Making celebrities of serial killers elevates threat

 Jack Levin and James Alan Fox

When Newsweek magazine dubbed the Washington-area sniper the "Tarot card killer" and boldly featured the moniker on its cover last week, we couldn't help but shudder. Giving the sniper such a memorable, even glamorized, nickname would ensure that he takes his place among those many other serial killers who have become household names: Son of Sam, Green River killer, Hillside Strangler, Unabomber.

Fortunately, the tarot-card nickname may not stick. Newsweek did not repeat it in its latest coverage of the rampage, which apparently claimed a 13th victim Tuesday, when a bus driver was shot dead. Other media outlets have tried out such names as the "Beltway Sniper" or the "Psycho Sniper," but so far "the sniper" appropriately lower-cased seems to prevail.

Certainly the instinct to label the killer in some colorful way is natural enough. But as criminologists who have studied serial killers for more than 20 years, we know that naming a dangerous criminal like this can do more than sear him in the public's collective memory. It may also encourage him to fulfill our expectations.

Lawrence Bittaker and accomplice Roy Norris tortured and murdered a string of teenage girls in 1979 in Southern California, dumping one mutilated body on a suburban lawn to encourage media coverage and pitching others off cliffs. After Bittaker was caught, he signed autographs from his prison cell, "Pliers Bittaker." Clifford Olson, who raped and murdered 11 children in British Columbia in 1980-81, begged to be referred to as "Hannibal Lecter."

Becoming a popular-culture celebrity is an important part of the motivation that inspires serial killers to continue committing murder. Once they are identified with a superstar moniker, their frequency of murder increases. No longer satisfied with obscurity, they seek to prove that they deserve the superstar status to which they have been assigned.

Los Angeles' 1984-85 Night Stalker, Richard Ramirez, reportedly said to one of his victims as he assaulted her, "You know who I am, don't you? I'm the one they're writing about in the newspapers and on TV."

Newsweek is not the only publication to play into the vanity of the Washington-area murderer. U.S. News & World Reportboldly displayed, "I am God," on its cover the fanatical words that were reported to have been left with the tarot card. Other publications selected the phrase for their quote of the week.

From the killer's perspective, he's being deified.

Not only does the superstar status some have accorded this murderer help to motivate him, but it also can inspire countless other ignored and alienated Americans to become copycat killers in order to achieve their own degrees of infamy. Like the "original" sniper, potential copycats may recognize that the larger the body count they amass, the greater the terror they wreak upon their communities, the more likely it is that their images will make the cover of Newsweek, Time or People.

This, of course, is key to understanding the contagion of school snipers in recent years. Young shooters such as Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, who perpetrated the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, can be seen as heroes in the eyes of some disturbed teens. Not only did they avenge the schoolyard bullies and nasty teachers, but they're also famous for it, because they got their faces all over the news. That the two teens knew they would be dead by then probably did not matter as much to them as the belief that they would "live on forever" thanks to their crime. While not quite a moniker, "doing a Columbine" has become a code phrase for shooting up a school.

Along with sociologist Jason Mazaik, we recently completed an analysis of the first 25 years of People magazine covers, nearly 1,300 issues, as a barometer of changes in American popular culture. At its inception in 1974, People highlighted Hollywood stars and noteworthy leaders of politics and science. But the cover theme has recently grown significantly more negative. Recent cover stories too often concern scandal and crime.

The magazine pays particular attention to criminals such as Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski, Milwaukee cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer and Branch Davidian guru David Koresh. Dahmer, caught in 1991, even made People's coveted list of the 100 most intriguing people of the 20th century. Although Dahmer and others of his ilk may admittedly be quite intriguing, they hardly deserve such promotion.

Of course, it is hardly fair to single out People, even though it may be the most conspicuous publication devoted to our popular culture. Television is just as shameless in its promotion of infamy. The A&E network, for example, routinely airs killers' biographies, which raises the rhetorical question as to whether true crime is considered art or entertainment.

America's preoccupation with making monsters into celebrities goes far beyond placing them on the covers of our leading publications or chronicling their dastardly achievements in television biographies and news magazine shows. Their images can also be found on serial-murder trading cards, comic books, T-shirts, calendars and action figures for the kiddies. Their artistically bankrupt paintings are bought and sold for thousands of dollars. They have their own Web sites, fan clubs and legal defense funds. They author popular books that sometimes contain their own poetry and sketches.

As long as the Washington sniper is on the loose, the media have not only a right but also a responsibility to focus a great deal of attention on the case so that the residents of the metropolitan area can take the precautions necessary to avoid being the next victim.

But to give him a mysterious moniker is to send a message to the killer and to those who identify with the killer that the path to fame and glory is littered with the bodies of innocent people.

Whoever he is, the Washington sniper, despite his newly found fame and the monikers some have for him, is nothing more than a monster who, we hope, soon will be no more than yesterday's news.

Jack Levin is the Brudnick professor of sociology and James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University in Boston.