In the 1980s, there were almost 800 serial killers operating in the United States. Today, there are about 100. The most common theory to explain the decrease is that it is just plain harder to get away with today. Camera surveillance, the internet and social media, forensic technics and most notably, DNA evidence, which was introduced in the mid-80s, means that these killers that might have gotten away with dozens of murders in the past are now often caught after their first or second. They never stay in the shadows for long, like their counterparts in the past were able to.
Another theory for the drop in serial killers is that serial killing doesn't bring the notoriety that it once did, but another kind of killing does -- mass murder. There is a difference between serial killing and mass murder. Serial killing is a series of spread out, separate events. Mass murder, according to the FBI, is when four or more people are killed at one time or as part of one event. Think, James Holmes and the Aurora Theater killings or Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook Elementary. Today, mass killing gets the headlines. Maybe that's why we see murders like the Beltway Snipers, who were a bit of a combination of the two types.
High profile killers like Ted Bundy (below), Gary Ridgeway and Jeffery Dahmer had their names and their terrible deeds splashed across the headlines in newspapers nationwide. The local and national news lead their broadcasts with news from their trials. Even their deaths were major events. But today? There is still an interest in fascination with serial killers and true crime of course, from the Serial podcast to the TV show Criminal Minds. The American public still has a serious morbid curiosity about these murderers. But again, only about 1/6th of amount of murderers that were operating in the 70s and 80s are thought to be operating today or at least recently, in the 21st century.
Does the celebrity aspect play a part in all this? In the past, fame has beena common reason given by investigators for why serial killers do what they do. Or at least, often their ego and their need to brag plays a big part. They want notoriety and the murders give them that. But today, nothing breaks through the incessant 24-hours chatter like a mass shooting. They are dramatic and they are immediate. They begin and end quickly, which plays perfectly on CNN, Fox News and Twitter. The news media and the consumers of the 24-hour news cycle don't have time for a methodical approach like The Zodiac Killer had. It simply takes too long; the media has moved on the next shiny news story long before an old-fashioned serial killer claims his second victim. Their egos are not satisfied.
It's unlikely that the public will ever not be fascinated by serial killers. Like horror films and Halloween, we, the public, get a thrill by being scared and there is nothing scary than a real life monster terrorizing the public.
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