Plus, in the past, serial killers would -- much like every guy on Tinder -- fudge the numbers a bit to make themselves seem cooler. Hey, what are you going to do when Richard Fucknuts says he killed hundreds of people? Dig up the graves? All of them? Fuck you, he threw them in the sea. Dredge the entire ocean, and he'd tell you about 87 more he ate. Serial killers lie. I mean, they're already breaking the big commandment, why not go for some of the little ones too?
Making claims like that today would border on ridiculous. Hitchhikers still have cell phones, and sex workers often book work over the internet. The cops may not know who killed them, but it's often easy to prove who didn't. For killer and victim alike, even if you don't want anyone to know where you are, too bad -- somebody almost certainly does.
So problem solved, right?
Related: 6 Terrifying Serial Killers (Who Are Still Out There)
Psychopaths Just Switched To Mass Shootings
Correlation isn't causation, but starting in the '90s, when serial killings began to peter off, spree shootings began to rise. Remember the Columbine shooting in 1999? Experts think one of the shooters, Eric Harris, was the kind of psychopath who could easily have been a serial killer otherwise (it appears he just got another guy to go along with it).
And remember how I said media attention on serial killers helped create a snowball effect? Well the increase in spree shootings is partly due to the impact of Columbine, which held the national attention for months afterward. Even if it seems like we're numb to them, a horrific enough shooting can still make the killers famous. In the cases of assholes like Dylann Roof and Elliot Rodger, they get worshiped like heroes by other assholes.
So while we tie ourselves in knots trying to understand what makes someone pick up a gun and shoot up a crowd of strangers (we'll leave the discussion of the gun's legality for another day), the reality is that a lot of them were guys who in a previous era would have lived out their dark power fantasies in another way. Prowling the streets, looking for somebody who seemed vulnerable, luring them into a car. Not to be too glib about it, but in an era of instant gratification, it really does seem like they are just deciding to do it all at once.
The answer may really be that stupid.
Related: Ted Bundy Abducted And Nearly Murdered Me: How I Survived
And Yet, There's A Reason Serial Killers Still Dominate Pop Culture
Serial killers dominate every entertainment medium because they're the closest thing we have to "realistic" supervillains. They have distinct, often intricate MOs, wear costumes, give themselves fun names, taunt the police. Hey, they get fans for a reason. That's the kind of power a certain type of awful person sits around all day and dreams about. And what's a more interesting story: the Zodiac Killer (a masked man wearing a self-made brand, writing teasing notes to the police) or Elliot Rodger (a pissy kid who couldn't get laid enough)? Well, one of them is named Elliot and the other is named Zodiac, so ...
Also, spree shootings are often (and understandably) considered too raw of a subject for fiction, given that there's a fantastic chance a real-life tragedy will have occurred the same day that episode airs. We can romanticize and dramatize serial killers because they're rare. Whereas when a film or show wants to tackle a mass shooter, often they get shut down.
But even stupider than any of that is the simple fact that serial killers fit the rhythm of modern TV drama better. Unless you're doing a show specifically building to a mass shooting (see, spoiler alert, The OA), it's incredibly hard to pull a compelling season-long narrative out of that one event. But if you're following a prolific, diabolical serial killer, the moment the plot slows down, you just have the detectives discover a new body.
That, then, brings us to the punchline of this whole thing: One of the biggest reasons serial killers are a fixture on your various screens, despite the phenomenon being in sharp decline in real life, is that their crimes fit the standard storytelling format. As a result, a hundred years from now, our descendants will watch our shows and probably assume that a person could barely leave the house in 2018 without getting stabbed and left with a cryptic letter pinned to their chest.
For a chilling look at a serial killer who would have been just as terrifying today, check out the graphic novel My Friend Dahmer -- now a major motion picture.
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