How to Name a Serial Killer

Every report of the case of serial killer Stephen Griffiths referred to him as the ‘Crossbow Cannibal’. But where did this name come from?

Griffiths gave this name when making his first court appearance before Magistrates in May 2010.

He didn’t come up with it himself – because it had already featured in a headline in the Sun newspaper on May 27.

It read: ‘Uni boffin quizzed on crossbow cannibal killings’

This is an example of a journalist ‘dubbing’ a killer, in an attempt to make them more memorable.

‘Dubbing’ in this way is often hotly contested – Stephen Wright, the man who killed five women in the Ipswich area in 2006, was referred to variously as the ‘Suffolk Strangler’, the ‘Ipswich Ripper’, the ‘East Anglian Ripper’ or the ‘Red-light Ripper’.

Usually newspapers steer away from using their rivals’ tags unless they become universally recognised by the public.

This time Griffiths went for something he had read while in custody. He could have come up with his own but it seems he liked the attention he was already getting.

Giving nicknames to serial killers may strike many as gruesome or a glorification of the criminal over his victims, who are quickly forgotten. However, the practice is a long-standing one and must pre-date newspapers.

So what makes a memorable nickname?

  1. Alliteration – Stockwell Strangler, Crossbow Cannibal, Moors Murderers, Beast of the Bastille, Giggling Granny
  2. Rhyme – Gay Slayer, Hannibal the Cannibal
  3. Rhythm – Jack the Ripper, Doctor Death
  4. Allusion / Imitation – Yorkshire Ripper, Angel of Death, The Terminator, Camden Ripper
  5. Novelty – Chessboard Killer, Zodiac Killer, Shoe Fetish Slayer, The Hippopotamus, Teacup Poisoner

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