In the likely event that it has escaped your notice, over the past three decades a veritable pop-cultural cottage industry of products has sprouted around the subject of real-life serial killers, including an array of detailed collectible trading cards, books (The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers, Serial Killers: The Method and Madness of Monsters, among others), a board game (The Serial Killer Trivia Game) and even playing cards (Jeffrey Dahmer—the Milwaukee Cannibal—for example, as the ace of diamonds).
The felonious potpourri of feted fellows (and occasional femmes such as Dorothea Puente, Juana Barraza, Aileen Wuornos and Genene Jones) ranges from those known principally by the phenomenon’s cognoscenti (Dennis Nilsen, Peter Kurten, Joachim Kroll, Arnfinn Nesset) to those known to virtually everyone: Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Dean Corll and, not incidentally, the godfather of multiple murders, Jack the Ripper, who, in late-19th century London’s economically depressed Whitechapel neighborhood, savagely dispensed with at least five women—and possibly many more—by slitting their throats.
Never identified or apprehended, Jack the Ripper has, over the ensuing 125 or so years, attained mythical status via a glut of popular books and films, as well as, somewhat more curiously, via serious scholarly study, as evidenced by this weekend’s RipperCon, a biennial gathering devoted to Jack the Ripper, the Whitechapel murders, Edgar Allan Poe, Sherlock Holmes, Victorian mysteries and true crime in general.
“Jack the Ripper was the first serial killer to cause a big stir in the newspapers,” explains Mikita Brottman, a psychoanalyst, professor in the Department of Humanistic Studies at MICA, author of five books (including this year’s The Maximum Security Book Club: Reading Literature in a Men’s Prison) and one of nine RipperCon speakers. “The enduring fascination with him is a result of the creepy nickname, the fact he was never caught and his seemingly superhuman powers of evasion. And the legend has lasted due to all the works of fiction and film based on the case and the many theories about his identity.” (Those films include Alfred Hitchcock’s 1926 silent classic, “The Lodger,” based on The Ripper murders and the topic of a RipperCon presentation by David Sterritt, a film professor at MICA and the author of 13 books.)
Held at the Maryland Historical Society, RipperCon features talks and panel discussions addressing everything from Jack the Ripper suspects to the last days of Edgar Allan Poe to the intersection of The Ripper, Sherlock Holmes and Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. For her part, Brottman has chosen to explore the life, crimes and times of a modern-day Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe (“The Yorkshire Ripper”), who, from 1975 to 1980, murdered 13 women in Northern England.
“I was growing up in Yorkshire while he was on the loose,” she notes, “and he was caught with his final victim in Sheffield [her hometown], so I have a special interest in him. I’m interested in how his crimes weren’t an aberration. They were part of the misogyny endemic to British working-class life in the late 1970s, with its boredom and its odd Puritanism. In his character, as in his crimes, Sutcliffe was entirely representative of his class, gender and generation, with its simultaneous fixation and disgust with female sexuality.”
As for the public’s seeming obsession with serial killers, Brottman, drawing on her experience as a psychoanalyst, cites our collective willingness to allow “these people act out our own forbidden impulses. We all feel violent hatred and anger towards others; we all want to kill each other now and then, especially our ‘loved ones.’ Those who actually do are doing so on our behalf. And so we need to see exactly what horrible crimes these villains have committed, and to whom, and how they’ve been punished. We need all the details so we can make them into myths, enacting our own crimes vicariously through theirs, and enjoying their punishment, which reinforces society’s laws and strictures. A little steam is let off, and everyone goes back to their loving homes and families.”
RipperCon takes place April 8-10 at the Maryland Historical Society.
Registration: $250 (free for students with student ID).
For more information, click here!