In a slice of good news, serial killing sprees occur far less frequently than at their peak twenty years ago and no longer produce iconic American monsters along the lines of John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer, or Ted Bundy, all of who seemed to personify people’s worst fears about society. (That said, to many, the horrific massacre in Tucson this past weekend symbolizes the escalation of violent political rhetoric.) Slate looks back at the “golden age of serial murderers”:
Serial killers just aren’t the sensation they used to be. They haven’t disappeared, of course. But the number of serial murders seems to be dwindling, as does the public’s fascination with them.
Statistics on serial murder are hard to come by—the FBI doesn’t keep numbers, according to a spokeswoman—but the data we do have suggests serial murders peaked in the 1980s and have been declining ever since. James Alan Fox, a criminology professor at Northeastern University, keeps a database of confirmed serial murderers starting in 1900. According to his count, based on newspaper clippings, books, and Web sources, there were only a dozen or so serial killers before 1960 in the United States. Then serial killings took off: There were 19 in the 1960s, 119 in the ’70s, and 200 in the ’80s. In the ’90s, the number of cases dropped to 141. And the 2000s saw only 61 serial murderers.
Why the down trend? It’s hard to say. Better law enforcement could have played a role, as police catch would-be serial killers after their first crime. So could the increased incarceration rate, says Fox: “Maybe they’re still behind bars.” Whatever the reason, the decline in serial murders tracks with a dramatic drop in overall violent crime since the ’80s. (One caveat: The numbers for the 2000s may skew low, since some serial killers haven’t been caught yet.)
As the raw numbers have declined, the media have paid less attention, too. Sure, you’ve still got the occasional Beltway sniper or Grim Sleeper who terrorizes a community. But nothing in the last decade has captured the popular imagination like the sex-addled psychopaths of the ’70s and ’80s, such as Ted Bundy (feigned injuries to win sympathy before killing women; about 30 victims), John Wayne Gacy (stored bodies in his ceiling crawlspace; 33 victims), or Jeffrey Dahmer (kept body parts in his closet and freezer; 17 victims). These crimes caused media frenzies in part because of the way they tapped into the obsessions and fears of the time: Bundy, a golden boy who worked on Nelson Rockefeller’s presidential campaign in Seattle, seemed to represent the evil lurking beneath America’s cheery exterior. Gacy, who dressed up as a clown and preyed on teenage boys, was every parent’s nightmare. “Son of Sam” David Berkowitz milked—and, in so doing, mocked—the media’s obsession with serial killers by sending a letter to New York Daily News reporter Jimmy Breslin.
The media returned the favor, inflating the perception that serial killers were everywhere and repeating the erroneous statistic that there were 5,000 serial murder victims every year. These horror stories were not exactly discouraged by the FBI, one of whose agents coined the term “serial killer” in 1981.
Infamous crimes almost always needle the anxieties of their periods. The murder of a 14-year-old boy by University of Chicago students Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb in 1924 captured the growing obsession with modern psychiatry, as the pair considered themselves examples of Nietzsche’s Übermensch, unbound by moral codes. A series of child abductions in the 1920s and ’30s, from the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders to the killing of Charles Lindbergh’s son, became a symbol of societal decay during the Depression. Charles Manson, who presided over the Tate murders in 1969, embodied a sexual revolution gone mad. The Columbine massacre preyed on parental fears of the effects of violent movies and video games.
Conversely, sensational crimes that don’t play into a larger societal narrative fade away. In 1927, Andrew Kehoe detonated three bombs at a school in Bath Township, Mich., killing 38 children and seven adults, including Kehoe—one of the largest cases of domestic terrorism before the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. The disaster made headlines, but was soon eclipsed by Charles Lindbergh’s trans-Atlantic flight. “It was a crime that was ahead of its time,” says Schechter.
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