Facts and Fictions About Serial Killers

Much of what we think we know is untrue.

Posted Jul 22, 2019

Public Domain
Ted Bundy
Source: Public Domain

Much of the general public’s knowledge concerning serial homicide is a product of sensationalized and stereotypical depictions of it in the news and entertainment media. Colorful storylines are written to pique the interest of audiences, not to paint an accurate picture of serial murder.

By focusing on the larger-than-life media images of socially constructed super predators, the public becomes captivated by the stylized presentation of criminals like Ted Bundy, Dennis Rader or Jeffrey Dahmer rather than the harsh reality of their crimes. Media stereotypes and hyperbole create myths and great distortions in the public consciousness regarding the true dynamics and patterns of serial murder in the U.S.

The media are not alone in their misrepresentation of serial murder. Law enforcement professionals also circulate misinformation and stereotypes about serial homicide due to their reliance on anecdotal information rather than scientifically documented patterns of serial killer behavior. Perhaps this should not be surprising because professionals involved in serial murder investigations, including detectives, prosecutors, and pathologists, often have very limited prior exposure to such cases.

As noted by the FBI in a 2005 report titled Serial Murder: Multi-Disciplinary Perspectives for Investigators, the extreme rarity of serial homicide means that even a veteran professional’s total experience may be limited to a single investigation, so he/she is likely to extrapolate the factors from that one experience when presented with a new serial murder case to solve (1).

As a result of this investigative practice, certain stereotypes and misconceptions take root among law enforcement authorities regarding the nature of serial homicide and the characteristics of serial killers. These stereotypes and misinformation are disseminated to the general public by state authorities via the news media in their official statements about the status of serial murder investigations.

Because the news media must rely on state authorities to provide both the formal definitions of serial homicide and the details of particular cases, they generally report what they are told by authorities without question. At the same time, law enforcement authorities must rely on the news media to distribute their formal statements to the public.

A quid pro quo relationship exists between law enforcement authorities and the news media that leads them to perpetuate stereotypes about serial killers without even being aware of it. Stated differently, a self-serving or symbiotic relationship between law enforcement officials and the news media causes them to unintentionally disseminate myths about serial killers. 

The reality of serial homicide has been hidden from the public because serial killers are presented inaccurately by state officials and the news media. Popular stereotypes and misinformation have obscured the tremendous diversity that exists among serial killers in terms of their demographic profiles, personalities, motives, and behavioral patterns. For example, the notion that serial killers are evil geniuses like the fictional character, Hannibal Lecter, is a Hollywood myth.  

Also, stereotypes have led to a considerable misunderstanding of serial homicide by the public. Oversimplification by state authorities and the news media has kept the public in the dark about the real complexity of serial killers, including the very diverse emotional needs and compulsions that drive them to murder innocent people who, generally speaking, are complete strangers to them. 

Perhaps it will come as no surprise that the public typically overestimates the number of serial killers operating in America. As measured by opinion polls, the general public believes that serial killers are responsible for about 25 percent of all murders in the U.S. In reality, serial homicides represent a much smaller portion of all murders than that. Serial killings account for no more than 1 percent of all murders committed in the U.S.

Based on recent FBI crime statistics, there are approximately 17,000 murders annually, so that means there are no more than 170 victims of serial murder in the U.S. in any given year. The FBI estimates that there are between twenty-five and fifty serial killers operating throughout the U.S. at any given time. If there are 50, then each one is responsible for an average of 3.4 murders per year.

Serial killers are always present in society. However, the statistics reveal that serial homicide is quite rare and it represents a small portion of all murders committed in the U.S. Serial killers are not nearly as prevalent or prolific as believed by most Americans. 

Persistent misinformation, stereotypes, and hyperbole presented in the media have combined with the relative rarity of serial murder cases to foster a number of popular myths about serial murder. The most common myths about serial killers encompass such factors as their race, gender, intelligence, living conditions, and victim characteristics.

Dr. Scott Bonn is a criminologist, professor, and media expert. Follow him @DocBonn on Twitter and visit his website at docbonn.com  

References

1)      Morton, R.J. 2005. Serial Murder: Multi-Disciplinary Perspectives for Investigators. National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice.