In the world of true crime and crime fiction, it’s a cause for celebration when a notorious killer is caught—such as in 2018 when the Golden State Killer was finally brought to justice using new DNA technology. That case, however, emphasizes how difficult it can be to track the killer down in the first place. Serial killers are prolific by definition, but their higher volume of violent crimes doesn’t necessarily make them easier to catch. In fact, even though serial killers often share common traits and behaviors, they are still difficult to trace. Some commonalities might include the (initial) randomness of their victims, careful planning, and being good at acting ordinary. When you overlay those traits with the psychopathic minds of the killers, however, profiling becomes much more complicated than tracking down your “average” criminal.
For example, it’s often stated that serial killers choose their victims at random, but this is only partially true. It is true that serial murderers most often opt to kill strangers rather than people they personally know. For most single murderers, the opposite is true—“In 2021, far more people were killed by people they knew than by strangers.” Police typically begin investigations by looking to those close to the victim first before branching out. But when the killer is a stranger to the victim, it makes them more difficult to find. Often it isn’t until multiple victims with similar traits and death circumstances begin showing up that police suspect the involvement of a serial killer at all. Sadly that means continued murders produce the best evidence that can lead to apprehension. So initially the victims of serial killers do seem random. But a profiler will tell you that over time they usually reveal themselves to have a “type.” Once a killer’s type is determined, it can be used to help build a criminal profile.
The serial killers that aren’t caught, or that take a while to be caught, also tend to be careful planners and good organizers. Simple things like cleaning up a scene, paying for supplies in cash, or just avoiding places with cameras can go a long way in minimizing evidence for the police to use in their investigations.
There’s also a common myth that serial killers have above-average IQs or tend to be particularly smart —but evidence shows this isn’t true. In fact serial killers, on average, have an IQ that is below the national average. Instead, “[Serial killers] have exceptional street smarts, even if their intelligence is not above average.” The potential takeaway is that IQ isn’t as important as their ability to think practically and to plan ahead.
Another important ability that many serial killers have is that they usually blend in very well with the general population. If your typical serial killer has “street smarts,” then they also know that to get victims they need by being charming and manipulative. Ted Bundy is perhaps the most well-known example of a serial killer where the people who knew him were shocked to learn about his crimes. To them he came off as friendly, charismatic, and well-adjusted.
Nor are serial killers necessarily isolated or dysfunctional. They often have successful careers, loving families, and live otherwise unassuming lives. While many serial killers display signs of antisocial personality disorders, their symptoms aren’t usually debilitating enough that they fit the legal definition of insanity. This means they’re stable enough to stand trial and face justice when caught, because they do fully understand the illegality of their actions. Because the average serial killer knows what they’re doing is wrong, it is essential for them to keep up appearances.
This is part of what makes serial killers so terrifying and fascinating to people. The possibility that someone you bump into on the street some dark night could be a killer (although unlikely) is a thought that understandably keeps people up at night. Or it could be a neighbor. If that’s the case, perhaps you can take some comfort knowing serial killers usually don’t murder people they know.