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What's the right way to talk about serial killers like Peter Sutcliffe?

The death of Peter Sutcliffe, the 'Yorkshire Ripper', on 13 November 2020 was marked by an outpouring of sympathy for his victims on social media. In tweet after tweet, members of the public emphasised the names of the women whose lives he cut short. 'Forget #PeterSutcliffe, think about them,' ran a typical tweet, alongside photographs of the victims’ faces. Geoff Beattie, whose mother Irene Richardson was among those killed, posted her picture and wished closure for all who had been affected by Sutcliffe’s crimes.

At the same time, there was widespread anger over the limelight that was still being shone on Sutcliffe. The Guardian newspaper was roundly criticised on social media for printing an obituary for Sutcliffe as if he was a celebrity. The obituary was labelled 'disgusting' and 'astonishingly crass', while the charity Women’s Aid tweeted 'We wish that the Guardian had decided to run obituaries for the women that he killed instead.' Days later, Richard McCann, whose mother Wilma was the first woman Sutcliffe murdered, also grappled with the problem of the discourse. He pointed out the inherent problem of the killer’s nickname, ‘the Yorkshire Ripper’, saying that ‘it serves to re-traumatise us families left behind’.

The tone of the response to Sutcliffe’s death highlights a growing unease with the perverse pedestalization of serial killers in the collective consciousness. It’s a phenomenon that has its origins in the media frenzy around the Jack the Ripper killings, but which really gathered momentum from the 1970s onwards. Names like Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Dennis Nilsen and Peter Sutcliffe still have pop-cultural significance that transcends the squalid details of their crimes, and diminishes or even erases the importance of the human beings they killed. 

Many argue that the kind of dark glamour bestowed upon serial killers by society amounts to an extra outrage inflicted on the victims. When it was announced that Zac Efron would be playing Ted Bundy in the biopic Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, there was widespread alarm over the casting of a former teen idol as the psychopathic rapist and killer. When it was released, reviewers voiced discomfort over how it sidestepped the victims to focus entirely on the killer’s home life and his eventual showboating in court. What the film gave us was, to use the phrase of the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, a ‘satanic dreamboat Bundy’ – sanitised and enigmatic, presented to us exactly as Bundy himself would have wished it.

Of course, an alternative approach focusing on Bundy’s victims and the ordeals he subjected them to would run the risk of being voyeuristic and exploitative, like a horror film. The recent ITV drama Des, which starred David Tennant as the serial killer Dennis Nilsen, walked this fine line by featuring accounts of his crimes by survivors – a move which foregrounded the feelings and experiences of his victims, and reminded us of the horrible truth behind Nilsen’s witty, likeable façade, without hitting us with horror movie-style carnage. Even then, some commentators pointed out the problems inherent in a drama like Des.

Writing in the Radio Times, Thomas Ling noted that, ‘by making Nilsen such an interesting character, viewers want to spend more time with one of Britain’s most notorious murderers’, and that ‘Des will leave you wanting to know more about Dennis Nilsen, not his victims’.

The fact is we do want to know more about the likes of Nilsen, because their crimes are outside thinkable human behaviour. Paradoxically, the more depraved they are, the more we can comfortably mythologise them, because they’re rendered somehow unreal by their outlandish deeds. This is the source of a relentless global fascination which accounts for the popularity of true crime books, documentaries and movies. The victims are so often reduced to footnotes in the sagas of serial killers precisely because of their ordinary, decent humanity. 

There have been notable, valiant attempts to restore dignity and personhood to the dead. For example, Hallie Rubenhold’s book The Five, about the lives of the women targeted by Jack the Ripper, and the 2010 BBC drama Five Daughters, which told the story of the Ipswich serial murders by focusing not on killer Steven Wright but on his victims. Writer Stephen Butchard said that he wanted to explore the ‘impact of drugs and sex industries upon every town, every city in this country’ – a sentiment that packs a special punch when we consider how, during the Peter Sutcliffe investigation, sex workers were more than merely sidelined – they were outright dehumanised. 

At a press conference in 1979, one detective said that the killer ‘has made it clear that he hates prostitutes. Many people do. We, as a police force, will continue to arrest prostitutes. But the Ripper is now killing innocent girls.’ The Attorney General backed up this sentiment at Sutcliffe’s trial, saying that ‘perhaps the saddest part of the case’ was that not all the victims were sex workers.

These troubling quotations and attitudes have been brought up again as a result of Peter Sutcliffe’s death. But, while it’s becoming more and more obvious that victims must not be diminished the mythologizing of murderers, the wider question of how we should shape the discourse over such crimes remains a thorny one.