Discovery Magazine, December 2020
From the 1970s through the ’90s, stories of serial killers like Ted Bundy and the Green River Killer — both of whom pleaded guilty to killing dozens of women — dominated headlines. Today, however, we see far fewer twisted tales in the vein of the Zodiac Killer or John Wayne Gacy.
After that three-decade surge, a rapid decline followed. Nearly 770 serial killers operated in the U.S. throughout the 1980s, and just under 670 in the ’90s, based on data compiled by Mike Aamodt of Radford University. The sudden plummet came with the new century, when the rate fell below 400 in the aughts and, as of late 2016, just over 100 during the past decade. The rough estimate on the global rate appeared to show a similar drop over the same period. In a stunning collapse, these criminals that terrorized and captivated a generation quickly dwindled. Put another way, 189 people in the U.S. died by the hands of a serial killer in 1987, compared to 30 in 2015. Various theories attempt to explain this change.
In reality it’s not clear whether there truly was a surge of serial killing, or at least not one as pronounced as the data suggest. Advances in police investigation (for example, the ability to link murders more effectively) and improved data collection could help explain the uptick. That said, no one doubts that serial killing rose for several decades, and that rise fits with a general increase in crime. Similarly, everyone agrees on a subsequent fall in serial killing, and that, too, fits with a general decrease in crime. But where did they go?