A little under 39 years ago, in a seedy New York state motel, Peter Vronsky had a run-in with a man known as the Times Square Torso Ripper. It was a brief encounter but one that changed Vronsky’s life.
Ever since crossing paths in with a murderer renowned for only leaving the torso of his victims behind, Vronsky has been studying men like him.
In the years since, Vronsky, now an investigative historian and professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, has written several books on the subject including one of the seminal works Serial Killers: The Method and Madness of Monsters. His latest, Sons of Cain, attempts to get at the making of serial killers: what creates people like them, what similarities do they have with regular people, and how long they’ve been around?
The book took Vronsky years of researching, at least four years of writing. In it, he argues that thanks to wars in the Middle East and the financial crash in 2008, we might see a surge of serial killers in two decades. But, most distressingly, he also argues that hidden deep down inside us—in that the area where you store all the bad stuff—there exists a serial killer.
VICE called up Dr. Peter Vronsky to talk about a possible surge in serial killers, the similarities between obesity and serial killers, and our inner killer.
VICE: Why did you decide to spend your life researching serial killers?
Vronsky: In 1979, I was working as a production assistant and I was travelling in New York delivering film. I got stranded on one of those trips and I had to find a cheap place to stay and booked this dodgy hotel in a place known for hookers. As I was trying to check in an individual above me had murdered two women up in his room, severed their heads, set the torsos on fire and fled the scene.
Now I was in the lobby below trying to go up. I was annoyed because he was up there holding the elevator up—I assume he was holding the doors just to make sure the fire took hold. When he finally came down I gave him a hard look and that was Richard Cottingham, the Times Square Torso Killer. [Cottingham has "officially" killed six people, although he's claimed to have killed hundreds. He got his nicknames because he would dismember bodies and only leave torsos behind.] He had a bag with him, there were heads in there. He kind of walked through me, it was kind of only a ten-second long encounter. He seemed just like one of us and I learned later who he was. From that point on I was very interested in where these monsters come from.
You talk a lot about the “golden age” of serial killers. What exactly is that?
It was a period between 1970 and 1999 when the term serial killer first emerged. Think the Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer era of the serial killer when they were prominent in society. When it was at its zenith in popular culture. Statistically, it's an era where 82 percent of American serial killers in the 20th century made their appearance. I, and others, tongue-in-cheek refer to it as the golden age of serial murder.
It all fell within this one era, what caused that?
That was the mystery I was trying to solve. Often the explanation has to do with what society was like when these serial killings were occurring. However, I stumbled across this idea. So serial killers, statistically on average kill for the first time at 28 but their fantasies, however, begin developing as early as five. It typically ranges from five and 14. So what I started thinking about, with Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy and all those guys, you gotta back it up from when they were children.
So I started to see that this Golden Age wave of serial killers is made up of people that grew up in the 1940s/1950s primarily. You've gotta look at what they were living in, what kind of culture they were being raised in and who their fathers were. If you look to when they were growing up there were two major events—the Great Depression which decimated a generation of men that should of been the breadwinners and WWII which would have traumatized a lot of fathers and left a lot of broken families. We think of the second war as a 'good war' but it wasn't, it was hell, and it broke a lot of men. There was also this culture change going with these magazines celebrating what feminists would, rightfully, call rape culture.
There were similarities of these factors in other time periods, for example, serial homicides in the late 19th century—the Jack the Ripper era and slightly before. Very similar things were going on.
What are your thoughts on the future?
So, recently it appears there was a decline in homicides and parallel to that there's been a decline in serial homicides as well. But then you think of the War on Terror where it's not just fathers over there fighting but mothers as well. We also had the 2008 financial crash crisis that devastated millions of families in the United States. People lost their homes, you have a generation of kids living in motel rooms, essentially. That whole generation of earners lost their pride and ability to provide for their families.
What worries me is are we facing a generation of children who are going to hit the average age of 28 in some 20 or 15 years from now and are we going to see an increase in serial homicides along with other societal problems. It's not automatic that one becomes a serial killer but we know that behavioural problems in adults are often a result of childhood traumas. Whether they’re serial killers or burglars or drug users, broken families produce broken children and broken children grow up to be broken adults.
Any way to combat this?
Well, that's kinda a utopian question, right? If we could only live in a society that nurtures our children. The way to stop serial killers, of course, is to ensure that we reduce the number of traumatized, dispossessed children.
Another idea you put forward in the book is that humans are hardwired to be killers and we unlearn that trait through our upbringing. How did you come to this idea?
It came from my own experience as a child, I guess. For some reason, I can remember very far back in my childhood. I remember my fellow children being these really savage beings, biting, sticking fingers in your eyes, clawing, scratching each other. Children are kinda animalistic and so it began to make sense to me that, as a species, homo-sapiens have been around for 300,000 years but we've been living most of that period in an animal state where we had to survive by hunting and gathering.
We had to survive through the four F's: fleeing, fighting, feeding, and fucking. If we didn't engage in that our species wouldn't have survived. Approximately 15,000 years ago, out of 300,000, we began to develop agriculture, living in groups or cities, etc. Now we have to live with each other so our violent instincts have to be inhibited. What I think happens with serial killers is they're not properly socialized and so instincts are either overdeveloped or sufficiently inhibited.
Essentially my argument is that we as children have these kinds of primitive animal 'I want it now' instincts and good parenting, happy childhoods, environmental stability, all these different things ween us off those instincts and teach us to inhibit them. Those people left behind, they become kind of the violent players in our society. They're not necessarily serial killers but they're the people who perpetrate violence beyond its necessity for self-preservation. So in that sense, all of us are kinda unmade as serial killers.
If people can take one thing away from your book what would it be?
Just know that serial killers are us. We met the enemy and it's us. They come from our society. They come from our world. They are our neighbours. They are our teachers. They're our husbands. They're our wives. They've always been with us partly because we had to be a serial killing species to survive. I compare serial killing to obesity. Obesity is an artefact of our survival because it's our ability to store fat at times when there were shortages of food. Now, in the western world, that fat-storing capacity becomes a destructive thing. I think that's what serial killing today is. It's something that was naturally necessary for us but in our modern society, serial killing is destructive.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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