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.

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