At some point in your life, you may have wondered “How did the word [enter word here] come to be?” Being a true crime fan, you may have also pondered the question, “Where did the term ‘serial killer’ come from? Well, to fully understand the term itself, it is best to look at the origins of it. When was it first used? Who came up with it? Was there a specific event or person who inspired it? Why does it sound like ‘cereal killer’ and why do I all of a sudden want a bowl of fruity pebbles? I can’t answer that last question, but I can tell you about the people and events behind the ‘serial killer’ origin story.
In the 1970s, there was an increasing amount of murders, rape, and break-ins. As the FBI became more involved in these horrific murders, a certain FBI Special agent, Robert Ressler, was put on the case of creating psychological profiles of violent offenders. The English term and concept of ‘serial killer’ are commonly attributed to Robert Ressler who used the term ‘serial homicide’ in 1974 where he worked on many cases of serial homicide such as Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, Ed Kemper, Richard Chase, and John Joubert. However, criminal justice historian Peter Vronsky notes that while Ressler might have coined the English term ‘serial homicide’, the terms ‘serial murder’ and ‘serial murderer’ appear in John Brophy’s book The Meaning of Murder published in 1966. But even before that, the German term and concept were coined by criminologist Ernst Gennat, who used the term ‘Serienmörder’ (‘serial-murderer’) in his article Die Düsseldorfer Sexualverbrechen (The Düsseldorf Sex Crimes) in 1930.
Additionally, defining the term ‘serial killer’ was a step that had to be taken as there were already other types of mass killers, such as spree killer, mass murderer, and contract killer. A serial killer is different than all three of these, and is expressed through the following:
- Two or more murders is the baseline
- There’s a pattern without being overly restrictive
- Independent of the number of murders, they need to have been committed at different times (otherwise known as a cooling-off period).
Simply, it means “The unlawful killing of two or more victims by the same offender(s) in separate events.” This is now the standard that the FBI uses.
Simply, the 1970s mass murders became the inspiration behind the term ‘serial killer’. When the FBI’s behavioral science unit became involved, Robert Ressler researched these killers day and night through interviews and studied behaviors, thoughts, and criminal ideologies. Somewhere along the way, he believed the term ‘serial killer’ best described these types of murderers.
No cereal was harmed in the making of this post.