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29 September, 2007

Yours, Truly…: Jack the Ripper and the Horror Genre

Between August 31st and November 9th, 1888, five prostitutes were viciously murdered in the East End of London, in the Whitechapel district. The women, homeless, destitute, in all probability enduring a myriad of endemic illnesses, lived a hard, brutal existence, and like many of their number before and since, died just as brutally. So why do we remember them even now, almost 120 years after their deaths? What sets them apart from the dozens of homicide victims in London for the year 1888, including many others in the crime-ridden East End? Only one thing unites them in notoriety: The unknown identity of their killer, known to history only as “Jack the Ripper.”

Few other Serial Killers have ever gained both the instant fame and long-lasting legendary status that accrued to the Whitechapel murderer, and none are more firmly rooted in the collective subconscious. There have been Serial Killers that are more prolific; indeed, ‘Red Jack’ compiled relatively few kills, compared to the likes of the Green River Killer, with more than 50 victims; or Henry Lee Lucas, who prior to his death claimed to have murdered more than 650 people.

Nor was Jack, with the exception of the final murder, that of Mary Kelly on the morning of the 9th of November, exceedingly savage or violent in the carrying-out of his crimes. In fact, the autopsy reports from the first three murders indicate a cold, methodical precision to his work[1]; brutally efficient, for lack of a better term. That is not intended to imply that these murders weren’t horrifically vicious; but they lacked the same degree of frenzied savagery found in the last murder. Only Catherine Eddowes, the second victim on the night of the “Double Event”, suffered ravages that came close to the mutilations inflicted upon Kelly. But many Serial Killers have equaled or even surpassed Jack for sheer ferocity. Why has this killer become so ingrained in our culture that, even today, movies and books are being created that explore this one 10-week period, 119 years ago?

The first fictionalizations of the crimes began appearing almost before the blood was washed away. Within weeks of the murder of Eddowes in Mitre Square, a pamphlet was published describing a supposed curse on the location, caused by the ghost of a monk who had murdered his sister in exactly the same fashion as the Ripper had done in his victim. A London music hall was presenting an “entertainment…” based on the murder of Mary Kelly by February of 1889, four months after her death. By 1892, a bare four years after the murders, a novelization of the crimes had been published in Sweden, though the Russian censors (Sweden at that time being a Russian province…) quickly banned it.[2]

One of the first motion pictures to examine the legend of the Ripper was Alfred Hitchcock’s debut feature, 1926’s THE LODGER. While avoiding any direct connection to the Whitechapel murders still fresh in the minds of many Londoners, Hitchcock leaves little doubt that his “Avenger”, who prowls through the London fog seeking victims, is Jack the Ripper.

Remade in 1944, and again in 1953 as THE MAN IN THE ATTIC, all three are based on the Marie Belloc-Lowndes tale first published in the McClure’s Magazine of January, 1911.[3]

A contemporary of Jack’s would figure prominently in the fictionalization of the murders, with multiple encounters over the years. Sherlock Holmes, the master consulting detective, has done battle with the Ripper on numerous occasions, with varying results. He was even, in Michael Dibdin’s The Last Sherlock Holmes Story, shown to be the Ripper![4] It should be noted, however, that not once did Sir Arthur Conan Doyle even mention the Ripper in a Holmes story; that was left for others to do.

The best of the Holmes-Ripper confrontations was the movie MURDER BY DECREE (1979). Directed by Bob Clark, and written by John Hopkins, (from the book The Ripper Files, by Elwyn Jones and John Lloyd…) this film examined the long-popular theory of a royal connection to the killings. The theory usually revolves around a grandson of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence. While not considered a likely suspect himself, proponents of this line of investigation suggest that someone, most often Sir William Gull, the Queen’s Physician, committed the murders to cover up some indiscretion of Clarence’s, most likely an illegitimate offspring.

Though that would hardly be a first in the history of the Monarchy, such a scandal touching upon the eldest son of the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, would be unthinkable to the strait-laced, puritanical Victoria.

Another Holmes vs. Ripper film that’s worth mentioning is 1965’s A STUDY IN TERROR, directed by James Hill. Beautifully designed and shot, a weak script and implausible solution hamper this effort for Ripper purists, though as a generic murder mystery it would work acceptably well.

The Clarence-Gull premise was revisited in 2001, in the stylish, well-executed Hughes Bros. film FROM HELL. Based on a graphic novel of the same name, the movie bore little relation to historical reality, but what it lacked in accuracy it more than made up for with an excellent script, inspired acting, (especially on the part of Johnny Depp…) and copious amounts of gore. Depp, as Inspector Frederick George Abberline, has more than a touch of Holmes about him. Not only is he able to construct a string of deductions based on little more than the remains of a cluster of grapes, he shares both the great detective’s melancholia, and his addictive nature.

The films mentioned above are generally faithful to the known facts of the case. Oh, they’re fictionalized to a greater or lesser degree, but the events are easily recognizable as the Whitechapel Murders of the autumn of 1888. However, not every filmmaker has adhered to this philosophy. One of the worst offenders was Jesus Franco. His 1976 film JACK THE RIPPER was perhaps the most factually inaccurate ever to claim to represent the Ripper killings.

Starring Klaus Kinski, this plays more like a conventional slasher film than a look at the events that took place in London’s East End, and as such would work pretty well. True students of the crimes will turn up their noses at it, rightly dismissing it as the worst sort of sensationalistic imaginings. The film even ends on an upbeat note… with the Ripper’s arrest! Nevertheless, for fans of Euro-Horror in general, it’s worth the effort to locate.

Then there are the films that completely leave reality behind. Two in particular stand out: 1979’s TIME AFTER TIME, and 1988’s JACK’S BACK.

TIME AFTER TIME, directed by Nicholas Meyer and starring Malcolm McDowell and David Warner, posits an interesting question: Supposing H. G. Wells, instead of merely writing the novel The Time Machine, actually built one? Then suppose that Jack somehow managed to gain control of it and escape to the modern day. This sets in motion one of the better Ripper films, as Wells pursues the Ripper into the future. The attention to detail helps this film to succeed, despite the somewhat fanciful premise. Personally, I would have been happier had the screenwriter selected another identity for the Ripper character, but no matter… it’s still one of my favorite Ripper films.

Then there is Rowdy Herrington’s take on the Ripper mythos, JACK’S BACK. A copycat begins killing prostitutes in Los Angeles on the one-hundredth anniversaries of the actual Ripper murders. James Spader plays a dual role; that of a young doctor who winds up an incidental victim, and his twin brother, who becomes his prime suspect. While it’s overly complex, and does tend to drag out in places, it’s still an enjoyable, and under-appreciated, movie.

But Jack’s activities haven’t been memorialized on film alone. Television has long mined the public’s interest in the Whitechapel Murders, from the Star Trek second season episode “Wolf in the Fold”, to episodes of The Twilight Zone, Thriller, and Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Documentaries on the murders abound, appearing frequently on various cable channels. Some have been very good, accurate, informative looks into the Ripper mythos. Many have been little more than puerile sensationalism and wild speculation. But good or bad, there’s no shortage of the Ripper on the small screen.

In fact, it’s difficult to name a medium of popular culture that hasn’t been invaded by Jack. There have been stage plays, musicals, even operas based on the events in Whitechapel over one hundred years ago. Comics and graphic novels have been produced featuring Red Jack; indeed, the aforementioned FROM HELL was based on the successful graphic novel by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell. Jack’s influence pervades modern pop culture, to the point where many serial killers are quickly tagged with the “Ripper” sobriquet.

Will we ever know the truth of the Whitechapel murders? No… too many years have passed, and the evidence, what there was of it, has long since been lost to time. And to be honest, it long ago ceased to matter… the responsible party is far beyond any earthly capacity for punishment. Whether the Ripper’s true identity was M. J. Druitt, Sir William Gull, or even a butcher named Kosminsky is unimportant. What is important is that, 119 years ago, five women died brutal, horrifying deaths… and the impact of those murders is still resonating through the Horror genre.


[1] THE ULTIMATE JACK THE RIPPER COMPANION: An Illustrated Encyclopedia, Stewart P. Evans & Keith Skinner, Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., New York, NY, 2000

[2] JACK THE RIPPER: The Complete Casebook, Donald Rumbelow, Contemporary Books, Chicago, IL, 1988

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

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