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From the 1970s to the 1990s, stories about serial killers like Ted Bundy and the Green River Killer — both of whom pleaded guilty to killing dozens of women — dominated the headlines. Today, however, we see much less twisted stories in the vein of The Zodiac Killer or John Wayne Gacy.

This three-decade surge was followed by a rapid decline. Nearly 770 serial killers were active in the U.S. in the 1980s and just under 670 in the 1990s, based on collected data by Mike Aamoud of Radford University. The sudden decline came with the new century, when the rate fell below 400 overall, and as of the end of 2016, just over 100 in the last decade. A rough estimate of the global rate appears to show a similar decline over the same period. In a stunning collapse, these criminals who had terrorized and captivated a generation have rapidly declined. Put another way, 189 people in the US died at the hands of a serial killer in 1987, compared to 30 in 2015. Various theories try to explain this change.

In reality, it is unclear whether there really has been a spike in serial killings, or at least not as pronounced as the data suggests. Advances in police investigation (for example, the ability to link murders more effectively) and improved data collection could help explain the uptick. However, no one doubts that serial killings have increased over several decades, and that this increase corresponds to an overall increase in crime. Likewise, everyone agrees on a subsequent decline in serial murder, and this also corresponds to a general decline in crime. But where did they go?

(Credit: Radford University/Florida Gulf Coast University survey data)

Adapting justice

One popular theory points to the growth of forensic medicine, and especially the emergence of genetic approaches to tracking criminals. In a recent high-profile example of these techniques, police used DNA samples from distant relatives of identified Joseph DeAngelo like the Golden State Killer, decades after he killed 12 women between 1976 and 1986. The higher prospect of being caught may deter would-be killers from taking action.

“Serial murder has become a more dangerous pursuit,” says Thomas Hargrove, founder of the Homicide Liability Project. “Because of DNA and improved forensics, and because the police are now aware of the phenomenon, serial killers are more likely to be caught than ever before.” The realization he talks about began with the late FBI agent Robert Ressler, who probably coined the term “serial killer” around 1980. “There’s power in naming something,” Hargrove says.

Many researchers also cite longer prison sentences and a decline in parole over the decades. If a one-time killer—or a thief, for that matter—stays behind bars longer, he’ll have a lower chance of reaching the FBI’s serial threshold of two murders (or three, or four, or more, depending on who you are I ask).

A safer society

Would-be killers may also have succumbed to the lack of easy targets. James Alan Fox, a criminology professor at Northeastern University, says people are generally less vulnerable these days, which limits the number of potential victims. “People don’t hitchhike anymore,” he says. “They have the means to communicate in an emergency using cell phones. There are cameras everywhere.”

Likewise, helicopter parents are more common than in past generations. Aamod remembered his own childhood, spent walking or riding his bike unsupervised all over town. “You wouldn’t let your kids do that today,” he says. As a result, “many of the victims from the 1970s or 1980s are almost impossible to find now.” The predator starves when prey is scarce.

It is also likely that society has gotten better at detecting and reforming potential serial killers, especially in their youth. Often, Hargrove says, the early catalysts for serial killing (family dysfunction, sexual abuse) can be remedied by “quality time with a child psychologist.” He adds that pornography can dull the sexual impulses that often precede sexualized murder. “It’s possible that the sewers that make up much of the Internet provide a non-violent outlet for these guys,” he says.

Another theory speculates that serial killers have not disappeared but have transformed into mass shooters, who have soared to heaven in both numbers and prominence over the past three decades. However, most experts agree that the two profiles do not overlap sufficiently. “The motivation for a mass murderer versus a serial killer is usually different,” says Aamod.

Hidden killers

Serial murders are rare and account for less than 1 percent of all homicides in the U.S FBI assessment. With the annual homicide rate hovers around 15,000 in the US this equates to less than 150 serial murders per year by perhaps 25-50 people. Aamodt’s figures put the percentage well below that. But given the limitations of forensic medicine, many believe this is an understatement.

The police make an arrest – or “clear” a case, in justice parlance – only approx 60 percent of all murders. The remaining 5,000 complete without closure. In other words, murderers have a 40 percent chance of getting away with murder. The question is, how many of these unsolved cases are the work of a serial killer?

Hargrove, who argues that America does a poor job of reporting such cases, set out in 2010 to write an algorithm to analyze them in an attempt to find serial killers. Essentially, the computer code looks for similarities between murders that detectives might overlook. “We know that serial killings are more common than is officially recognized,” he says. And serial criminals may be responsible for a huge proportion of unsolved cases because, by definition, “serial murders are usually unsolved. They are good at killing. Hargrove has estimated that as many as 2,000 serial killers dating back to 1976 may remain at large.

But an algorithm, like an organic brain, struggles when faced with a data set without a pattern. Intentionally or not, many killers vary their tactics, targeting people of different races and genders in different locations. With no way to make comparisons between these seemingly unrelated cases, computers and humans are helpless to connect them. “Even today,” says Fox, “it’s a challenge.”

A cultural sensation

For years, the popular media and even some academic researchers have declared that serial killings claim an average of 5,000 victims each year in the US. Fox says that figure is grossly misleading, based on the false assumption that every murder with an unknown motive — of which there are about 5,000 a year — is the work of a serial killer. Fox estimates that even in the 1980s the real number was actually under 200, and Aamodt’s data supports this.

Nevertheless, these sensational claims fascinated the nation and the world. And today, although their ranks have dwindled, the fascination with serial killers seems to be making a real comeback. In the 2019 film Extremely evil, shockingly evil and vile, Zac Efron plays the infamous Ted Bundy. IN Thought hunter series that aired in 2017 and explored the origins of criminal profiling in the FBI, one of the two main characters is based on the aforementioned Agent Ressler. But Fox points out a curious caveat: “They’re focusing on all cases from the past.” Culturally, we’re still talking about killers who were active decades ago, and few in the modern era have become household names.

Serial killers are still with us, albeit less frequently. And barring major advances in our ability to capture them, we cannot fully understand their scale. As Hargrove said, “Only the devil knows.” This uncertainty, in its own way, can be as spine-chilling as the dark deeds of any known killer.

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