Media Misconceptions about Serial Killers

It is difficult to argue that the world we live in isn’t obsessed with crime. More specifically, a decent percentage of the world is obsessed with serial killers. Park Dietz, a forensic psychiatrist and consultant for the FBI’s Behavioural Science Unit said, “The media help disseminate the message that it’s good to be a serial killer… There are rewards to such violent behaviour – loyal fans, marriage proposals, splashy headlines.” Is it the media’s fascination to put a face to the faceless, predatory and senseless crimes? Jack the Ripper and H.H. Holmes are just two infamous examples.

Think about it, serial killers are immortalised in popular culture. Silence of the Lambs is an Academy-Award winning film and David Schmid, author of Natural Born Celebrities says Hannibal Lecter is seen as the more “acceptable” serial killer when compared with Buffalo Bill. Is it because he is an educated psychiatrist that helps catch Buffalo Bill? Is it because he’s witty? This misconception somehow creates the idea that just because a serial killer is smart or funny or attractive, they are somehow less threatening or somehow become less than who they truly are. Schmid mentions how serial killers become famous simply for being themselves, similar to Kim Kardashian and the Kardashian family in a mainstream context. Case in point, Hannibal Lecter is now a modern cultural icon.

Dexter is an entire television show based on a vigilante serial killer. However, because he kills those guilty of murder, is perceived as the protagonist and his killings are justified. In the same way as Hannibal Lecter, Dexter is seen as an acceptable serial killer perhaps because of his high intelligence and desire to remove dangerous people from the streets of Miami. It is made known in Dexter’s backstory that he previously had shown psychological traits of wanting to kill but his adoptive father encouraged him to channel that urge into vigilante justice.

The glorification of serial killers can be seen in multiple crime television shows such as the CSI franchise, Bones, The Mentalist and Criminal Minds. Often, it is here where the major misconceptions happen. The serial killer is perceived as being uber-intelligent and overly-capable in their crimes. Often in the interrogation process, we see the criminal is portrayed as being superior to the investigators because of their intelligence. The first serial killer introduced in Bones was Howard Epps, who was nicknamed “The Manipulator” because of his significantly high IQ of 180. Similarly, in Criminal Minds, Peter Lewis “Mr. Scratch” is a math genius with a high intelligence level that has managed to evade arrest by the Behavioural Analysis Unit for upwards of three years. The misconception of the superior serial killer is perpetrated by television shows perhaps because it creates a better story. Professor Schmid also says the audience has a constant desire to access the criminal’s whole personality.

The world seems to need to know the answer to the basic question of “why?”. Why did this person do these terrible things? It can be found not only in fictional crime but also in the staggering amount of serial killer documentaries. The true crime recounts invoke both the fascination and the repulsion of the audience. Everyone is asking the question, “What makes serial killers tick” but with their eyes tightly shut.

Professor Schmid says it is this that motivates production companies to compete for the rights of these criminals’ stories. Ted Bundy, an infamous American serial killer has a documentary based on his 30 confessions of murder called Ted Bundy: The Mind of a Killer. Jeffrey Dahmer, has multiple documentaries which look at his life and crimes, including The Jeffrey Dahmer Files. The obsession continues to grow and we see it emerging beyond the crime television network and into platforms like Netflix which streams documentaries on serial killers such as Aileen Wuornos and H.H. Holmes.

Perhaps it is our primal fascination that ultimately glorifies serial killers. The misinterpretation of their personality traits and intelligence capabilities on television creates a false stereotype of these criminals. The stories of Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy are often the exception to the rule, which is why they make incredible stories. Jeffrey Dahmer had a reported IQ of 145. According to Natural Born Celebrities, Ted Bundy had a BA in psychology, an IQ of 136, and provided psychological profiles to police investigators on other serial killers. Both of these men had intelligence levels above the genius mark and this is equivalent to the depictions on television shows.

But, there are many others who do not fit that profile. Gary Ridgway confessed to taking the lives of 71 women on the United States’ East Coast, and he confessed immediately to his crimes when apprehended. He had an IQ of 86, which is way below average intelligence. There was no superiority when it came to relations with the police.

Is there a logical connection between the lives of Ted Bundy, Gary Ridgway and Jeffrey Dahmer? Maybe it is not as simple as bad people doing bad things, or monsters on the loose. Is this why the media and the world readily accept stereotypes and profiles? Because the human mind and what drives someone to commit serial offenses isn’t simple? Which in turn makes it scarier and harder to understand.

Bob Dekle, former Florida assistant state attorney said, “People think a criminal is a hunchbacked, cross-eyed little monster slithering through the dark, leaving a trail of slime. They’re human beings.” Ted Bundy himself said, “The experts refuse to perceive me as being even remotely – you know, anything that approaches being normal.”  

Unlike television shows, news coverage, documentaries and movies portray, David Schmid says these criminals are normal, everyday people, with a tear in their psyche.

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