In the light of a recent arrest, I thought it might be germane to reprint an e-mail interview I did last year with Professor David Wilson, after the publication of his book A History of British Serial Killing. It originally appeared in the Big Issue in the North.
They tried it. They liked it. They did it again. We normally think of serial killers as evil or possessed. Not so, says Professor David Wilson, former Prison Governor and Professor of Criminology at Birmingham City University. Whether or not they are either or both of these things, serial killers are simply killers who have murdered more than once. In A History of British Serial Killing he argues that they get away with it because they target vulnerable people – the very young and old – and unpopular or excluded groups – the “runaways and throwaways.”
You argue that serial killers tend to target the vulnerable and excluded. How much of this is done deliberately, in order to be able to go on killing?
There will always be a group of people in our culture who want to murder other people. What is interesting is that this group can only achieve that objective at certain times, and if they target certain groups of people. If they did not target those groups who are less protected by the state then they would not be able to repeatedly murder.
Harold Shipman and Fred West had nothing in common other than the fact that they were both serial killers. How much value do you think there is in procedures like profiling?
The police have not been very successful in catching serial killers. Most have been apprehended through luck –Denis Nilsen because he was flushing body parts down the toilet and this blocked the drains of his shared house. Profiling is only a tool. It is useful, but only as part of the detection process.
You’ve known a number of serial killers over the years. From what I’ve read they strike me as basically deeply boring people. Is this accurate, in your estimation?
I describe in the book the fact that most serial killers that I have met are “weedy and needy”, but perhaps the best description of all remains Hannah Arendt’s assessment about evil – “banal”.
Would you say that serial killers are a kind of negative indicator of the health of society in the sense that the fewer victims there are, the better society functions?
Serial killers function best within fractured communities, where people don’t look out for each other, and when the gap between those who have and those who have not is wide. In cultures such as these no one really bothers to notice the elderly neighbour living by themselves, or the kids who are homeless because they don’t view these people as having value, or being connected to their lives. Serial killers also exploit homophobia and our laws related to those young people who sell sexual services. When I was in Ipswich in 2006 I used to point out that less than an hour’s flight away was Amsterdam and that no Dutch serial killer had ever targeted prostitutes.
How much does the media coverage of serial killing actually give killers a sense of power and purpose?
Many of the serial killers that I have worked with, or whom I have studied have been avid readers of stories that cover their cases. And, in discussion with one or two they have admitted that they enjoyed the sense of power that newspaper reporting at the time about murders that they had committed gave to them. One serial killer – Colin Ireland (who targeted gay men) – set out to “become” a serial killer because he wanted to be famous, and so he needed the attention that his crimes created to achieve that objective.
What would be the first thing you would do to reduce the number of serial killings?
I would change the laws related to prostitution, and try and tackle the isolation and powerlessness of the elderly.
What would do most to help prevent serial killings: changes in social attitudes or changes in the law?
Social attitudes are really where the greatest gains are to be made because – sadly – serial killers are not cultural aberrations but rather perfect embodiments of a culture of “us and them”, of everyone for themselves and “looking after number one”.
Can individuals do anything to help prevent serial killings?
I always ask my students ‘when was the last time that they visited their grandparents’, or to consider what they would do if they were made homeless. If everyone was to think about those two issues for themselves I think that we would go a long way in helping to prevent serial murder.
Do you believe that there are undiscovered serial killers operating in Britain today? If so, how would you go about tracking them down?
I argue that at any given time in the UK there will be two serial killers active, and who will between them kill on average seven people in that year. We might not be able to identify who these people are for many years, but advances in DNA profiling have been an immeasurable help in ultimately catching them.