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The Serial Killer Files: The Who, What, Where, How, and Why of the World's Most Terrifying Murderers Paperback – December 30, 2003

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Editorial Reviews

From the Inside Flap


Hollywood?s make-believe maniacs like Jason, Freddy, and Hannibal Lecter can?t hold a candle to real life monsters like John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and scores of others who have terrorized, tortured, and terminated their way across civilization throughout the ages. Now, from the much-acclaimed author of Deviant, Deranged, and Depraved, comes the ultimate resource on the serial killer phenomenon.

Rigorously researched and packed with the most terrifying, up-to-date information, this innovative and highly compelling compendium covers every aspect of multiple murderers?from psychology to cinema, fetishism to fan clubs, ?trophies? to trading cards. Discover:

WHO THEY ARE: Those featured include Ed Gein, the homicidal mama?s boy who inspired fiction?s most famous Psycho, Norman Bates; Angelo Buono and Kenneth Bianchi, sex-crazed killer cousins better known as the Hillside Stranglers; and the Beanes, a fifteenth-century cave-dwelling clan with an insatiable appetite for human flesh

HOW THEY KILL: They shoot, stab, and strangle. Butcher, bludgeon, and burn. Drown, dismember, and devour . . . and other methods of massacre too many and monstrous to mention here.

WHY THEY DO IT: For pleasure and for profit. For celebrity and for ?companionship.? For the devil and for dinner. For the thrill of it, for the hell of it, and because ?such men are monsters, who live . . .
beyond the frontiers of madness.?

PLUS: in-depth case studies, classic killers? nicknames, definitions of every kind of deviance and derangement, and much, much more.

For more than one hundred profiles of lethal loners and killer couples, Bluebeards and black widows, cannibals and copycats? this is an indispensable, spine-tingling, eye-popping investigation into the dark hearts and mad minds of that twisted breed of human whose crimes are the most frightening . . . and fascinating.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.



One reason people tend to think that serial murder is a frighteningly new phenomenon is that, until about twenty years ago, no one ever heard of such a thing. For most of the twentieth century, the news media never referred to serial killers. But that isn't because homicidal psychos didn't exist in the past.

Indeed, one of the most infamous American serial killers of all time, Albert Fish, committed his atrocities around the time of the Great Depression. After his arrest, his unspeakable crimes were covered extensively by the newspapers. Nowhere, however, is Fish described as a serial killer. The reason is simple. The phrase hadn't been invented yet. Back then, the type of crime we now define as serial murder was simply lumped together under the general rubric of "mass murder."

Credit for coining the phrase "serial killer" is commonly given to former FBI Special Agent Robert Ressler, one of the founding members of the Bureau's elite Behavioral Science Unit (aka the "Mind Hunters" or the "Psyche Squad"). Along with his colleague John Douglas, Ressler served as a model for the character Jack Crawford in Thomas Harris's Hannibal Lecter trilogy.

In his 1992 memoir, Whoever Fights Monsters, Ressler writes that, in the early 1970s, while attending a weeklong conference at the British police academy, he heard a fellow participant refer to "crimes in series," meaning "a series of rapes, burglaries, arsons, or murders." Ressler was so impressed by the phrase that, upon returning to Quantico, he began to use the term "serial killer" in his own lectures to describe "the killing of those who do one murder, then another and another in a fairly repetitive way."

In thinking up the term, Ressler also says he had in mind the movie-matinee adventure serials of his boyhood: Spy Smasher, Flash Gordon, The Masked Marvel, etc. Like a child looking forward to the latest installment of his favorite cliffhanger, the serial killer can't wait to commit his next atrocity.

That is Ressler's version of how he came to invent the phrase that has now become such a vital part of our language. There is just one problem with the story. There is documented proof that the expression "serial murderer" existed at least a dozen years before Ressler supposedly invented it.

According to Jesse Sheidlower, editor of the major new revision of the Oxford English Dictionary, the term can be traced as far back as 1961, where it appears in a citation from Merriam-Webster's Third New International Dictionary. The quote, which is attributed to the German critic Siegfried Kracauer, is:

[He] denies that he is the pursued serial murderer.

-first documented use of the term "serial murderer," as it appears in Merriam-Webster's 1961 Third New International Dictionary

By the mid-1960s, the term "serial murderer" had become common enough, at least overseas, that it was used repeatedly in the 1966 book The Meaning of Murder by the British writer John Brophy.

Jack the Ripper, still unidentified and still the most famous of all serial murderers, was not altogether true to type. The typical serial murderer kills once too often and gets caught.

-from The Meaning of Murder (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1966), p. 189

It's possible that, during his visit to England (where Brophy's book was originally published), Ressler picked up the term, perhaps subliminally. To give credit where it is due, it was evidently Ressler who altered the phrase from "serial murderer" to the slightly more punchy "serial killer."

In any event, if he can't really be credited with coining the expression, Ressler certainly helped introduce it into American culture. Surprisingly, it did not enter into common usage until quite recently. The earliest published example of the phrase "serial killer" that the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary have been able to come up with is only twenty years old. It comes from the article "Leading the Hunt in Atlanta's Murders" by M. A. Farber, published in the May 3, 1981, issue of the New York Times Magazine.

Here, reprinted for the first time, is the passage containing the first known published use of the term "serial killer":

Someone, raising a question that trails Brown from forum to forum, asks about race and the murders. Some Atlantans fear racial violence if a "serial" killer is discovered to be white.


Since the term "serial killer" was invented to describe a specific type of criminal, you'd think the definition would be clear-cut. However, confusion surrounds the term. Even the experts can't agree.

Let's start with the official FBI definition:

Three or more separate events in three or more separate locations with an emotional cooling-off period between homicides.

-FBI Crime Classification Manual (1992)

This definition stresses three elements:

1.Quantity. There have to be at least three murders.

2.Place. The murders have to occur at different locations.

3.Time. There has to be a "cooling-off period"-an interval between the murders that can last anywhere from several hours to several years.

The last two characteristics are meant to differentiate serial killing from mass murder, in which a suicidal, rage-filled individual slaughters a bunch of people at once: a disgruntled employee, for example, who shows up at his office with an automatic weapon and blows away a half dozen coworkers before turning the gun on himself.

There are several problems with the FBI definition. In one respect, it's much too broad, since it can be applied to homicidal types who aren't serial killers: professional hit men, for example, or Western outlaws like William "Billy the Kid" Bonney, who is said to have gunned down twenty-one men before he reached the age of twenty-one. "Mad bombers" like Ted Kaczynski also meet the FBI's criteria. But none of these types match the common conception of a serial killer.

In another respect, the FBI definition is overly narrow, since it specifies that a serial killer has to commit his crimes "in three or more separate locations." To be sure, some serial killers range far and wide in their search for prey. Ted Bundy, for example, murdered women in several different states. Others, however, prefer to do their dirty work in one place. John Wayne Gacy, for example, turned the basement of his suburban split-level into a private torture chamber and even disposed of his victims' remains at home, stashing them in the crawl space until he ran out of room.

The main defect in the FBI definition however, is what's missing from it-namely, any sense of the specific nature of the crimes. When Siegfried Kracauer first used the term "serial murderer," he was discussing the character played by Peter Lorre in Fritz Lang's classic movie, M: a repulsive, moon-faced pervert who preys on little girls. A few years later, John Brophy used it to describe killers like Jack the Ripper and Earle Leonard Nelson, the infamous "Gorilla Murderer" of the 1920s who strangled and raped several dozen women across the United States and up into Canada. And when Robert Ressler and his colleagues in the Behavioral Science Unit adopted the term in the 1970s, they applied it to homicidal psychopaths like Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, and Edmund Kemper. In all these cases, there was one common thread: a strong component of depraved sexuality.

Recognizing this fact, some experts stress the sexual motivations behind serial murder, defining it as the act of ultraviolent deviants, who get twisted pleasure from inflicting extreme harm on their victims and who will keep on committing their atrocities until they are stopped.

Of course, there are criminals who match this profile but who can't be considered serial killers for one simple reason: they are caught after committing a single homicide. An example is James Lawson, described in the book The Evil That Men Do by Stephen Michaud and former FBI Special Agent Roy Hazelwood (another member of the FBI's original Mind Hunter team).

A convicted rapist, Lawson was sent to a California state mental institution, where he struck up a friendship with a fellow inmate, James Odom. The two men began sharing their fantasies of rape and murder, encouraging each other's sickest impulses and forming a bond based on their mutual depravity. No sooner were they released than they decided to put their dreams into action. Abducting a twenty-five-year-old female convenience store clerk, they drove her to an isolated location. First Odom raped her in the backseat while Lawson watched.

Then Lawson went to work on her with his knife.

I wanted to cut her body so she would not look like a person, and destroy her so she would not exist. I began to cut on her body. I remember cutting her breasts off. After this, all I remember is that I kept cutting on her body.

-James Lawson

Fortunately, the two men were traced and arrested in short order. However, Lawson's case raises an interesting question. There's no doubt that he had the mentality of a serial killer; his confession makes that brutally clear. How many women would he have had to butcher before qualifying for that label? "Three or more," according to the FBI definition. But that number seems arbitrary. Let's suppose that, over the span of several weeks, the police in a small California town had found the remains of two female victims, killed and mutilated in the same way. Wouldn't they be justified in suspecting that a serial killer was on the loose?

These flaws in the FBI definition are rectified in another, more flexible one formulated by the National Institutes of Justice, which many authorities regard as a more accurate description:

A series of two or more murders, committed as separate events, usually, but not always, by one offender acting alone. The crimes may occur over a period of time ranging from hours to years. Quite often the motive is psychological, and the offender's behavior and the physical evidence observed at the crime scenes will reflect sadistic, sexual overtones.

-National Institutes of Justice


Though people sometimes confuse the terms and use them interchangeably, there are important differences between serial murder and the other major types of multiple homicide, mass murder and spree killing.

For the most part, serial murder is a sex crime, a fact that accounts for its distinctive features. The classic pattern of serial murder is a grotesque travesty of normal sexual functioning.

Most people who haven't had sex for a while begin to crave it more and more. They daydream about it. In vulgar terms, they grow increasingly horny. If unattached, they eventually seek out a willing partner. Once they've gratified their sexual urges, the need subsides for a certain period of time.

In a parallel way, the serial killer spends his time fantasizing about dominance, torture, and murder. In effect, he grows horny for blood. When his twisted desires get too strong to resist, he goes prowling for unwitting prey. His excitement reaches a climax with the suffering and death of the victim. Afterward, he experiences a "cooling-off" period. (This is somewhat of a misnomer since it is during this lull between crimes that the killer's bloodlust begins to build again. It would be more accurate to describe it as a "cooling-off/heating-up" period.) During this time, he may make use of "trophies" he has taken from a murder scene to relive the crime in his mind, savoring the memory of his victim's suffering.

In short, their unspeakable acts are a source of supreme pleasure to serial killers, who achieve the highest pitch of arousal-even to the point of orgasm-by inflicting savage harm on other human beings. Because doing terrible things feels so good to them, serial killers try not to get caught, so they can keep on enjoying their atrocities for as long as possible.

Mass Murder

Apart from the fact that they both involve multiple homicides, mass murder and serial killing have almost nothing in common.

Whereas the serial killer is often described as a predator, the mass murderer is stereotypically defined as a "human time bomb." Though there have been a number of female mass murderers, the great preponderance are male. In general, the mass murderer is someone whose life has come unraveled-who has been thrown out by his wife or fired from his job or suffered some other humiliating blow that pushes him over the edge. Filled with an annihilating rage at everything he blames for his failure, he explodes in a burst of devastating violence that wipes out everyone within range (a phenomenon that has entered slang as "going postal," a sardonic tribute to the number of US Postal Service workers who seem to have perpetrated such acts).

If serial murder is, in essence, a sex crime, mass murder is almost always a suicidal one. In blind, apocalyptic fury, the mass murderer has decided to go out with a bang and take as many people with him as possible. Typically, once the bloodbath is over, the mass murderer will either end his own life or provoke a fatal shoot-out with the police ("suicide by cop," as it is called).

Someday before I kill myself, I'll bring some people down with me.

-Sylvia Seegrist, mass murderer

Since his intention is to blow away as many people as possible, the mass murderer almost always uses firearms. This is in marked contrast to most

serial killers, who (with notable exceptions like David "Son of Sam" Berkowitz and Zodiac) prefer the sadistic "hands-on" thrill of stabbing, strangling, mauling, and mutilating.

A key element of mass murder is that, by definition, it occurs in a single location. Indeed, it is this factor, as much as anything else, that amounts for the devastating nature of the crime. The mass murderer is someone who-like a suicide bomber-detonates without warning in a restaurant, a playground, a schoolroom, an office, or even (as in the 1999 case of Larry Gene Ashbrook) a church, turning a safe, familiar setting into the scene of a corpse-strewn massacre.

Though mass murderers don't exert the same morbid fascination as serial killers-largely because their crimes are less sensationally gruesome and sexually perverted-they often run up substantial body counts. Charles Whitman, for example-the Texas Tower sniper who, on August 1, 1966, barricaded himself on the observation deck overlooking the University of Texas campus and began picking off people below-killed fourteen victims in the course of his massacre. And even this grim total was surpassed by the case of James Huberty, one of the worst mass-murder episodes of modern times.

James Huberty and the McDonald's Massacre

The site was significant: a suburban McDonald's restaurant. This all-American symbol of happy family life and material satisfaction represented everything that James Oliver Huberty had struggled so hard-and failed so miserably-to achieve.

His life had been difficult from the start. His mother, a religious zealot, became a missionary and abandoned her family when James was only seven. Raised by his father, he grew up lonely and resentful, a boy whose sole companion was his dog and whose only interest was guns.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books; 1 edition (December 30, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0345465660
  • ISBN-13: 978-0345465665
  • Product Dimensions: 7.4 x 1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (100 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #33,304 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Harold Schechter is an American true crime writer who specializes in serial killers. He attended the State University of New York in Buffalo where his PhD director was Leslie Fiedler. He is professor of American literature and popular culture at Queens College of the City University of New York.Schechter is married to poet Kimiko Hahn. He has two daughters from a previous marriage: the writer Lauren Oliver and professor of philosophy Elizabeth Schechter. His newest book, The Mad Sculptor, (about a sensational triple murder at Beekman Place in New York City in 1937) will be published in February 2014.


"Ambitious, bold, and evocative, Schechter's storytelling grabs the reader in a similar manner to Capote's searing In Cold Blood." --Publishers Weekly

"Perfect for readers who enjoy the stories of the sensationalistic press of the 1930s and its crass exploitation of the details of horrific murders." - Kirkus

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

54 of 58 people found the following review helpful By Russell A. Rohde MD on December 29, 2004
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
"The Serial Killer Files: The Who, What, Where, How, and Why of the World's Most Terrifying Murderers," Harold Schechter, New York, Ballantine Books, 2003 ISBN 0-345-46566-0 (ppk) is by an established author of 10 prior books, 7 on serial killers.

The book's 402 pages of text are conveniently divided into 9 chapters plus 7 pages listing a rather thorough true-crime bibliography for about 100 individual cases, mostly SK-loners but perhaps 10% SK-couples or "family".

If this book is read cover-to-cover the reader encounters moderate redundancy -- but this is a literary devise seemingly required for the book's division into chapters which nicely explore all those elements of the lengthy sub-title (who, what, where, how and why) plus intriguing chapters on sadism, extreme perversions as cannibalism, methodology, profiling, and an exceptionally spirited coverage of SK culture.

This book is a treatise with cross-referencing of "everything you ever wanted to know about serial killers," with lots of gruesome details on lust-killers, torture, etc. Were one to choose a single book on SK, this one by Schechter stands out, and the price is right. The only technical error I noted was the name of the acids hydrochloric vs sulfuric (HCl page 265, and H2SO4 page 334) used by J. G. Haigh, the "Acid-Bath Killer".
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48 of 54 people found the following review helpful By K. L. Uminski on February 25, 2004
Format: Paperback
I have been a reader of Mr. Schechter's non fiction for three or four years now. One of my first books on serial killers in general (as opposed to books on individual serial killers) was A to Z Encyclopedia of Serial Killers, so I didn't know about this book. But, well, the subject matter is too tantalizing, so I went for it. Was I glad I did. The most valuable thing about this book for me were the updates. We get the Green River Killer update, The Railway Killer, and the Beltway Snipers, to mention only a few. The format here is interesting, and while I read it from page one all the way straight to the end, with its terrific index, its a reference or a "snack" of infomation, however you wish to use it. It has a place of honor on my shelf.
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54 of 62 people found the following review helpful By Amy Aldrich on August 24, 2006
Format: Paperback
This is a veritable compendium of serial killers (who they are, how they kill, why they do it) and each killer has an in depth case study, and I do mean IN DEPTH! What more can I say. It was an interesting read with loads of resources for whatever macabre murder or murder type strikes your only complaint is that there was actually quite a bit of repeated information. I'm assuming though that the author probably doesn't intend for the book to be read cover to cover (as I did), so he repeats information in various sections one might reference, probably to ensure his ideas are conveyed thoroughly for those not reading the entire book, like say, looking up a specific killer or type of killer. I give it a solid B, this would make a handy reference for a library or for use in a personal library if one writes about serial killers! :-)
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful By BJG on July 22, 2004
Format: Paperback
So many true crime books are sensationally written, poorly researched tabloid type renditions of serial murder. Harold Schechter, however, has literally written a text book of murder. This book is well written, organized, and provides an interesting historical overview of serial killers...from the "Bluebeard" killers, to the Black Widows, to the sexual sadists, he covers them all. Schechter also provides insight into the empty soul of the sociopath. I highly recommend this book!
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Robbie De Clercq on December 31, 2006
Format: Paperback
This is without any doubt one of the most informative books on the history of serial killers. Schechters writing style is so fluid that it's hard to put the book down. Around 150 - 200 serial killers are discussed in the book, which means that Schechter also mentions the lesser known serial killers, like Javed Iqbal and Li Wenxian. It's interesting to read that serial killers aren't a phenomenon of the last 150 years. Schechter proves that by going back to ancient Rome and the middle ages.

Who, what, where, how en why ... You will find the answer in this book. Excellent for true crime addicts. 5 star
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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful By benjamin shemmer on January 18, 2004
Format: Paperback
It's a reference book but reads well cover-to-cover, or you can just look up the specific topics you're interested in. But you'll end up reading the whole thing. Covers all the basics (Gacy, Bundy, Dahmer. . . . and the difference between serial killers and mass murderers) plus a hundred other things I'd never heard of (African American serial killers, or weirdest ways of dumping the bodies). . . . also has a whole comic book about a serial killer named Panzram.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on January 17, 2004
Format: Paperback
I have been an enthusiast of serial killer literature for years and years, and I can confidently say that this book will now be the singular resource on serial killers. It is comprehensive, well-written, and perfectly executed. It satisfied all of the questions I have had about serial killers. Full of informations, interesting, engaging--anyone with an interest similar to mine should definitely buy this book!!
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Jerome H. on July 13, 2004
Format: Paperback
For those interested in serial killers or in understanding the human condition in some of its darkest forms, this book offers a number of wonderful insights. Details from interviews with many notorious killers including John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy and Karl "Kropsey" Morgan, make this book both a fascinating and truly repulsive read.
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