Deciphering the riddle of a serial killer’s mind – its warped moral system and myriad self-justifications – is no easy task. In new true crime series Making a Monster, a group of top forensic psychologists and psychiatrists pore over case files of notorious men and women, to attempt a definitive analysis of their personalities.
One subject is Stephen Griffiths, the self-styled 'Crossbow Cannibal', who was caged forever in 2010 after murdering three women in Bradford. Like so many other serial killers before him, Griffiths targeted sex workers who were forced to work the dark streets out of desperation. But Griffiths stands apart because of his perverse media savvy, and his conscious determination to enshrine himself as a figure of infamy. He could be regarded as a kind of meta-serial killer, hyper-aware of how he’d be perceived by journalists and true crime fans – after all, he was a true crime obsessive himself.
As Professor of Criminology, David Wilson, puts it, 'The key to understanding Griffiths is to realise that he was fixated by the idea of fame. He was a like a nightmarish version of a wannabe X Factor contestant.'
When was this craving for notoriety instilled in Stephen Griffiths? Some have pointed to the fact that as a young boy he attended the same school as John George Haigh, forever known as the 'acid bath murderer' after using that method to dissolve the bodies of his victims in the 1940s. Could this connection to Haigh have had a formative, psychological influence on Griffiths, who would go on to idolise the likes of the Yorkshire Ripper?
It’s certainly true that Griffiths already had in-built violent tendencies from a young age. As a teenager, he was jailed for three years after slashing a supermarket manager in the face with a knife. A little while later, he was given another term in custody after threatening a girl with a knife, and was diagnosed as a 'schizoid psychopath'.
His need to dominate those around him was demonstrated in his relationships. One woman, Kathy Hancock, was initially charmed by his 'goth' style and clear intellect, but soon realised he was a paranoid and aggressive control freak. 'I wasn’t allowed anywhere unless I was with him,' she later said. He started to gaslight her, making her doubt her own sense of reality. He even drugged her once, enjoying her panic-stricken reaction as he announced to her, 'You’re dying'.
Above all, Griffiths was fascinated by crime. His flat in Bradford was a maze of stacked books on killers throughout the ages, and – having graduated in psychology – he even started to study for a PhD in Bradford homicides of the 19th Century. A girlfriend, Zeta Pinder, was disturbed when she first set foot in his private world, coming face to face with crossbows, samurai swords and 'horror books on like the Moors murderers and Jack the Ripper and the Yorkshire Ripper… literally hundreds of books.'
His eccentricities were obvious to neighbours, who noticed his penchant for putting his pet lizards on dog leads and taking them on walks through his building attracted attention. He also developed friendships with local sex workers, some of whom came to use his flat as a place to shower, relax and have a cuppa with the seemingly sweet and brotherly Stephen Griffiths.
Indeed, he himself recognised the contradictions of his personality, and seemed to see 'Poor Stephen' as his good side, masking the evil inner core he named Ven Pariah – 'hatred bound tightly in flesh'. This seems to have been more a case of gleeful myth-making on his part, rather than genuine dissociative identity disorder. His own writings would sound like the harmless ramblings of a teenage goth if he hadn’t turned the words into a squalid reality.
His first victim, Susan Rushworth, vanished in 2009. In 2010, he murdered Shelley Armitage and filmed her corpse in his bathtub. In the footage, he is heard saying 'I am the bloodbath artist. Here’s a model who is assisting me.' It was a performance for the camera, but the twisted showman saved his most outlandish display for his final murder that same year, when he lured Suzanne Blamires to his flat.
It was the building’s caretaker, reviewing CCTV footage a few days later, who watched with horror as the whole murder played out before his eyes. Suzanna Blamires being led down the corridor to Griffiths’ flat. Suzanne running out a few seconds later, clearly terrified for her life. Griffiths chasing her, a look of bestial fury on his face, and then shooting her in the head with a crossbow. And then, most grotesquely of all, Griffiths looking right up at the lens of the CCTV camera and flipping his middle finger in proud defiance.
As a subject for forensic psychologists, Griffiths provides plenty to work with. In many ways, he was a classic, even generic, psychopathic serial killer – complete with a history of cruelty to animals (he used to torture dogs and cats), plenty of superficial charm (he had girlfriends and many sex workers trusted him), and an egotistical side he couldn’t conceal (he once gave a girl a professional, studio-shot photo of himself during a first date)
And yet he has key idiosyncrasies that lend his case special significance: his meticulous, encyclopaedic knowledge of other killers, the performative, self-conscious manner of his murders, the cynical showmanship with which he executed them. In that sense, Stephen Griffiths could almost be seen as the first serial killer of the true crime age.