John Wayne Gacy. Jeffrey Dahmer. Ted Bundy. The Zodiac Killer. Son of Sam. Even people who don’t actively seek out true crime will recognize a name or two from that list, and it only scratches the surface of some of the better-known serial killers in the US.
We know them from the news stories, documentaries, books, and podcasts that keep us up at night, wondering if we could ever be the victim of something so horrific. And while the FBI estimates there are still as many as 50 serial killers on the prowl at any given moment, most of us don’t hear about serial killers in our current news. In fact, all of those names listed above are killers who were active in the 70s and into the 80s—certainly within the collective memory of our society, but long enough in the past that it feels like distant history to younger generations. It’s hard to imagine the fear and worry that must have taken over cities when those prolific killers were active, especially when there were so many across the US at the same time. Why is it that the US experienced such a peak in the 70s and 80s? Serial killers certainly still exist, but what might be keeping them at bay since they had their Golden Age?
Using the FBI’s definition of a serial killer, there were a reported 985 active serial killers across the entire globe by 1980, with 768 of them being from the US alone. Prior to the 1960s, the numbers in the US tended to hover around 50 or 60 within any given decade. While there’s no exact answer as to why the 70s and 80s proved to be such violent decades, there are a number of theories for what may have happened leading up to these horrors. First and foremost, there were two very violent wars that were within recent US memory during those decades: World War II and the Vietnam War. By the 70s, the children of the men who served in World War II would have been adults. With PTSD not yet recognized, it’s possible that hostile home environments growing up caused a generation of men who had their own mental illnesses that may have manifested in violent urges. And with those who served directly in the Vietnam War, their homecoming was not particularly pleasant and PTSD could have affected them similarly. In those decades, there were very few advocates or resources helping veterans deal with trauma or mental illnesses. So systemic failure is also to blame. While it’s important to note that trauma and mental illness alone cannot be blamed for the rise of serial killers during this time, it may be a piece of the overall puzzle. The increased construction of interstate freeways in the US is sometimes cited as a reason for the rise of serial killers, as well. It gave people ready access to an easy getaway and a plethora of victims in the form of hitchhikers who didn’t yet have cell phones. Fame and fascination around crime stories—both real and fictional—in popular culture might have further encouraged people to commit atrocities, knowing they’d get attention for it. We see this even today, most commonly in relation to mass shootings.
Interestingly, as the decades change, so do the common types of victims for serial killers. I mentioned that hitchhikers were a popular victim pool for serial killers of past decades. When awareness rose about this, people (especially women), stopped hitchhiking as much. So serial killers started breaking into homes to find their next victims. As a result, home security systems became popular. Towards the 90s, serial killers began to target sex workers. Once again, that demographic got wise to their tactics and became more alert, so serial killers began looking for a new place to find victims, this time turning to finding people online. Then, people started learning how to be safer online. There seems to have been a cycle between serial killer, victim, and law enforcement that forces the landscape of these sorts of crimes to change. As the viable pools of victims decreased, so did the number of victims, which has contributed to the overall decrease of serial killers since the 80s. There’s also the increase in forensic technology that may have contributed to the decline of serial killers—namely, the use of DNA profiling that began in the 90s. The use of DNA in investigations has made it increasingly risky to be a serial killer. In fact, just in 2018, police were able to use genealogy combined with DNA to catch the Golden State Killer, who hadn’t been active for decades. Advancements in police investigations have led to serial killers being caught much earlier in their careers. Technological advances that made cell phones commonplace have kept people safer overall, with more ways to contact people or be traced in case of an emergency.
While there certainly seems to have been a Golden Age of serial killers that might feel far behind us at this point, it’s important to know that the justice system is not infallible. Only 60 percent of all homicide cases nation-wide see someone arrested for the crime. The other 40 percent of murders go unsolved. Nor are all of the 60 percent arrested convicted. So it’s relatively safe to say that at least half of the murders in the United States go unsolved. It’s impossible to say how many of those could be serial killers—perhaps they’ve adapted with the technological advances and gotten more efficient at what they do. In fact, Thomas Hargrove, who created a widely used algorithm that helps police connect homicide cases to find serial killers, estimates that there could be as many as 2,000 serial killers at large. It could even be your neighbor. So stay safe, and stay alert.