Jack the Ripper, the Zodiac, Son of Sam … serial killer nicknames are definitely A Thing. But while names like “the Zodiac” may not inspire fear unless you know their context, there are a huge number of absolutely terrifying monikers that will give you the wiggins whether or not you're familiar with the real-life murderers to whom they belong. I’m actually willing to bet that you may not have heard of a lot of them before; once you learn about them, though, I doubt very much that you’ll ever forget them. It’s hard to scrub a phrase like “The Acid Bath Murderer” from your brain.
As it turns out, there actually is a technical term for serial killer nicknames; it falls under the umbrella of criminal nomenclature — and there’s actually been some research done in it. According to Tom Clark of the University of Sheffield, serial killer nicknames have a couple of common characteristics and serve a few different purposes. First, you’ll notice that the names themselves have a particular structure — they usually feature “the ordinary… juxtaposed with the extraordinary,” as Clark puts it in his paper “Jack’s Back: Toward A Sociological Understanding of Serial Killer Nicknames.” I’d argue that this is part of what makes them so freaky to us; they’re the very definition of the uncanny as laid out by Freud — the familiar made strange.
But if they freak us out, then why do we use them? That’s the other part of what Clark’s paper gets at. They “symbolically serve to sustain and alleviate both order and disorder” — or, as Clark later writes, “Serial killer nicknames represent a reminder of the ongoing threat to the normative ideals of contemporary society, whilst also implying that this threat can be overcome.” They simultaneously send us “DANGER!” signals, while also reassuring us that we’ll be able to neutralize the danger.
Sometimes these nicknames come out of the investigation;sometimes they come out of the media coverage of the crimes; sometimes they’re even dreamed up by the killers themselves. But one thing’s for sure: These serial killer nicknames — and these real-life crimes — will definitely keep you up at night.
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