There is no criminal act as sensationalized and misunderstood as serial murder; the subject of myth, stereotypes and exploitation since the concept came to prominence four decades ago.
In days of yore, stories of werewolves and vampires were conceived to explain away the deeds for which serial killers were culpable. Even now, they are labeled as monsters, thought capable of acts inconceivable by normal men. In the late 1970s, interest in the burgeoning phenomenon led some to falsely claim that the “crazed, serial sex killer” was a new class of criminal; killing without motive and responsible for the countries’ thousands of unsolved murders. Serial killers have enjoyed some measure of anonymity due to the misinformation generated at our expense.
Fascination with serial murderers continues through the consumption of true crime books, movies and television programs devoted to the topic. Each source contains embellished accounts with great effort taken to provide audiences with caricatures of these offenders, celebrating their reputations and reducing serial murder to entertainment. Serial killers are characterized as accomplishing what good men dream, resulting in many jailhouse marriages. People correspond with them, empathizing with their murderous mindsets, only to sell their letters on “murderabilia” websites. Pseudo-profilers promote the view that few can comprehend the actions of serial killers, convincing others that intervention requires insight only they possess.
These perceptions have gone unchallenged for decades because academic researchers began studying serial killings only recently. Most of the information available about serial murder is founded upon outcomes from interviews conducted in 1985 on 23 serial killers by the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit. Findings from this study, published in “The Men Who Murdered,” have been cited frequently over the last 28 years. The erroneous, yet oft-repeated, “white, male, mid-to-late twenties” demographic profile originated from these interviews and has come to embody the serial killer.
Few acknowledge these generalizations were established using the self-reported statements of killers, successful because of their capacity to deceive. Comments on their behaviors are based on discoveries made from select few cases, coupled with evidence gathered from anecdotes. Analyses are formed from overexposure to the archetypes of Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy. Consequently, a significant amount of lore has developed around serial homicide. Uncontrolled, these unfounded sentiments have the ability to influence public opinion, law enforcement procedures and even government policy.
Little is known about serial murder because of the dearth of scientifically collected data on the offenders. Because most known serial killers are incarcerated or deceased, direct study of these subjects can be difficult and categorizing them impossible. As such, researchers are forced to rely on secondary sources and gather data using only accounts from the news media. This approach has hampered our ability to elicit meaningful results from offender’s biographies as it is fraught with obstacles and biases. Greater access to primary sources and cooperation from law enforcement agencies is needed to ensure data is timely and accurate.
In response to our lack of consensus on how to define and measure serial murder, we applied our own interpretations of the definition provided by the FBI when assembling our datasets. Competing interests urged us to complete this work in solitude. Resultantly, findings often conflicted with one another, leading to differing statistics and overlapping classification systems. To further complicate matters, instances of serial murder are not captured in the government’s Uniform Crime Reports. Since no official statistics on the occurrence of serial killings are maintained, estimating its prevalence proves challenging.
Only within the past few years have we come together to share data through the Serial Killer Expertise and Information Sharing Collaborative and the Radford Serial Killer Database Project, learning much through our joint data collection initiative. Serial killers rarely abide by an identifiable set of routines or patterns, hardly ever use the same weapons throughout their series of crimes and do not consistently leave a unique calling card. The data demonstrates serial murderers kill for a variety of motives from pleasure and excitement to profit and witness elimination. They are certainly not all products of bad childhoods or sexually sadistic psychopaths of above-average intelligence. Most have never consumed body parts, wet their bed as children or expressed a desire to be caught.
Serial killers can be members of a gang, organized crime “hit men” or convenience store clerk murderers. Most remain close to home, and some have even been known to kill acquaintances, family members and spouses. We now know that every other serial killer over the past 20 years has been African American. The commonly held demographic profile correctly matches only 18 percent of serial killers.
Although serial murder is in a period of decline, our desire to distance ourselves from these killers has contributed to their elevated stature. Until they are accurately represented, we will continue to be surprised to learn of their true nature after each capture. Since the primary mechanism through which serial killers are apprehended is based on details provided by the public, the more educated we are about serial killers and their personality types, the better equipped we will be to aid in their apprehension and punishment. We must learn that serial killers cannot be sought out or detected by applying preformed stereotypes to the general population.
Enzo Yaksic is founder of the Serial Homicide Expertise and Information Sharing Collaborative.