How Many Active Serial Killers Are There Right Now?
If you're anything like me, you like to come home after a long day at work, pour yourself a nice chilled glass of chardonnay, pop on some smooth jazz, and ask yourself, "How many active serial killers are operating in the United States right now?" OK, fine, your own after-work ritual may vary. But you clicked on this article, so you're obviously just as curious as I am about whether serial killers are as common as they once seemed.
Serial killers often feel like a relic of the past — a totally terrifying relic, sure, but a relic nonetheless. Our culture's most notorious serial killers, like Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Richard Ramirez, were all active more than 20 years ago. And while several major serial killers have been active in the 2000s — like Israel Keyes, "D.C. Snipers" Lee Boyd Malvo and John Allen Muhammad, and Anthony "Cleveland Strangler" Sowell" — the recent arrests of high-profile serial killers like the Golden State Killer and Samuel Little hinged on crimes committed several decades ago.
The stats bear out this feeling that serial killing is on the decline. According to the Radford University/FGCU Serial Killer Database, an exhaustive collection of serial killer data assembled by forensic psychology professor Dr. Mike Aamodt, serial killers proliferated in the U.S. from the 1970s through the 1990s: there were 104 active serial killers operating in the US in 1974, 147 in 1984, and 151 in 1994.
But after peaking in the '90s, those numbers went down. And in 2015, the last year data was collected by Radford, they estimated that only 30 serial killers were operating in the U.S. — numbers equivalent to the number of active serial killers in the 1960s.
These numbers aren't that far off from those given out by John E. Douglas, the groundbreaking FBI profiler whose life inspired the Netflix series Mindhunter. In 2014, Douglas told People, "there are between 25 and 50 active serial killers in the United States" at any given time.
There are a number of ideas as to why this drop in serial killings occurred, ranging from the theory that DNA technology has made it easier to catch killers after their first crimes, to the fact that people engage in fewer activities today (hitchhiking, etc) that bring them into contact with strangers, to the (way more depressing) hypothesis that violent murderers today simply veer towards mass killings instead.
But not everyone is necessarily convinced that serial murder has dropped off. Thomas Hargrove, the former journalist behind nonprofit organization the Murder Accountability Project, told the New Yorker in 2017 that he believes that 2,000 serial killers are currently at large in the U.S.
But while 25 to 50 serial killers isn't that many compared to the stats of the '80s, it's still...you know, too many serial killers to feel totally comfortable. And what exactly makes one count as an active serial killer, you might be very nervously asking yourself right now, while subtly checking to make sure that your door is dead bolted? According to the FBI, a serial killer is someone who has killed "two or more victims" during "incidents ... occurring in separate events, at different times" after "the time period between murders [that] separates serial murder from mass murder" has passed.
This means that someone who kills several people in a very short period of time, but does not kill again, is a mass murderer, not a serial killer (see: many of the perpetrators of mass shootings). A serial killer is someone who has committed at least two murders which were staggered out.
How Many People Do Serial Killers Actually Kill Each Year?
Well, you might want to get some really nice pajamas, because you're about to spend some serious time with your duvet pulled over your head. According to some expert estimates, serial killers kill 150 people each year. Now, granted, that's not a huge number of people — as the FBI website takes pains to point out, they make up less than 1 percent of the 15,000 murders committed annually in the U.S. But it's still ... kind of more than you expected, right? Of course, 150 people are also killed by falling coconuts each year, and it's way lower than the number of people who, say, die from food poisoning (3,000 deaths each year). But that doesn't really make it any less freaky.
And again, not everyone is convinced by the FBI statistics. Hargrove, of MAP, believes the percentage of murders committed by serial killers is several points higher than the FBI's estimate.
Who Are These Serial Killers?
The obvious answer, of course, is "The police don't know, or they'd arrest them." But the larger answer is: Not necessarily who we think they are. It turns out that our film- and TV-fed belief that serial killers are loner white male geniuses carrying out evil schemes, a la Hannibal or Dexter, are pretty far off from reality.
According to the FBI's serial murder fact sheet, serial killers as a group diverge from our stereotypes in many major ways. They're more ethnically diverse and include more women (17 percent of serial killers are female) than we might expect. And most serial killers don't live in isolation. Many of them, including the infamous John Wayne Gacy and Gary Ridgeway, the Green River Killer, were married and active in their communities throughout the years they committed their crimes.
And most importantly, they're usually not evil geniuses who have lost touch with reality. As the FBI notes, "As a group, serial killers suffer from a variety of personality disorders, including psychopathy, anti-social personality, and others. Most, however, are not adjudicated as insane under the law."
So as fascinated as our culture remains with them, most serial killers are a far cry from the brilliant, charismatic terrors who pop up on our TV screens. Far more often, they're just violent, ruthless people who kill for enjoyment, profit, sex, convenience, or other sadly straightforward reasons.
But as fun as it can be to spook ourselves out thinking about Dexter and the like, the facts remain that, though most of us will probably never encounter a serial killer, they are actually a very real threat to certain vulnerable populations — including the homeless and sex workers. By some expert estimates, one third of serial murderers will kill a sex worker. The West Virginia sex worker who killed a suspected serial killer in self-defense in 2015 is a reminder that, while this stuff may be scary Halloween entertainment to many of us, it's a real life hazard for others. And it would be disrespectful to pretend otherwise.
This post was originally published on September 22, 2015. It was updated on September 10, 2019.