During the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was a seismic shift in American culture. The violence of the Vietnam War was hitting its zenith, broadcasted across the country. The presidency was currently undergoing one of its biggest scandals since the Grant administration. The hippy movement ended with a fizzle, itself degraded and corrupted by drugs and violence. People were mad, and people were bitter. Out of this anger, out of this lack of authority, was born a new age of violence, a new killer breed.

Serial killings started to flood the country and the airwaves, and America has never been the same since. While numerous killers roamed the country over the decade, five specific killers took prominence in our news media and became ingrained in our culture. These five violent individuals caused a shift in not only our culture but our society as a whole.

Setting The Scene (Of The Crime)

To discuss this change in perspective, we also need to look at the era as a whole. American found itself fractured in the 1970s; a country that had lost its identity and its trust in its institutions. While the previous decade had brought about numerous political assassinations, cultural strife, and bloody warfare, two events still haunted the American psyche in the early ’70s: The Vietnam War and The Watergate Scandal.

The Vietnam War was one of the most controversial wars in America’s history and was the start of the splintering trust the public had in its government. The Vietnam War raged from 1965 to 1975, resulting in the death of nearly 60,000 American soldiers. It was a war “against the communists,” a war that the country didn’t need to fight. In 1975, the last of the American forces were pulled out, making it one of the countries first military losses.

Spoopy Ghostoween 2017 — RETROspective: An Analysis of SCREAM

As Vietnam winded down, America dealt with another breach of trust. President Richard Nixon found himself under investigation for the 1972 presidential election. The cover-up that followed, and the investigation that ended with Nixon’s resignation, is one of the largest political scandals in American history. What was once a well-respected position had taken a huge blow in trust all across the country.

America felt betrayed by their president, their military, and even their people. It is in this void of hope that the violent dredges of society started to act out, changing the landscape of American society forever.

We start first with a violent individual who predates Watergate. While having never actually killed anyone, he is responsible for one of the most heinous murders in American history, and for seemingly ending the hippy movement overnight.

1. Helter Skelter

In the summer of 1969, the free love movement was in full swing. Woodstock music festival was on the horizon, and demonstrations were held across college campuses countrywide. People still believed in the idea of peace and love, especially in the coastal cities of California. It is in this liberal state that one of the most violent cults murders in American history occurred, The Manson Murders.

By that summer, Charles Manson had already moved his followers, dubbed “The Manson Family,” into an abandoned movie sets called Spahn Ranch. It was there that his preachings about the upcoming race war, called “Helter Skelter,” began to intensify. What had started as a free love group led by Manson had become a doomsday cult, set on the belief that they were the chosen ones to survive the world destroying war.

On August 8th, 1969, the cult decided to try and jump start that war. Manson Family followers Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, and Patricia Krenwinkel kill and mutilate actress Sharon Tate, writer Wojciech Frykowski, heiress Abigail Folger, hair stylist Jay Sebring, and family friend Steven Parent. A day later, the cult kills again, murdering Leno and Rosemary LaBianca in their home. Members of the cult were arrested days later on a separate charge before evidence was brought against them for both murders. All involved were sentenced to death before the death penalty abolishment in 1972 dropped the charges to life in prison.


The murder of Sharon Tate sent shock waves throughout the country. Not only was she a famous actress, but Manson was also a man who had somewhat started to make a name for himself in the music industry, being good friends with Beach Boy Dennis Wilson. To put it in modern terms, it would be like finding out Jennifer Lawrence was brutally murdered in her home by pastor Carl Lentz. The loss of Lawrence would be a shock to the main population, while the murder by Lentz would shake the world of Hollywood.

Manson was part of insider circles, having met with many music producers and knowing many musicians. At the time, people saw Manson as an ambitious, albeit intense, guy. Nobody saw him as a killer until tragedy struck. This was essentially one of their own killing one of their A-listers.

Charles Manson.

The murders not only shocked the country, but it was also a primary cause, along with the negative impact of Woodstock, of the disillusion and dissolvement of the hippy movement. It brought a shattering end to the “Summer of Love,” and created a new level of distrust in the perspective that the common populace had in the hippy movement. Overnight, the negative views of the movement went from “smelly, lazy trust fund kids” to “psychotic, drug-fueled killers.” This splintering of trust caused each groups perspective to veer in different directions. With the common populace, their view of “violent cult” led to the satanic panic in the mid ’80s, while for the hippy movement, it led to the enormous influx of fringe Christianity sects to emerge throughout the state, such as the Children of God.

Effects in Popular Culture:

After Manson, a surge of “killer hippy” films filled the local cheap seat movie theaters. Films by William Castle and Herschell Gordon Lewis were filled with drug-crazed hippies, killing their own, and innocents on the streets. The most famous of these killer hippy films jumpstarted both an industry and an illustrious directing career.

The film LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT opened in 1972. Directed by Wes Craven, the film follows two young girls who run into a trio of violent hippies. The girls are raped and killed, the killers remorseless in their violence. The film is considered one of the vilest films ever made, causing massive protests.

The film is arguably one of the first true exploitation films of the 1970s. Over the next decade, an industry grew from this genre, as producers and directors filled theaters across the country with violent smut films. These slim budgets and violent subject matter led to some classic films, such as THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE. As for the creators of LAST HOUSE, Director Wes Craven went on to create both A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and the SCREAM series. Producer Sean S. Cunningham went on to create the FRIDAY THE 13TH series, and the HOUSE films.

Podcast Episode 95: MY FRIEND DAHMER

Running concurrent with the Manson Murders, a killer only a couple of miles north was about to become the American Jack The Ripper.

2. “This Is The Zodiac Speaking…”

The Zodiac killer was active in the greater San Francisco area from the late ’60s to the early ’70s. During that time, he communicated with police and news media through cryptic letters. While the Manson Murders got more media coverage at the time, the Zodiac killer remains as one of the most elusive and troubling murderers in the countries history.

The first confirmed Zodiac murder was the shooting murders of two high school students in 1968 as they sat in their parked car. From there, the killer struck again in summer of 1969, killing one and severally injuring another, his weapon of choice again a pistol and a parked car his site of violence.

A mere week before the Manson Murders, the Zodiac Killer sent the first of his cryptic letters, each sent to a local newspaper. Each letter came with a cryptogram, along with a warning. The warning stated that if the letter weren’t published, more murders would follow. Decoded a week later, the message spelling out a rambling, violent plan.

The killer continued his killing spree throughout the rest of 1969 and 1970. The Zodiac killed two more and injured another. An attempted victim got away as she ran from the killer’s car.

Zodiac continued to communicate with both authorities and the local newspapers. He sent letters throughout 1970, making brash and bold claims about how many he had already murdered, and how much more he planned to. Another letter with a cryptogram materialized but remains uncoded.

Then, he disappeared. The last correspondence with the killer was in 1974, a poorly written letter giving a review of The Exorcist, and a mocking “Me=37, SFPD=0”. The letter is the final known contact with the Zodiac. The murders remain unsolved, and the Zodiac still at large.


As stated above, this was America’s Jack The Ripper. While previous cases had gone unsolved, such as the Black Dahlia murders in the ’40s, this was a case where a killer was actively mocking the people hunting him. Zodiac introduced the modern American public to this kind of systematic violence. To give context, the label “serial killer” hadn’t even been invented yet, later being coined by the Behavioral Science unit of the FBI. The country stared in shock at this type of calculated, yet senseless violence.

While the Manson Murders brought distrust towards the hippy movement, the Zodiac killings made people start to distrust everybody. Descriptions of the killer were that of a middle-class white man, not dissimilar from many peoples neighbors and coworkers. Gone were the days of the swamp-dwelling killer, this was a killer living in their neighborhoods.

Composite sketches of the elusive Zodiac.

Not only that, but he was still out there. With the Manson murders, while being violent and brutal, there was closure; The bad guys punished, justice served. With the Zodiac, there was no conclusion. Nobody went to jail. These murders remain unsolved. A country already weary of their higher institutions now had a reason not to trust their local government. The police, those that are supposed to keep us safe, can’t stop this killer. In fact, as stated in one of the Zodiac letters, the Zodiac avoided capture even after questioning by police. The police weren’t just clueless; they were incompetent. A country still reeling from the police violence from the Civil Rights Movement found another reason to doubt those who serve to protect.

Effects in Popular Culture:

Zodiac immediately left an impression in the public’s mind. He was an elusive killer who enjoyed taunting his pursuers. One could argue that the fact that the killer remained at large fed into the nihilism that swept cinema at the time. Directly, many films started to feature no-nonsense police, who went over the line to capture criminals. Films such as THE FRENCH CONNECTION, THE SEVEN-UPS, and THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE all featured police officers going the extra, violent mile to get their perp.

Nowhere was this more apparent than DIRTY HARRY. Played by Clint Eastwood, DIRTY HARRY focused on a near renegade cop who patrols the city of San Francisco. The killer, dubbed “Scorpio,” is actually based off of the Zodiac. In a way, DIRTY HARRY was an attempt to fictionally close the case, as a tough cop finally puts the case to rest with the bang of a 44. Magnum.

No Art in the Deal: Trump Versus The Arts

Over the next five years, several serial killers would begin to pop up across the country, such as Dean Corll and BTK. While this became a pressing concern for police forces across the country, most went unnoticed in the public’s eye. Most attention stayed on the end of the Vietnam War and the fallout of the Watergate scandal. Then, in 1976, an armed killer on the east coast blasted his way into the spotlight.

3. “I Am The ‘Son Of Sam'”

In the summer of 1976, New York City was already on the brink of collapse. The city was broke, having lost the majority of their tax revenue after the collapse of many industries following the end of the post-war boom, and the “white flight,” as many white residents of the city moved to the suburbs. Refused a bailout in 1975, the city was forced to make major cuts to its civil services, cutting the fire and police department by nearly half. Criminals took to the streets of Manhattan, as the apartment buildings of the Bronx burned to the ground. All of this inner turmoil came bubbling up, and into the minds of the nation, with the Son of Sam murders, perpetrated by David Berkowitz.

Berkowitz began his murder spree in the summer of 1976, when he fired into a parked car in the Bronx, killing one, and wounding another. He attacked again in October and November of the same year, but only ended up injuring his victims, neither attack producing a fatality.

Berkowitz would kill again in January of 1977, killing a young woman passenger, and injuring the driver. Three more fell victim to Berkowitz shooting spree before the first letter was found. Dubbed “The Son of Sam Letter,” Berkowitz left the letter at the scene of one of his murders. Just like the Zodiac letters, it was a rambling letter that threatened more violence. A second letter, sent to famed journalist Jimmy Breslin, threatened the same.

Berkowitz would kill 1 and injure two more before finally being caught after a ticket issued the night of the shooting caused his car to be traced. A year of terror finally came to an end, and Berkowitz continues to serve his life sentence.


As stated, New York City was already viewed unfavorably before the first killing of 1976. The Son of Sam murders became a figurehead, in a way; a specific moment in time that encapsulates the violence of New York City. The city carried this reputation throughout the ’80s, and into the early ’90s.

Berkowitz is also arguably the blueprint for the modern day spree killers. He was a loner, angry at the world that had seemingly rejected him, and ready to enact his own form of justice for his assumed pain.  Killers like Elliot Rodgers, Dylan Roof, and Christopher Dorner have followed in similar footsteps, hunting down people who they had perceived slights against.

David Berkowitz.

A huge media storm followed his apprehension, much to Berkowitz delight. Publisher companies began to offer Berkowitz large amounts of money for the right to his life story. In an act of bureaucratic haste, the NY State Legislature moved quickly to enact the “Son of Sam Laws,” which forbid convicts from profiting off their crimes. Over the years, several other states have enacted their own version of the law, stopping criminals from profiting from exposé novels of their crimes.

Effects In Popular Culture:

Just like the public’s perception, New York City became a grimy hellhole in cinema as well. Filmmakers such as Abel Ferrara, William Lustig, and Frank Henenlotter took advantage of this grime and muck, making films that showed the seedier side of New York. Lustig’s film MANIAC was actually based on Berkowitz’s killing spree. It would take over a decade before New York’s image was rehabilitated in cinema (for a closer look at exploitation filmmaking in New York, read this article.)

Spoopy Ghostoween 2017 — 5 Asian Serial Killers Any Murderino Should Know

While Berkowitz’s crimes were violent, they were simple in nature. Gun deaths are a quick and tidy type of violence that people can easily wrap their heads around. What was discovered in a crawl space two years later on the outskirts of Chicago, though, would horrify a nation.

4. Pogo The Clown

In the winter of 1978, police officers of Cook County began surveillance on a local business owner. The business owner appeared to be a model citizen. He owned a well-respected construction business, had political ties to the local Democratic party, and played a clown at local events. He was under surveillance for the disappearance of a 15-year-old boy. After weeks of this, the business owner finally cracked, confessing. What he confessed, combined with the evidence, made him one of the deadliest serial killers of all time. That business owner was John Wayne Gacy.

When Gacy finally admitted his murders in 1978, he had raped and murdered over 30 young men over a decades time. 26 of those bodies were recovered from the crawl space under his home. Several missing person cases became solved overnight. Gacy spent the rest of his life in jail, executed in 1994.


Unlike the killers previously discussed, Gacy was not a killer seeking attention. Gacy did his murders quietly and quickly, focusing on abducting and murdering runaways and transients. The general public had no idea a monster like Gacy existed. But once the full story came out, the country was horrified. Gacy had the highest death toll the country had ever seen. It may have very well started the public’s fascination with “kill counts.” Before Gacy, most captured serial killers had kill counts less than 10. Gacy changed the perception of serial killers; instead of becoming sloppier the more he killed, Gacy became refined, more effective with each murder. Serial killers were no longer larger than life, leaving maniacal notes at the scene of the crime; they were methodical and precise, able to rack up an enormous kill count without anyone the wiser.

To say it was just the kill count that separated Gacy from the pack is not to understand society. Several other killers have killed just as much, if not more. The most prolific serial killer of all time, the Green River Killer, killed over 49 women. But, he killed transients and prostitutes and killed them quickly. He didn’t have something specifically interesting about him. Thus, most people have never heard of him.

What Gacy introduced to serial killer history is a lore. Gacy became known as the “Killer Clown.” His side job of playing a clown at local events earning insidious hindsight. His specific quirk stuck in the public’s mind. As such, seemingly overnight, clowns took a darker turn. What was once a prime-time mainstay, with Bozo the Clown and Red Skeleton, became a terrifying thing, for adults and children alike. While Coulrophobia existed before, mostly due to our fear of the uncanny, Gacy helped it explode.

Effects in Popular Culture:

Once this fear entered the mainstream, the perception of clowns never recovered. Television’s across the country had Gacy’s painted face splayed across them. Add in the release of Stephen King’s IT  less than a decade later, and the view of clowns has remained forever tarnished. Clowns are now relegated to cheap horror films and publicity stunts. (one could argue that the true spirit of clowning lived on through the Jackass TV show and subsequent films, though).

John Wayne Gacy as Pogo The Clown.

While Gacy changed the perception of clowns, across the country in the sunshine state, another killer would shock the country, with both his brutality and his charm.

5. “Hi, I’m Ted”

While officers were digging up the remains of over two dozen young men in Gacy’s crawlspace, officers in Florida were actively trying to unfurl the predatory mind of a young republican do-gooder with a winning smile, who may have killed and raped dozens of women.

The world had not seen a killer like Ted Bundy; he was handsome, charming, and well educated. Ted spoke well and had a warm smile. He had also cut a violent swath across the country, raping and killing dozens throughout the 1970s.

Ted Bundy.

Bundy had attempted to defend himself in court when he was first arrested in Florida in 1978. His defense; multiple personalities, which meant he couldn’t be fairly judged for his mental imbalance. The court quickly started to see there was an imbalance, just not the one Bundy was putting forth; Bundy was a psychopath, a once in a lifetime remorseless monster. When his guilty verdict was passed down, the court had the opportunity to see that hidden monster, as Bundy screamed with rage, an unbridled look at a true evil maniac. Bundy died in the electric chair a decade later, to a cheering crowd outside.


Just like Gacy, Bundy completely change the public’s perception of serial killers. Every killer previously had something that society could latch onto and consider repulsive, be it the killer’s weight, age, sexuality, or demeanor. Bundy didn’t fit into any of those categories. From the outside, he seemed like the perfect man. People saw well spoken, handsome, and charming man. He was the perfect psychopath, easily able to blend into his surroundings, not revealing his true self until it was too late.

Effects In Popular Culture:

While Bundy had a strong impact on societal views, the archetype of handsome killer never took off as much in Hollywood. While there have been countless romance films with a dark male lead, Hollywood avoided the harsh reality of Bundy like the plague. Even though cinema is meant to reflect onto ourselves, sometimes we like to bury the harsh truths.

The most notable inspiration Bundy gave to cinema wasn’t based on his crimes, but what he did while incarcerated. During the 1980s, a killer known as the Green River Killer terrorized the Pacific Northwest. Unable to find any leads, The Behavioral Science department of the FBI sought help from the convicted Bundy, looking to use his insights to help find the killer. While his testimonies brought the FBI no closer to their killer, the prisoner-investigator relationship helped inspire an author by the name of Thomas Harris, who went on to write Silence Of The Lambs, with infamous movie villain Hannibal Lector based on Bundy. Just like Bundy, Lector is a suave, articulate killer with a violent and horrifying personality.

Hannibal Lecter was loosely based off of Ted Bundy.

The one-two punch of Gacy and Bundy going down in the same year completely shattered both the perception of serial killers, as well as helping nurture a paranoia in the general population. Gacy was well respected as a business leader and political activist. Bundy was a charming young man. Figures in our society we once held in high esteem became fallible, less trustworthy. If we couldn’t trust our community leaders, and our countries youth, who could we trust?

Psycho Killer, Qúest-ce Que Cést

Going into the 1980s, America had undergone one of its most nihilistic decades ever. A lost war had beaten the countries ego, a corrupt presidency had weakened our trust, and a country seemingly filled with senseless killings made us paranoid.

The early 1980s saw the start of the “stranger danger” initiative. While the societal norms of childhood activities weren’t as strict as they are in modern times, paranoia did begin to bloom. Kids were now instructed to avoid strangers. Friendly neighborhood passer-bys quickly became potential killers in the minds of Americans. The streets weren’t as safe as they once were.

Following in the wake of all this nihilism, was a new brand of genre filmmaking. Released in the fall of 1978, HALLOWEEN became a box office smash hit. Directed by John Carpenter, the film followed a masked killer as he stalks three babysitters. The film kick-started a wave of films, dubbed slasher films. These films dominated the early 1980s.

Michael Meyers of HALLOWEEN.

The killers that stalked our streets now stalked our silver screens. Except, on film, killers are evil. They are creatures, wearing masks and stalking the night. They are vanquished by the ones they hunted. Defeated in the end.

Reality gave us no such conclusions. Real killers weren’t monsters from the depths of hell or escaped psychopaths with a mask; they are our neighbors, coworkers, and family members. With these films, we could approach these fears, without getting too close to the harsh reality.

These killers warped society. Their violent ways changed how we viewed each other and changed how our media portrays the world. While major events like Watergate and Vietnam had wide-ranging effects, the serial killers of the 1970s changed us slowly and quietly. Their insidious nature made us a more guarded and paranoid society.

Show ComicsVerse some Love! Leave a Reply!