3 Things Movies and TV Shows Get Wrong About Serial Killers (and 3 Things They Get Right)

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Hannibal may be ending its NBC run on Saturday, but serial killers as entertainment will, no doubt, live on forever. But how accurate are the most popular examples of narrative, non-docudrama works that depict their gruesome habits? We make like Will Graham and investigate.

According to the FBI, serial murderer is defined as “the unlawful killing of two or more victims by the same offender(s), in separate events;” this differentiates the act from mass or spree murder, which contains the killings within a single event. (Think Ted Bundy’s years-long reign of terror vs. James Holmes’ one-night slaughter.) Thanks to the efforts of FBI profilers and other experts, we know more about the psychology and habits of serial killers than ever before. But that doesn’t mean the creators of TV shows and movies have been paying attention; their main objective is to shock/horrify/delight their audiences, after all.

So, generally speaking, what do they tend to get wrong?


1) Serial killers always have a law-enforcement nemesis

On Hannibal, and in all the films based on Thomas Harris’ characters, we’ve seen how Hannibal Lecter cultivates manipulative, deeply involved, boundary-invading relationships with the FBI agents who study him. Though there are some exceptions (particularly in long-cold cases, when one dogged investigator is assigned to keep the flame alive, as in the Zodiac Killer mystery), serial-killer cases are handled by a full-on task force. The FBI recommends said task force include not only lead investigators, but support personnel, including administrators who help keep the funding flowing, and employees specifically designated for the delicate task of acting as liason to the victims’ families. Obviously, this is not the glamorous stuff of, say, Will Graham chasing Hannibal the Cannibal through Italian catacombs. But it’s how the real gears of crime-solving actually grind.

2) Cops always know when there’s a serial killer on the loose

Really, that’s the excitement value of a serial-killer story: piecing together the gruesome clues to determine the true identity of Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs or John Doe from Se7en. But in real life, it sometimes takes years to realize that victims are being taken by the same perpetrator, especially when they’re from a demographic that doesn’t raise alarm bells among cops. Think Jeffrey Dahmer, who killed gay men (many of them non-white) and whose bloody spree wasn’t detected until a police officer finally peeked inside his refrigerator. Or the alleged “Grim Sleeper” of Los Angeles, Lonnie Franklin, who favored “poor and vulnerable girls and women” whose disappearances would not grab headlines; much of Nick Broomfield’s documentary about the case, Tales of the Grim Sleeper, delves into this and other reasons why the killings went largely ignored for so long.


3) All serial killers are white dudes under the age of 50

Ok, so this cliche is actually somewhat true to life: Bundy, Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, etc. all fit this description, as do Hannibal’s Hannibal and Great Red Dragon, Psycho’s Norman Bates, American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman, etc. But it’s also a script generalization that leaves out serial killers who are women (besides Aileen Wuornos, who provided Charlize Theron with her Oscar-winning role, think Dorothea Puente, Velma Barfield, Leonarda “Soap Maker” Cianciulli, and others), as well as from different racial groups. The FBI notes that “the racial diversification of serial killers generally mirrors that of the overall U.S. population,” giving examples of Charles Ng and Coral Eugene Watts, among others.

The FBI also insists that the “dysfunctional loner” label often affixed to serial killers (see: the characters mentioned above except perhaps Hannibal, Peeping Tom, Maniac, Ryan Reynolds in The Voices, etc.) is a myth as well, pointing out that both the Green River Killer and the BTK Killer lived deceptively normal lives when they weren’t out hunting victims:

The majority of serial killers are not reclusive, social misfits who live alone. They are not monsters and may not appear strange. Many serial killers hide in plain sight within their communities. Serial murderers often have families and homes, are gainfully employed, and appear to be normal members of the community. Because many serial murderers can blend in so effortlessly, they are oftentimes overlooked by law enforcement and the public.


What’s more, not all serial killers are motivated by sexual reasons. Some are trying to get attention, like the DC Beltway Snipers. Some are just prone to shooting anyone who interferes with their robbery habits.

Ok. So when you think “Serial Killer,” and you immediately think a twitchy loner of a young white guy who’s being pursued by cops and probably has a nemesis ... uh, exactly like Hannibal’s Francis “The Tooth Fairy/I Prefer Great Red Dragon” Dolarhyde ... you might be picturing a murderer that’s been shaped more by Hollywood than real life.


But that’s not to say some of the details that movies and TV shows have included over the years are all exaggerations and fantasies, because as always, real life often provides more horrors than anything that can be imagined. Such as:


1) Serial killers are bizarre and unpredictable

Cannibal killers? Real! Though Hannibal Lecter is admittedly a slight exaggeration (has anyone in real life ever used human flesh so elegantly in fine cuisine? Mostly, you just hear about deep-frying and brain-nibbling and such). Killers inspired by/obsessed with works of art, a la the Great Red Dragon? Real! Though sometimes that “work of art” is a horror movie, like Scream, or a TV show, like Dexter.

Killers who do completely insane things with body parts, other than eating them, a la my personal favorite movie serial killer, Steve Buscemi’s Garland Greene from Con Air (“One girl, I drove through three states wearing her head as a hat!”) How much time do you have? Because there are zillions of real-life examples. Here’s just one: Jerry Brudos, the infamous “Shoe Fetish Slayer,” whose insatiable lust for high heels led him to some very dark places. It didn’t take long before shoes weren’t enough, and he killed a women to cut off her foot to use as a model. Then, he moved on to cutting off his victims’ breasts, planning to use them to make paperweights. He was also a rapist and necrophiliac. Brudos was eventually caught, found legally sane, and spent the rest of his life in prison.


2) Serial killers feel no remorse

Hannibal Lecter has claimed dozens of victims, and he’d damn sure be keeping that up were he not locked up in a hospital pretending to be insane. The FBI cites a checklist developed by Dr. Robert Hare, a leading researcher, to examine and scale the personality traits of psychopaths. Not feeling any remorse is a big one:

The interpersonal traits include glibness, superficial charm, a grandiose sense of self-worth, pathological lying, and the manipulation of others. The affective traits include a lack of remorse and/or guilt, shallow affect, a lack of empathy, and failure to accept responsibility. The lifestyle behaviors include stimulation-seeking behavior, impulsivity, irresponsibility, parasitic orientation, and a lack of realistic life goals. The anti-social behaviors include poor behavioral controls, early childhood behavior problems, juvenile delinquency, revocation of conditional release, and criminal versatility. The combination of these individual personality traits, interpersonal styles, and socially deviant lifestyles are the framework of psychopathy and can manifest themselves differently in individual psychopaths.


This assessment suggests that even when a serial killer makes excuses for his or her crimes, it may not be motivated by genuine guilt. Take Anthony Sowell, the “Cleveland Strangler” who was convicted in 2011 of murdering 11 women, whose bodies he then stashed in and around his house. During his trial, he took to the stand and offered this “apology:”

I truly am sorry from the bottom of my heart. It’s not typical of me. I don’t know what happened. I can’t explain it. I know it’s not a lot, but that’s all I can give you.


The jury wasn’t convinced, and neither was the judge; Sowell received the death penalty.


3) Serial killers are everywhere

Considering how popular they are as boogeymen (and women) on big and small screens, chasing movie stars, police-procedural cast members, and what have you, one would think that there’s a serial killer in every American city (and even more in New York, Los Angeles, and Hannibal’s Baltimore). Journalist Diane Dimond, late of beloved tabloid news show Hard Copy, wrote in 2012:

John Douglas, a former chief of the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit and author of “Mind Hunter,” says, “A very conservative estimate is that there are between 35 and 50 active serial killers in the United States” at any given time. Often, Douglas told me, they will, “kill two to three victims and then have a ‘cooling-off’ period between kills.” That period can be days and in some cases (such as the BTK Strangler, Dennis Rader, convicted of killing 10 people from 1974 to 1991) even years.”

But others who study serial killers (defined as someone who kills three or more people) think there are many more of these demented predators out there than the FBI admits to — maybe as many as a hundred of them actively operating right now.


All Hannibal season 3 images via NBC.com; Con Air image via wsj.com