There's no greater boogeyman in our modern society than the serial killer. They're ruthless killers, they're everywhere, and they're after you — right? Not really. Serial killers are very real, and very dangerous, but the chances of you encountering one are next to nothing.
What a Serial Killer Is
Serial killers are known for their multiple killings performed in a similar fashion to similar victims, as portrayed in movies and TV shows, but there's a more specific definition that separates them from other multiple murderers. According to the FBI's Behavioural Analysis Unit, a serial killer is someone who has murdered at least three victims.
More importantly, those murders had to have taken place as separate events at different times, so the serial killer experiences what's described as an emotional cooling off period between each one. This makes them much different than mass murderers, spree killers, and for-hire murderers like hit men.
Why You're Afraid of Them
The scariest thing about serial killers is the general public's lack of understanding. They seem to target complete strangers simply so they can enjoy the pleasure of murdering them. There's no clear motive, so it makes it seem that no one in our society is safe. On top of that, serial killers aren't dysfunctional, transient loners, as Garry Rodgers, a retired homicide detective and forensic coroner turned crime writer, explains. They're seemingly normal people living normal lives:
Gary Ridgway, Seattle's Green River Killer, was married, lived in the same house for years, and held a steady job as an automotive painter. BTK murderer Dennis Rader was also married with children, a church leader, and slayed within a small radius of his home in Wichita, Kansas.
Serial killers could be anybody, from your nice neighbour to a grocery store clerk to your Bible study leader. This makes them feel like they're everywhere. Rodgers says they become a kind of folklore monster, like the boogeyman, Bigfoot, or a witch that lives in the forest — except you know they're out there, waiting to strike.
That type of mythology doesn't happen on its own, though. In the book Why We Love Serial Killers, author Scott Bonn, Ph.D, a professor of criminology at Drew University, explains that part of the problem is the sociological concept of "moral panic," which, according to Bonn, is a "situation in which public fears and state interventions greatly exceed the objective threat posed to society by a particular individual or group who is or are claimed to be responsible for creating the threat in the first place."
Basically, the public, mass media, and law enforcement make things out to be much worse than they are. If one killer is loose in the city, the entire population feels like they're at risk. On top of that, the media is obsessed with what are known as "atrocity tales," or colourful, shocking descriptions of events that are used to evoke moral outrage or mobilize control efforts. How could you not fear a serial killer when you're told all the gruesome details in such a dramatic, twisted way?
Why There's No Reason to Fear Them in General
OK, so you know why serial killers are scary, but why should you quash this fear once and for all? For one, serial murders are not as common as you think they are. According to Bronn, people greatly overestimate the number of serial killings in the U.S.:
As measured by opinion polls, the general public believes that serial killers are responsible for about 25 per cent of all murders in the U.S. In reality, serial killings account for no more than 1 per cent of all murders committed in the U.S.
To put that in perspective, there are roughly 15,000 murders in the U.S. every year, meaning serial killings account for less than 150 murders per year on average. And Bronn says the FBI estimates there are only 25 to 50 serial killers operating throughout the U.S. at any given time. There just aren't that many serial killers out there. In fact, as Rodgers points out, they're exceptionally rare:
Less than .01% of murders are classified as serial incidents. A 2013 study by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) lists the North American homicide rate as 3.9 per 100,000 in population, so doing the maths from a combined populace of 464 million, you've got a .00039% chance of being a serial killer's victim.
Even with Rodgers' higher estimate of roughly 300 serial killers currently active in all of North America, that still only puts them at about 0.00064 per cent of the population. And yes, you do have higher odds of winning the lottery — in case you were wondering.
But wait, one evil genius wreaking havoc around town is surely still something to be afraid of, right? Movies and TV make serial killers out to be brilliant madmen, so slick they could never be caught, but that isn't accurate at all. Bonn suggests that pop culture has cultivated the myth of the "evil genius serial killer":
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.
Bonn goes on to explain that what makes serial killers successful isn't intellect, but obsession, meticulous planning, and a psychopathic personality. So, they're no smarter than you or me, they're just really into the act of killing the same way you're really into Stranger Things. And even if they were the smooth criminals we see in fiction, Rodgers suggests their numbers are decreasing, with there being less and less of them over time. This is all thanks to advances in crime fighting, like DNA analysis, behavioural profiling, and other technological and psychological detection methods that give serial killers a lot less wiggle room.
What You Can Do to Avoid Them (in Case You're Still Worried About That)
Yes, serial killers are still out there, but avoiding them is actually pretty easy, says Rodgers. Their victims fall into some very specific categories and activities. Serial killers go for easy, vulnerable, disposable prey. That's usually young people of both sexes who have high-risk lifestyles, like sex trade workers, substance abusers, vagrants, and free spirits who travel alone. If you avoid that stuff, you should be safe — from them at least.
Also, Bonn says FBI data points to nearly half of the victims in known serial homicide cases that occurred between 1985 and 2010 were in their twenties or thirties. It seems the older you get the less likely you'll be a target — something to be happy about as you head over the hill. All in all, the odds of you being killed by a serial killer are ridiculously small, so save all that energy you've spent worrying for something more useful.
This is part of Lifehacker's Never Fear series. The world is a scary place, but we tend to misplace our fear in things that don't really deserve our precious time and energy. Let's fight those fears together with a little knowledge.