We have to stop giving serial killers what they want.
As a self-certified armchair detective, I believe I’ve pinpointed a major flaw in the system that’s essentially rewarding serial killers for their monstrous deeds. Our problem is once we catch serial killers, the media covers their stories with a sick fascination that borders on reverence. We give them exotically terrifying monikers like Jack The Ripper, The Killer Clown, The Werewolf of Wysteria, The Night Stalker. We describe them as ‘evil geniuses’ who ‘managed to elude the police for decades,’ further glorifying them. We romanticize their horrific crimes in graphic detail, enabling them to relish in reliving the feeling of gratification from taking a life.
I’ll admit, I’m part of the problem.
I’ll watch any true crime I can get my hands on. Forensic Files, American Crime Stories, Dateline specials, Making a Murderer, The Keepers. I even have a special fondness for shows like Snapped, with its charmingly melodramatic crime reenactments.
There are few things I enjoy more than snuggling up with my hubby on the couch for an evening of watching other people elaborately plot the murders of their spouses.
But in the world of heinous criminals, serial killers are my favorite. I like to look deep into their mugshot eyes through the TV screen and convince myself that I can SEE how evil they are. I feel a certain smugness in knowing that if I were to meet one of these people in real life, I alone would be the neighbor on our block to sound the alarms about Paul Who Just Poured a Suspicious Amount of Concrete In His Backyard.
Despite my obsession, the last thing I want to do is allow my TV’s Neilson ratings to inadvertently act as a huge “Congratulations, keep it up!” to the serial killer who’s getting a hard-on over the made-for-tv movie detailing the 23 women he mauled.
So what can we do differently when reporting on these criminals? I wanted to learn everything I could about what makes a serial killer happy so I could figure out how to make him MISERABLE. (And yes I’m using the male pronoun for serial killers since they make up a staggering 90% of their demographic.)
I had the pleasure of interviewing a Forensic Psychologist on this very subject. For the sake of anonymity, I’ll call her Sam. To give me a good foundation for this piece, Sam took me down a list of characteristics commonly seen in these offenders.
Here are some things you might already know about serial killers if you’ve been binge-watching the ID Channel like me:
1. Serial killers are psychopaths by definition. They have a total lack of empathy.
2. They can be prideful, impulsive, and narcissistic.
3. They’re highly organized.
4. They’re often very meticulous, especially in their methods for luring victims.
5. They frequently prey on a specific type of target.
6. They can be driven by the desire for power, control, and/or sexual gratification
7. They can be very charismatic. They know how to read people and tell them what they want to hear.
8. They’re persistent and obsessive. They commonly present signs of OCD.
9. Perhaps most alarmingly, the most prolific killers can blend into the community very well, even curating seemingly meaningful relationships and having families of their own.
Here are some things you may be surprised to learn about serial killers:
1. To a serial killer, the act of committing a murder can produce a psychological and/or sexual orgasm.
2. The majority of serial killers have a history of physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse from their childhood. This abuse can lead to their inability to develop empathy.
3. Watching someone die is the ultimate feeling of power for a serial killer.
4. Because of their pride and narcissism, a serial killer will often refuse to discuss their perceived weaknesses— both emotional and physical.
5. The brain scans of serial killers differ from those of the general population. They have lower activity in their orbital cortex, an area which controls functions such as rage, impulsivity, violence, etc.
6. When they talk/read about their crimes, killers get off from reliving their experience.
7. By simply identifying a killer’s victims and the methods he used, he feels great pride— even if his name is never tied to his murders.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for informing the public about threats to their safety, and for honoring the victims whose lives have been taken.
But knowing what we know about serial killers, I can’t help but wonder why we’re stroking their egos by covering their stories in such morbid detail. We need to report in a way that belittles these guys instead of feeding their psyches with a glorified novella filled with their most precious memories. We need to wound their pride and challenge their belief that they’re more clever than we are. These aren’t evil geniuses. They’re unrepentant murderers.
We need to focus on evoking empathy for the victims and detracting attention from the serial killer and his “skills.”
If you look at every documentary and news story currently out there, you’ll see the way we as a society are expressing our fear of these murderers’ very existence— something that gives them that desperately needed feeling of control on an even more global level.
So without further ado, I’d like to offer my version of the ideal news story about your town’s next (fictional) serial killer:
“The Very Tiny PeePee Boy has taken the life of another beautiful soul named Jessica Johnson. Her cause of death was probably an accident because The Very Tiny PeePee Boy is incredibly disorganized, has a frightfully low IQ, and is reported to be extremely clumsy. Detectives best describe his behavior as “highly predictable.” Growing up, when people would make fun of The Very Tiny PeePee Boy, he would cry and everyone would laugh at him. What a loser. Jessica Johnson was a likely victim of his because, weighing a petite 108 lbs, she was less than half the size of this pimply-butted dweeb. The Very Tiny PeePee Boy typically goes for small women because he’s a big dumb bedwetter whose balls presumably haven’t dropped yet, and he’s too afraid to pick on anybody remotely close to his own size. He’s very easily intimidated. It’s estimated that he committed this crime sometime between 2-4pm because he’s a wittle baby who’s afwaid of the dawk.
More importantly, we’d like to shift focus to the lovely Jessica Johnson. Jessica was a beautiful young lady with a lot of promise. Friends and family describe her as, “a brilliant girl who had a giant heart and amazing taste in clothing.” She was president of her debate team at Spring Creek High School, an impressive tennis player, and a passionate advocate for animal rights. She was a proud member of M.E.N.S.A. and had a 5.0 GPA. As a Girl Scout, she founded an organization for young ladies who helped elderly people shop for their weekly groceries. Her wake was held this Saturday at Broadmoore Chuch and was attended by a staggering 5,000+ guests. Dozens of people lovingly shared their favorite anecdotes about Jessica for a sea of her admirers. Nobody at the wake asked about how she died or what the perpetrator’s name was because, frankly, no one gives a shit.”
Ok, ok. Maybe it’s not realistic to write an article like this for the local news. And Sam made it clear that what drives a serial killer goes far beyond the eventual attention they’d get in the media. But maybe we can meet somewhere in the middle. As consumers of the news, we’ve created a thriving market for sensationalism. Any news outlet that wants to survive today’s market can only do so by telling an even more shocking story than the station before them. We love to pick the scab and finger the wound. Unfortunately, this kind of reporting gives the serial killers an extra level of satisfaction that they absolutely don’t deserve. So let’s do better. Let’s focus on the lives of the victims. Let’s leave out the gory details.
Let’s embarrass the crap out of these turds so badly that they wouldn’t dare commit another crime.