Myths about serial killers

Serial killings have a vast history and global presence that extend beyond American culture. The study of these crimes began in the 19th century, notably by Dr. Richard von Krafft-Ebing in his work Psychopathia Sexualis. Despite their infrequency, accounting for less than one percent of all annual homicides, serial murders captivate public interest. The fascination with serial killers dates back to London’s case of Jack the Ripper in the late 19th century, sparking a surge in literature, film, and media coverage.

Figures like Ted Bundy and the BTK killer have continued to capture public attention, though their stories are often distorted by Hollywood and media sensationalism, giving rise to numerous myths about serial killers. They are mistakenly stereotyped as isolated loners, and there are misconceptions about their race, motivations, patterns of behavior, and the belief that they cannot stop killing. However, in reality, serial killers can perfectly integrate into society, come from various racial groups, are driven by diverse motives, typically operate within certain areas, and sometimes cease their crimes without being discovered.

Serial killers are all dysfunctional loners

Contrary to the stereotype of the solitary maniac, many serial killers lead seemingly normal lives. They often have families, steady jobs, and actively participate in their communities. For instance, Gary Ridgeway, the Green River killer, was married three times, had a steady job as a truck painter, attended church regularly, and engaged in community activities. Their ability to blend into society allows them to evade suspicion and capture, challenging the narrative that serial killers are always social outcasts.

All serial killers are white males

Serial killers are not limited to any single race or ethnicity. While initial media coverage and some of the most infamous cases (like Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer) have focused on white males, serial killers come from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds. Charles Ng, of Asian descent; Derrick Todd Lee, an African American; and Rafael Resendez-Ramirez, from Mexico, are examples that illustrate the racial and ethnic diversity among serial killers. This misconception can lead to biases in investigative processes and public awareness, potentially overlooking threats posed by individuals who do not fit the stereotypical profile.

Serial killers are only motivated by sex

Although sexual gratification is a common motive among serial killers, it is far from the only one. Serial murders can also be driven by desires for power, control, thrill, financial gain, or even attention. The DC Sniper attacks, carried out by John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, were primarily motivated by anger and the thrill of terrorizing a community, illustrating that the psychological underpinnings of serial killings are varied and complex.

Serial killers travel and act across states

Most serial killers operate within a defined geographical area where they feel comfortable and in control. Their “comfort zone” is often influenced by their daily routines, including where they live, work, or have social ties. Although there are exceptions—such as killers who travel for work or lead itinerant lifestyles—these are not the norm. The misconception that serial killers frequently move across state borders can lead to misdirected investigations and misunderstandings of serial killers’ operational behaviors.

Serial killers cannot stop killing

It is a common belief that once a serial killer starts, they are compelled to continue until captured. However, there are instances where serial killers have stopped their spree of violence, often due to changes in their personal circumstances, such as increased family responsibilities, or self-imposed diversions. Dennis Rader, known as BTK, is a prime example, as he stopped killing years before being captured and engaged in less harmful activities. This challenges the notion of the unstoppable killer, suggesting that the impulses driving serial killings can be, at least temporarily, curbed.

Each of these myths perpetuates a simplified and often inaccurate picture of serial killers, hindering public understanding and potentially complicating law enforcement efforts. By dispelling these myths and approaching the topic with a nuanced perspective, society can better understand and address the complex phenomenon of serial killings.