A Look at Serial Killers

Serial killings have been a fascination with many fiction writers, especially those who write in the horror genre. Part of the reason is that such killers seem so mysterious. There is about as much myth as fact about them. So the question needs to be asked “just what is a serial killer?”

The best place to start in answering this question is with the FBI’s definition of a serial killer. Also given here will be some myth busters from FBI annuls.

At least three victims have been identified as being killed by the same person with a significant time between murders. This time between is known as a ‘cooling off’ period and is used to distinguish a serial killing from a mass or spree killing. The cooling off period can be as short as a few weeks or as long as several months or years. The location of the killings is of less importance as that can vary from killer to killer, though most do operate in a small geographical area. There have been some notable exceptions.

Among the most well-known myths surrounding serial killers is one made popular in horror stories and movies. This is that serial killers are either insane or geniuses with murderously evil inclinations. It is easy to believe but it is not true. Though it is true that many do have one of any number of mental disorders, most have never been found to be legally insane. Another truth is that these killers range in intelligence from borderline to well above average, much as the general population does. The fiction found in books and movies about such murderers portrays them as insane or geniuses who outwit the law as it puts some distance between them and the person reading or watching the story.

One myth has the appearance of truth do to the fact that the most famous serial killers are indeed white and male. The fact is that the racial, ethnic and gender makeup of serial killers pretty much mirrors that of society in general. It is easy to understand why this myth seems to persist since most of the famous killers are white and are men. When you think of serial killers, the ones that generally come to mind are Jack the Ripper, Ted Bundy, the Zodiak Killer and John Wayne Gacy. All were white men. Along this line of thinking is also that serial murder is a relatively modern development. This again is not supported by historical facts. Evidence was found in China of serial murder going back to before the Common Era. It may be we simply know more about it now because of advancements in forensics.

The last two myths to be covered here are that serial killers want to be caught and once they start killing, they can’t stop themselves. The killers spend more time planning their kills than most criminals spend in planning. Part of the planning is getting away undetected. As they become more confident, some will taunt the police, not to get caught, though. They believe that can’t be caught and that is exactly why they often are – they get overconfident and make mistakes. Some who never get caught or don’t get caught for years after their last killing have indeed stopped killing. An example is the infamous BTK killer, aka Dennis Rader. His last killing occurred in 1991 but he stopped killing and was not captured until 2005.

The subject of serial killers is a fascinating one that would take a lot of study to cover in depth very much. They are the stuff of legend and will populate the imagination of horror fiction writers for many generations to come.

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