Serial Killer Myths
Serial killers have been dramatized in books, television and movies hundreds of times. The portrait of the “Hollywood” serial killer as a brilliant man stalking you with a knife from the bushes outside is a familiar one. But how realistic is it? The FBI has spent several decades studying serial offenders, and their results don’t always match up with the fictionalized portrayals. Here are a few serial killer tropes that have been busted by law enforcement research.
Serial Killers Are Compelled to Take Trophies from the Scene
In fiction, serial killers always take a memento, usually something personal from the victim, to remember the murder. Often, these items are used to link him to the victims when he is finally caught. In real life, only around half of serial killers take any kind of trophy from the scene. When they do take trophies, the objects can sometimes sustain them between attacks. Dennis Rader, who nicknamed himself “BTK,” went years between murders, during which
They Are Smarter Than Average Humans
Serial killers can be difficult to catch for many reasons, but the one that shows up most often in film and TV is that they are brilliant. Individual serial killers have been highly intelligent—Ted Bundy is one example. However, the truth is that serial killers as a group are no smarter than the rest of us. Their average IQ is about 100, the same as the general population.
They Only Kill Strangers
Targeting strangers is another reason that Hollywood serial killers—and some real-life ones as well—are hard to catch. Police investigations rely on the relationship between the victim and the perpetrator to narrow the search field, and if there is no previous relationship, the killer can be nearly impossible to track down. However, in reality, the most common relationship between a serial killer and the victim is a business one (prostitution accounting for a good share of the ‘business’). But plenty of serial offenders target people close to them as well. Women, in particular, are most likely to kill a series of husbands or children. Sometimes, serial killers will murder both kinds of victims. Edmund Kemper killed hitch-hiking young women who were unknown to him but also family members, including his mother.
They Start with Lesser Violent Crimes and “Graduate” to Murder
In Hollywood serial killer tales, you will often see the profiler recommend that police check records for earlier violent assaults or rapes in which the victims survived because serial killers work their way up to actual murder. This does sometimes occur. However, when arrested for murder, most serial killers do not have a previous record for violent behavior. If they are in the system at all, it tends to be for non-violent offenses like peeping in windows or arson.
Once They Start Killing, They Won’t Stop
It’s a popular conception that, once serial killers start murdering, their attacks grow closer together as each kill fails to satisfy that initial “high.” Indeed, the line about how “He won’t stop until we catch him” gets repeated on nearly every TV show about a serial killer, but it turns out not to be true at all. Serial murderers can go years, even a decade or more, between kills. Gary Ridgway, known as the Green River Serial Killer, killed his last victim in 2003, but the previous one died in 1986, a gap of seventeen years. Sometimes, serial murderers stop entirely, possibly because they fear capture, are growing older and lack the physical strength for the crimes, or otherwise lose the biological/psychological “drive” to kill. Joseph D’Angelo, the accused Golden State Killer, ran a one-man crime spree up and down the state of California before going quiet in the late 1980s. Perhaps his recent arrest, decades after his crimes, will shed some light onto why certain offenders give up their murderous ways.
All The Best Lies by Joanna Schaffhausen published by Titan Books (Out Now)
FBI agent Reed Markham is haunted by one painful unsolved mystery: who murdered his
mother, and his powerful adoptive father, state senator Angus Markham. Now Reed has to wonder if his mother's killer is uncomfortably close to home. Reed enlists his friend, suspended cop Ellery Hathaway, to join his quest in Vegas. Ellery has experience with both troubled families and diabolical murderers, having narrowly escaped from each of them. Far from home and relying only on each other, Reed and Ellery discover young Camilla had snared the attention of dangerous men, any of whom might have wanted to shut her up for good. They start tracing his twisted family history, knowing the path leads back to a vicious killer-one who has been hiding in plain sight for forty years and isn't about to give up now.