What is a Serial Killer?

courtesy: marcus-e

What comes to your mind when you hear serial killer?

credit: Rafael Torres

Maybe it’s the over-the-top, cheesy (yet somehow terrifying) iterations of the silver screen from the late 1970’s on into the 80’s. I’m of course talking about the likes of hockey mask wearing Jason from Friday the 13th and Michael Meyers from Halloween who wore that creepy Captain Kirk mask (yes it really was made from a cast of William Shatner’s face.) Of course you can’t leave out Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho – both of whom were inspired by a real-life serial killer. These TV terrors and others ushered in the golden age of the Slasher Film.

Interestingly, I’ve never been a huge fan of TV serial killers (I haven’t watched Dexter or The Silence of the Lambs) – preferring instead to study the real-life monsters and maniacs that walk among us. Yes, terrifyingly there are serial killers on the loose right now in the United States . And nobody really knows how many.

Some experts believe that their numbers are declining – with a few of these experts suggesting no more than two active serial killers currently slashing or shooting or strangling their way to a higher victim count1. And there’s several logical reasons to reach that conclusion: the proliferation of security cameras in almost every public and private space, plus huge advances in forensics such as DNA and genetic genealogy. These experts conclude that would-be serial killers are simply caught after their first murder – before they can kill again and again. Or that they never begin, fearing the increased likelihood of not getting away with their crimes.

Yet while the number of identified serial killings seems to be on the decline, there’s another alarming statistic that counters this theory: the rate of murder cases being solved is at its lowest in recorded history. Just 61.4% of present-day murder cases are being solved, as compared to 91% in 19652. That means nearly 40% of murderers are getting away with murder. And it’s unknown how many of these unsolved murders are the work of serial killers.

Personally, I believe just two active serial killers is an unreasonably low estimate. I also don’t lean to the absurd extreme of 2000-3000 that I’ve seen suggested in other places. From everything I’ve read, I feel like a realistic number is between 25 and 150. But with homicide clearance rates at an all-time low, it’s hard to really gauge if serial killings have actually fallen off – or if they’re just not being caught. Yet as scary as all this sounds, still the likelihood of you ever crossing paths with or being victim of a serial killer is extremely low3.

Now seems like a good spot to define what a serial killer is. A serial killer is usually defined as someone who kills three or more people in separate events. The FBI’s definition only requires that it be two or more. But what do we mean by “separate events?” This makes a distinction between mass murderers and spree killers, which we’ll talk about in a future post. Mass murderers kill multiple victims (4 or more) in one location and violent event. Spree killers murder multiple people in one event but in different locations.

Serial killers however: commit murder, have what’s called a “cooling off period” in which they do not kill, and then after that downtime they kill again. And they will typically repeat this cycle (which is actually 7 phases) until they are caught, die, or are otherwise incapable of killing again. The Golden State Killer likely stopped killing because he simply got too old.

So there you have it: an introduction to serial killers. This blog will introduce you to some of the most notorious in their ranks as well as maybe some you’ve never heard of. I’ll also come back and talk about the Serial Killer Cycle and additionally try to unravel the twisted reasons that make these monsters kill. But for now, go ahead and read about the first killer in this series: “The Dating Game Killer.”

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I wrote a book! If you enjoyed this blog post, check out my mystery/crime/thriller novel The Missing.

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