From the 1970s through the 1990s, stories of serial killers like Ted Bundy and the Green River Killer – both of whom pleaded guilty to killing dozens of women – dominated the headlines. Today, however, we see far fewer twisted stories in the vein of the Zodiac Killer or John Wayne Gacy.
After this three-decade push, a rapid decline followed. Nearly 770 serial killers operated in the United States throughout the 1980s, and just under 670 in the 1990s, according to compiled data by Mike Aamodt of Radford University. The sudden drop came with the new century, when the rate fell below 400 in the 2000s and, by the end of 2016, just over 100 for the past decade. The rough estimate of the overall rate appears to show a similar decline over the same period. In a staggering collapse, those criminals who terrorized and captivated a generation have rapidly dwindled. In other words, 189 people in the United States died at the hands of a serial killer in 1987, compared to 30 in 2015. Various theories try to explain this change.
In reality, it’s unclear if there really has been a wave of serial murders, or at least not as pronounced as the data suggests. Advances in police investigations (for example, the ability to more effectively link murders) and improved data collection could help explain the rise. That said, no one doubts that serial murders have been on the rise for several decades, and this increase corresponds with a general increase in crime. Similarly, everyone agrees on a subsequent decline in serial murders, and this too corresponds to a general decrease in crime. But where did they go?
(Credit: Radford University/Florida Gulf Coast University study data)
One popular theory points to the growth of forensic science, and in particular the advent of genetic approaches to tracking offenders. In a recent high-profile example of these techniques, police used DNA samples from distant relatives to identify Joseph DeAngelo as the Golden State Killer, decades after killing 12 women between 1976 and 1986. The higher prospect of capture may deter would-be killers from taking action.
“Serial murder has become a more dangerous pursuit,” says Thomas Hargrove, founder of the Murder Accountability Project. “Thanks to DNA and improved forensics, and because police are now aware of the phenomenon, serial killers are more likely to be detected than they have ever been.” The realization he refers to begins with late FBI agent Robert Ressler, who likely coined the term “serial killer” around 1980. “There is power in naming something,” says Hargrove.
Many scholars also cite longer prison sentences and reduced parole over the decades. If a single murderer – or a thief, for that matter – stays behind bars longer, they’ll be less likely to reach the FBI’s two serial murder threshold (or three, or four, or more, depending on who you are). interrogate).
Potential murderers may also have succumbed to the lack of easy targets. James Alan Fox, a professor of criminology at Northeastern University, says people today are generally less vulnerable, which limits the pool of potential victims. “People don’t hitchhike anymore,” he says. “They have ways to reach out in an emergency using cell phones. There are cameras everywhere.
Likewise, helicopter parents are more common than in past generations. Aamodt recalled his own childhood, spent walking or riding his bike around town unsupervised. “You wouldn’t let your kids do that today,” he said. As a result, “a lot of victims from the 70s or 80s are almost impossible to find now.” The predator dies of starvation when prey is scarce.
It’s also likely that society has gotten better at spotting and reforming would-be serial killers, especially in their youth. Often, Hargrove says, the early catalysts for serial murder (family dysfunction, sexual abuse) can be remedied by “quality time with a child psychologist.” He adds that pornography can stifle the sexual urges that often precede sexualized murders. “It’s possible that the sewer that makes up much of the internet provides a nonviolent outlet for these guys,” he says.
Yet another theory speculates that serial killers did not disappear, but instead turned into mass shooters, who soared in number and importance over the past three decades. Most experts agree, however, that the two profiles do not overlap enough. “The motivation of a mass killer versus a serial killer tends to be different,” says Aamodt.
Serial murders are rare, accounting for less than 1% of all homicides in the FBI estimate. With the annual homicide rate around 15,000 in the United States, that equates to less than 150 serial murders a year, perpetrated by perhaps 25 to 50 people. Aamodt’s data puts the rate well below. But given the limitations of forensic science, many believe this is an undercount.
Police only make an arrest – or “clear” a case, in court jargon – in about 60% of all homicides. The other 5,000 end without closing. In other words, murderers have a 40% chance of getting away with murder. The question is, how many of these unsolved cases are the work of a serial killer?
Hargrove, who argues that America is doing a shoddy job of reporting such cases, in 2010 set out to write an algorithm that would analyze them with the aim of detect serial killers. Essentially, the computer code searches for similarities between murders that detectives can overlook. “We know serial murders are more common than officially acknowledged,” he says. And serial offenders may be responsible for an inordinate share of unsolved cases because, by definition, “serial murders tend to go unsolved. They are good at killing. Hargrove estimated that up to 2,000 serial killers, dating back to 1976, could remain at large.
But an algorithm, like an organic brain, struggles when faced with a modelless dataset. Intentionally or not, many killers vary their tactics, targeting people of different races and genders in different locations. Without any means of making comparisons between these seemingly unrelated cases, computers and humans are powerless to link them. “Even today,” Fox said, “it’s a challenge.”
Sensationalized in culture
For years, popular media and even some academic researchers have stated that serial murders average 5,000 victims each year in the United States. are about 5,000 a year – is the work of a serial killer. Fox estimates that even in the 1980s the true number was actually less than 200, and Aamodt’s data confirms this.
Either way, these sensational claims have captivated the nation and the world. And today, although their ranks have dwindled, the fascination with serial killers seems to be returning. In the movie 2019 Extremely wicked, incredibly evil and vile, Zac Efron plays the infamous Ted Bundy. In the spirit hunter series, which aired in 2017 and explores the origin of criminal profiling within the FBI, one of the two main characters is based on the aforementioned agent Ressler. But Fox offers a curious caveat: “They’re focusing on all the old cases.” Culturally, we’re still talking about killers who were active decades ago, and few in the modern age have become household names.
Serial killers are still among us, even if less common. And unless there are major advances in our ability to catch them, we cannot fully grasp their magnitude. As Hargrove said, “Only the devil knows.” This uncertainty, in its own way, can chill the spine as much as the dark deeds of any known killer.