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The phenomenon called serial homicide—the slaughter, for pleasure, of successive victims with a certain interval of time between each atrocity—is undoubtedly as old as humanity itself. Indeed, it may well predate our species. Recent research into the violent behavior of chimpanzees—which often kill and mutilate their kind for no other reason than sheer blood lust—suggests that a bent for such savagery is part of our primate heritage.

That human beings have always indulged in the sort of barbarities now associated with serial murder—cannibalism, rape, torture, dismemberment, and so on—is made clear in everything from Greek myths to Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus. How, then, is it that people have come to believe that serial killers are unique to our age?

Part of the reason is that the term itself ...

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