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Jack the Ripper and Time Travel

Although it might be pedestrian, perverse, lowbrow, misguided, or a slew of other not-so-positive things, I admit I have a morbid interest in stories about serial killers. And I'm not alone.

Mainstream TV channels such as History, Discovery, A&E, truTV are full of such dark tales. Along with general forensic-oriented books, the serial killer topic seems to take up the most space on the shelves of the true crime section at the bookstore.

What's the ghastly appeal? It's a pretty easy superficial diagnosis, I think. The Serial Killer has become, or is in the process of becoming, a modern Destroyer archetype. The popular fascination in such figures, along with other dark, evil attractions such as horror films, are said to act as a kind of release valve for the collective Shadow self.

Often, shadow elements can be partaken of with indemnity, too. Vampires can be sexy and irresistible, as we see in the Twilight mania, witches and sorcerers turn noble and heroic in Harry Potter; Halloween now goes down smooth and easy with ‘hot dog' pet costumes, and the new "trunk or treat" church parking lot phenomena.

However, the spinning of the Destroyer archetype seems to be a fickle and sensitive business. The Devil, of the classic red-cape-horns-pitchfork variety, is a classic Halloween staple. Satan himself is fair game, but, recalling Prince Harry's royal faux pas a few years back, it's fair to say Nazis are not.

Yet, dramatic as well as comic representations of Hitler, such as SNL's "gay Hitler," or the recent viral Hitler Finds out Michael Jackson has Died YouTube video seem okay—perhaps it is the distance provided by the screen in these cases that lends acceptability.

In considering it, I've realized that there is a fine line sometimes between the Destroyer and Trickster archetypes. The serial killer seems to fall neatly into the Destroyer category, with one possible exception—Jack the Ripper. Interestingly, his Trickster qualities seem to have been largely fictionally placed.

That could perhaps be argued of all real-life Trickster-like personas, in some sense. Michael Jackson, Britney Spears, Aleister Crowley, etc., have all seen their personalities, appearance, and shenanigans capitalized upon, inflated, exaggerated, exploited, and tailored to form their respective legend-like narratives of character.

In the case of Jack the Ripper, the lack of anything real is the very essence of the created persona, which may feed his Trickster status exponentially. His identity could be anyone, and the list of suspects (over 100) confirms that. Suspects range from a prince, barber, bootmaker, con men, physicians, a sailor, an escaped mental patient, occultists, and even a couple women.

Jack the Ripper is perhaps destined forever to float between the poles of rich and poor, brilliant and stupid, male and female. Jack the Ripper is at once no one, and everyone. There's something especially so threatening, powerful, and impossible about it all.

There are some other elements in the Jack the Ripper story that make it ripe for intrigue, like the time period, and place—England in the late 19th century, the very beginning of modernity itself, the Ripper case is now (arguably, perhaps) viewed as the first modern criminal investigation.

As a result, and as some kind of strange homage perhaps, it is probably the most fictionalized true crime ever. There are countless novels, films, television episodes devoted to the story.

The other day, my sister called as I happened to be walking into Barnes & Noble. Telling her where I was, she told me she was reading a book I might like, called The Little Book, about time travel and turn of the century Vienna.

Not listening well apparently, I told her it was coincidental, because I too was reading a book about time travel and Victorian England, that features Jack the Ripper, called Jack Knife.

On the way home, I started thinking how often the device of time travel is used along with Ripper stories. Although I could only recall a couple of specifics, I knew there were plenty.

I immediately thought of the film Time after Time, in which H.G. Wells unwittingly befriends the murderer, who steals Wells's time machine and travels into modern day San Francisco, to continue his bloody business, all the while being chased by his contemporary, Wells.

In the novel Jack Knife I mentioned, an opposite dynamic is used, in that a modern man travels back in time, and it is discovered by those who follow and chase after him, that he has become the Ripper himself.

Remembering a Star Trek and Outer Limits episode, and trying to find more general information on Jack the Ripper/time travel dynamics, I came across the blog io9. In an entry entitled Science Fiction Solves the Mystery of Jack the Ripper, there are several different stories mentioned, based in comic books, tv shows, novels, and films.

Most do include time travel in some form. Accompanying ideas play on the Trickster idea of liminal identity—he's really an alien, a missing link between apes and humans, or an entity-hopping parasite. There are portals, serums, all manner of transformatives.

What other real person is so associated with time travel in fiction? I think Jack the Ripper takes the cake. There is a time travel oriented Twilight Zone in which a guy tries to stop the murder of Abraham Lincoln, and I'm sure I've seen Abraham Lincoln in time traveling themes elsewhere.

Mark Twain? Perhaps because of a few things--his own time travel novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, the time period he lived (same as Jack the Ripper's) and his own rather Trickster-like persona, Twain has been the subject of contemporary time travel fictions, notably in Star Trek TNG's steampunky episode, Time's Arrow.

A Time Magazine cover story last year called The Dangerous Mind of Mark Twain, centered on the notion that Twain is a man "for all times." Clearly, in Twain's case, this is a good thing.

With Jack the Ripper, there seems to be an inherent timeless quality as well. While he serves a much darker role and purpose, his large presence within fiction and the dynamics therein, may be seen in general as an ongoing commentary of how we process, personify, and epitomize the idea of basic human evil and crime.

Sources and further reading:

Science Fiction Solves the Mystery of Jack the Ripper @ io9, the sci-fi blog

Twain's World article, at EF's travel blog

Jack Knife by Virginia Baker

The Little Book by Selden Edwards

Time after Time (streaming on Netflix)

Hitler Finds out Michael Jackson has Died

Jack the Ripper Suspects @ Wikipedia

Contact Richelle Hawks

Visit Richelle's blog: Beamships Equal Love