Excerpted with permission from Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World’s Most Savage Murderers, by Scott Bonn. Skyhorse Publishing. Copyright © 2014.
Much of the general public’s knowledge concerning serial homicide is a product of sensationalized and stereotypical depictions of it in the news and entertainment media. Colorful story lines are written to pique the interest of audiences, not to paint an accurate picture of serial murder.
By focusing on the larger-than-life media images of socially constructed “celebrity monsters,” the public becomes captivated by the stylized presentation of the criminals rather than the reality of their crimes. Media stereotypes and hyperbole create myths and great distortions in the public consciousness regarding the true dynamics and patterns of serial murder in the U.S.
The Reality of Serial Homicide in the U.S.
Serial killings account for no more than 1 percent of all murders committed in the U.S. Based on recent FBI crime statistics, there are approximately 15,000 murders annually, so that means there are no more than 150 victims of serial murder in the U.S. in any given year.1 The FBI estimates that there are between twenty-five and fifty serial killers operating throughout the U.S. at any given time.
If there are fifty, then each one is responsible for an average of three murders per year. Serial killers are always present in society. However, the statistics reveal that serial homicide is quite rare and it represents a small portion of all murders committed in the U.S.
Persistent misinformation, stereotypes and hyperbole presented in the media have combined with the relative rarity of serial murder cases to foster a number of popular myths about serial murder. The most common myths about serial killers encompass such factors as their race, gender, intelligence, living conditions and victim characteristics.
Myth #1: All Serial Killers Are Men.
Reality: This is simply not true but it is understandable why the public would hold this erroneous belief. As late as 1998, a highly regarded former FBI profiler said “there are no female serial killers.” The news and entertainment media also perpetuate the stereotypes that all serial offenders are male and that women do not engage in horrible acts of violence.
When the lethality of a femme fatale is presented in book or film, she is most often portrayed as the manipulated victim of a dominant male. This popular but stereotypical media image is consistent with traditional gender myths in society which claim that boys are aggressive by nature while girls are passive. In fact, both aggressiveness and passivity can be learned through socialization and they are not gender specific.
The reality concerning the gender of serial killers is quite different than the mythology of it. Although there have been many more male serial killers than females throughout history, the presence of female serial killers is well documented in the crime data.  In fact, approximately 17 percent of all serial homicides in the U.S. are committed by women.2 Interestingly, only 10 percent of total murders in the U.S. are committed by women. Therefore, relative to men, women represent a larger percentage of serial murders than all other homicide cases in the U.S. This is an important and revealing fact that defies the popular understanding of serial murder.
Myth #2: All Serial Killers Are Caucasian.
Reality: Contrary to popular mythology, not all serial killers are white. Serial killers span all racial and ethnic groups in the U.S. The racial diversity of serial killers generally mirrors that of the overall U.S. population. There are well documented cases of African-American, Latino and Asian-American serial killers. African-Americans comprise the largest racial minority group among serial killers, representing approximately 20 percent of the total. Significantly, however, only white, and normally male, serial killers such as Ted Bundy become popular culture icons.
Although they are not household names like their infamous white counterparts, examples of prolific racial minority serial killers are Coral Eugene Watts, a black man from Michigan, known as the “Sunday Morning Slasher,” who murdered at least seventeen women in Michigan and Texas; Anthony Edward Sowell, a black man known as the “Cleveland Strangler” who kidnapped, raped and murdered eleven women in Ohio; and Rafael Resendez-Ramirez, a Mexican national known as the “Railroad Killer,” who killed as many as fifteen men and women in Kentucky, Texas, and Illinois.
Myth #3: All Serial Killers Are Isolated and Dysfunctional Loners.
Reality: The majority of serial killers are not reclusive social misfits who live alone, despite pervasive depictions of them as such in the news and entertainment media, including the socially challenged “Tooth Fairy” serial killer in the film Red Dragon. Real-life serial killers are not the isolated monsters of fiction and, frequently, they do not appear to be strange or stand out from the public in any meaningful way.
Many serial killers are able to successfully hide out in plain sight for extended periods of time. Those who successfully blend in are typically also employed, have families and homes and outwardly appear to be non-threatening, normal members of society. Because serial killers can appear to be so innocuous, they are often overlooked by law enforcement officials, as well as their own families and peers.
In some rare cases, an unidentified serial killer will even socialize and become friendly with the unsuspecting police detectives who are tracking him. The incredible tale of Ed Kemper (the “Co-ed Killer”) provides an example of this phenomenon.
Serial killers who hide out in plain sight are able to do so precisely because they look just like everyone else. It is their ability to blend in that makes them very dangerous, frightening and yet very compelling to the general public.
Myth #4: All Serial Murderers Travel Widely and Kill Interstate.
Reality: The roaming, homicidal maniac such as Freddy Krueger in the cult film A Nightmare on Elm Street is another entertainment media stereotype that is rarely found in real life. Among the most infamous serial killers, Ted Bundy is the rare exception who traveled and killed interstate. Bundy twice escaped from police custody and committed at least thirty homicides in the states of Washington, Utah, Florida, Colorado, Oregon, Idaho and California. Articulate, educated, well-groomed and charming, Bundy was truly atypical among serial killers in his cross-country killing rampage.
Unlike Bundy, most serial killers have very well defined geographic areas of operation. They typically have a comfort zone—that is, an area that they are intimately familiar with and where they like to stalk and kill their prey. Jack the Ripper provides the classic example of this geographic preference because he stalked and killed exclusively in the small Whitechapel district of London in the fall of 1888.
The comfort zone of a serial killer is often defined by an anchor point such as a place of residence or employment. Crime statistics reveal that serial killers are most likely to commit their first murder very close to their place of residence due to the comfort and familiarity it offers them. John Wayne Gacy “The Killer Clown” buried most of his thirty-three young, male victims in the crawl space beneath his house after sexually assaulting and murdering them.
Serial killers sometimes return to commit murder in an area they know well from the past such as the community in which they were raised. Over time, serial murderers may extend their activities outside of their comfort zone but only after building their confidence by executing several successful murders while avoiding detection by law enforcement authorities.
As noted by the FBI in its 2005 report on serial murder, the crime data reveal that very few serial predators actually travel interstate to kill.3 The few serial killers who do travel interstate to kill typically fall into one of three categories: 1) Itinerant individuals who periodically move from place to place; 2) Chronically homeless individuals who live transiently; or 3) Individuals whose job function lends itself to interstate or transnational travel such as truck drivers or those in the military service.
The major difference between these individuals who kill serially and other serial murderers is the nature of their traveling lifestyle which provides them with many zones of comfort in which to operate. Most serial killers do not have such opportunities to travel and keep their killings close to home.
Myth #5: All Serial Killers Are Either Mentally Ill Or Evil Geniuses.
Reality: The images presented in the news and entertainment media suggest that serial killers either have a debilitating mental illness such as psychosis or they are brilliant but demented geniuses like Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Neither of these two stereotypes is quite accurate. Instead, serial killers are much more likely to exhibit antisocial personality disorders such as sociopathy or psychopathy, which are not considered to be mental illnesses by the American Psychiatric Association (APA). An examination of psychopathy and sociopathy, and a discussion of the powerful connection between antisocial personality disorders and serial homicide is presented in chapter 4.
In fact, very few serial killers suffer from any mental illness to such a debilitating extent that they are considered to be insane by the criminal justice system. To be classified as legally insane, an individual must be unable to comprehend that an action is against the law at the exact moment the action is undertaken. In other words, a serial killer must be unaware that murder is legally wrong while committing the act of murder in order to be legally insane. This legal categorization of insanity is so stringent and narrow that very few serial killers are actually included in it.
Psychopathic serial killers such as John Wayne Gacy and Dennis Rader are entirely aware of the illegality of murder while they are in the process of killing their victims. Their understanding of right and wrong does nothing to impede their crimes, however, because psychopaths such as Gacy and Rader have an overwhelming desire and compulsion to kill that causes them to ignore the criminal law with impunity.
When they are apprehended, serial killers rarely are determined to be mentally incompetent to stand trial and their lawyers rarely utilize an insanity defense on their behalf. Once again, this is due to the extremely narrow legal definition of insanity which simply does not apply to most psychopathic killers. Even David Berkowitz, the infamous Son of Sam, who told his captors tales of satanic rituals and demonic possession, was found to be competent to stand trial for his murders following his arrest in 1977.
Considerable mythology also surrounds the intelligence of serial killers. There is a popular culture stereotype that serial killers are cunning, criminal geniuses. This stereotype is heavily promoted by the entertainment media in television, books and films. In particular, Hollywood has established a number of brilliant homicidal maniacs like John Doe in the acclaimed 1995 film Se7en. John Doe personifies the stereotype of the evil genius serial killer who outsmarts law enforcement authorities, avoids justice and succeeds in his diabolical plan.
The image of the evil genius serial killer is mostly a Hollywood invention.  Real serial killers generally do not possess unique or exceptional intellectual skills. The reality is that most serial killers who have had their IQ tested score between borderline and above average intelligence. This is very consistent with the general population. Contrary to mythology, it is not high intelligence that makes serial killers successful. Instead, it is obsession, meticulous planning and a cold-blooded, often psychopathic personality that enable serial killers to operate over long periods of time without detection.
1 Uniform Crime Report. 2011. Retrieved http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/2011/crime-in-the-u.s.-2011/violent-crime/murder
2 Hickey, E. W. 1997. Serial Murderers and Their Victims. Belmont, Calf.: Wadsworth.
3 Morton, R. J. 2005. Serial Murder: Multi-Disciplinary Perspectives for Investigators. National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice. Retrieved http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/serial-murder