The media returned the favor, inflating the perception that serial killers were everywhere and repeating the erroneous statistic that there were 5,000 serial murder victims every year. These horror stories were not exactly discouraged by the FBI, one of whose agents coined the term "serial killer" in 1981. (The phrase "serial murderer" first appeared in 1961, in a review of Fritz Lang's M, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.) The perception of a serial murder epidemic also led to the creation of the FBI's National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime in 1981.
Infamous crimes almost always needle the anxieties of their periods. The murder of a 14-year-old boy by University of Chicago students Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb in 1924 captured the growing obsession with modern psychiatry, as the pair considered themselves examples of Nietzsche's Übermensch, unbound by moral codes. A series of child abductions in the 1920s and '30s, from the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders to the killing of Charles Lindbergh's son, became a symbol of societal decay during the Depression. Charles Manson, who presided over the Tate murders in 1969, embodied a sexual revolution gone mad. The Columbine massacre preyed on parental fears of the effects of violent movies and video games.
Conversely, sensational crimes that don't play into a larger societal narrative fade away. In 1927, Andrew Kehoe detonated three bombs at a school in Bath Township, Mich., killing 38 children and seven adults, including Kehoe—one of the largest cases of domestic terrorism before the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. The disaster made headlines, but was soon eclipsed by Charles Lindbergh's trans-Atlantic flight. "It was a crime that was ahead of its time," says Schechter.
Indeed, if something like the Bath School massacre happened today, it would probably resonate more deeply than it did in the 1920s. What child abductors were to the '20s and serial killers were to the '70s and '80s, terrorists are to the early 21st century. After 9/11, fear of social unraveling has been replaced by anxiety over airplanes, bombs, and instant mass annihilation. Stephen Griffiths isn't the new Jeffrey Dahmer. The Times Square bomber is.