Persistent Myths about Serial Killers

Despite maturing research, outdated ideas continue to surface.

Posted Feb 12, 2018

K. Ramsland
Source: K. Ramsland

This week, I saw a reporter mention that the FBI’s definition of a serial killer is someone who kills at least three times with at least a month between incidents. I heard something similar from a radio host during an interview. I don't know where this came from, but here's a paragraph from FBI.gov:

“In 2008, behavioral analysts in the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime…issued a comprehensive report entitled Serial Murder: Multi-Disciplinary Perspectives for Investigators. Based on the findings of a five-day conference three years earlier that included 135 experts from across different fields, the monograph defined serial murder as “the unlawful killing of two or more victims by the same offender(s), in separate events.”

They reiterated this in 2014 in Serial Murder: Pathways for Investigations.

In the 2008 report, they also made a list of myths that they hoped to dispel, but which still show up in news and in fiction. I list them below, as stated:

Myth: Serial killers are all dysfunctional loners.

The majority of serial killers are not reclusive, social misfits who live alone. They are not monsters and may not appear strange. Many serial killers hide in plain sight within their communities.

Myth: Serial killers are all white males.

Contrary to popular belief, serial killers span all racial groups [and many are female].

Myth: Serial killers are only motivated by sex.

There are many other motivations for serial murders including anger, thrill, financial gain, and attention seeking.

Myth: All serial murderers travel and operate interstate.

Most serial killers have very defined geographic areas of operation.

Myth: Serial killers cannot stop killing.

There are...some serial killers who stop murdering altogether before being caught.

Myth: All Serial killers are insane or are evil geniuses.

As a group, serial killers suffer from a variety of personality disorders, including psychopathy, anti-social personality, and others. Most, however, are not adjudicated as insane under the law. Like other populations, however, serial killers range in intelligence from borderline to above average levels.

Myth: Serial killers want to get caught.

As serial killers continue to offend without being captured, they can become empowered, feeling they will never be identified. As the series continues, the killers may begin to take shortcuts when committing their crimes. This often causes the killers to take more chances, leading to identification by law enforcement. It is not that serial killers want to get caught; they feel that they can’t get caught.

______

According to Pathways to Investigations, the agents had also found that the renowned "organized/disorganized" categories contributed little to investigations, and the monograph addressed more stereotypes: not all serial killers have been abused, come from broken homes, escalate their violence, or become too addicted to quit. 

Former FBI profiler Robert K. Ressler once said that too many people try to oversimplify the psychology of these killers, but for every attempt to state a “truth” based on a common factor, one can find counterexamples. Many killers have a victim preference, for example, but many do not.  While many grew up in abusive homes, some enjoyed privilege and experienced no abuse. Generalizations, Ressler indicated, do a disservice to the subject.

I dispel other common notions in my course on extreme offenders:

* Jack the Ripper was not the world’s first serial killer, H. H. Holmes was not America’s first, and Aileen Wuornos was not the first female.

* It’s not possible to say whether America has 75% of the world’s serial killers (or ever did), because a lot depends on how well records are kept and cases of serial murder are identified and investigated.

* Serial killers don’t always use the same type of killing method or the same type of weapon. Some experiment. Some evolve. Some pick up a new type of weapon later, or change their approach for any number of reasons.

* They're not always ready to insert themselves into an investigation or taunt police. This provides suspense in fiction, but a relatively small percentage have tried to openly contact investigators with taunting letters.

* There is no formula for determining how much is nature and how much is nurture. (I get asked this question at least once a week.)

* There are no distinct markers shared by all that will help you identify a serial killer on sight.

* Some have professed remorse, turned themselves in, or killed themselves. (I wrote about serial killer suicides here.)

The authors of the FBI monographs cited above would like writers and reporters to understand that “there is no profile of a serial killer.” There is no single set of parameters for traits or behaviors that form a blueprint of that clever, white, lone-wolf, game-playing male who's been abused or has a head injury and is compulsively driven to sexually assault and kill white females.

References

Morton, R. J., & Hilts, M. A. (2008). Serial murder: Multi-disciplinary perspectives for investigators. www.fbi.gov.

Morton, R.J., Tillman, J. M, & Gaines, S. J. (2014). Serial murder: Pathways for investigations. www.fbi.gov.

Ramsland, K. (2006). Inside the minds of serial killers: Why they kill. Praeger.

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