The Grisly, All-American Appeal of Serial Killers

In trying to make sense of the darkest extremes of human behavior, the public turns murderers into myths and monsters.

A self-portrait of John Wayne Gacy Jr. as his alter ego Pogo the Clown (National Museum of Crime and Punishment)

People call him the Killer Clown. While it’s true that John Wayne Gacy Jr. was both a killer and a clown, there’s no evidence that he murdered any of his 33 victims while wearing a clown costume. Gacy dressed up as his alter egos, Pogo and Patches, for parties, or sometimes to entertain children at nearby hospitals. “When he was creepy and going to kill you was when he was dressed normally,” says Rachael Penman, exhibits and events manager at the National Museum of Crime and Punishment. An exhibit at the museum displays the clown costumes alongside Gacy’s plain black leather jacket, juxtaposing the two sides of Gacy’s divided nature. “When he was good, he was the best of good,” wrote Gacy’s defense attorney, Sam Amirante, in an email, “but when he was bad he was the worst of evil.”

But even if Gacy never killed as Pogo, people still associate his murders with white makeup, a painted, pointed red mouth, and a frilly collar. As heinous as his crimes were, this one offbeat detail from his life propelled him to infamy. Because when it comes to serial killers, the myth is what matters.

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John Wayne Gacy’s black leather jacket and clown costume represent two distinct parts of his identity. (Julie Beck)

If you were to carefully calibrate your fear of being murdered according to statistics, you should be 12 times as afraid of your family members as of serial killers. Less than one percent of murders in any given year are committed by serial killers, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s report on serial murder; in 2012, 12.5 percent of murders were committed by victims’ family members.

Sadly, tales of domestic violence zoom in and out of the news so frequently that they rarely capture the public’s attention, and when they do, they don’t hold it for long. Meanwhile, Gacy’s story, along with those of other serial killers like Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and David Berkowitz, are remembered even decades later: They’re so well-known that we continue to hear casual references to them in pop culture. For example, in Katy Perry’s recent song “Dark Horse,” Juicy J raps, “She’ll eat your heart out/like Jeffrey Dahmer.” Dahmer, who was known for cannibalizing his victims, committed his crimes between 1978 and 1991, and was killed in prison in 1994, nearly 20 years before “Dark Horse” was released.

Juicy J can drop that tasteless reference and know it will be understood because serial killers are “still very much a part of our culture,” Penman says. The question is, why? What draws people to their dark, disturbing stories? Why do some killers become celebrities while others are forgotten?

In his new book, Why We Love Serial Killers (out October 28), criminologist Dr. Scott Bonn attempts to solve some of these mysteries. “My question is: What can we learn from these individuals?” he says. “What can we learn about ourselves? People are drawn to understanding the dark side, and the dark side is part of the human condition.”

This desire to see into the mind of a serial killer can be a powerful attraction. At the Crime Museum, I met a 59-year-old tourist named Joanne Marvel who described her lifelong fascination with crime. A recording of a police siren blared around us as she told me how her grandfather used to read crime magazines, and how her father claimed to have met Al Capone once in Chicago during the heyday of organized crime. “For me it’s about how their childhood affected what they did later,” Marvel said. “I think a lot of people think that way—they want to know why [the killer] got that way rather than what he did. It’s more about why he did it.”

As retired NYPD homicide detective Dave Carbone told Bonn when asked about the public’s interest in serial killers, “The why is the wow.” Or in the words of Katherine Ramsland, a forensic psychologist and author of numerous books including The Human Predator, “It’s not really about the victims. It’s more about the puzzle—the interesting labyrinth of human emotions and human motives.”

What made serial killers this way? Why did they kill, and why did they do it so gruesomely? How are they different from us? (Please let them be different from us.) These are complicated, compelling questions. But here, at the outer boundaries of the human condition, are realities that resist our understanding.

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In the public imagination, serial killers tend to fit a certain stereotype: “They’re all men, all white, all evil geniuses or mentally ill; they want to get caught,” Bonn said, listing the most prevalent myths. Even the serial killer exhibit at the Crime Museum claims, “Over 90 percent [of serial killers] are white males.”

Jewelry made by in prison Albert DeSalvo, the
"Boston Strangler," who was convicted in the
1960s of killing 13 female victims, in many cases
with their own stockings. (Julie Beck)

In reality, Bonn says, “they are actually far more nuanced, far more varied than the general public realizes.” The racial breakdown of serial killers is about the same as that of the U.S. population at large, according to the FBI. Based on the Radford University serial killer database, which includes data on nearly 4,000 killers, just 46 percent of serial killers since 1910 have been white men.

It’s not hard to see why that misconception exists, though: Many of the serial killers who become cultural legends are white men. Dahmer, Bundy, Gacy, and Berkowitz were all white, as were Gary Ridgeway (the “Green River Killer”), and Dennis Rader (“Bind Torture Kill”). The Zodiac killer, while never caught, was described as a white male. Richard Ramirez, or the “Night Stalker,” is one well-known non-white killer—he was the son of a Mexican policeman—but as Ramsland points out, he became infamous largely because he “had the whole Satan thing going.” (He drew pentagrams on his hand and occasionally shouted “Hail Satan” during his trial. Fairly attention-grabbing behavior.)

When police pulled over Ted Bundy in this Volkswagen Beetle in 1975, the car was filled with suspicious items including garbage bags, an ice pick, a flashlight, gloves, handcuffs, and a mask made out of panty hose. (Museum of Crime and Punishment)

“It’s almost as if we have a canonical group, and anyone who comes after that is just seen in that context,” suggests David Schmid, a professor of English at the University of Buffalo who has studied serial killer celebrity and the popularity of true crime in the United States.

Bonn has a few theories about why white male killers get more attention. Female serial killers tend to kill by less-gory methods—poisoning rather than shooting—which makes their stories less sensational. Aileen Wuornos, the killer portrayed by Charlize Theron in the film Monster, murdered with a gun, and Bonn believes that is a key reason for her fame.

Only about 9 percent of serial killers since 1910 have been women, according to the Radford database. But 40 percent have been African American, and few of those have achieved celebrity status. Bonn notes that most serial killers tend to kill within their own race, and that white victims, especially white female victims, usually get wider media attention. This means their killers, who are likely white as well, consequently get more coverage.

Another unfortunate possibility is that killers who target minority victims are just less likely to get caught, due to disparities in police resources. “Serial murder investigations are complicated, time-consuming, and very expensive,” Bonn writes. “Although it may not seem fair, affluent white neighborhoods are given priority over poor, black, or Latino neighborhoods by state officials in the assignment of valuable policing resources. This negatively impacts the ability of law enforcement personnel to pursue serial murder cases in poor racial minority communities.”

For all of these reasons, and possibly more, the quintessential serial killer is usually imagined as a middle-class white man who turns out to have a dark secret, à la Gacy, who was said to host regular parties at his suburban Chicago home, or Rader, who was active in his church. Schmid talks about the gap between killers’ twisted inner lives and their unassuming outward appearances. David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam, was a round-faced, droopy-eyed man who seemed like any other Jewish kid from Brooklyn. Ted Bundy, a clean-cut Republican Party operative, is frequently described as “handsome.” The gap between the extraordinary and the ordinary is part of what fascinates people, Schmid says, and in our culture, “ordinary” is often shorthand for “white, male, middle-class.”

Just as there are misunderstandings about who serial killers are, there are false assumptions about how they got this way. Another prominent myth involves three specific warning signs: bedwetting, cruelty to animals, and setting fires. The Macdonald Triad, as it’s sometimes called, originated from a small 1963 study in which psychiatrist John M. Macdonald analyzed 100 of his violent patients at one psychiatric hospital. Ramsland calls it a “small, poorly-designed study”: Later research refuted the idea that the presence of these childhood traits necessarily predicts violent behavior.

Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to identify a serial killer in the making. The FBI reminds readers in its report that there are a lot of factors that go into influencing human behavior. Just as it would be impossible to describe all of the reasons a person decides to get married—or makes a far more mundane choice, like having pizza for lunch—it’s impossible to explain all the reasons why a person chooses to kill.

Yet the stereotypes live on, making it easier for the public to file serial killers away neatly in their mind-cabinets, clearly labeled for easy reference. “I think it comes down to how a seemingly ordinary person can develop into an extreme offender,” Ramsland says. “We’re hoping the answer is that they’re not seemingly ordinary to start with, that they’re set apart in some way that we’ll be able to identify and eventually treat. We want them to be deviant monsters.”

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Zodiac author Robert Graysmith, shown here with a series of cryptographs used by the Zodiac Killer, has said that his obsession with unmasking the murderer destroyed his marriage. (AP Photo)

The serial killer is a quintessentially American figure. According to the Radford database, there have been more than 2,600 serial killers in the U.S. since 1900. England, the country with the next highest total, has had 142. Schmid, who is originally from the U.K., says that while there are serial killers in other countries, because the rates of violence in general, and serial killer violence specifically, are so much higher in the U.S., “a difference of degree becomes a difference in kind,” and people are led to “see serial killers as prototypically American.”

The U.S.’s high rates of violent crime may also be the reason certain killers become more famous than others. When the news is filled with gun violence every day, another murder by firearm doesn’t necessarily stand out. But when killers stab, torture, rape, and even eat their victims, that’s attention-grabbing, even to a desensitized nation. “I’m so immune to gun violence at this point,” says Penman, the exhibits and events manager at the Museum of Crime and Punishment. “But get out a knife and start stabbing people, and I’m traumatized. It’s different. It shouldn’t be, but it is.”

“We have largely lost our ability to be appalled,” Schmid says. “It takes a very, very extreme crime for us now to recover that.”

The serial killers who become famous are extreme, either in their methods (like Rader, who named himself Bind Torture Kill after his modus operandi) or their madness (the Zodiac, who sent baffling letters written in code to the press). These shocking details are what get people’s attention; the need for answers is what keeps it.

These stories also capture the public’s imagination because they have elements of the most gripping fiction: high stakes, danger, mystery, heroes, and a villain who ultimately gets his comeuppance (or, in a case like the Zodiac Killer, eludes the law and remains an enigma). “It’s sometimes difficult to draw a hard and fast boundary between [reality and fiction],” Schmid says. “True crime shows often use fictional techniques to dramatize what they’re showing, and fictional shows draw upon real stories to give themselves authenticity.”

Jeffrey Dahmer is escorted into the Milwaukee County Circuit Court in July 1991. Dahmer, who was found guilty of murdering of 16 young men, was sentenced to life in prison. (Reuters)

This is why Bonn believes the public experiences no meaningful difference between real serial killers like Jeffrey Dahmer and fictional serial killers like Hannibal Lector from The Silence of the Lambs. “They are equally scary and entertaining,” he writes. And fiction and reality do bleed into each other: Buffalo Bill, who collects victims’ skin in Silence of the Lambs, was based in part on real-life killer Ed Gein, who kept a collection of women’s body parts. Jeffrey Dahmer, the cannibalistic serial killer who was apprehended in 1991, was compared endlessly to Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lector, particularly since the film version of Silence of the Lambs came out that same year.

Even the news media plays into this tendency to paint serial killers as storybook villains. For his book, Bonn did a little media analysis. He looked at articles mentioning serial killers in The New York Times and Time magazine between 1995 and 2013, and searched within them for the words “devil,” “monster,” and “evil.” In both publications, 35 percent of articles contained one or more of those descriptors.

“Even in, arguably, the most credible publications out there, they’re buying into this monster narrative,” Bonn says. “The narrative of good and evil is something that we are taught, and we fit things into that.” Bonn invokes the sociological concept of anomie, a state in which a society’s norms and rules are broken and confused (in this case, the norm of “not killing people”). When a serial killer is at large, people flail about looking for moral guidance, Bonn says. “We demand answers. What we get back from the media and law enforcement is: ‘Evil has come to our town, but don’t worry about it, we’re going to conquer evil.’ That narrative in some ways is reassuring, but it’s reassuring in a way that’s not real. It’s an oversimplification, but it’s done so that we feel better.”

It’s a reductive story, but a useful one. The good-versus-evil/monster-hunt narrative is a way to manage the incomprehensible. Evil doesn’t need to be understood, just eliminated. So the desire for answers is satisfied; the burden of parsing a killer’s complicated motivation falls away. All the messy details are composited into a single figure: the serial killer. This boogeyman-like entity has become less of a threat than a stock character, useful for selling publications and spicing up fictional stories.

A note found in August 1977 in the car of
"Son of Sam" killer David Berkowitz, then
24 years old (AP Photo)

The public fascination with serial killers can seem callous at times—especially when the stories are real, but even when they’re imagined. However, research suggests that people who enjoy graphic, frightening stories can have a variety of motivations. A 1995 study on why adolescents watch horror films found that “gore watchers,” who professed to enjoy the blood and guts, tended to have low levels of empathy and a strong need for adventure-seeking. “Thrill watchers,” who watched the movies to get the adrenaline rush of being scared, had high levels of adventure-seeking, but also high levels of empathy. Gore watchers tended to identify with the killer and not the victim, while thrill watchers tended not to identify with either killers or victims—they were captivated mainly by the excitement and the mystery. “If the real serial killer comes knocking on your door, then it has real implications,” Bonn says. “But until then, it’s just entertainment.”

David Schmid has another theory about why people find serial killers entertaining, one that’s not necessarily flattering to American audiences. Procedural shows like CSI or True Detective may attract viewers simply because of the drama and the plotting, he says, but in other recent shows like Dexter and Bates Motel, the criminals are the protagonists—the characters people are supposed to identify with when they watch. People both fear and admire criminals, he says, because they live outside the bounds of laws and social conventions.

“For all kinds of reasons, people are not very honest about why they consume these types of products,” Schmid says. “But I really do believe that part of it [is] this fascination with people who don’t obey the rules and put themselves first, always. It’s not that we want to go around murdering people, but we wonder what life would be like if we could just do whatever we wanted.”

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Paints belonging to John Wayne Gacy Jr. Shortly after his execution in 1994, a truck parts dealer in suburban Chicago bought 25 of Gacy's artworks for $7,300 and then invited relatives of Gacy's victims to watch them burn in a giant bonfire. (National Museum of Crime and Punishment)

It’s been many years since any new serial killers were added to the canonical group. That’s not to say there haven’t been any: Richard Beasley*, who killed victims he met via Craigslist, and Anthony Sowell, or The Cleveland Strangler, both got some media attention. But none of these recent criminals have attained true celebrity status. There is no modern John Wayne Gacy.

Today, Schmid argues, the fear of being randomly attacked is provoked less acutely by serial killers than by terrorists. Under the right conditions, he says, the public could certainly be whipped into a frenzy by a serial killer again. But for the most part, “post 9/11, terror has come to have a more specific, more political meaning. That’s why [terrorist attacks] get a lot of coverage at the moment, because they allow people to ask if this is the defining crime of the time.”

As the most infamous serial killers slip farther and farther into the past, people are able to look at them through a more detached, historical lens, as “examples of Americana,” Schmid says. According to Eric Hickey’s book Serial Killers and Their Victims, in the 1970s and 1980s, there were 40 or so films about serial killers, real or imagined. From 2000 to 2008, there were more than 270, though he notes that more than half of those were straight-to-video releases.

These stories get told and retold, calcifying as they go, shedding the pesky details that don’t quite fit into the mold we’ve come to expect, until we’re left with the familiar, archetypal story: that of the white male serial killer whose everyman exterior hides a twisted, violent alter ego. Killers who don’t fit are forgotten or ignored—as are, all-too-often, their victims.

* This post originally stated that Scott Davis was the name of the Cragislist killer. We regret the error.