What Happened To The Serial Killer Phenomenon That ‘Terrorized’ And ‘Captivated’ An Entire Generation?

September 29, 2021

By Aara Ramesh

Lately, it seems like violent crime, missing persons cases, and murder have been dominating the news cycle. For instance, the disappearance and homicide of Gabrielle “Gabby” Petito, and the subsequent hunt for her missing fiancé has captured the internet’s attention, with people on forums like Reddit and TikTok scrambling to try and “solve” the case before law enforcement does. Some even commented that they were waiting to see the Netflix documentary that would inevitably be made about the case.

At the same time, the news has also been inundated with experts opining on the reasons behind the rise in violent crime in the U.S., even as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) revealed that the number of homicides increased 30% in 2020, as compared to 2019 — a height last reached in the 1990s and the first time in four years that the number of violent crimes increased on a year-over-year basis.

This all comes against the backdrop of America’s longstanding and enduring fascination with true crime, one that — in some cases — borders on obsession. Since the advent of the podcast Serial in 2014, the cottage industry of true crime content has exploded, be it through hundreds of other podcasts (see, in particular, The Last Podcast on the Left or the questionably titled My Favorite Murder); true-to-life documentaries made by Netflix, HBO, et. al.; long-form essays and investigative journalistic pieces; TV shows like Criminal Minds and Mindhunter; short TikTok videos from Gen Z; or YouTube videos of people applying make-up or cooking while discussing gruesome murders.

But while the genre continues to grow and diversify on a daily basis, ranging from white collar or property crime series, to ones exploring alleged cults and shady organizations, the staple of true crime has long been serial killers.

The so-called “Golden Age” for American serial killers is widely believed to be between the 1950s and 1990s. Since then, there has been a marked decline in the number of active serial killers and a corresponding increase in the public’s fascination with them. The noms de guerre are beyond familiar to many of us — Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, the Zodiac Killer, the Night Stalker, the Golden State Killer, the Green River Killer, the BTK Killer… the list seems almost infinite at times.

Most of these cases, you may notice, are decades old. The average person would, in fact, be hard-pressed to name a prolific serial killer from the past twenty years, which can largely be attributed to increased information sharing between law enforcement across jurisdictions, and the tools that they have at their disposal. In today’s piece we look at the technological and societal factors behind the disappearance of America’s serial killers.

What Is A Serial Killer, Officially?

So what is the definition of a serial killer?

There have been many different definitions posited by experts in various fields, from law enforcement and criminal justice personnel, to clinicians, academia, and researchers. The points of contention are usually centered on the number of murders involved, the motivating factors, and the duration and frequency of the killings.

The official term seems to have been coined by FBI agent Robert Ressler in the 1970s, though the accuracy of that is not readily verifiable. The FBI itself, in the mid-2000s, put forth their own simple categorization, mainly for the purposes of statistical analysis. According to the Bureau, serial murder is defined as “the unlawful killing of two or more victims by the same offender(s), in separate events.”  

Further, according to the agency, it is hard to pinpoint a single identifiable motivation or factor that would prompt someone to become a serial killer (not even psychopathy). It goes on to add that “the most significant factor is the serial killer’s personal decision in choosing to pursue their crimes.”

This is one of the reasons that the FBI says these cases pose “significant investigative challenges” to law enforcement agencies. Another is that these cases tend to bring heightened scrutiny to law enforcement’s actions, due to an “over-abundance of attention from the media, mental health experts, academia, and the general public.” At the same time, police and federal agents themselves struggle with inaccurate anecdotal evidence passed around their circles, as well as the fictionalized versions of such killers they may encounter in their regular lives.

The So-Called ‘Golden Age’

Per the FBI’s estimates, serial homicides are exceedingly rare, accounting for less than 1% of all murders committed in a year. On average, serial killings would account for just around 150 deaths per year, with the FBI estimating that there are anywhere between 25 and 50 serial killers active throughout the U.S. at any given point of time.

The patterns, however, are clear. There was a notable and significant spike in the proliferation of serial killers a handful of decades ago. But then, at the turn of the millennium, that phenomenon seems to have died down significantly.

During the 1980s, one study says, there were almost 770 active serial killers in the U.S., a number that dropped to just under 670 in the 1990s. That rate fell to around 400 in the 2000s, and was estimated at just over 100 over the 2010s. Around 189 people were murdered by serial killers in 1987, compared to 30 in 2015, according to one estimate. These numbers cannot be all attributed to better record-keeping and more reporting, experts say.

There are many who argue that as long as humans have lived together in established societies, there have been serial killers. Fables and history alike are littered with examples. The trend noted in the mid-20th century, however, has been linked to the societal upheaval brought about by two back-to-back World Wars and the horrors associated with them.

It also mirrored a general increase in violent crime in the U.S., experts say. This could be for many reasons; for instance, people were moving around more at that period, particularly as a result of their jobs. People were less likely to know their neighbors as well. There was a mass migration demographically, as well as between the inner city areas and the suburbs.

Another interesting factor that has been suggested for this high degree of serial murders is the introduction of the interstate highway system, beginning in the 1950s. The increased connectivity gave some “a wider geography to roam and kill.” Practices like hitchhiking were common, as were young runaways, who often left home due to generational clashes with their parents at a time when various social movements were taking off. All of this made it easier for murderers and victims alike to slip through the cracks.

Culturally, some point to the explosion in pulp fiction and true crime magazines in the 1950s and 1960s, which were wildly popular and tended to have heavily sexualized and violent imagery.

All these factors blended together to create a particular phenomenon that “terrorized and captivated” one generation and fascinated the next.

But Where Did They Go? 

It may seem contradictory, that just as people were developing a fear and obsession with serial killers, they began to disappear.

There are many factors that could have influenced this. The biggest, however, seems to be technological improvements in investigative processes.

This extends beyond just rapid developments in forensic technology like DNA testing or psychological profiles put together by the FBI’s famous Behavioral Analysis Unit. One basic improvement has been just in information sharing. In their heyday, serial killers could cross state lines and murder with impunity for years on end, because police in various jurisdictions did not have a common database to pick up patterns or similarities between cases. Look, for example, at Ted Bundy’s multi-state spree after two escapes from imprisonment, or the Golden State Killer’s decade-long rape and murder spree across various cities and counties in California. 

Today, crime detection does not lag quite so much. There are also federal, state, and local computerized databases that help investigators identify patterns and similarities between crimes across geography and time. In 1985, the FBI’s Critical Incident Response Group (CIRG) began working on a common database that evolved into the Violent Crime Apprehension Program (ViCAP), which is today used all over the country, by law enforcement departments of all sizes to track and link violent crime like sexual assaults, kidnappings, homicides, etc.

In 2009, the Bureau also created the Highway Serial Killings initiative, which aimed to boost coordination between various agencies when it came to light that there was an epidemic of women going missing or being assaulted or murdered at highway truck stops or service stations.

In addition to these initiatives, there have been developments like the AMBER Alert system and the FBI’s Child Abduction Rapid Deployment teams, all of which can be credited with tightening the investigative process and making it more difficult for serial offenders to go undetected.

There are other factors at play as well. For one, the growth of various forms of media and the spread of the internet meant that more people were aware of potential killers in their vicinity and were more likely to be vigilant. As their notoriety grew, the potential victim pool shrunk. People became more careful of travelling on their own, hitchhiking faded into obscurity, parents were less likely to let their children play unsupervised out in the street, and so on.

There is also the fact that our connectivity has increased significantly. It would be rare to encounter someone who doesn’t have an internet footprint or smartphone today, both of which make it easier for law enforcement to retrace the victim’s last movements. More houses are also equipped with home security systems. Some estimates suggest that as of 2019 there were around 70 million surveillance cameras installed in the U.S., roughly amounting to one camera for every 4.6 people.

There are those who argue that the nature of mass violence has shifted as well, particularly since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999 and the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001. These events, some say, changed the way we approach and perceive murder. Rather than the stereotypical serial killer, we now have different types of mass murderers, be they foreign and domestic terrorists, lone wolf gunmen, or school shooters. On the other hand, most experts believe that the psychological and motivational profiles of serial killers and mass shooters or terrorists are vastly different, so it is not accurate to trace an evolution from the former into the latter.

Another intriguing reason, some say, is that as our understanding of what leads someone to a life of crime has expanded and improved, so too has our ability to detect early signs in children and adolescents. It is generally believed that serial killers develop their personalities and proclivities at a young age, and that by the time they’re 14 years old, they are “basically fully formed.” While this is far from an exact science, psychologists are able to identify the potential long-term effects of experiences like family dysfunction and sexual abuse, and intervene early. 

Are They Gone?

So, are serial killers a thing of the past, relegated to the annals of history, like telegrams and floppy discs?

This remains an enduring question and one without concrete answers. The way we perceive and label serial murders has changed. On the one hand, we are constantly linking unidentified remains to serial killers who are long dead.

Just a week ago, a sheriff’s department in Mississippi announced that it had identified the skeletal remains of Clara Birdlong, a woman who was found dead almost 44 years ago in December 1977, and that it had linked her murder to Samuel Little, the most prolific serial killer in U.S. history.

It was only in December last year that Little died at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, where he had been serving three consecutive life-without-parole sentences for murdering three women in the late 1980s in Los Angeles. The FBI in 2018 labelled Little America’s most prolific serial killer ever, having been on the receiving end of 93 murder confessions from Little. The man said he strangled his victims over a nearly four-decade period between 1970 and 2005.

On the other hand, the nature of serial murders has changed, as mentioned above. In its report this week, the FBI said that a worrying number of the homicides noted in 2020 were committed with firearms. Serial murderers are less likely to strangle or hack someone to death; they may be choosing handguns instead.

There are some who believe that there is such a serial killer loose in St. Louis, where there has recently been a series of fatal shootings of sex workers, which authorities say could have been carried out by the same person. The are, understandably reluctant to characterize it as the work of a serial killer, though that is the term being bandied about by social media users and some citizens of St. Louis.

With the way things have been playing out, then, it seems like the familiar and age-old terror of murder has not disappeared — it’s just taken on a new form.

You can find a comprehensive, unofficial database of serial murderers here.