December 17, 2008

No more serial killers?


While reading the news about the police naming Adam Walsh's killer, I was struck by the date -- 1981 -- and tried to think of the last time there was a high-profile serial killer. The Beltway Snipers... and that's about it. Son of Sam, the guy who killed Adam Walsh (Ottis Toole), and Jeffrey Dahmer at the latest.

So I went to Wikipedia's list of serial killers in the US, and it seems like most of them operated in the 1970s and '80s, peaking in the early '80s, with some in the mid-late '60s and early '90s. In other words, during the upward portion of the most recent cycle of violent crime. After looking through all of the American serial killers' entries, by a back-of-the-envelope calculation, I estimate that the period from 1940 to 1960, and from 1995 until now, show only 40% - 50% as many serial killers as you'd expect if they occurred at a constant rate.

That may not seem surprising, since the crime statistics show these trends for homicide and forcible rape, and serial killing is a special case of these. Still, serial killers just seem weirder -- they're not stabbing a guy to get his wallet or shooting a rape victim to keep her from testifying. And it's not an in-the-heat-of-the-moment murder like when a barroom argument escalates. They also tend to target marginal groups who can't easily come forward to the police -- children, the elderly, prostitutes, etc.

This shows that the recent decline in crime is not primarily due to putting more cops on the beat, which would only deter crimes like barroom brawls, street-corner drug deals, and so on. An academic article on the decline in all forms of child abuse since the early '90s stresses this point. (Follow-up data show the downward trend has continued after the article was published.) They also emphasize that the increasing use of the death penalty doesn't explain it either, since most crimes that declined were not punishable by death, or even close to it.

It's like there's some infectious disease that spreads and burns out like an epidemic. It doesn't have to be germs of course -- although it could be. Interactions between predators and prey, or hosts and parasites, can show cyclical behavior, and criminals and the law-abiding population are an awful lot like parasites and hosts. The point is that it's a single, general thing that spreads and burns out -- not a million different trends in crime, each with their own particular causes for rises and fall-offs.

Update. Here's a graph showing how often the phrase "serial killer" has appeared in the NYT, as a fraction of all articles during a year:

The first time the phrase appears is 1981, but doesn't really take off until the late '80s. It stays steady throughout the '90s, and increases more still after 2000. As with other examples that I've discussed here and at (such as "sex predator" and "pedophile"), this is more consistent with a delayed reaction -- by about a decade or so, and without checking crime statistics to see if the increasing coverage is justified by an increase in the crime rate. [End update]

Further evidence for the decline in serial killers is that no one makes movies about them anymore. The Wikipedia entry for slasher movie shows that most were made in the 1970s and '80s, that they peaked in 1983, and died off in the early '90s. The only ones since then are movies about previous slasher movies -- real serial killers are so out of the public mind that we can only make movies that are "meta" and self-referential. Yeah, there are those movies like Saw that aren't like that, but they're not common -- compare to 1984, when A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, and Silent Night, Deadly Night came out, among others.

I remember as a middle-schooler staying up late at friends' houses to watch Sleepaway Camp or My Bloody Valentine on Showtime, and just attributed my lack of interest in those types of movies afterward to growing up. But the teenagers who followed didn't seem to dig them at all. Someone who's 25 now was still in elementary school when the crime wave began subsiding, and throughout their adolescence and adulthood, they've known nothing but safety. It must be hard to sell slasher movies to a generation of young people who aren't terribly afraid of that stuff happening in real life.

The slasher movies, where teenagers are always running off into the woods to fuck, also show how much more widespread adolescent sluttiness was back then, whereas it has been declining since at least the early '90s. The worst thing now that could happen to teenagers making out is that someone might film it and upload it to YouTube. Why, back in my day, we had to keep one eye over our shoulder to look out for the ax-wielding maniac! You spoiled kids.


  1. Oh yes! We've noted this great trends as well here. we have a blog for your articles coming to gain more attention for your blogs. will be posted automatic and feed into our systems in the english thanks its awesome man!

  2. Things are so much different from 1980 in regards to security now. Traffic light cameras (everywhere where I live), cell phone cameras, Mace, tasers, keychain alarms, more handguns, cell phones, forensics (and the general populace's knowledge of forensic prowess due to television programs like CSI and America's Most Wanted which likely deter some would-be serial killers), home security systems, security cameras in businesses, gas station credit card reciepts that place one in the area and gas station surveillance video recordings that would get one's face if they went in and paid with cash that would also place them in an area at a certain time. It would be much harder to "get away" with being a serial killer for as long before running into a snag that would get one caught or at least named a suspect. Once one is a suspect, trust me forensics can then go snooping to get your DNA off a glass, cigarette, hair, or to get your prints of items youve touched, and all sorts of methods to determine if you are it. The fact that we print just about everybody on their first time offense now means your prints are likely in the database, and most serial killers are going to have a prior or two in their lives for something unrelated.

    I personally think that sex being availale via prostitution for the extremely frustrated probably keeps some men getting hateful towards females to the point that they would like to abduct and torture them. One can not only buy sex, but can buy sex from ex-porn stars if they are willing to pay the money for it. Even for an physically unattractive man, he should be able to find a "3" on the internet who would be willing to be a sex partner with him.

    Maybe we are also better at weeding out behaviors that incline a youngster to being a problem later (cruelty to animals) and get them on meds before they go off the rails more often.

    Less serial killers being operative at any one time is one of the positive social trends we can actually be encouraged about. I wonder also how many potential Jeffrey Dahmers out there are getting their rocks off being gamer addicts or watch dog fighting, girl fighting, MMA, or have indulged themselves completely in one or two "lifestyle" hobbies like extreme sports or sadomasochistic sex (the internet again, hooking up those with like minds), etc.

    Its interesting that you bring this up. As much as the "date rape" phenomenon on college campuses was really a myth, the prevalance of serial killers (and probably child molesters) is overinflated by the mainstream media and needs to be pointed out.

    The one crime I think that would be rampant, and might be more prevalent than we think, is probably teen prostitution. Those television shows like Dateline NBC that have police units stage busts whereby young underage females go in internet chatrooms and "invite" men who are to bring them "gifts" (read money) have really opened my eyes on that one. I'd have never have guessed that there were so many men willing to risk their freedom for a 15-16 year old they met over the internet, but watching a couple of those shows (and seeing a rabbi, fireman, former soldiers, mechanics, businessmen, and other respected adult males) and seeing the parade of seemingly very normal, not-ugly men get busted for that was a suprise. There might be more of that going on that we think.

  3. Are we getting better at catching these guys before they start a long string of murders? When the cops don't screw it up, CSI these days is pretty impressive.

  4. BTW might the decline in teenage sluttiness be related to how much kids are supervised these days? It used to be that kids were pretty much left to run wild.

  5. I think serial killing is something that thrives when attention is paid to it. So is it that the media focuses less on serial killing because there's less of it, or is there less serial killing because there is less media focus? I'm sure we just need one new sensational serial killer to spawn a bunch of copycats again.

  6. "It's like there's some infectious disease that spreads and burns out like an epidemic."

    Tetraethyl lead in gasoline?

  7. Look at it like this: there is a population bell curve called 'criminality'. As you move towards the right tail you run through sociopathy and finally psychopathy.

    You can view the secular reduction of criminality at every level. At the center you see a moderate reduction in ordinary socio-regulation behavior like teen sex. This corresponds with an even larger reduction in sociopathic behavior like murder and rape, and an even bigger drop at the far right tail where we have psychopathic behavior like serial killing.

    What this should mean is that there has also been a secular increase at the left tail of criminality. For instance have pro-social behaviors like increased blood donation coincided with the fall in homicide and rape?

    If so, this would argue against theories like cell phone availability or harsher sentencing that interpret the post-80s crime drop as something happening on the right tail, instead of a change affecting the entire population.

    On the other hand, if we see no population changes on the left side of the bell curve this supports crime reductions being due to harsher incentives to commit crime.

  8. For instance have pro-social behaviors like increased blood donation coincided with the fall in homicide and rape?

    I don't know -- that would involve looking up potentially cheery data.

  9. What we might be getting more of today are single-event massacres like the ones at Columbine and Virginia Tech. I'm not sure if the statistics support this, however, and don't have time right now to research the issue. But it certainly seems that way.

  10. My belief about the decline of the sexual serial killer is that we completed the social revolution by the early 80's. The role of women in society changed dramatically between the mid-60's and the early 80's. This I call the social revolution. Serial killers were sociopathic men who were unhinged by the social revolution. Today, men younger than 35-40 have grown up after the social revolution completed itself and therefor except the current status of women in society as normal.

    You will notice that the most recent serial killers (Yates, for example) have been significantly older than the profile norm (25 to 35 years old).

    Also, guys are more passivised by the whole PC culture we have had since the early 80's.

  11. I'm skeptical about the New Woman angle -- these things are part of a single "social upheaval" thingie, like during the peak of the previous crime wave in the 1920s, or the decadent time before that around the 1890s (e.g., Jack the Ripper).

    Serial killing kicks into gear in the late '60s / early '70s -- before women's lib was mainstream (mid to late '70s). Guys can't come unhinged *that* quickly.

  12. Peter Turchin already did the dirty work for you, Peter. Although, Agnostic shows that the NYT litmus test can get misled by fads.

    The catty comments must have driven Turchin away because he never did that school shooting follow up.

    Rampages don't appear to have a large overlap with psychopathy/serial killing. Eric Harris was a psychopath. But other than that, they largely appear to be angry, neutered depressives out to commit "vengeful suicide":

    "The definitive Secret Service study on school shooters found the killers varied in every trait except two: every shooter was male, and 98 percent had experienced a significant loss, grievance, or sense of failure. Two-thirds felt some sort of failure, and half had lost a loved one—typically meaning they'd been dumped."

    Psychopathy, on the other hand, is an extreme kind of criminal disposition (and it would seem from the nature of the crimes that serial killing is also a paraphilia).

    It's oddly common to think of rapists, sociopaths, and psychopaths, as awkward men, like many shooters, but really criminality appears to be associated with masculinity and interpersonal dominance. Unlike suicidal shooters, psychopaths are active social agents who are good at manipulating and exploiting.

  13. Well, I think you have to consider the acquisition of the "skill set" required to do this. If this started as disaffected men were returning from Vietnam, that correlates to the late '60's/early '70's timeline. And the sheer amount of "true crime" books and television in the pop culture have likely added to the general knowledge of how to avoid detection perhaps? Or they just find first-person shooter video games more to their liking...

  14. No recent killers? how about Dennis Rader BTK?

  15. Dennis Rader killed his victims from 1974 - 1991 -- not a one after the national crime wave reversed in 1992 - 1993.

  16. how about the "grim sleeper"?
    been killing from 85 to 2007?
    killed ll known so far, and they still have not caught the person.

    [heck, its a interesting challenge, so at least i am trying to get good info]

    Janecia Peters was the latest victim, jan 1 2007.

    an interesting aside that lends to your comments was that the "Southside Slayer" turned out to be five people (the date is out of range ending in 93, no?).

    [oh... and what about the tv series dexter?]

    Serhyi Tkach is in the ukraine, so i guess that doesnt count, but the odd one there is that he was a forensic expert.

    Clifton Bloomfield - five murders between 2005 and 2007

    Scott Kimball - believed to have killed four women between 2003, and 2004 (convicted of another offense and will not be out soon)

    what i think is happening is that they are being hidden more from the public. just like other upsetting news... and that perhaps they use other terms rather than serial.. spree and multiple murders are now two new classes..

    i think also that they are not doing the work as well since other crimes are easier and get more money and things for the force..

    so there probably is a lower attempt to link various crimes together till they ahve a culprit. in the past they might surmise they have a serial killer, today they might not do that, and then do so after they catch someone for one crime...

    also, compared to other crimes, many serial killers do not leave their victims in the open.. they hide them and so there is a huge unknown question as to how many really are there since hiding things in a country this large can be done pretty easy.

    by the way... alaska and "gone missing" is an easy way for many just to not even be looked at.

    interesting challenge... if i come up with another i will post... but i am not too interested about them...

    oh... and many of them are not found or there crimes are not know for long times... so whats happening now may not be discovered for another 10 years.

  17. I never said there weren't any recent serial killers. Just that "most of them operated... during the upward portion" of the recent crime wave, and that in the crime-decreasing times, there are only 40 - 50% as many as you'd expect if the rate were constant.

    Usually the serial killer's victims are found out about pretty soon, not 10 years later. Extra ones may be found out later, but when there's a maniac on the loose, we find out very soon.

  18. Agnostic -- I think you operate under some huge assumptions that may skew the actual data:

    1. That the NYT and other press organs accurately report what is happening. They may not, particularly if the victims are not pretty, White, middle class Americans.

    2. Police may not pursue serial killer cases actively where the victims are non-White prostitutes. This has been the case allegedly in South LA.

    3. Migration to poor areas for serial killers, such as the border region of Mexico-US, where enforcement resources are minimal.

    4. High mobility allowing serial killing to be "hidden" by killing victims across many jurisdictions.

    While information about such things is spotty, much of what we know is a "black hole" where we don't know what is going on. We just don't know. Intuitively, it would seem that if people are inclined to kill other human beings, repeatedly, for motives other than pure profit, they are unlikely to stop for social reasons.

  19. did it ever occur to ye that people are just getting BETTER at hiding their killings? how many people go missing? how many cases of child obduction are coming out lately to show that kids who went missing.. ten.. fifteen.. twenty years ago had been locked up all this time and abused!
    even all those shows and movies like criminal minds csi etc.. they show you what not to do.. i think we need to consider the fact that they are out there. they are just much smarter now!


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