serial killers

3 Common Myths About Serial Killers, Debunked By Professionals

The FBI says serial killers account for less than one percent of murders. Here are some common myths about serial killers that are just plain wrong.

This macabre interest has lead to depictions in books, movies, and television shows, many of which conduct falsified ideas about these persons in terms of demographics, personality, and motivation.

According to a detailed report on national and international serial killer statistics (Radford University’s Serial Killer Database), there is no “typical profile” of a serial killer as the public often perceives there to be.

Similarly, the FBI debunks myths and misconceptions as manifestations of Hollywood that often have little root in fact. Here are some myths about serial killers that simply aren’t true.

The Myth of the White Male Killer

serial killers

Radford University’s Serial Killer Database combines prison records, court transcripts, media sources and more to compile an extensive database of known serial murderers (defined as perpetrators of two or more murders on separate occasions).

Though their findings point to over 90 percent of serial killers having been male, only 46 percent were actually white males. The report further complicates the “typical profile” of white males in their mid-to-late twenties, a demographic which accounts for only 12 percent of serial killers in the United States.

In the U.S., African American serial killers have comprised over half of documented serial killers since the dawn of the 21st century at 56 percent, making up a total of 40 percent in years dating back to 1900.

It’s important to note that these numbers only account for convicted killers, and the FBI says there are hundreds of unsolved cases that could be serial murders. It’s possible that, as is common with drug cases, African American killers have been less likely to get away with their crimes.

It may also come to a surprise to some that female serial killers, though only accounting for 9.3 percent of the database’s total, made up as much as 37 percent of documented serial killers in the early 20th century.

A woman’s weapon of choice? Almost always poison (at 80 percent, one study shows). A man’s? Guns and knives.

The Myth of Reclusive, Sex-obsessed, Lunatic Serial Killers

serial killers

According to the FBI, the majority of serial killers are not dysfunctional recluses living in their mothers’ basements. Contrary to popular belief, they are usually functional members of society, often with families, homes, and gainful employment.

To demonstrate this conundrum, the FBI cites the Green River Killer, a married man that attended church regularly, the BTK killer, a father of two, government official, and Boy Scout leader, and Robert Yates, a father of five and decorated U.S. Army helicopter pilot.

The FBI also debunks the sex-obsession myth, citing a number of killers motivated by anger, thrill, or financial gain. Radford’s database attributes 48 percent of their serial killers’ motives to “enjoyment,” which encompasses thrill, lust, and power, followed by financial gain at 30 percent.

Though serial killers do often suffer from personality disorders such as psychopathy, most are not adjudicated as insane by law. A related report by Radford University concludes that though serial killers are more likely than other criminals to plead Not Guilty By Reason of Insanity (NGRI), their pleas are less likely to be successful.

The Myth Of The American Psycho

serial killers

Statistics that show that a great majority of documented serial killers are American.

In fact, in Radford University’s database, documented American serial killers vastly outnumber international numbers in every decade studied, often doubling or tripling the rest of the world in number.

serial killers

How can we explain this phenomenon? Curiousmatic corresponded with Dr. Michael Aamodt, the lead researcher for Radford’s database, to address this concern.

Dr. Aamodt was of the opinion that this discrepancy in numbers is due to a variety of factors, namely in the way that the United States, as opposed to other countries, identifies, convicts and publicizes serial killers, and the open records that researchers have access to.

“Given the quality of law enforcement in the US, the national databases that link similar homicides, the openness of the U.S. press and government to publicize homicides, and open access to many state prison records,” Dr. Aamodt said, “it is easier to find people in the U.S. that qualify as a serial killer than it is in other countries.”

Others might argue that there is something specific to American society, attitude, and even genetics that breeds persons likely to commit power-related crimes. In fact, it’s been estimated that 4 percent of Americans are sociopaths — that adds up to 12 million.

Still, it is more likely that Dr. Aamodt is right. Serial killers aren’t a type, and they certainly aren’t specific to the U.S.  Thinking otherwise is dangerous, because (as the Criminal Profiling Agency notes), mistaken beliefs cause suspects to be ignored, cases to go unsolved, and serial killers to remain at large.

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Updated. Cover photo courtesy of Ryk Neethling via Flick, flag from Wikimedia Commons.

Jennifer Markert