When's the last time you've read about a big-name serial killer in the news? I don't just mean "a guy who killed several people" -- I'm talking about the brazen killer who captures the public imagination for months or years. Jeffrey Dahmer was back in the early '90s. Dennis Rader, aka BTK, was arrested in 2005, but hadn't been active for years by then. Strangely enough, there are way fewer serial killers now than there used to be. This seems good until you learn the reasons behind it, which are stupid.
There are so many serial killers in pop culture that we had an entire TV series about a serial killer who hunts other serial killers and it ran for almost 100 episodes. Just on Netflix you can see Gillian Anderson facing up against a charismatic killer, David Tennant alternately catching serial killers and playing them, and endless dramas from the BBC about detectives brooding over corpses in the rain. Then there are the movies (Jigsaw, Leatherface, Halloween, The Strangers ... Jesus, we need some new horror franchises), an infinity of true crime podcasts, even video games. You get the impression that serial killers represent 25 percent of the fictional population. Even The Office had a serial killer.
The only place you won't consistently see serial killing is on the news.
Oh, you see other kinds of horrors -- mass shootings, terrorism, you name it. But the thing you see constantly in pop culture, the killer who spends years stalking victim after victim, getting some kind of cryptic nickname from the police, capturing the public imagination ... those guys just don't seem to be a thing anymore.
Serial killers haven't vanished; their numbers have just dropped like they're an endangered species (only if, you know, it was something we wanted to be extinct). Here are a big bunch of stats about the subject. It's as if the concept of serial killing caught on like a fad in the 1970s, spread through the '80s and '90s, and then started dropping in the 2000s:
First, what in the hell happened in the 1970s that suddenly filled society with unimaginable monsters? Good question! If you figure out the exact answer, you'll probably win some science awards. It's likely a bunch of causes, including general upheaval in society, people becoming more disconnected and moving more frequently and thus making for easier victims (more on that in a moment), and the snowball effect of the media's fascination with serial killers encouraging others to get in on it. Richard "Night Stalker" Ramirez had his own logo and letterhead! You know, for when he answered fan mail from prison.
For whatever reason, in the '80s we reached the peak, with 1987 having over 128 active serial killers who'd taken at least three victims. In 2015, the last year on the chart, we had 15. The year before that it was 20, and before then it was 27. Holy crap, have we as a society actually fixed a problem? How?
Well, part of the answer is what you already know from watching all of those serial killer shows, plus all 30,000 episodes of the CSI extended universe. Police have gotten a lot better at catching killers. We can partly thank our relatively new friend DNA. It was the use of DNA profiling in the 1980s that would kick off the decline, not just by catching serial killers, but also by presumably scaring off some more. But there are other factors here that you've probably never thought about.
There is a reason serial killers have always targeted sex workers and hitchhikers, going all the way back to Jack the Ripper. Serial killers, who are cowardly assholes, prey on the vulnerable. They target those who "won't be missed," the ones who are somewhat off the grid. When people are disconnected from their families or social circles, it takes a long time for their absence to get noticed (if it gets noticed at all), a delay which often makes investigation all but impossible.
So let's talk about social media and smartphones for a second. You know what's cool about them? Someone knows where you are, always. Whether it's Mark Zuckerberg, the NSA, your Instagram followers, or the hacker sifting through your iCloud photos, someone out there can follow your digital tracks. So when people disappear these days, society notices (unless of course you're Indigenous -- we still haven't quite learned to care about them yet).
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? f**k 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?
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.
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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