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 — our culture's most notorious serial killers, like Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy and Richard Ramirez, were all active more than 30 years ago. And even without looking at the actual facts, it feels like this kind of crime has tapered off. And the stats bear this out — serial murder was a much more common crime in the '70s and '80s (the '80s saw over 600 serial murders) than it is now. It feels so far in the past that we may now think of it as retro phenomenon. That's the way it's presented on this fall's upcoming show, Wicked City — an '80s-set crime drama that makes serial killing seem as outdated as the Hollywood hair metal music scene that gives the show its backdrop.
So I was pretty surprised to find out that, according to former chief of the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit, John Douglas, there are 25 to 50 active serial killers in the United States at any given moment. Today. Right now.
What makes one count as an active serial killer, you might be very nervously asking yourself right now, while 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. A serial killer is someone who has committed at least two murders which were staggered out.
Now, I'll admit that when I first Googled this question, I assumed that the answer would be something along the lines of, "There are no serial killers anymore, because ... Internet!" But while the idea of 25 to 50 serial killers seems like a lot of people — even in the U.S. population of 321,000,000 people — I wondered if the stats regarding how much crime they were responsible for might soothe me. One murder is too many murders, of course. But if there are 25 active serial killers, and they're collectively only killing a few people a year, that doesn't make the world so terrifying a place that you don't want to ever get out of bed, right?
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.
There are also a number of unsolved serial murder cases in the United States at any given moment, even if they're not given as much media exposure as more famous cases. Connecticut serial killer William Howell just confessed to a series of murders committed in the 2000s. The person or people responsible for the recent deaths of six women in Chillicothe, Ohio remain at large. As does the murderer responsible for the deaths of 10 to 17 people discovered in Long Island's Gilgo Beach in 2011.
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 (up to 20 percent of serial killers are African-American, according to one Psychology Today article) 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 deranged geniuses. 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 maniacs who pop up on our TV screens. Far more often, they're just violent, ruthless people who kill for 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, the mentally ill, 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 this past July 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.
Images: Showtime, Giphy (2)