UMass Amherst Classics Professor Authors Book on Ancient Serial Killers

Debbie Felton brings to light new evidence that historic and mythological figures may have fit the profile associated with serial and ritual killers today

AMHERST, Mass. – In a new book, “Monsters and Monarchs: Serial Killers in Classical Myth and History,” Debbie Felton, professor of classics at UMass Amherst, explores stories from classical antiquity to make the case that serial killers existed in the ancient world, just as they do today.

Debbie Felton
UMass Amherst professor of classics Debbie Felton

Throughout “Monsters and Monarchs,” recently published by the University of Texas Press, Felton cites examples from both classical myths, as well as recorded history, to support her theory that sadistic and compulsive tendencies have always existed when it comes to murder, and are not, in fact, a product of modern society.

felton book cover
Book cover: Monsters and Monarchs: Serial Killers in Classical Myth and History

Growing up in southern California in the 1960s and 70s, Felton took note of the sensationalized killings that dominated news headlines, such as the Tate-LaBianca murders, and the subsequent trials of Charles Manson and his associates. Then came the Hillside Stranglers killings, the Night Stalker murders of the 1980s, and the Zodiac Killer murders in northern California.

“It’s no wonder that many of us in Los Angeles ended up with a fascination for true crime, wondering why people would enact such terrible violence upon each other,” Felton says. “Spree killing (such as in the Manson family case) and serial killing (as in the cases of the Hillside Stranglers, Night Stalker, and Zodiac) are really very rare, but the unusually horrific nature of the crimes imprints itself on people’s imaginations in a way other crimes seldom do.”

This fascination did not intertwine with Felton’s research in the classics until 2007, when she realized how many of the myths and legends from classical antiquity and later periods attributed serial-killer-like characteristics to some of their villains.

“Like many people, I had assumed that serial murder was a relatively recent phenomenon, a modern problem arising from societal problems such as population increase, lack of mental health care, lenient criminal sentences, and the like. But upon re-reading stories about various Greek heroes, it finally dawned on me that a number of their foes followed patterns: seeking out similar victims, killing them by similar methods, sometimes taking ‘trophies,’ and generally eluding justice for a very long time before being caught,” Felton explains.

Felton is not a stranger to the darker side of the ancient world; she teaches classes on ghost stories of Greece and Rome and on witchcraft and magic in the ancient Mediterranean. She is also editor of the journal “Preternature” and associate review editor for the “Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts.” She also recently edited and contributed to “A Cultural History of Fairy Tales in Antiquity,” published by Bloomsbury. Her previous books include “Haunted Greece and Rome: Ghost Stories from Classical Antiquity.”

“Monsters and Monarchs: Serial Killers in Classical Myth and History” is now available for purchase via the University of Texas Press or Amazon.