Myths About Serial Killers

May 7, 2012 - by Erin Geyer

May 7, 2012

Dennis Lynn Rader, "The BTK Killer"

Dennis Lynn Rader, "The BTK Killer"

Over the years, thanks to movies like The Silence of the Lambs, public perception about serial killers has become more mythical than factual.  In reality, there is no real profile for this rare breed of killer.

by Erin Geyer

Charles Manson once said “Look down at me and you see a fool; look up at me and you see a God; look straight at me and you see yourself.” These words give us a glimpse into the psyche of a killer. It is hard to say why certain serial killers develop such a tremendous public interest and following in the media. Public perceptions about serial homicide have become more mythical than fact. I will examine the common misconceptions about serial killers, and how the media affects the public’s opinion on this issue. I have always been interested in criminal law, and movies based on murder, mystery, and suspense. Serial killers both disgust and captivate me. Though I could never fathom committing such heinous crimes, I am intrigued by those who do.

Forget Hannibal Lecter. The movie portrayal of serial killers as deranged loners with unusually high IQs is dangerously wrong and can hinder investigations. According to the FBI, serial killers are much different in real life. For years, law enforcement investigators, academics, mental health experts, and the media have studied serial murder, from Jack the Ripper in the late 1800s to the sniper killings in 2002, and from the “Zodiac Killer” in California to the “BTK Killer” in Kansas. These diverse groups have long attempted to understand the complex issues related to serial killers. In 2005, the FBI hosted a symposium in San Antonio, Texas. This report contains the collective insights of a team of experts on serial murder. The symposium’s focus was actually two-fold: to bridge the gap between fact and fiction and to build up our body of knowledge to generate a more effective investigative response.

Much of the general public’s knowledge concerning serial murder is a product of Hollywood productions. Story lines are created to heighten the interest of audiences, rather than to accurately portray the criminal. Law enforcement professionals are subject to the same misinformation from a different source: the use of circumstantial information. Professionals, such as investigators, prosecutors, and pathologists may have limited exposure to serial murder. Their experience may be based upon a single murder series, and the factors in that case are generalized to other serial killers. As a result, stereotypes take root in the police community regarding the nature and characteristics of serial murders.

A growing trend that compounds the fallacies surrounding serial murder is the talking heads phenomenon. A talking head is a person who claims to have an expertise in serial murder. They appear frequently on television and in the print media and speculate on the characteristics of the killer, without being privy to the facts of the investigation. Unfortunately, inappropriate comments may spread misperceptions concerning serial killers and impair law enforcement’s investigative efforts. The rarity of serial murder combined with inaccurate information and fictional portrayals of serial killers have created seven main serial killer myths. I discussed these myths in a survey given to students in a rural college community.


Seven Myths About Serial Killers

  • Generally, people think that serial killers are dysfunctional loners. According to my study, over 54 percent of students surveyed believed that this statement was false. The majority of serial killers are not reclusive, social misfits who live alone. They are not monsters and may not appear strange. Many serial killers hide in plain sight within their communities. Serial murderers often have families and homes, are gainfully employed, and appear to be normal members of the community. When serial killers blend in so effortlessly, they are oftentimes overlooked by law enforcement and the public. For example; the BTK killer, Dennis Rader, killed 10 victims in and around Wichita, Kansas. He sent 16 written communications to the news media over a 30-year period, taunting the police and the public. He was married with two children, was a Boy Scout leader, served honorably in the U.S. Air Force, was employed as a local government official, and was president of his church.
  • Serial killers are commonly profiled in the media as being white males in their mid-to-late twenties. This myth was obviously false, and 72 percent of students agreed. Contrary to popular belief, serial killers span all racial groups. The racial diversification of serial killers generally mirrors that of the overall U.S. population. For example, Rafael Ramirez, a native of Mexico, murdered nine people in Kentucky, Texas, and Illinois, before turning himself in. Ironically, female serial killers do exist. Females carry the image of the nurturing and caring type. Aileen Wuornos was a Florida-based killer and prostitute who murdered seven johns in 1989 and 1990, and whose actions were later chronicled in documentaries and feature films. Although men are more likely than women to commit homicide, once women have killed, they are as likely as men to kill again. Thus, homicide may be a “man thing,” but serial killing is not.
  • Serial murders are not sexually-based. There are many other motivations for serial murders including anger, thrill, financial gain, and attention seeking. In the Washington, D.C. area serial sniper case, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo killed primarily for thrill motivations. They were able to terrorize the Washington, D.C. metro area for three weeks, shooting 13 victims, killing 10 of them. Muhammad’s anger at his ex-wife over a particularly ugly child-custody battle appears to have enraged him more than any political or religious motives.
  • The myth that serial killers operate interstate had interesting results. My results were evenly split. Most serial killers have very defined geographic areas of operation. They conduct their killings within comfort zones that are often defined by an anchor point, e.g. place of residence or employment. Serial murderers will, at times, spiral their activities outside of their comfort zone, when their confidence has grown through experience. FBI statistics show that during the past four decades, at least 459 people may have died at the hands of highway serial killers. These killers find their victims and dispose of the bodies along highways to avoid detection.
  • It has been widely believed that once serial killers start killing, they cannot stop. There are, however, some serial killers who stop murdering altogether before being caught. In these instances, there are events or circumstances in criminals’ lives that inhibit them from pursuing more victims. These can include increased participation in family activities, sexual substitution, and other diversions. For example, Jeffrey Gorton killed his first victim in 1986 and his next victim in 1991. He did not kill another victim and was captured in 2002.
  • The biggest misconception people have about serial killers is that they are insane. My research study found that 55 percent of students believe this myth. As a group, serial killers suffer from a variety of personality disorders, including psychopathy, anti-social personality, and others. All psychopaths do not become serial murderers. Rather, serial murderers may possess some or many of the traits consistent with psychopathy. Most serial killers are not adjudicated as insane under the law. Like other populations, however, serial killers range in intelligence from borderline to above average levels. The media has created a number of fictional serial killer geniuses, who outsmart law enforcement at every turn. These portrayals are probably due to high-profile serial killers such as Ted Bundy or the mythical serial killer, Hannibal Lecter.
  • Do serial killers want to get caught? According to my study, 44 percent of students said “No”, and I would have to agree. Offenders committing a crime for the first time are inexperienced. They gain experience and confidence with each new offense, eventually succeeding with few mistakes or problems. While most serial killers plan their offenses more thoroughly than other criminals, the learning curve is still very steep. They must select, target, control, and dispose of their victims. The logistics involved in committing a murder and disposing of the body can become very complex, especially when there are multiple sites involved. As serial killers continue to offend without being captured, they can become empowered, feeling they will never be identified. As the series continues, the killers may begin to take shortcuts when committing their crimes. This often causes the killers to take more chances, leading to identification by law enforcement. It is not that serial killers want to get caught; they feel that they can’t get caught.

No Common Profile

Through my research I have learned there is no common thread tying serial killers together; no single cause, no single motive, no single profile. Generalizations and myths about serial homicide are perpetuated through several sources, especially the entertainment media which is a dominant and influential mythmaker. The number of films depicting serial killing themes has increased in recent years. The general public may be using the media as its only means of interpretation on crime issues. The media may not be delivering the full news story. All these myths interfere with the police investigators and public's ability to help solve these crimes. Mistaken beliefs cause suspects to be ignored, cases to go unsolved, and serial killers to remain at large in our communities.

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