The release on Netflix of the weirdly oooh-wasn’t-he-such-a-bad-boy Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile in which dreamboat Zac Efron plays Ted Bundy is only the latest in our weird glorification of serial killers.
And sure, drama is drama and the image of the suave, irresistible predator who constantly stays one step ahead of the bumbling authorities is far more attractive than trying to make a show about an unstable loner who kills animals and obsessively masturbates. But that’s closer to the mark.
See, here’s the thing: most serial killers are really, really stupid.
They’re not hunters drawing ever closer to their prey. They’re opportunistic weirdos who can’t make human connections. And until relatively recently we weren’t great at catching them, not because they’re so wily but because information technology was so lousy.
Until the nineties the main thing helping serial killers was that information was rarely shared across jurisdictions, which meant that killers who crossed state lines in the US or counties in the UK were more likely to be considered as unconnected crimes rather than part of a pattern.
Successful killers also tended to pick people that society didn’t much care about – sex workers, homeless people and runaways, for example – which often meant that a lot of the policing was less than completely assiduous.
Most murders are opportunistic, and most smart people – even smart people with a psychopathic streak – are aware enough of the chances of being caught, even if they’re not necessarily deterred by the consequences. This, incidentally, is true of almost everything and is why increasing penalties for crimes has barely any effect in decreasing crime, but increasingly police resources does.
Bundy was smarter than the average criminal, but not dramatically so: he flunked out of college and was regularly described as an underachiever. He was bright, but certainly not the genius that Dexter Morgan and Hannibal Lecter supposedly are.
And most of the serial killers that have been studied have had a lot in common: specifically, that they’re violent men with sexual hangups and sub-100 IQs. For example, the most prolific US serial killer: the mysterious Green River Killer, eventually revealed to be Gary Ridgeway (IQ: 82).
Ah, weirdos will counter, but they’re just the ones that get caught. No-one catches the smart ones because they’re super smart and know just when to run off to become… um, lumberjacks, we guess? What the hell was that about?
And heck, maybe. Although there’s no evidence for it, even among the killers caught by pure luck from a routine traffic stop or a random look at nursing home data.
(And this is as good a place as any to mention that about 16 per cent of serial killers are women, but they tend to work differently to men. The ones that go out stalking victims? Men. The ones that give deliberate overdoses in medical facilities or run through a series of elderly spouses? Often women. Just worth mentioning before some MRA starts a #notallserialkillers hashtag.)
Also, there are indeed criminal profilers who work specifically on serial murders, but you know what they don’t do? Give much of a shit about the motivations of the killer, much less engage in deadly games of cat and mouse with them.
They tend to do rather more practical things like map things out and say “OK, the attacks are spread out in this area, which means that the perpetrator is most likely local to this neighbourhood,” before checking local sexual crime records. Turns out that police can’t do much with the information “might have been dumped by a brunette in his teens” but finds stuff like “is likely a shift worker in a job that offers access to a van” to be rather more practical in winnowing down suspects.
That serial killers have pop culture currency as ultimate outsiders who don’t conform to society’s rules rather than violent and stupid sex criminals says something a bit creepy about our culture.
Don’t buy into it. We deserve better anti-heroes.