Though we didn’t devise a name for their ilk until 1981, serial killers have been around for thousands of years. In his new book Sons of Cain: A History of Serial Killers from the Stone Age to the Present, investigative historian Peter Vronsky lays out a comprehensive and terrifying history of serial murderers through the ages—familiar killers like Bluebeard, Caligula and Jack the Ripper, and those who are less well-known, like serial necrophile Francois Bertrand and Hungarian “blood countess” Elizabeth Báthory.
Tracing all the way back to the prehistoric roots of serial homicide more than 15,000 years ago, Vronsky focuses the bulk of his examination on sexual serial killers who murdered their victims for pleasure instead of politics or power—and how the psychological and social evolution of these killers has changed how society has viewed them.
A&E Real Crime spoke with Vronsky about ancient killers, the influence of technology on crime and how, in 100 years, the Long Island Serial Killer could be the new Jack the Ripper.
How have serial killers’ motives for killing evolved over time?
Their motive remains the same: The overall motive for most is a need for control over other people. It’s expressed in different forms, but that’s the primary motive. Sexual predilections and fetishes change; things that are forbidden in one epoch are conventional in another. But at the center you have a need for absolute control.
Have people always killed for fun?
‘Ordinary’ people who don’t become serial killers are astounded by the idea that people kill for recreation. But we have to look beyond the mere killing aspect; the killing is a way to get to what they really want. Recreational killing is taking the victim under their wing and controlling them even beyond death. It’s an addiction; that’s why it becomes a repetitive behavior. It’s a fantasy-based impulse that [killers] sometimes harbor from as early an age as 5 years old, though 27 to 28 is the usual age when [serial killers first] take a life.
How does the fantasy typically evolve as they age?
Slowly they start to test the fantasy. After 20 years of nurturing it, they take it out on the road with small offenses like burglaries or window peeping. When they take it through the gates of realization, they can never come back from it. The reality is never like the fantasy. They’re often very depressed by how [unsatisfying] the reality is compared to the fantasy. They need to improve the reality of the fantasy.
They get in this cycle where every time they kill, they try to improve on how they realize their fantasy, until they burn out. We have killers who have ‘cured’ themselves in that they decline and stop killing. Or they might disintegrate like Ted Bundy, who began as a highly organized serial killer but ended up crazed, lurching, improvising what he was doing.
Others may commit suicide or return back to their normal life, like the Golden State Killer, who hadn’t killed since the 1970s or ’80s but [returned to his life] until DNA caught up with him.
How has finding victims changed over the centuries?
Technology, proximity and mobility of both victims and killers has changed over time. Of course, the car became a huge part of serial killing.
Now we have the internet, so stalking and selecting targets online is a recent innovation. We see that in the case of the Long Island Serial Killer, who targeted people on Craigslist. Technology moves along with serial homicide.
Did ancient serial murderers kill in different ways than they do today?
Methods are always evolving, not even over time but within one killer. The ‘signature’ remains the same, but the method often changes. It’s a learning process; they learn how to adjust behavior and methodology based on police procedures. Some even read academic journals and research the art or science of killing. What remains constant is the psychopathology, the need to regain control over their lives—and [that of] others around them—which they feel they lost in childhood.
Trauma is the most common [pathology] model among serial killers, but there are biochemical models, hereditary models… The more we research it, the more confounding it becomes to us.
Can you explain the phenomenon of ‘less-dead’ victims, as you explore in the book?
Killers tend to target victims who society looks down on or degrades. Often, victims are marginalized people: the poor, homeless, street prostitutes, runaway youths, gays, people who were or are stigmatized… Jack the Ripper targeted prostitutes and single mothers.
We look at killers as being rejects of society, but in reality they’re expressing the hostility of society onto the types of victims the [culture] cares less about.
Steven Egger coined that term; they are considered ‘less dead’ because people care about them less as opposed to a white, college-aged female or a child, which are highly valued. In news media, serial killings of crack-addicted prostitutes are less of a big media story than the murder of middle-class, gainfully employed citizens.
What were the motives of some of the earlier female serial killers in America and Europe?
Women kill for the same reason that men do, they just express it differently. If they’re on their own, they often forgo the sexual psychopathology. They tend not to mutilate, torture or keep people captive—women tend to go directly to the kill. Their sense of control is satisfied by simply taking a life.
How did Jack the Ripper change the game when it comes to how we see serial killers? Are there any modern-day murderers with a comparably mythic status?
There were lots of Jack the Rippers, but he’s different because he was killing in London, which was the media center of the world at that time. He was killing in rapid succession over a period of three months and was targeting prostitutes, which was salacious news with a sexual aspect. On top of that, he was never identified.
I’d say right now, LISK (the Long Island Serial Killer) is comparable. He’s hunting prostitutes, he’s taunting the family of one of the victims and, of course, he remains unidentified. If we never find out who he is, in a century he could be our new Jack the Ripper.