Born several decades too late, Robert Ressler was cheated of poking into the motivation and miens of Jack the Ripper, Dracula, the Vampire of Dusseldorf, Gorilla Man and other pioneers of murder by the dozen.
So ex-FBI agent and contemporary criminologist Ressler has settled for studying the less storied, never nicknamed, equally bloodthirsty and thoroughly modern monsters John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer and peers who have struck back at society from Wimbledon Common to the Tokyo subway.
In "I Have Lived in the Monster: A Report From the Abyss" (St. Martin's Press), Ressler--whose credentials include advising Thomas Harris' creation of Hannibal Lecter in "The Silence of the Lambs"--reports that as a social phenomenon, serial murder is less than 125 years old. He blames its birth on the increasing complexity of life, global interconnections created by the media, a breakdown of distinct cultures and growing personal alienation.
"What roils the United States--perhaps the most 'advanced' country in terms of personal violence--spills over to Great Britain, to Japan, to the former USSR, to other highly technologized countries, and even to such less developed countries as South Africa," Ressler asserts. "The same motion pictures and television programs, the same telephones and other technological equipment, and--many times--the same pornographic materials emphasize this similarity of the darker aspects of the intermeshing cultures."
As minter of the term "serial killer," Ressler draws a clear profile of the beast: He is typically an adult male who kills after his sex life has been frustrated or disrupted. Arson is a companion crime, and a knife the weapon of choice. He is a chronic masturbator--commonly at the scene of the crimes--who was emotionally or physically abused into a state of permanent aggression.
Serial killers are loners, cruel to animals and control freaks absorbed by fantasies that involve corpses. They are urbanites because big cities offer a harvest of prostitutes, teenage runaways, druggies and lonely singles, plus "places for the murderer to blend into crowds, hide and become anonymous."
"Of some interest is the fact that serial murders all but disappeared . . . during World War II, when there were murders on a larger, more wholesale scale, occurring on every battlefront. After the war, however, such killings began again . . . and have since picked up considerable speed."
As a consultant and expert witness (he currently is monitoring the JonBenet Ramsey murder case), Ressler has interviewed the sick and the infamous.
Gacy, divorced and in his late 30s, was executed in 1994 for murdering 33 young men, burying many under his house in Des Plaines, Ill. He was a strutter who lied about being an undercover cop and a Marine in Vietnam.
"Gacy was an overweight, middle-sized, intelligent and articulate man . . . who attempted to show his power by ordering lunch," Ressler writes. "Snapping his fingers, he summoned a guard and had a conversation with him as if the guard were a waiter in a fancy restaurant.
"Gacy hoped that we were impressed by his ability to command that things happen even while he was on Death Row. Later I learned two other Death Row inmates had forgone their lunches that day so that Gacy could impress us."
Before being beaten to death by a fellow convict, Jeffrey Dahmer killed 17 people, destroyed body parts in a drum of acid, dried and lacquered several skulls, and tortured his victims by drilling holes in their skulls and pouring acid directly into the brains. He ate portions of the persons he butchered.
Ressler on Dahmer: "Imagine, if you will, a voice that is resonant and low, apparently laconic, relaxed and articulate, but with palpable overlays of enormous tension and attempts to control what it is that he is saying.
"With Dahmer, the words are squeezed out, one or two at a time, or, at most, phrase by phrase. To encourage him to go on, I would murmur 'mmmmm-hmmmm' after each phrase."
Now Dahmer, from a transcript of the prison interview, on Dahmer: "Saved the heart. The biceps. Decided to put--cut 'em into small pieces, washed 'em off, put it in clear plastic freezer bags, and put 'em in my storage freezer.
"And I would cook it. It made it feel like they were more of a part of me. Sexually stimulating."
Jack the Ripper, with only five kills, barely would quiver the needle of today's serial murder scale. But he was never caught, and so began an endless fascination. Ressler, naturally, has followed the 109-year-old cold trail, visiting London's Victorian residences and pubs where Jack prowled. He believes Scotland Yard searched all the wrong corners by focusing its hunt on doctors and the aristocracy.
"The type of victims, the haunts they frequented, and circumstances of the murders all made it much more likely that the perpetrator was of the same social class as the prostitute victims," reasons Ressler. "If the killer was noticeably upper class, his presence in the area would have been remembered and remarked upon by the locals."
And Jack apparently was a wacko who got worse.
"It is likely that he might well have . . . been so crazed, that he could no longer commit crimes, and have landed either in a suicide's grave, or in an institution for the insane," Ressler concludes. "Suicide, or confinement until death would explain why he was never apprehended."