Unlike the socially challenged “Tooth Fairy” in the film Red Dragon,
real-life serial killers are not isolated monsters. Frequently, they do not appear to be strange or stand out from the public in any meaningful way.
Many serial killers are able to hide in plain sight for extended periods of time. Those who successfully blend in are typically also employed, have families and homes, and outwardly appear to be non-threatening, normal members of society.
Because serial killers can appear to be so innocuous, they are often overlooked by law enforcement officials, as well as their own families and peers. In some rare cases, an unidentified serial killer will even socialize and become friendly with the unsuspecting police detectives who are tracking him. The incredible tale of Ed Kemper the “Co-ed Killer" provides an example of this phenomenon which I explain in a separate article here.
Serial killers who hide out in plain sight are able to do so precisely because they look just like everyone else. It is their ability to blend in that makes them very dangerous, frightening, and yet very compelling to the general public. Consider two classic examples of unassuming and seemingly mild-mannered serial killers who absolutely defy the stereotype of an isolated, dysfunctional loner.
The first example, Dennis Rader, the “Bind, Torture, Kill” or BTK Strangler, murdered at least ten people in Wichita, Kansas, over a 20-year period prior to his capture in 2005. He pled guilty and received ten consecutive life sentences. Prior to his arrest, Rader was married for 34 years with two children, was a Boy Scout leader, was employed as a local government official, and was the president of his church congregation.
On the other hand, his alter ego, BTK, was a stone-cold killer who sought power, control, and domination of his victims. The torture of his victims gratified BTK and strangling the life out of them made him feel like God. Throughout the years that he was committing his murders, Rader lived a remarkably normal looking outward life, and he was perceived to be a pillar in his community.
Inwardly, however, BTK was secretly satisfying his sexual needs and delaying his compulsion to kill for months and even years at a time through autoerotic fantasies combined with masturbation in which he relived his murders with the aid of trophies taken from his victims.
The second example, Gary Ridgway, the infamous “Green River Killer,” was one of the most prolific serial killers in U.S. history. He confessed in 2003 to killing 48 women over a 20-year period in the Seattle, Washington, area. He pled guilty to avoid the death penalty. In exchange, he was sentenced to 480 years without the possibility of parole.
Ridgway was married three times, had a son, served in the Navy during the Vietnam War, and held the same job at a truck factory for 32 years. He also attended church regularly and read his Bible at home and at work. In shocking contrast, the Green River Killer strangled young prostitutes and runaways whom he picked up in his truck. In the beginning, he used a chokehold to kill his victims.
In his later killings, Ridgway used a ruler to twist fabric around the necks of his victims. Sometimes he killed them inside his house and other times he killed them in the woods. He engaged in necrophilia with the corpses of some of his victims.
In a confession that reveals the extent of his psychopathy, Ridgway said that he sometimes used a picture of his son to disarm his intended victims and lure them into his truck. He also admitted to killing one of his victims while his young son waited for him in his truck. When asked if he would have killed his son had the boy realized what he was doing, his chilling answer was “yes.”
In summary, despite pervasive media stereotypes to the contrary, the majority of serial killers are not social misfits who live isolation and do not interact with others. In fact, many are highly functioning and appear to be completely normal. Therein lies the terror.
I present much more about the motivations, fantasies and habits of serial killers, including BTK, gained from my extensive correspondence with him, in my forthcoming book Why We Love Serial Killers which will be released by Skyhorse Press in October 2014. Pre-order my new book now, save 20%, and you won't pay until it ships in October.
Dr. Scott Bonn is professor of sociology and criminology at Drew University. He is available for consultation and media commentary. Follow him @DocBonn on Twitter and visit his website docbonn.com