Serial Killers Essay

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Serial killing is defined as four or more homicides in separate events, in which there is a psychological “cool-down” period for the perpetrator, which may be weeks, months, or years. It is commonly distinguished from mass killing and spree killing, in which there is no “cool-down” period. Unlike mass and spree killers, who are usually killed by police or take their own lives at the scene of their crimes, most serial killers are taken into custody, tried, and convicted.

The historical record includes many cases of mass, spree, and serial killing since at least 1500. Some speculate that earlier legends such as those of Count Dracula and “Vlad the Impaler” from Romania and Transylvania in the 1600s may be interpreted as early serial killings. The accounts of “Jack the Ripper,” who killed four London prostitutes in 1888, are often credited as the beginnings of contemporary urban legends concerning serial killers. During the 20th century, serial killers stimulated a popular culture industry including movies (171 with serial killers during the 1990s), books (more than 300 books published since 1980), trading cards, comic books (by Boneyard Press), retro and costume clothing, and fan clubs. The 1991 Oscar-winning film Silence of the Lambs and its sequel arguably account for some of the contemporary craze, as does a socially constructed media image that is factually incorrect.

In reality, serial killing is rare, accounting for less than 1 percent of all homicides in the United States, the undisputed world leader in this area. Research shows that today most serial killers are white males, but about 20 percent are African Americans or blacks and about 17 percent are females. About 1 in 5 serial killings involves a team of two people who work together.

While respected Federal Bureau of Investigation profilers are insistent that there is no known “profile” associated with such a statistically rare phenomenon, clinical and in-depth case studies of surviving serial killers have revealed a credible set of generalizations about their behavior. The animus of the pattern begins very early in an individual’s life, and some kind of profound child maltreatment is common, which some observers have called “child abuse plus.” Problematic behaviors and acting out usually begin before adolescence, and this is commonly known to parents (if they exist) and others. More than 75 percent of known serial killers have prior juvenile and/or criminal records. The sexually motivated killers usually have patterns of adolescent sex abuse of some kind, usually beginning at low levels and escalating to more serious forms over time. Substance abuse is common, as it is with many other criminal behaviors in U.S. culture. Early uses of pornography are as common for serial killers as with all other adult males. A very distinctive part of the serial killing etiology found in most cases is an elaborate serial killing fantasy, which commonly evolves over many years.

Victims of serial killers tend to be individuals from stigmatized or marginalized groups, and the police response is often inconsistent because of the competition between law enforcement agencies. Serial killing is just one of many ingredients in the social construction of the U.S. culture of fear that has evolved over several decades.


  1. Athens, Lonnie. 1992. The Creation of Dangerous, Violent Criminals. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
  2. Hickey, Eric W. 2006. Serial Murderers and Their Victims. 4th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

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