Serial Killers: The Truth of Their Media Dominance

Serial killers fascinate the multitudes, especially women.

Serial killers fascinate the multitudes, especially women.

On Oct. 15, Wesley Brownlee, the Stockton Killer, was arrested and charged with eight counts of murder in Stockton, Calif. Authorities say they surveilled him after the recent Stockton killings and noticed warning signs before arresting him in his car.

Serial killers account for under 1% of murders in the US but gain significantly more media coverage. In fact, most people have no idea that serial killers account for so little in the general scale of murders nor of the complexity of such cases. 

Dealing With Serial Killers

While the FBI is popularized for dealing with serial killers, it wasn’t until the late 1990s that they gained authorization to do so. In fact, the FBI only became a household name in the 1930s for unraveling gangs rather than murder mysteries. However, their current role was all determined by the escape of one of the most notorious serial killers: Ted Bundy.

By early February of 1978, Bundy had been placed on the Ten Most Wanted Fugitives List. He was caught a mere five days later through the development of a Behavioral Analysis Unit, or the BAU, that was created five years prior. 

The BAU deployed criminal profilers around this time, though they weren’t restricted to profiling only serial killers. According to Hearst Publishing, the BAU, as a whole, uses a combination of “forensics, profiling, interviewing techniques, and computer technology” in serious criminal investigations. 

Once the serial killer is caught, however, the case only gets more tedious. At this point, a forensic psychologist plays a crucial role. Often confused with criminal profilers, the two are distinctly different. While both share knowledge of psychology, Psychology Today explains criminal profilers as having “extensive background in criminal justice and law enforcement instead of mental health training.”

“Forensics is the application of sciences and technologies to the matters of the law, both criminal and civil,” said Vista del Lago High School’s Forensics teacher, Taylor Alber. Forensic psychologists work with the psychology aspect of investigations to reduce the impact of future crimes. They practice civil and judicial casework, and they have to clear the killer of any mental illnesses as well as provide expert evidence in court.

This process takes place due to the nature of most serial killers. A good portion of them suffer from some sort of abuse, mental illness, or genetic difference. The genetic difference is specific to the brain; some serial killers have been found to lack activity in the front right side of the brain which is responsible for most negative emotions like fear and guilt.

Psychologists and criminal investigators rely on the history of serial killers, mainly in the US, to determine such information.

History of Serial Killers

There are significantly more serial killers in the US compared to other countries. Sure, the UK has Jack the Ripper, Russia has Alexander Pichushkin, and Columbia has Pedro Lopez, but of the identified serial killers, the US has 2,743 serial killers compared to the rest of the world’s 1,325.

Of these killers, a few were from California: The Night Stalker (Richard Ramirez), Charles Manson, and of the unidentified, there is the Zodiac Killer. Fun Folsom fact: Manson served one month at Folsom Prison in 1989 before being transferred to Pelican Bay State Prison. 

Serial killing, as defined by Robbert Russler—the man who coined the term—is to “kill at least three people within a month.” As of publishing, there are a total of 89 unidentified killers out of the total 844 in the US. At any given time, there are 25-50 serial killers on the loose, according to the FBI. For reference, New York has the largest number of serial killers, with 18 originating from there. 

The prominence of serial killers in the media has become increasingly interesting, mainly for women, due to the prolific acts of most serial killing situations. In response to the growing popularity, serial killer documentaries have become popular.

True Crime Fascination

There are over two hundred true crime podcasts on Apple Podcasts alone and over 17 million podcast downloads. These podcasts have always been popular, but after “Serial” was published, the world of true crime and shows became a phenomenon.

The podcast “Serial” was released in 2014, and it has won almost every journalism award, including the Peabody and DuPont, and has been downloaded over 340 million times. According to the article “How one podcast changed the face of true crime” by Clémence Michallon, “It reshaped how many view the justice system. It introduced some listeners to the idea that crime stories [aren’t only for entertainment] […] but because they raised questions worth asking.”

Other popular podcasts are the Night Stalker, Case Files, Unsolved Murders, and Conversations with a serial killer. 

According to an academic study, most true crime podcasts and documentaries focus on violent crimes committed by men against women–and women make up 73% of true crime podcast audiences. 

Many studies, including one by  Laura Grande, show that women love true crime because it’s a way for them to mentally prepare for the possibility of being a target and to understand how the criminal mind operates. 

Registered Psychotherapist Liza Finlay wrote, “Women watch true crime so they don’t feel quite so alone. Their fear is validated and unsanitized. Women watch… so they can learn [to] arm themselves and thus protect themselves. Women watch to feel empowered.”

There are various factors that make up a serial, including genetics, environment, trauma, and certain personality traits. An article named “Serial Killers” states these people are “loners who fear all relationships and seek control,¨ and that many are motivated by the attention and fame murders can bring them. 

Research shows that serial killers’ brains are built differently than average people’s and that we don’t think the same way as them.  According to Misa Kori, “Due to the low levels of activity on the right side of their brain that is responsible for empathy, ” the brain doesn’t process the negative stimuli, which leads to them killing.  

Inside the mind of a serial killer (Infographic by Eliana Coriano)

Gender Differences

When it comes to female serial killers, there aren’t many. In the US, there are only 60 confirmed serial killers out of the 2,743. 

Most female serial killers aren’t violent with their killings, unlike male killers. Psychologists think this is because men typically want to hunt their victims, while women distance themselves from the killing as much as possible. 

In the end, serial killers are not as prominent as we think, but the trauma inflicted on the victims’ families, the tedious criminal cases, and the lasting impression on society leading to the media’s adoration make them seem larger than they are. Serial killers take up so much of our time because we make them seem like a bigger problem than they are.