Interesting Facts about Serial Killer Research

Two Forensic Officers

What is it about serial killers that fascinate us?

I have to admit: I went through a stage where I was obsessed with watching documentaries serial killers. I’m not sure why exactly. Maybe I wanted to gain some insight on what makes a person commit a heinous act…more than once.

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Recently I read an interesting article by Dr. Eric W. Hickey called “The Evolution of Serial Murder as a Social Phenomenon in American Society: An Update,” in a publication from the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences* (ACJS Today, May 2014.)

In Dr. Hickey’s article, he highlights some advancements in research, which has led to a better understanding of serial killer traits and motives, and debunked some preconceived myths. He mentions The Wyoming Serial Killer Project, Radford University Serial Killer Information Center, the creation of Cold Case Review Teams by law enforcement agencies, the Highway Serial Killing Initiative, as well as international initiatives and collaborations, and encourages more studies and programs in order to shed “more light” on the “Dark Side” of serial murder, with the ultimate goal of preventing it in the future.

Dr. Hickey’s article shared many fascinating points. Here are just SOME of the intriguing things I learned from him and other sources:

  • Former FBI Agent and director of Forensic Behavioral Sciences International, Robert K. Ressler is often cited as the man who came up with the term “serial killer.” According to Dr. Hickey, Ressler collected data on violent offenders for 30 years, originally storing his collection in the bathroom in the FBI headquarters’ basement. Ressler interviewed many serial killers and together with John Douglas developed the tool of criminal profiling. He also became the first program manager of the FBI’s Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (ViCAP).
  • In 2006, forensic psychologists, legal experts, criminal investigators and other relevant professionals attended a symposium in San Antonio, Texas, organized by the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit (National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime).  At the event, they all created a standard definition for “serial murder.” According to the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis “Serial Murder” report, serial murder is defined as, “The unlawful killing of two or more victims by the same offender(s), in separate events.”
  • Dr. Scott E. Culhane is the head of the The Wyoming Serial Killer Project, which (outside federal law enforcement) has collected the largest amount of data directly ascertained from interviews with serial killers. In the introduction of Culhane et al.’s study “MMP1-2 Characteristics of Male Serial Murderers,” it states, “While the overall murder rate has dropped in the United States since its peak in the 1970s and 1980s…, the public’s fascination with special cases of criminal homicide (e.g. mass, spree, and serial killing) has not waned and is arguably higher than ever…”
  • The surge of movies, books, TV shows and other media about serial killers has led to the creation of myths, says Dr. Hickey in his ACJS Today (May 2014) article. But “Over time and with research, we learned that not all serial killers are white, male, and intelligent, nor do they generally roam around the United States, nor are they all sexual predators,”he adds.
  • The Radford University/FGCU Serial Killer Database provides a range of statistics, including, among the serial killers they sampled, average IQ was 94.1 (Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber’s IQ has been cited to be between 155 and 165); the most common motive for killing was for enjoyment (i.e. lust, thrill or power), while the second most common was financial gain; and that serial killing in the U.S. was at its peak in the 1980s. [Source: Aamodt, M. G. (2013, October 19). Serial killer statistics. Retrieved (August 7, 2014) from killer information center/project description.htm]

* By the way, if you are interested in “criminal justice education, research, and policy analysis,” you should check out the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences—they have a bunch of membership options, including one for students, and also various sections for members to join, from community college and police to law & public policy, victimology, and more.