I spend more time writing to them about the relationship, rather than living it, but there are good friendships formed nevertheless.

Richard Ramirez died in prison of natural causes in 2013 while awaiting execution on death row. He had a strange magnetism, similar to Charles Manson, and was keenly aware of the public’s fascination with him. He skillfully manipulated the press and aggressively promoted his demonic public identity as the Night Stalker. His broad appeal among serial killer aficionados, particularly women, has continued and perhaps even increased since his death.

Son of Sam

There is no more infamous serial killer “brand name” in the world—with the possible exception of Jack the Ripper—than the Son of Sam. David Berkowitz introduced his legendary moniker to the world in 1977 when he communicated directly with his pursuers for the first time by leaving a handwritten letter addressed to the NYPD near the body of one of his victims.

In the poorly written note, which was partially incoherent and full of misspellings, Berkowitz used supernatural and satanic terminology to define himself. He wrote in part:

I am the “Monster”—“Beelzebub”—the “Chubby Behemouth.” I love to hunt. Prowling the streets looking for fair game—tasty meat. The wemon of Queens are z prettyist of all. I must be the water they drink. I live for the hunt—my life. Blood for papa…“Go out and kill” commands father Sam. Behind our house some rest. Mostly young—raped and slaughtered—their blood drained—just bones now.…

Berkowitz also drew an occult symbol on one of his letters which became part of the Son of Sam legend and his signature. He was delighted to see his threatening letters published in the New York City newspapers throughout his killing spree. The letters caused widespread panic and helped to establish the Son of Sam legend.

The BTK Killer

Perhaps no serial killer ever relished or participated more heavily in the construction of his own public image than the BTK Killer. Dennis Rader was determined to establish a brand name for himself and attract public notoriety like the Boston Strangler and the Son of Sam, so he brazenly contacted the news media in the fall of 1974 and left a letter for authorities at the local public library that instructed his pursuers to call him “Bind, Torture, Kill.”

Similar to the first letter to authorities from the Son of Sam, the first letter from BTK included supernatural descriptions of himself. In particular, Dennis used the word “monster” as a descriptor on several occasions. He introduced himself to authorities in his first letter with the following words:

…I’m sorry this happen to society. They are the ones who suffer the most… Where this monster enter my brain I will never know. But, it here to stay. How does one cure himself? If you ask for help, that you have killed four people, they will laugh or hit the panic button and call the cops.…

Rader’s expression of concern for society in this letter is laughable in its insincerity. Contrary to his written statement, his actual goals in writing to authorities were narcissistic and self-gratifying—that is, to create terror, gain notoriety, and demonstrate intellectual superiority. In addition to his desire to instill public panic and gain attention, Rader was driven by a need to show off his ability to outsmart his pursuers. To satisfy that need, prior to his capture he taunted law enforcement authorities for years in his written correspondence.

The Zodiac Killer

Another serial killer who loved his public image as a celebrity monster—and helped to construct it—was the Zodiac Killer who operated in Northern California in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Although the killer's identity remains unknown to this day, he originated the name "Zodiac" in a series of taunting letters he sent to the Bay Area press. They contained a hand-drawn symbol that became his iconic signature.

Some of the letters also included cryptograms or ciphers—that is, coded messages. On August 1, 1969, three letters prepared by the killer were received at the Vallejo Times Herald, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the San Francisco Examiner. The nearly identical letters took credit for two very recent shootings. Each letter also included one-third of a 408-symbol cryptogram that, according to the killer, contained his identity.

The unknown killer demanded the letters and cryptogram be printed on each paper's front page or he would "cruse [sic] around all weekend killing lone people in the night then move on to kill again until I end up with a dozen people over the weekend." The Chronicle published its third of the cryptogram on page four of the following day's edition.

The murders he threatened did not occur, and all three parts of the cryptogram were eventually published by the newspapers. Similar to BTK and the Son of Sam, the Zodiac Killer received tremendous notoriety by contacting his pursuers, and just like them, he would go on to murder again. Ultimately, however, the Zodiac stopped killing for unknown reasons and vanished forever.

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