By Jennie Gilman
As if the murder of Sarah Everard by Metropolitan Police officer, Wayne Couzens , was not evidence enough that the source of violence against women too often lies within the very institution responsible for our protection, the police brutality exhibited at the ‘Reclaim These Streets’ Clapham Common vigil on 13th March 2021 grimly affirms that the culture of violence governing the treatment of women across the world is a force as yet undisrupted.
Given that a site of peaceful mourning has caused a global reignition of political discourse on systemic violence against women, it is clear that such acts of collective remembering are fundamentally discursive acts of counter-violence against the violent powers that be. How we remember victims of violence is thus always fraught with political meaning. Watching Netflix’s 2020 documentary, The Ripper, a four-part docuseries in which ‘Investigators and witnesses recall the Yorkshire Ripper murders’, in the wake of recent events, is a dismal reminder of a system of violence against women in the UK that has remained fundamentally unchanged for over forty years.
Beginning with the murder of Peter Sutcliffe’s first victim, Wilma McCann, in Chapeltown, Leeds, in 1975, The Ripper chronologically tails the blood-strewn path mapped across West Yorkshire and Manchester as Sutcliffe continued to murder a total of thirteen women from 1975 to 1980.
The treasure trove of archive footage and use of digitally animated maps visually situates this murder case well within the northern counties torn by Thatcher’s industrial policy. Yet the series also shatters its own geographical framing by emphasizing the national effect of Sutcliffe’s murderous rampage on women. This contextual expansion marks a development in contemporary representations of the serial killer within documentary film. It reconsiders the phenomenon of serial murder as a means to understand the state of the nation, as opposed to merely the state of the individual killer mind.
The potential of rewriting a serial killer narrative as a national social commentary to help the viewer understand the political and social state of their own country today is most notable in the third episode of the series.
Named after the Women’s Liberation Movement protests of 1977 sparked by the Sutcliffe case, the Reclaim the Night episode explains how the West Yorkshire police’s ongoing failure to identify and convict Sutcliffe radicalized a generation of women who recognized the murders, and the force’s failure to prevent them, as equal symptoms of the same system of male violence governing women.
The uncanny parallels between the ‘Reclaim the Night’ protests of then and the ‘Reclaim These Streets’ protests of now shows that women’s hope for abolition is a victory yet to be had. Subsequently, while the series ends with Sutcliffe’s eventual trial and conviction in 1981, the far more complex case of systemic male violence remains unsolved, and far exceeds the narrative resolution assumed by the killers’ arrest.
It is instead useful to identify the narrative violence operating within The Ripper series as yet another subtle, and thus highly dangerous, mode through which our culture of violence is sanctioned, and therefore further affirms the necessity for systemic change.
In its seemingly non-committal claim to merely ‘recall’ the Peter Sutcliffe events from the perspective of those involved in the case, the documentary promises a cathartic collective remembrance in a way that severs itself from the crude truth and justice-seeking proclamations of the “true crime” genre.
But within a streaming-service context built upon the same principles of seriality and consumption as the serial killer, recalling or remembering a serial killer narrative becomes indistinct from reproducing the serial killer narrative, in a way that risks continuing the very violence against women that the documentary aims to counter.
In light of this tenuous vigil/violence relation inherent to the historical serial killer documentary form and the risk of retraumatizing the victims’ families entailed by a return to the Sutcliffe case, it must be asked whether meaningful remembrance of victims of violence within a Netflix series such as The Ripper is an endeavor that can or should be undertaken by contemporary documentarians.
If there are indeed any lessons to be learned from The Ripper series, it is that of the real, as opposed to the merely symbolic, violence caused by the narrative reproduction of the serial killer legacy. This signals the moral responsibility, and potential complicity in male violence, of contemporary documentarians who attempt to re-present this figure.
As admitted by both the journalists and investigators involved in the case, Peter Sutcliffe was allowed to continue killing women for a period of five years between 1975 and 1980 largely because of the legacy of Whitechapel’s Victorian Jack the Ripper that he inherited.
In what has been deemed ‘the biggest PR police exercise ever mounted’, in 1978 the West Yorkshire Police launched ‘Project R’, an advertising campaign involving a mobile exhibition of the two main clues of the case: an audio tape sent to the police and three handwritten letters sent from Sunderland, both supposed to be from the Ripper himself. This campaign’s ambition was to project both the suspects’ voice and handwriting into all public spaces across the nation, including town squares and shopping centers, in the hopes that someone would be able to recognize and identify the letter-writer and speaker.
In a dismal turn of events which would bring the polices’ public appeal to a standstill, the legitimacy of this evidence was nullified when Zackrisson (Detective Inspector, Northumbria Police) noted the ‘striking similarities in phraseology’ between the West Yorkshire letters and those written by Jack the Ripper in 1888. It transpires that a Ripper fanatic, or “Ripperologist”, later identified as John Samuel Humble and nicknamed “Wearside Jack”, had analyzed and adopted phrases from the published Jack the Ripper letters to hoax the Sutcliffe material. This act of serial killer narrative imitation had not only cost the police force the one million pounds spent on exhibiting the evidence across the UK, but also exposed their ineptitude in leading the case to the national public.
This case of the hoaxed letters and audio tapes bears striking similarities to the “copycat effect” commonly referenced within media discourse. First theorized in 1974 by sociologist David P. Phillips, the copycat phenomenon originally argued that “massive media attention and the retelling of the specific details of a suicide could increase the number of suicides” (Coleman, 2004, p.2). Since adapted to explain school shootings, terrorism attacks, and indeed, serial murder, the theory identifies the mass media as a force that persuades individuals to enter this pattern of imitation and commit the same human atrocities observed in the media.
The case of the hoaxed letters at once supports the logic of the “copycat effect” and produces a new variation of this pattern of imitation which backs up the case for narrative violence as an aspect of serial murder put forth in this essay. Rather than copying Jack the Ripper’s acts of murder, John Humble, the Ripper trickster, instead copied passages from his infamous “Dear Boss” letter allegedly addressed to the Central News Agency of London in 1888. This replication of serial killer narrative as opposed to serial killer action dispels the idea that serial killing is a visible type of subjective violence, ‘violence performed by a clearly identifiable agent” (Zizek, 2008, p.1). It instead shows that serial killing operates through seriality, imitation and reproduction, the same expansive processes of capital itself. This rather complexly infers that there is no fixed origin of violence to which we can assign as the cause of serial murder.
A problem emerges from these reconsiderations of the meaning of ‘violence’ necessitated by the ‘copycat effect’ of the hoaxed letters. By deconstructing the idealism of violence subjectivity, the identity of the victim subject is obscured. The intended victim of this copycat act of plagiarism is not women, but the mass media and police.
It is here in The Ripper’s account of the Sutcliffe investigation that the identity of the victim to be honored by the docu-series becomes unclear. Betraying its commitment to the female perspective, the hoax is presented as a trick which tormented a police force, as Zackrisson recounts, already ‘under such an enormous burden without any real evidence’ and with a killer still at loose. This representation of the police as fooled victims is a trope common to true crime productions, and designates the cathartic space of The Ripper’s retrospective testimonial form as one intended to help the surviving officers recover from this trauma.
However, the police’s susceptibility to a fictionalized line of inquiry can also be accounted for by the forces’ institutional incompetency and inherent discrimination against prostitutes, tarnishing their victim status. Misogyny and classism drove the investigation towards the false assumption that Sutcliffe was motivated to kill his victims by the same ‘hatred for prostitutes’ possessed by his Victorian predecessor. To its credit, the documentary does hold the negligence and prejudice of the police force to account. This is indubitably a cause for social reflection on how the police’s treatment of sex workers has progressed, or rather failed to progress, since the late 20th century.
However, to reduce The Ripper series to a critique of police practice and the unchanging misogyny that governs their treatment of women belies the more subtle, but equally prescient, concomitance between serial killing, the writing of serial killing, and pop culture’s complicity in serial killing’s continuation. For the disturbing truth underlying this hoax and the subsequent murder of three more women that took place in the eighteen months between this derailment of the investigation and Sutcliffe’s delayed arrest in 1981 is that serial killing can’t be framed as an individual and incomprehensible act of abhorrent violence.
Such an idealized construction of serial killers as monstrous “others” who “repeatedly emerge as the exceptions that make the rule” or as “chinks and cracks in the fabric”, serves to preserve the conservative social order by reminding us “of the structural soundness of the fabric itself” (Grixti, 1995, p.95), as theorized by Joseph Grixti. On the contrary, the case of the hoax paradoxically demonstrates that the serial killer as individual exists somewhat extraneously to the phenomenon of serial killing itself.
The transmutation of Jack the Ripper’s celebrity into the Sutcliffe case nearly a whole century later attests to the historical pervasion of Ripper-fanaticism and a wider, unquenchable thirst for violence-consumption. This thirst governs much of the reading and viewing habits of the mass spectator, and is drip-fed by the ongoing proliferation of true crime productions. But more than merely reaffirming our popular sadism, this case of the hoax situates us, the media consumer here embodied by the Ripper-imitator, between the serial killer and his next victim, in a way that explicitly testifies to the causal role that the representation and consumption of serial killing plays in perpetuating the very act itself.
Understanding serial killing and violence as integral features of the infrastructure of consumer capitalism forebodingly suggests that the serial killer can only thrive with the mutating modes of production and consumption that define the internet age.
Crafted from Jack the Ripper’s “Dear Boss” letter (the authenticity of which has been disputed by historians), the audio tapes and letters demonstrate how easily a fictionalized serial killer can be created and then legitimized through mass reproduction. The third episode shows archival footage of the 1978 PR campaign’s combined use of print and outdoor media, such as newspapers and billboards, in addition to broadcasting the audio tapes on the radio, all calling on the national public to ‘LOOK AT HIS HANDWRITING’ and to ‘LISTEN TO HIS VOICE’.
This provocatively illustrates just how quickly a serial killer fiction can permeate through urban space and forcefully enter the public imagination as media technologies and mass communications exploded during the late 20th century. This media campaign had been framed as a call to the nation to come together and ‘help the police’ to find the killer as a collective act of social responsibility. Such propaganda of a country united with the police against a killer is countered by both the Women’s Liberation Movement against police violence, and the definitively individual modes of serial killer consumption that have emerged from the changing representation of the serial killer from his print to digital media form.
As the mass media has shifted from print to television to the internet and streaming services, a new culture of on-demand viewing, binge-watching and seriality has emerged. With unbound access to the visual gore and violence of murder provided by today’s serial killer series’, the “assaultive gaze” (Clover, 2015, p.182) of the viewer unites with that of the killer, showing that contemporary spectatorship has become distinctly voyeuristic.
Contrary to the central idea of voyeurism that the spectator remains unseen whilst seeing all, many true crime series are premised on the illusion of participatory engagement by making the spectator feel like an armchair detective crucially involved in the investigation. Rather than collectively helping to solve the case of serial murder as many productions would have us believe, the spectators’ living room has become the cultural scene of the crime as our voyeuristic modes of TV consumption continue to nurture the serial killer phenomenon.
Here manifests a complex morphology of ‘the serial killer’. The serial killer is not an anomalous social deviant as conservative idealists would have it believed, but an immortal, immaterial beast made up in body by the deadly conjoining of four beings: the mass media, the mass spectator, the acting killer subject, and the police institution. It follows that the responsibility for the violence against women within the Sutcliffe case and within serial killing more broadly does not just lie with the killer, nor indeed with the police and their failure to protect the victims. The responsibility also lies with those who write the serial killer into being for the purpose of mass consumption, and thus in turn we, the consumer.
This revised understanding of the “serial killer” as a defining characterization of our consumer culture is critical in the assignment of possible meaning to The Ripper series. Peter Sutcliffe’s recent death in November 2020 should rightfully be denied significance by the mass media to avoid overshadowing the remembrance of his victims with the glory of his notoriety. However, the coincidental timing of his death with the release of the Netflix series one month later helps us to understand the meaning of ‘narrative violence’.
Sutcliffe’s death gives new meaning to The Ripper series not by re-rendering the documentary as a cathartic, narrative burial of the killer, but by reaffirming the immortalization of the serial killer as cultural symbol within television and film.
The spectators’ continual return to these media representations of serial violence in spite of the serial killer’s death implies that we do not watch serial killer narratives for merely the justice-driven pursuit of the criminal. Given that the same police violence against women motivating the ‘Reclaim These Streets’ protests shown in The Ripper series still occurs today, we look to these types of documentaries, and the hauntingly recognizable worlds of male violence that they present, to understand why these cultural wounds of female oppression fail to heal.
The narrative violence of The Ripper therefore lies within its retrospective narration and privileging of first-hand testimony. The testimonial accounts from investigators, journalists, victim families and survivors legitimize the docu-series by grounding it in observed and lived experience. This prevents the narrative violence enacted through speculative third-person narration, exaggerating individuals’ stories to fit stereotypes or character tropes, or omitting more nuanced details to comply with genre conventions.
However, in its retrospective gaze it fails to register the second-hand experience of male violence, such as women’s’ fear of walking at night, that serial killer cases permanently inflict. With Sutcliffe’s death thus surfaces a risk of historicizing The Yorkshire Ripper case to the effect of suggesting that the case of male violence belongs to a past distanced from the present.
Peter Sutcliffe’s death also renews the urgency of ensuring that the Yorkshire case is not mythologized to the same sensationalized and detrimental effect as Jack the Ripper. To do so, The Ripper must hold a mirror up to its own narrative construction of the killer. This metacommentary approach to the Sutcliffe case could dismember the serial killer beast of which serial killer representations are always a part. By failing to self-reflexively address the possible consequences entailed by its own reproduction of the serial killer narrative, the documentary fails its own terms.
This is not to say that the series entirely neglects to address the narrative construction of the serial killer. On the contrary, in the first episode, Alan Whitehouse, a journalist for The Yorkshire Post during the time of the murders, explains the inception of the name ‘The Yorkshire Ripper’. Stating that ‘What you’re looking for is that attention-grabbing, eye-catching title that’s going to pull people in’, Whitehouse candidly explains the capital-driven and ethically dubious practices at play in the mediatization of Peter Sutcliffe as the Ripper-incarnate. This reinforces Ian Cummins’ argument that there is a “symbiotic relationship between the media and serial killers” (Cummins, 2019, p.2). With this symbiosis, the media gains profit while the killer gains infamy from his narrative framing as entertainment.
Given the poignancy of such first-hand testimonies from those working within the media industry, it is striking that the documentary not only makes little attempt to disrupt this media/serial killer symbiosis, but actively dispenses of this discursive potential in blatant pursuit of the very consumer and capital-driven tenets that originally bore ‘The Yorkshire Ripper’.
It should be noted that the London-based Raw TV production behind The Ripper revealed that the show was originally intended to be called ‘Once Upon a Time in Yorkshire’. This name would have contextualized the Sutcliffe case against a localized political backdrop of the economic turmoil that governed life in northern England, and prevented the accusations of sensationalizing the murders that inevitably followed the shows’ initial release.
While this suggests that the documentary is yet another production to be mauled by the Americanizing beast that is the Netflix streaming service and its globalized mode of audience-engagement, the series’ title points to the tentative distinction between the serial killer and the serial killer narrative.
In this Netflixian epoch of on-demand viewing and binge-watching, our modes of media consumption possess the same pattern of seriality as the serial killer, a correlation in the consumption of victims which further attests to the necessary revision of serial killing as a socio-cultural condition.
In this sense, whilst The Ripper title irrefutably pertains to the global notoriety of Jack the Ripper to appeal to Netflix’s international audience and to fulfil the same ‘attention-grabbing’ tenets of the print media, it more hauntingly points to The Ripper that resides within all of us watching the series in this age of the streaming service and non-participatory viewing.
What is most striking about the series is how it glorifies the serial killer in its journalistic plight to subvert the traditions of serial killer narrativization.
The docu-series omits the biographical profiling, and subsequent romanticization, of the murderer typically perpetuated within the true crime genre, as made evident by Sutcliffe’s image not being shown until the final episode of the series. The Ripper’s dualistic narrative device of testimony and archive is not merely deployed as a means to verbally and visually establish the cultural context or ‘scene of the crime’ as an immersive backdrop to the subject of violence. In line with “the “new historicist” conviction, or assumption, of the context-made subject” (Seltzer, 2013, p.34), the ‘scene of the crime’ here displaces the serial killer subject and assumes position at the forefront of the narrative.
The aim of this inversion of the conventional subject/context relation is to provide both a social commentary on the conditions of life in West Yorkshire that bore a serial murderer, and to emphasize the effect that his rampage had in creating a culture of fear amongst the public. It is within this narrative turn away from the serial killer and move towards his society that the documentary’s potential to radically reconsider the serial killer narrative resides.
This deaestheticization of the serial killer is aimed at decentering the serial killer and focusing on his female victim, as is evident in the series’ final feminist resolution. The series concludes with journalist Joan Smith stating that the Sutcliffe murders, and subsequent ‘Curfew on Women’, ‘had an incredibly radicalizing effect on a whole generation of women’. But for all of the series’ narrative advances, the form of the serial killer narrative ultimately remains unchanged.
Characteristically Netflixian in its use of ominous, horror-esque music, its cliff-hanging suspensions and its cinematic recreational scenes of Sutcliffe’s car prowling the dark streets of Yorkshire, the boundary between true crime and crime drama, between fact and fiction, is consistently blurred throughout the docu-series. It thus stands to reason that whilst The Ripper has the potential to reframe the serial killer narrative and liberate the female perspective from the violent victimization inherent to the genre, these journalistic ambitions are thwarted by the documentary’s overarching commitment to entertainment-value and commodity culture.
Strikingly, there are plenty of moments in the series ripe with metacommentary potential. One of the most poignant scenes takes place in the final episode, in which archived footage shows the crowds gathered outside of London’s Old Bailey during Sutcliffe’s trial in April 1981, many of whom had ‘queued overnight’ in the hope of a seat in the public gallery. Such mob-like scenes of extreme Ripper-fandom make visible the unobservable masses watching serial killer narratives on streaming services today.
While atmospherically showing our unchanging cultural obsession with serial killers, the footage of the crowds clamoring to witness Sutcliffe’s conviction contradicts the modern image of the solitary spectator watching the serial killer on-screen. Historically traceable here is the descent of the serial killer ‘audience’ from its public and collective participation in the spectacle of justice being served, to a private act of mediated voyeurism. Lost with this erasure of the crowd is the power and potential of this collective mode of serial killer spectatorship.
Upon the announcement of Sutcliffe’s guilty verdict and thirty year prison sentence, members of the crowds wielding ‘Women Against Violence’ placards cry ‘Three cheers for the jury’. United in celebration of justice for women finally served, a divisible line may here be drawn between the triple alliance of the public, the police and the judicial system, and the serial killer. This focus on collective witnessing supports The Ripper’s reconsideration of the serial killer narrative as a national story.
It implies that the documentary, its first-hand witnesses, and its audience together observe Sutcliffe in the same, united way as the crowds watching his trial in 1981 and commemorated his conviction as the end of a national trauma. But in our contemporary media culture of serial production and voyeuristic consumption, this narrative of a nation united against the serial killer inscribed onto the Sutcliffe case by the documentary functions as a veneer for the spectators’ private desire for serial violence.
The unyielding national obsession with serial killers historically proven by the Sutcliffe case implies that there is a feature of our contemporary social context that correlates with that of England in the late 20th century and thus perpetuates a continual return to the killer. Whether this contextual feature constitutes a cultural wound or an intrinsic masculine violence that resides within us all, the documentary neglects to divulge.
Instead, it avoids explaining this serial killer compulsion and its own role in inducing this gore-gluttony through its lazy narrative closure of female radicalization.
While it is unclear as to what our unchanging modes of voyeuristic spectatorship may reveal about how the state of modern culture has remained the same for the last forty years, what it does show is that our society’s cyclical return to violence is not disrupted by the type of constructed solidarity exhibited in The Ripper series. Commendably, the show tries to depart from the depraved terrain of the true crime genre, but it still condones the viewer’s initial desire for violence as she scours Netflix’s library. Therefore, The Ripper is ultimately guilty of the very crime of which it accuses the print media through its retrospective account of the Peter Sutcliffe case- uncritically reproducing the serial killer narrative.
Author bio:Jennie Gilman is an English and Philosophy graduate with transdisciplinary research interests in consumer culture and posthuman philosophy. She hosts ‘The Cyborg Reader: a sonic space for transdisciplinary encounters’ radio show on Leeds Student Radio. Listen to all previous episodes on Mixcloud; https://www.mixcloud.com/the_cyborg_reader/.
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 Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old marketing executive from Brixton Hill, disappeared near Clapham Common, London, on 3 March 2021. Wayne Couzens, a Metropolitan police officer, was arrested on suspicion of her kidnapping and later her murder, after her remains were discovered in woodland near Kent. A vigil was held in her memory on Clapham Common on 13 March, where violent policing of several of the women in attendance of the event has lead to a resurgent, global debate on men’s violence against women, and call for systemic change within our police institutions where this culture of male violence operates.