top of page

Serial Killers and their Representation in Pop Culture

The enigmatic serial murderer is the personification of the apparent preoccupation of American popular culture with violence. The serial killer persona is both powerful and pervasive; portrayals may be found in fiction, real crime, cinema and television, music, and graphic novels, among other kinds of media. This persona is so well-known that collectibles are being sold all across the world in their favor. The serial murderer is a deranged and dangerous man preying on society's most vulnerable people, not a noble renegade fighting back against a corrupt system. So, what explains the serial killer's continued popularity? And how did this person get so ingrained in popular culture? According to David Schmid, “the serial killer is as quintessentially American a figure as the cowboy” (Schmid, 2005). Both individuals exemplify the spirit of American individualism and boundary-pushing; both have transcended their daily lives to achieve near-mythical status. When one considers the reality of serial murder - the suffering and humiliation of victims, the devastated families left behind - the appeal of the serial killer is impossible to comprehend.

Women (and cult members of the 'Manson Family') following Charles Manson to court, circa 1970
Women (and cult members of the 'Manson Family') following Charles Manson to court, circa 1970.

The term "serial killer" dates back to the 1960s, but it was not widely used until the 1980s; nonetheless, the notion dates back to 1888, when Jack the Ripper murdered five women in London's Whitechapel neighborhood. The case received intense media attention in the United Kingdom, Europe and America with reporters on both sides of the Atlantic united in their condemnation of the unnamed offender, who was generally recognized as "barbarous" and "evil." There were many hypotheses about Jack's identity, but the common perception of him as a middle-class white male preying on socially marginalized women matches the conventional serial killer description that emerged a century later.

Cynthia Haden on the Geraldo Rivera Show

It's worth noting that many American critics embraced a widespread British legend that Jack the Ripper was an American, who found a twisted joy in the idea... perhaps assuming that the United States should lead the globe in everything, even crime. Similarly, the French double murderer Pierre François Lacenaire (1803-1836), who also happened to be a poet, rose to fame as a result of his theatrical courtroom performances. Lacenaire's qualities were still lauded twenty-five years after his death, demonstrating not only his enduring influence on popular culture, but also how he was idealized and made appealing to successive generations of readers. As the focus moves from the horrible reality of the murder to the carnivalesque aspect of the crime story; from tragedy to fascination, the mythologization of killers like Jack the Ripper offers a manner of minimizing the figure's menace.

A cartoon representation of Jeffrey Dahmer
From American series 'F is for Family': The little boy is supposed to represent Jeffrey Dahmer, a cannibal and serial killer known for eating his victims

As the twentieth century proceeded, representations of crime and criminality shifted away from cultural boundaries and became increasingly fundamental to the general imagination. Narratives reflecting humanity's basic nature were extremely prevalent against the backdrop of two World Wars, economic catastrophe, gangsterism, and the emergence of the political extreme right. Serial killers and psychopaths were frequently depicted in fiction and movies, especially with the emergence of the paperback format. As the threat of communism faded and the tensest period of the Cold War ended in the 1970s and 1980s, the FBI began a period of belt-tightening and austerity, which coincided with a drop in public trust in government institutions and a decline in the FBI's public image and prominence, according to Murley. As the word "serial killer" and everything it represented crept into public knowledge, the agency utilized the threat posed by serial killers to revitalize its creaking and ailing image and recover its federal money. Bundy is possibly the most famous real-life serial murderer of all time, and he has a unique place in the national imagination. His heinous crimes, which occurred between 1974 and 1979 and included murder, rape, and necrophilia, are eclipsed by his attractive, eloquent, and pleasant media image, which contrasts with the gothic horror that accompanied previous depictions of serial killers.

Man selling Ted Bundy shirts the day of his execution
Man selling Ted Bundy shirts the day of his execution

In the latter half of the twentieth century, the growth of celebrity culture and the marketing of murder proceeded apace, and considerations of taste and morality progressively fell behind sensationalism. Robert Conrath's statement that "when Jeffrey Dahmer's house of slaughter was found in Milwaukee in 1991, television rights to his narrative were being negotiated within the hour" encapsulates the period's mainstream media fixation with serial murder (Conrath, 1994). "There have been 11 hardcopy books about me, 31 paperbacks, two screenplays, one movie, one off-Broadway play, five songs, and over 5,000 articles" John Wayne Gacy said in a phone interview with the Knight-Tribune soon before his execution in 1994. The 60 Killers grew increasingly cognizant of the power of their brands, as evidenced by the fact that Ramirez labeled his artworks 'Richard Ramirez Night Stalker' during the peak of his success. His works were in such great demand among the murderabilia collectors that he even had his own art dealer.

Serial Killer Richard Ramirez in court
Serial Killer Richard Ramirez in court

In the past, media portrayals of serial killers have tended to emphasize on the killer's monstrous and how his acceptable public persona covers unspeakable tragedies. As the 20th century came to a close, meanwhile, the notion that a serial murderer may look like 'one of us' grew to encompass the notion that everyone had a little piece of serial killer or psychopath in them. Serial murderers are frequently the focus of case studies that focus on their lives rather than the repercussions of their crimes. Serial murder is a problem concerning relations of power, including fear and gender. Producers should consider adopting a women-centric approach if future serial killer movies are to be made — and only with the approval of victims' families — because women have historically been the ones who have suffered the repercussions of premeditated killers.


Aliverti, A. (2006). Natural Born Celebrities. Serial Killers in American Culture. [Review of the book Natural Born Celebrities. Serial Killers in American Culture by David Schmid, University of Chicago Press, 2008.] British Journal of Criminology, 46(3), 527-530.

Branson, A. L. (2013). African American Serial Killers: Over‐Represented Yet Underacknowledged. The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, 52(1), 1-18.

Conrath, R. (1994). The Guys Who Shoot to Thrill: Serial Killers and the American Popular Unconscious" Revue française d'études américaines, 60, 143-152.

Jarvis, B. (2007). Monsters Inc.: Serial killers and consumer culture. Crime, media, culture, 3(3), 326-344.

Schmid, D. (2008). Natural born celebrities. University of Chicago Press.

Warf, B. & Waddell, C. (2002). Heinous spaces, perfidious places: The sinister landscapes of serial killers. Social & Cultural Geography, 3(3), 323-345.

Wiest, J. B. (2016). Casting cultural monsters: Representations of serial killers in US and UK news media. Howard Journal of Communications, 27(4), 327-346.

Image References:

Brich, G. (1970). [Picture of Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten] [Photograph]

Burr, B. & Price, M. F Is for Family Season 3, Episode 10: Bill Murphy's Night Off

[Cynthia Haden on the Geraldo Rivera Show] Dailystar

[Picture of a man selling Ted Bundy shirts the day of his execution] [Photograph]. The Irish Sun.

1 Comment

Ioana Bogdan
Ioana Bogdan
Feb 05, 2022

It's hard to believe that people who caused so much harm are raised to the status of icons in pop culture. There is so much content being made about their lives yet so little about the serious consequences of their actions.

Author Photo

Gaelle Abou Nasr

Arcadia _ Logo.png


Arcadia, has many categories starting from Literature to Science. If you liked this article and would like to read more, you can subscribe from below or click the bar and discover unique more experiences in our articles in many categories

Let the posts
come to you.

Thanks for submitting!

  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
bottom of page