Background to Way Past Evil #3: so where did all the serial killers go?
In this last post on the background to Way Past Evil we’re going to get into some good news – the apparent decline in the number of active serial murderers since the 1990s – and some bad: the rise of the mass murderer, an equally disturbing creature.
To begin with, the evidence for the decline in serial killing, at least in the U.S., is now pretty solid. According to the Radford University Serial Killer Information Centre, in the 1970s there were more than 500 serial murders in the United States, and the 1980s peaked with just over 600. But the 2000s saw only 318, and ‘only’ 73 had been counted since then as of 2015. Similarly, James Alan Fox, the author of the 2011 study Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder, estimates that there were about 200 killers operating in the 1980s, compared to 61 in the 2000s.
So where did all the killers go? There are any number of possible explanations for this, and below we’re going to briefly mention the following: improved law enforcement technology and systems, surveillance more generally (as mentioned by The Crawler himself in Way Past Evil), the argument that the Internet has made us all better people who trust one another more (a ridiculous proposition in our view, but we’ll look at it anyway), and the rise of three possibly connected things: the increase in narcissism-related personality disorders, celebrity culture and ‘mass’ - rather than ‘serial’ - killing.
To begin with, police work and technological advances alone probably explain a large part of the dip. Police now have access to advanced fingerprint databases and DNA testing, and they can easily share information across states. Advances like these may have improved the police's ability to apprehend serial murderers after their first or second kills, thus decreasing the number of victims and possibly even stopping a spree before it began.
Beyond this, there have of course been other big changes since the 1980s, notably the explosion in surveillance technology - things like CCTV everywhere, cell phone tracking, GPS data being stored on most phones, phone cameras, cars with on-board GPS systems and the monitoring of all our online activity. It's much, much harder to fly under the radar these days than it used to be. Also, because of all this it's probably much harder to find victims these days. People are now more alert, and possibly more suspicious, than ever.
Not everyone agrees with this line of thinking, though. Some have argued that the Internet has actually improved levels of trust between people, and actually itself played a role in the decline in serial murder. For example Brad Burnham, a tech investor at Union Square Ventures, sees the growth of these Internet networks and a renewed trust in strangers as a fundamental part of modern culture. He suggests that the Internet ‘assumes that if individuals are empowered, they will do the right thing the vast majority of the time. Services like eBay, Craigslist, Etsy and Airbnb are built on the assumption that most people are honest… The companies are simply betting that there are many more good people than bad.’
It would be nice to be able to believe this, but too much solid evidence points, if anything, in the opposite direction. For example, a 2014 study published in 'Psychological Science' found that trust in other people has sharply declined since the 1970s, reaching historic lows in 2008 and again in 2012. In 1972-74, 46% of American adults reported that they trusted most people. This had dwindled to 33% by 2012.
In addition to this there is now a strong body of evidence that 21st century life in general, and the celebrity-driven popular culture and never-ending use of social media in particular, is also decreasing trust and leading more and more young people into a world of confusion, psychological problems and emotional pain.
We are not suggesting that letting your kids play around on Instagram is going to lead them to shoot their school up or run amok with a knife, but consider this: what if one of the reasons for the decline in serial killing is that it doesn't provide the same level of celebrity that it used to. In 1974, for example, America was terrorized by Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, the Zodiac Killer etc. These men and their crimes were written about in headlines, blasted all over TV, and discussed in public. Becoming a serial killer gave you a shot at fame.
But these days a different kind of man - or, rather, under-fathered boy - dominate the headlines and rolling 24/7 TV coverage, and mass shootings cause media firestorms in a way that almost no other crime does.
In a mass murder, the victims may be either randomly selected or targeted for a specific reason that only makes sense to the perpetrator. The individual motives for mass murder vary greatly. A common motivation for mass murder is retaliation or revenge, but other motivations include, it seems, grandiosity and the need for attention, fame or validation (exactly the need which Jean Twenge says social media deliberately set their young users up for). From a social-psychological perspective, mass murder is an act of vengeance against society by a desperate and fatalistic individual who has no intention of going away quietly or returning to kill another day but prefers to go out in a blaze of very public ‘glory’.
Maybe every society gets the kind of murderers it deserves.
Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement
Robson and Robson, Way Past Evil