Where Have All The Serial Killers Gone?

1419Will the age of antidepressants render the serial murderer a figment of the past?

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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  • Liam_McGonagle

    Phhhhht! That old hand-crank model of murder went out with the Model T and the player piano!

    Get with the times, son! It’s all about PROFIT. Economies of scale. Privatization. Corporatization.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blackwater_Worldwide

    In these times, the Meat Grinder calls out for a volume of deaths that thes small-time operators like Gein and Dahmer just can’t fulfill.

    P.S. Thanks for the Wisconsin plug again! Did y’all get the check from the Wisconsin Department of Tourism yet? Well, if you did, please don’t cash it ’til next week. Our new governor needs to implement some new cash flow strategies.

  • Liam_McGonagle

    Phhhhht! That old hand-crank model of murder went out with the Model T and the player piano!

    Get with the times, son! It’s all about PROFIT. Economies of scale. Privatization. Corporatization.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blackwater_Worldwide

    In these times, the Meat Grinder calls out for a volume of deaths that thes small-time operators like Gein and Dahmer just can’t fulfill.

    P.S. Thanks for the Wisconsin plug again! Did y’all get the check from the Wisconsin Department of Tourism yet? Well, if you did, please don’t cash it ’til next week. Our new governor needs to implement some new cash flow strategies.

  • Hadrian999

    maybe they are just more mobile and harder to connect the dots

    • Liam_McGonagle

      Interesting. Alternatively, maybe the law enforcement establishment just got lazying and aren’t really trying any more. Maybe some departmetns are in the habit of picking up any old drifter they feel they can pin the crime on rather than identifying the real perp.

  • Hadrian999

    maybe they are just more mobile and harder to connect the dots

  • Alex

    I bet the ubiquity of internet porn has something to do with it. These days there are far less frustrated freaks out there.

  • Alex

    I bet the ubiquity of internet porn has something to do with it. These days there are far less frustrated freaks out there.

  • Liam_McGonagle

    Interesting. Alternatively, maybe the law enforcement establishment just got lazying and aren’t really trying any more. Maybe some departmetns are in the habit of picking up any old drifter they feel they can pin the crime on rather than identifying the real perp.

  • chinagreenelvis

    But in any episode of Dexter, Miami is so chock-fucking-full of them that the easier question to answer is “Who ISN’T a serial killer?”

  • chinagreenelvis

    But in any episode of Dexter, Miami is so chock-fucking-full of them that the easier question to answer is “Who ISN’T a serial killer?”

  • siriusp

    Is it any coincidence that the numbers drop at around the same time as information rises?
    Could it simply mean that the modern serial killer is simply better informed?

  • siriusp

    Is it any coincidence that the numbers drop at around the same time as information rises?
    Could it simply mean that the modern serial killer is simply better informed?

  • rtb61

    The serial killers all became corporate executives who not only don’t get imprisoned for killing people but get multi-million dollar bonuses.
    Know to focus on the military industrial complex, mass media, banking and energy, these people aren’t settling fro killing a few people they want to bring down the whole of humanity and be responsible for the deaths of millions.
    Serial killers haven’t disappeared they’re just wearing three piece suits and hiding behind corporations.

  • Anonymous

    The serial killers all became corporate executives who not only don’t get imprisoned for killing people but get multi-million dollar bonuses.
    Know to focus on the military industrial complex, mass media, banking and energy, these people aren’t settling fro killing a few people they want to bring down the whole of humanity and be responsible for the deaths of millions.
    Serial killers haven’t disappeared they’re just wearing three piece suits and hiding behind corporations.

  • 5by5

    And maybe this type of psychotic is less encouraged to do so, when they realize they aren’t going to get made into a media superstar for it.

  • 5by5

    And maybe this type of psychotic is less encouraged to do so, when they realize they aren’t going to get made into a media superstar for it.

  • Other Mr. T.

    Afghanistan.

  • Other Mr. T.

    Afghanistan.

  • http://www.facebook.com/winterisoverrated Fabian_Ramos

    Maybe, they’re just not getting caught.

    If they’re going to kill, they should do it for a cause.

    These assholes who target strangers, women and children should turn the blade around and do us all a favor and do themselves in and remove themselves from society. fuck all these motherfuckers

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Santos-Fabian-Ramos/554995370 Fabian_Ramos

    Maybe, they’re just not getting caught.

    If they’re going to kill, they should do it for a cause.

    These assholes who target strangers, women and children should turn the blade around and do us all a favor and do themselves in and remove themselves from society. fuck all these motherfuckers

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