Serial killers are now a solid staple of the horror genre, so much so they're pretty easy to spot on the big screen. Single extremely intelligent white guy with strange mannerism and odd glint in his eye? Yeah, he's probably a serial killer, right?
Well, the reality is quite different. As io9's TrueCrime points out, the onscreen portrayal of serial killers isn't always spot on. Here are the three main things serial killer films and television shows get wrong.
1. Serial Killers Always Have an Nemesis in Law-Enforcement
Many serial killer films and shows usually feature a dedicated detective going one-on-one with the mysterious murderer. Often, the serial killer will become personally involved with this person, tracking them to their house and engaging in mind games and manipulation.
In reality, most serial killer investigations are not handled by a single police officer or FBI agent, instead a rather large task force containing many individuals is recommended. Although there are lead investigators, cases involving serial killers must often necessitate a large team - including support and administration personnel, as well as police officers from different areas and jurisdictions. It's unlikely the killer would ever know which single individual is handling their case - usually because no one single individual is.
In this sense, it's extremely unlikely any individual cop would find themselves in a situation where they're dramatically chasing a serial killer through the Italian catacombs, or as the Se7en video below shows, a dingy alley:
2. Cops Always Know When They're Dealing With a Serial Killer
You know the line of dialogue. The gritty detective has just plotted the murder locations on a map, they take a step back and declares, "I think we're dealing with a serial killer here, guys."
In reality, many serial killers are only discovered as such after they have been arrested. Often it can take many years to discover that the victims all belong to one killer, especially if they target demographics which do not attract much police attention. For example, Jeffrey Dahmer mostly targeted gay men (many of them non-white) to avoid rousing suspicion, while the 'Grim Sleeper' of Los Angeles similarly targeted "poor and vulnerable girls and women." Indeed, Dahmer's true crime spree was only discovered when a police officer finally opened his fridge and saw the grisly contents within.
Many serial killers are therefore only caught in relation to one murder, and it is only if they confess or new evidence comes to light, that the full extent of their crimes are revealed.
3. Serial Killers Are All Socially Dysfunctional, Youngish White Guys
Think of a movie serial killer and you've probably imagined a slightly odd white guy of above average, or unusual, intelligence. Take for example, Hannibal Lecter, Se7en's John Doe or American Psycho's Patrick Bateman.
In many ways, the most famous serial killers also often match this description, such as Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy etc. However, it could be claimed that these individuals are only so well-known partly because they match the movie stereotype.
Real serial killers are much more diverse. First of all, there have been many female serial killers - for example Aileen Wuornos, Dorothea Puente, Velma Barfield and Leonarda 'Soap Maker' Cianciulli - while the FBI also notes that “the racial diversification of serial killers generally mirrors that of the overall U.S. population.”
Furthermore, not all of them fit into the "dysfunctional loner" model that often appears in movies and television shows. The FBI points out that killers such as the Green River Killer and BTK Killer all lived relatively normal lives, adding:
The majority of serial killers are not reclusive, social misfits who live alone. They are not monsters and may not appear strange. Many serial killers hide in plain sight within their communities. Serial murderers often have families and homes, are gainfully employed, and appear to be normal members of the community. Because many serial murderers can blend in so effortlessly, they are oftentimes overlooked by law enforcement and the public.
As Ted Bundy explains in his final interview, he came from a healthy home and lived, for the most part, a completely normal life.
What Do the Films Get Right?
Although outlining the three major elements movies often get wrong, TrueCrime also visited some of the things they also get right. Firstly, the bizarre and unpredictable nature of serial killers - especially when it comes to fetishism - is a common trait present in some serial killers, but not all. Many do also not feel remorse and could be categorized as psychopaths, with the FBI stating:
The interpersonal traits include glibness, superficial charm, a grandiose sense of self-worth, pathological lying, and the manipulation of others. The affective traits include a lack of remorse and/or guilt, shallow affect, a lack of empathy, and failure to accept responsibility.
Another, more worrying, fact the movies often get right is that serial killers are everywhere. Some movies and shows seem to suggest there's a killer in every city, and according to some experts, that might not be far off the mark. In 2012, journalist Diane Dimond wrote:
John Douglas, a former chief of the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit and author of “Mind Hunter,” says, “A very conservative estimate is that there are between 35 and 50 active serial killers in the United States” at any given time. Often, Douglas told me, they will, “kill two to three victims and then have a ‘cooling-off’ period between kills.” That period can be days and in some cases (such as the BTK Strangler, Dennis Rader, convicted of killing 10 people from 1974 to 1991) even years.”
But others who study serial killers (defined as someone who kills three or more people) think there are many more of these demented predators out there than the FBI admits to — maybe as many as a hundred of them actively operating right now.
If you weren't already worried about your local serial killer, I'm sure you are now.