Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture Copyright © 1994 Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture
All rights reserved.
ISSN 1070-8286

Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 2(4) (1994) 87-92

Review of Using Murder: The Social Construction of Serial Homicide

Author: Jenkins, P. (1994).
Publisher: New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
Year: 1994

When the film, Silence of the Lambs, was popular it seemed as if every criminology student wanted to learn about profiling and eventually to work in the Behavioral Sciences Unit at the FBI Academy. They were understandably chagrined at my portrayal of profiling of violent criminals as voodoo science. If only Philip Jenkins' solidly supported thesis in, Using Murder, was available then, I might have better disabused students of their apolitical view of social control agencies, particularly federal law enforcement. The importance of Jenkins' work is that it places the issue of multiple murder, or serial homicide as the FBI has coined it, in a political context. Jenkins shows how the issue was appropriated by specific political, cultural, and bureaucratic groups and manipulated to enhance their interests. Using Murder is an excellent example of the constructionist approach to social problems. Constructionism assumes that behaviors are not merely objective realities (if at all). Rather, they are defined and explained before they become socially real, and this is indeed as true for publicly recognized social problems as it is for face-to-face interactions. Furthermore some groups, by virtue of their superior power, finances, status, organization, technology or access to the mass media have greater control of information and resources to make their constructions appear legitimate, to make their version of reality stick or to take ownership of an issue. The ideological position of an influential group is often bound to the definition of a social issue as Stephen Pfohl (1978) discovered in how future dangerousness is predicted in mentally ill patients; as Bruno Latour (1986) found in how scientific facts are determined; as Judith Long Laws (1977) discovers in how female sexuality has been defined; and as Donileen Loseke (1992) has found in the treatment of wife abuse. Philip Jenkins finds these same processes operating in the public identification of the serial homicide "problem."

Jenkins organizes his work into three main areas. The first addresses the reasons for the rising public concern for serial homicide and the role that political and bureaucratic interests played in defining and fostering the issue. The second looks at the popular cultural imagery as depicted particularly in the mass media and how mythic the image became, and how influenced it was by the Justice Department. The third discusses how the issue was used by political [End page 87] interest groups to legitimate their ideological perspectives.

Jenkins argues that the popular assumption, particularly during the middle 1980s, that the threat of serial murder was very large and growing and that it required the expertise and coordination of a federal agency such as a special unit in the FBI to control it was grossly exaggerated and misinformed. The actual threat of victimization from serial killers is at most 1% of all U.S. homicides, or 200 deaths per year. The belief in its danger and the reactions of law enforcement, government, mass media, and various interest groups far outstripped its actual lethality. Why? Jenkins maintains that three major factors were involved in setting the serial killer panic in motion.

First, from the mid 1970s to the early 1980s there was an actual increase in the number of multiple murders compared to the previous three decades. The mass media in news, books, and television specials picked up on the famous cases, among them being Charles Manson, Charles Starkweather, Juan Corona, Dean Corll, Ted Bundy, David Berkowitz (Son of Sam), John Wayne Gacy, and Wayne Williams. True crime books, biographies, novels, television specials and movies were beginning to create a stereotype of the serial killer as a white male who tended to kill young women or young homosexual males.

Secondly, the Behavioral Sciences Unit (BSU) of the Justice Department at the FBI Academy in Quantico Virginia began to develop a research project on violent offenders (The Criminal Personality Research Project). Robert Ressler led the interviews of incarcerated killers and multiple killers so that "profiles" could be drawn of murderers at large. From the early 1980s serial homicide was opportunistically seized upon by the BSU as a way to expand its bureaucratic, law enforcement operations and its influence on the public, the mass media and the higher reaches of government--the Congress and the executive branch. The Justice Department lobbied for the creation of the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCACV) and the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (VICAP). The BSU was responsible for circulating an inaccurate statistic, 4,000 deaths per year from serial killers, that was quoted by legislators, activists, news media, popular writers and even academics. The figure was derived from Supplementary Homicide Report (SHR) that police file along with other information collected in the UCR. The BSU considered serial murder to be the killing of four or more people over a period of time for no apparent rational reason, arbitrarily excluding economically, politically, or other common personal reasons. Any SHR reports in which there was an unknown suspect and many in which there was a stranger involved were wrongly considered motiveless and thus [End page 88] potentially serial murders. It was estimated that 20-25 percent of all homicides fell into these categories, hence the 4,000 victims figure. However, Jenkins contends that the BSU eventually knew that this statistic was grossly exaggerated. The Justice Department data indicated that were about 50-60 active serial killers in the population in a year and that, during their lifetimes, they would kill an average about 10 victims each. Despite their own data the BSU did not correct the misconceptions of the crisis proportions of serial murder but rather benefitted from the argument that an expansion of the agency to link information from various local police departments was necessary to control the crime.

Thirdly, the political climate of the 1980s was ripe for the creation of a moral panic. The New Right gained preeminence during the Reagan era. The retributivist perspective of justice supplanted the rehabilitationist perspective. There was a greater desire to use social control and punishment over education and treatment. The New Right ideology blamed an overly permissive, antifamily, areligious liberalism for the problems of society. Jenkins maintains that the stereotype of the serial killer as sex crazed, pedophilic and homosexual fit the New Right's image of all that was evil in the world, or what could happen if traditional culture was ignored. But it was not only the New Right that seized the mythic serial killer for its ideological purposes. The children's rights movement, popular crime writers, television and movie makers, feminists, African-American groups, and gay rights groups also used the stereotypical image for their own purposes. Despite the fact that serial killers are proportionately African-American, sometimes female, do not disproportionately attack women and children, and are quite unlikely, if ever, to have a cult motivation, groups continued to treat the stereotype as real. Ann Rule who used Ted Bundy as the prototype for all serial killers, testified in front of Congress as to the widespread and growing nature of the problem and was quoted in criminology texts on the profile of a serial killer which uncannily looked and acted exactly like Bundy. Activists concerned about kidnapped and exploited children grossly exaggerated the threat of serial killers to children. Geraldo Rivera spread a completely false image of the serial killers as satanic cultists. Some feminists argued that patriarchal social structure was responsible for the "fact" that there were virtually no female serial killers and that "most" serial killers attacked women. Serial killing was viewed as "femicide." Some African-American groups argued that serial killing was a bias crime, that virtually "no" serial killers were black and that when victims are black or poor the police are indifferent in their investigation. Similarly some gay activist groups argued that police were indifferent to homosexual victims because of a belief that the subculture is [End page 89] violent and sado-masochistic. Jenkins maintains that, while there are very valid points to some of these arguments, each political and economic group reinforced the panic and the stereotype of the serial killer. Despite the differences in their causes, most of the groups called for more law enforcement and more federal help in tracking and catching serial killers. Jenkins believes that this emphasis on social control plays into the hands of the New Right. Social problems such as serial murder then can be personalized as a battle between immoral, evil individuals and moral crusaders who control them, rather than as existing in a social system with economic and political inequities that may contribute to them, and may be corrected through structural change.

Jenkins uses a "contextual constructionist" perspective, that is one which not only analyzes the claims made by various groups attempting to define an issue, but also one which attempts to assess the relative veracity of the claims. To do this Jenkins sifts through archival, newspaper and secondary accounts of multiple murders over the last hundred years, finding periods that resemble our own from 1911-1915 and 1935-1941. He also traces the history of multiple murders in true-crime books, magazines and popular novels. His tracing of how the popular cultural stereotype of the multiple murderer achieved mythic proportions is superbly done.

However, some questions can be raised about the author's analysis. For all the criticism that is leveled at the Justice Department and the BSU it is ironic that the author accepts the official definition of serial homicide as his starting point. Jenkins does not detach himself from the conventional notions of what is "rational" or "irrational," nor what is irrational with a known victim versus an unknown victim. The BSU thinks that it can clearly make all these distinctions, but the researcher, particularly a constructionist, cannot take the categories for granted. Furthermore, criminologists, myself included, have advocated the criminalizing of corporations' actions when they lead to the preventible injuries and deaths of consumers and workers. Could not a corporation be accused of serial murder if it knowingly produces a defective car that burns several people to death, or willfully exposes workers to asbestos from which they develop incurable, lethal cancer. It would seem that the avoidance of these actions, which produce in reality more fatalities than the version of serial murder that the BSU is peddling, is critical to understanding the political dimension of the social construction of crime.

On other matters, Jenkins emphasizes the point that serial murder produces far less of a threat than other kinds of risks. While it is crucial to identify the exaggerations as he does so well in the book, the actual number of victims [End page 90] or deaths may be less important to people than the degree of perceived unfairness in the death. If one dies of old age or an accident it is part of life, of "normal" risks, but stranger crime is seen as universally unfair. Even if there are "only" 200 deaths per year from "serial killers" the consequences may be more profoundly felt than other deaths. A woman who falls down a flight of stairs may experience more physical injury and pain than a woman who is raped on a date, but there is little doubt who will bear greater psychological consequences.

Jenkins does not address the significance of the consequences of serial murder on the victims' family. More importantly he does not attempt to find what the public actually thinks of serial homicide as a problem. One of the ironies of the constructionist approach in this and other works is that the official definition of the problem is critiqued, but official and elite versions of the information are assumed to be uncritically absorbed by the public. Academics, activists, and officials may believe there exists a moral panic and may even obtain policy changes in government and law enforcement without much public concern or interest. Would not a constructionist want to know how salient this issue is to the public compared to the economy, health care, family violence, and other crimes? Again we cannot assume that official or conventional constructions are publicly adopted or believed. A survey of opinions might have bolstered Jenkins argument that a moral panic over serial killing indeed existed in the public.

My criticisms aside, this is a very important book. The author demonstrates how the growing menace of serial homicide was contrived out of very meager material, sensationalistic cases, and a federal law enforcement agency seeking to expand its purview. Jenkins convincingly shows how a social problem grows in the popular culture and becomes appropriated by political groups for their particular ideological purposes and interests. He also discusses how social control agencies gain in legitimacy and power by seizing on created fears. I recommend this book highly as a first-rate study of the social construction of serial homicide and intend to use it in my criminology classes.

Leo G. Barrile
Bloomsburg University
Department of Sociology and Social Work [End page 91]


Laws, J. L. (1977). Sexual scripts: The social construction of female sexuality. Hinsdale, IL: Dryden Press.

Latour, B. (1986). Laboratory life: The construction of scientific facts. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Loseke, D. R. (1992). The battered woman and shelters: The social construction of wife abuse. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Pfohl, S. J. (1978). Predicting dangerousness: The social construction of psychiatric reality. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books. [End page 92]