Serial Killers and the Writers Who Love Them: Facts about Popular Myths

I am proud to welcome Dr. Katherine Ramsland as a guest on my blog. Dr. Ramsland has published 33 books and teaches forensic psychology and criminal justice at DeSales University, where she chairs the Social Sciences Department.  Among her books are Inside the Minds of Serial Killers, The Human Predator (a history of serial murder), The Criminal Mind, and The Unknown Darkness, with former FBI profiler Gregg McCrary.  In April, she will published The Devil’s Dozen: How Cutting Edge Forensics Took Down 12 Notorious Serial Killers.  She has also written a series of books to clarify facts about investigations, notably The Forensic Science of CSI, the Science of Cold Case Files, The CSI Effect, and True Stories of CSI.  Later this year, she offers The Life of a Forensic Scientist, with Dr. Henry Lee and The Forensic Psychology of Criminal Minds. Dr. Ramsland writes:

We have many myths attached to serial killers in our culture, most of them from outdated studies or from fiction and film. While those early studies had their merits, they’re not, and never were, representative of serial killers as a whole.  In fact, the early conclusions about serial killers were derived from studying articulate, imprisoned, white, male American serial killers – and in limited numbers at that – about 25.  Even my undergraduate Psychological Sleuthing class knows better than to accept this as sound.

Former FBI profiler Robert K. Ressler told Sue Russell when she was writing a biography of killer Aileen Wuornos that there were no hard and fast rules. Too many people, he said, try to oversimplify the psychology of these killers, but for every attempt to state a “truth,” one can find counterexamples that undermine it.  Some killers have a victim preference, for example, but many do not.  While a lot of killers grew up in abusive homes, some enjoyed plenty of privilege and experienced no abuse whatsoever.  Generalizations, Ressler indicated, do a disservice to the subject.

I have examined more than 1,300 cases of serial murder, looking at several hundred in detail via court transcripts, correspondences, newspaper archives and true crime biographies.  In the process I have found that there are many motives that drive these offenders, they come from diverse backgrounds, and for almost every definitive claim that has been made about them there are exceptions that undermine it. 

Even the definition of serial murder can be confusing, so let me address it.  While it was once the case that any type of incident that involved a number of murders was called “multiple murder” or “mass murder,” eventually it became clear that distinctions were needed.  We believe the phrase, “serial killer,” was first used in The Complete Detective in 1950, but it’s generally accepted that in 1976, with the “Son of Sam” case in New York, FBI Special Agent Robert Ressler initiated its use for cases on which he and his colleagues were consulting in the Behavioral Science Unit (now the Behavioral Analysis Unit).  Thus, it became common parlance for a specific type of multiple murder incident, as opposed to being a spree or mass murder.  (He apparently based it on how the British had been using “serial burglary” or “series burglary” for repeat burglars.)

I usually begin my course on serial murder with the following list, and then explain why they’re not true.  If you’re a fan of movies, novels, and television shows that feature serial killers, you may believe some of these are true:

THERE AREN’T AS MANY NOW AS THERE WERE IN THE 1970S AND 80S

THE FBI ALWAYS GETS INVOLVED IN A SERIAL KILLER INVESTIGATION

IT TAKES AN UNIQUE INVESTIGATOR TO TRACK DOWN A SERIAL KILLER

SERIAL KILLERS ARE SMARTER THAN MOST PEOPLE

JACK THE RIPPER WAS THE WORLD’S FIRST SERIAL KILLER

AILEEN WUORNOS WAS THE WORLD’S FIRST FEMALE SERIAL KILLER

THEY’RE INVARIABLY GOOD-LOOKING, REFINED AND CHARMING

99% ARE WHITE, MIDDLECLASS MALES BETWEEN 18 AND 35

THOSE KILLERS WITH THE MOST VICTIMS ARE FROM THE U.S.

AMERICA HAS 75% OF THE WORLD’S SERIAL KILLERS

THEY ALWAYS WORK ALONE

THEY’RE LONERS, WITHOUT RELATIONSHIPS OR FAMILIES

THEY ALWAYS LEAVE A SIGNATURE

THEY’RE INSANE

THEY ALWAYS CHOOSE THE SAME TYPE OF VICTIM

THEY ALWAYS USE THE SAME TYPE OF KILLING METHOD/SAME WEAPON

THEY’RE ALWAYS AWARE OF THE INVESTIGATION

THEY LIKE TO PLAY CAT-AND-MOUSE WITH INVESTIGATORS

THEY USUALLY TRY TO INSERT THEMSELVES INTO THE INVESTIGATION

THEY USUALLY TARGET THE LEAD INVESTIGATORS

THEY ALWAYS RETURN TO THE CRIME SCENE

THEIR MURDERS ARE SEXUALLY MOTIVATED

THEY’RE ALL PSYCHOPATHS

THEY PREFER TO KILL UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL

FROM 30-50 SERIAL KILLERS ARE ON THE LOOSE IN THE U.S. AT ANY TIME

5,000+ AMERICAN CITIZENS PER YEAR ARE THE VICTIMS OF SERIAL KILLERS

THEY WANT TO BE CAUGHT, SO THEY ALWAYS MAKE A MISTAKE

The truth is, serial killers are not all alike.  They’re not all male.  Some have been as young as eight or older than fifty.  They’re not all driven by sexual compulsion.  They’re not all intelligent, nor even clever – often, they’re just lucky.  They’re not all charming.  A single killer may choose different weapons or methods of operation, although they will tend to stay with whatever works best.  Even with rituals, the basis of a “signature,” they often experiment and change things.  They might be profit-driven, in search of thrill or self-gratification, or compelled by some other deep-seated desire, fear or need.  Occasionally, serial murder is about revenge or it’s inspired by a delusion.  In most cases, the killer does not wish to be stopped or caught.  Yet a few do intentionally undermine themselves or stop of their own accord.  Some rare killers have even professed remorse or killed themselves.

Many more serial killers are emerging in other countries, both historically and now.  Just this month, I’ve seen reports from Jamaica, India, South Korea, China, Germany, Russia, England, and Indonesia.  There are as many now as there ever were, and there were plenty of killers in past history.  Among the earliest documented killers, as far back as Ancient Rome, was a female poisoner, and females have been among those with the highest victim toll (American serial killers don’t even come close, with Gary Ridgway holding the documented record here at 48.)

The notion that 30-50 killers are operating in the U.S. at any given time came from FBI agents during the 1980s who were seeking funds for more resources, and the same goes for 5,000-plus victims.  Although one researcher has recently revived this claim, based on how many people have gone missing in the U.S., it’s a great leap in logic to say that most must be victims of serial murder.  

We have plenty of serial killers from different races, too.  The reason we think that most are white is because the U. S. media has focused most often on white male serial killers.  Try Japan, South Africa, Mexico, or South America. A most intriguing one right now is a woman in Germany who has been killing and committing robberies for about 15 years, leaving DNA behind but not getting caught. 

Quite a few killers have had families or been in relationships.  Their IQs range from borderline mentally retarded to genius, with most about average.  Some have been psychotic, while about 90% are psychopaths.  About 15% work in teams, and teams have range from two or three to more than a dozen.

The FBI gets involved if they’re invited or if the killer has crossed state or international boundaries.  Often, they’re not the super-sleuths who solve the case, but consultants assisting with their computerized database.  It’s usually a local detective or task force that breaks the case, just using good police work or catching a killer making a mistake (like driving around with a body in the car.)

Obviously, writers don’t have the time to collect and read all the cases, but accessible sources are available from criminology to allay some of these myths and provide details interesting enough for developing a fictional villain.  If a criminological text or article is from the 1990s, chances are that it subsumed the FBI’s unrepresentative prison study of 25 white guys and extrapolated from there.  More recent publications – including the FBI’s new report from its international symposium – provide better facts.  Mostly the FBI would like writers and reporters to know, “there is no profile of a serial killer.”  There is no single set of parameters or traits or behaviors that blueprint that clever, white, male, lone-wolf, game player who stands out because he’s been abused or has a head injury and is driven to sexually assault and kill white females.

See also: Deception Detection: The Truth About Lie Detecters by Dr. Katherine Ramsland

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37 Responses to “Serial Killers and the Writers Who Love Them: Facts about Popular Myths”

  1. jenn nixon Says:

    Great article! Thanks for sharing. I’ll be stalking your blog more often!

  2. Steven Clark Bradley Says:

    Very interesting piece. I think this writer has done exhaustive research on the subject. Pat, you are a very interesting person, you know that? I have to read your books!

    Steven

  3. Yvonne Mason Says:

    As a Bounty Hunter as well as a graduate with a degree in Criminal Justice. I agree with Dr. Ramsland. As I was researching my book Silent Scream which is about Florida’s first Serial Killer Gerard Schaefer, I found that many of his vicitms fit not pattern with the execption that he liked killing in pairs. And again when Dr. Ramsland says it is not sexual that is very true. It is about power and fear as a general rule. It is about the ability to hold power over another human being and keeping them afraid. thereby increasing that power.
    That is what Gerard Schaefer did to his victims. The sex was an after thought.

  4. A. F. Stewart Says:

    Fascinating post.
    I think the whole subject of serial killers is intriguing, especially the historic ones like Jack the Ripper and Elisabeth Bathory.

  5. joylene Says:

    Fascinating article. Why are we so interested in these people? Fear of becoming like them? Or breeding more?

    The Russian authorities believe that Andrei Chikatilo killed 52 women and children between 1978 and 1990. I came across the case by accident when I was doing research for a book. Four years later, after he was found guilty and all his appeals failed, he was taken to a sound-proof room and shot just behind his ear. Simple as that. It seems they were more interested in ridding their country of him, than sending doctors in to determine what made him tick.

    Canada has had 11 serial killers. Two were hung before Canada decided to eliminate the death penalty.

  6. Sarah Richmond Says:

    Now I’m going to have nightmares.

    Thanks for the information. I’m taking a class at UCLA on writing villains. Every story has to have a villain.

  7. Tim Says:

    Has there been any attempt to draw a correlation between serial killers and hitmen? Other than the cash motivation, they were appear to have lots in common.

    TWH

  8. Nancy Pate Says:

    Very interesting. Have read several of Dr. Ramslund’s book and found them quite informative.
    When I was regularly reviewing crime fiction, I got so sick of cliched serial killers, which was most of them. Especially hated seeing innocent animals such as cats killed off in grotesque fashion just to show that the demented serial killer was a demented serial killer. Done to death…

  9. Caden Leigh Says:

    I believe we are so intrigued by them, because most dark things lure us in. As children we are taught to seek the light, the good, but we all have those feeling of jumping up and slapping that person screaming at the top of their lungs during a movie. But we are taught not to give in, to be the better person and ignore them. Serial killers give into their animal instincts: they hunt their prey, play with them, then when they are tired, they kill them and keep a souvenir. Deep down we envy their freedom and lose of humanity.

    Sisses,

    Caden Leigh
    If you plan to be original, count on being copied.

  10. Kerri Says:

    I thought this was a very interesting article. I have just begun researching serial killers for my writing.

  11. Kat Sheridan Says:

    Fascinating, and horrifying! Like most, I had a general perception of what a serial killer “looked” like. This eye-opening article changed my mind. So interesting to hear someone with such an incredibly solid background discuss this topic. I’m going to have to add some of your works to my collection! And Pat, thank you for hosting!

  12. Linda Moss Says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed this reading. I learned alot about something that intrigues me. Dr Ramsland gave us a whole new insight into the mind of serial killlers. Thanks for the positing.

  13. Craig Faustus Buck Says:

    Fascinating piece. How about some links to the “more recent publications”?

  14. Michelle Buonfiglio Says:

    Thanks. Pat, for bringing this to my attn via facebook. I’ll be letting others know about it. Really cool to learn I know even less about this than I thought; total student of ‘serial killer’ flicks/tv. Intriguing,too, is Dr. Ramsland’s body of work. As a student of romance- and erotic fiction, I’ll be looking for her pieces on current vampire trend in literature, etc.

  15. Kenna Says:

    Great post, Pat! Thanks for sharing your experience with us, Dr. Ramsland.

  16. Mona Malhotra Says:

    Thanks for the information, may come in handy as a Criminal Lawyer some day :-)) … A movie running in our local theatres in Bombay (Mumbai) called The Stoneman Murders deals with a serial killer. I remember this story as being true as I had heard and read about it in the newspapers as a kid. Others may want to check it out. Mona

  17. Rick R. Reed Says:

    As someone who has written a few novels about serial killers, I found this particularly fascinating. I have long wondered about my fascination with such people…after all, I’m such a nice, quiet guy: what’s wrong with me? Actually I think other people wonder that more than me. I think the fascination I have (and readers and fans of genres like the thriller or true crime) is rooted in two things: an interest in probing our own dark sides, things that may lurk in our psyches that we often do not acknowledge or want to acknowledge during the light of day (and I’m NOT saying we all have an impulse to kill, just that everyone has light and dark sides); second, I think that by imagining, writing about, or reading about such people can help allay very real fears about death and violence. By looking something in the eye, we may thwart it from looking US in the eye. Great blog!

  18. Ellen McCarthy Says:

    I have written stories about killers who killed more than once but I hadn’t considered them serial killers because they were not the strict image we have of the serial killer. Now I see I should throw my old assumptions out the window. This is an excellent topic and more research is needed on my part.

  19. Michelle Gagnon Says:

    Interesting article. I understand there are serial killers in other countries, but isn’t the US still far and away the leader in terms of sheer numbers? I know some of the numbers were tweaked, but I thought that the stat that we have at least 70% of the world’s cases was fairly accurate.

  20. Sandy Says:

    Fantastic post. Who would’ve known there’s no profile. As a writer that is freeing.

    Thanks a lot.

  21. Saoirse Redgrave Says:

    Fascinating! I’d done some research on serial killers just out of curiosity, but I fell into the trap that evidently others have, too–that there should be a set of similarities between them (darn the misleading nature of television! ;-).

    Wonderful information.

  22. Wanda Says:

    A lot of information about serial killers. Although I have never found anything fascinating about serial killers. Rather they repulse me and I find myself thinking they are somewhat less than human. But this kind of info really helps the writer trying to portray a character like this. Great job, Dr. Ramsland. Thanks, Pat for hosting this informative guest.

  23. James Boyle Says:

    Interesting article. I too, had been snared by the “single, white male between 18-35, loner, above average intelligence” profile so widely reported in the media. Which, of course, I’ve fit perfectly for most of my life. It only makes sense that there is no such cut-and-dried profile, because people don’t generally fit neatly into ANY sociological niche. Why should serial killers? As a writer, it really means everything is possible. You could make your serial killer a little black girl scout who kills people who refuse to buy her cookies and be perfectly valid.

  24. Craig Faustus Buck Says:

    For those who care, here’s a link to the new FBI report: http://www.fbi.gov/publications/serial_murder.pdf (or .htm)

    The fact that our previous perceptions were formed by an inadequate earlier FBI report goes unaddressed in the new report. The FBI had the resources it needed to do a representative study at the time, so was the limited subject selection the result of ethnocentricity? Or did white loners between 18-35 tend to get caught more often than others? Or did killers of other races and social habits tend to get killed during arrest? Does anyone know why the initial study was so flawed?

  25. sherilynwinrose Says:

    Very fascinating and enlightening article.

  26. D.B. Pacini Says:

    This is great! Thanks for sharing this Pat. Dr. Ramsland thank you for sharing your knowledge with us!

  27. dellanioakes Says:

    Very interesting article! I just saw “Changling”, which features a serial killer. Strangely enough, he’s not the main villain, he’s actually rather pathetic.

    I also wonder why we have such a fascination for them. Perhaps because they are an uncontrollable force that’s out of control.

    Interesting as the subject is, I don’t think I’ll ever do more research into serial killers, nor will I write about them. I’m paranoid enough without knowing all the facts. I think I’d be terrified and never leave my house again if I did.

  28. J.R. Lindermuth Says:

    Excellent article. Good clearing out of the myths and assumptions that might lead us astray in creating our own characters.

  29. Ana Says:

    Pat this was definitely a very interesting article. I was amazed by Dr. Ramsland list and the actual truths.

  30. Katherine Says:

    About hit men and SKs, I included two in The Human Predator, Roy DeMeo and Richard Kuklinski, because they did more than just kill someone as part of their job, and they enjoyed the tasks. It’s not a formal study, but I do talk about the differences.
    The movie of the Stone Man is interesting, because there have been two more Stone Man murders there since the movies started showing in theaters.
    While the U.S. has the most DOCUMENTED serial killers, because we have more media attention to it and a more organized approach, our numbers have not reached as high as 70%, and even now, we see many more serial killers in other countries. Russia and South Africa have quite a few.
    About the original study, they were very limited on who was doing them (two agents), and they found that to get SOME info, it was better to focus on articulate people than liars and psychotics. It was never intended as a randomized study, but as the start of a database. Unfortunately, the statistical analyses done from the study ended up being presented as representative by crminologists who picked up on them. The agents didn’t intend it for academic use but for law enforcement.
    Thanks, everyone for your participation in this event.

  31. GABixler Says:

    I just started Mariah Stewart’s, Forgotten, and she includes that a serial killer must be “profiled” on an individual basis, so I think they must be taking your class or reading your books! I love fictional stories, but really do not enjoy true crime types of stories…strange, probably, but I love the investigation and theory, but not that this is “real…” Ok, I know that doesn’t make sense, but it does for me! LOL

    Excellent essay and thanks for info! Best wishes for your books…do you plan to “do fiction” sometime in the future?

  32. Katherine Says:

    Yes, I’d like to.

  33. Max Salt Says:

    For me, speaking as a fiction writer of course, what’s great about serial killers is they are a realistic replacement for all the supernatural monsters that were (and often still are) the standard stuff of horror and suspense stories. I think these days a lot of folks still want monsters in their stories, but have a harder time accepting the supernatural kind. Serial killers, even if they aren’t always depicted realistically, are real, and real scary, so they’re great fodder for stories in which there needs to be a bogeyman or a dragon for the hero(ine) to fight against. The other great thing about serial killers, again still speaking dramatically, is they keep killing, allowing for tension and suspense to build and creating a timeline and room for a plot. I suppose these reasons were key when I was coming up with the idea for the Shailene Campbell chronicles, although initially I didn’t think it through this much. I just liked the idea of a young woman turning the tables on the bad guys who are out to get her or other vulnerable people.

  34. Den Relojo Says:

    Female serial killers are still deemed to be the rarest breed of criminal, accounting for less than 10% of all solved murders in any given year. Perhaps it is precisely because of this rarity that when we talk about serial killers it is mostly limited to Ted Bundy, Jack the Ripper, Ed Gein, among others.

    This time let me share with you the story of Belle Gunness who was considered to be the first female serial killer. Belle Gunness was one of America’s most productive female serial killers. Standing 6 feet tall and weighing in at over 200 lbs, she was an imposing and powerful woman of Norwegian descent. She is also known as Lady Bluebeard and was labeled as a Black Widow (because she is a woman who kill men in particular.) Born in the mid 1800s, Belle Sorenson Gunness is indeed one of the most prolific female serial killers the United Sates has known. It is believed she is responsible for killing over twenty people over the course of several decades. Her victims included two husbands, several suitors, and two if not all of her children. The motivation for her murders was the collection of life insurance benefits.

    I adore strong, independent, and influential women. I adore Gloria Arroyo. I was raised to be strong and independent, and I have always looked up to the women (and men) in this world who dare to make a stand, speak up and be heard, and ultimately make a difference, no matter how small it may be. It could have been different if she sought ways to have fun. Too bad that she did not had the luxury of enjoying internet casino. It could have been a good way for her to vent out her feelings.

    But what about the evil women of this world? Women who have used their strength and power not to help but to harm?

  35. eugene268 Says:

    The reason there are more white serial killers than black ones is because there are more white men than black men. Think about the question of why there are more murders by young black males, five percent of the population than there are by all the rest of the nationalities combined?

  36. eugene268 Says:

    Click here: YouTube – Black Serial Killers

  37. Serial Killers and Sociopaths | Bertram's Blog Says:

    […] Ramsland, a forensic psychologist, debunks this stereotype in a guest post she did for this blog: Serial Killers and the Writers Who Love Them: Facts about Popular Myths. As Ramsland points out, “Serial killers are not all alike. They’re not all male. Some have […]


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