Are Serial Killers Going Extinct? Or Were They Ever Common?

By John Popham

November 3, 2022

Serial Killer
Photo: Getty Images

Serial killers, they are easy to hate because of their monstrous crimes, and the true crime genre has immortalized them through various media like Dahmer and Zodiac.

What seems so strange though, is how there are only a handful of serial killers that true crime fans obsess over. For example, can you name five serial killers? How about 10? 20?

The threat of a killer who comes out at night and strikes at random is terrifying and seems like an ever-present danger or did at a certain point in time. Sarah Marshall, journalist and host of You’re Wrong About, has been pondering the question of serial killers and why their “Golden Age” has seemed to have come and gone.

“I feel like the serial killer for one thing, was like so useful towards this culture in the 80’s that was like ‘Listen Americans, you are being duped, you are not being careful enough, and none of you are thinking about serial killers, everyone needs to think about serial killers more,” said Marshal. “I suspect that today, that maybe there is an illusion of a higher solve rate because we all live in a surveillance state.”

The host mentions a former guest, Rachel Monroe, who pointed out that the solve rate for murders in the United States was 61% when her episode was recorded, which has steadily declined from the 90% solve rate of the 1960’s. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean there are thousands of unknown serial killers on the loose.

“It’s like, 5,000 is the figure of murders where the cause isn’t understood,” said Marshall. “Where you’re not able to say, ‘Oh her husband murdered her.’”

The assumption by the public is that any unknown factors in a case means there is a serial killer on the loose, when there are lists of reasons the murder rate is at an all-time low. As the host and her guest Michael Hobbes point out, wonky statistics and sensationalized media attention have pushed the narrative that serial killers are more prominent than they really are.

The definition of what serial killers are also plays a role in how the public views them as a problem. If true crime fanatics are searching for Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy copycats, then they are going to have a difficult time finding what they’re after. If they follow the FBI’s definition, then every murder of two or more people at the hands of one person is a serial killing.

Listen to the entire discussion on "Hunting Serial Killers with Michael Hobbes," an episode of the You're Wrong About podcast. All episodes are available on the iHeartRadio app or wherever you get your podcasts.

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