As news broadcasts last night poured over the intimate details of Steve Wright’s life, it was almost possible to smell the ink of cheap printing presses as they began to churn out biographies of another ogre to grace the shelves of Bargain Books. Is someone somewhere already hammering the keys of a computer, rushing to produce the first straight to TV film in order to pruriently sift the psychological make-up of the latest convicted serial killer?
It seems to be a basic aspect of human nature to be utterly fascinated by abhorrent and violent behaviour. Whether this fascination springs from a desire to identify what motivates someone to behave in a despicable way, or whether people actually take a vicarious pleasure in reading about gruesome deeds is debatable. My guess would be that the truth is somewhere in between. Nevertheless the storm of publicity and the relentlessness with which the media analyse those who have committed the most horrible crimes serves a distinctly counter-productive function.
Serial killers in particular become media celebrities and alas their fame is not generally a transient phenomenon. The stories of the most prolific or supposedly enigmatic murderers are endlessly revisited by authors of cheap pop psychological thrillers, documentary makers and fictional film makers. Charles Manson, Ted Bundy or Peter Sutcliffe, to take three examples, have become house-hold names.
If, as the amateur psychologists who benefit financially from our serial killer fetish tell us, those who kill often perceive themselves to be at the margins of society, ignored but craving recognition, what message are we sending to them by treating these killers as such objects of fascination? Shame on the BBC and other media outlets for so unscrupulously and swiftly starting the same process with another killer.