SERIAL KILLINGS. According to the National Institute of Justice, serial killings, or serial murders, are series of two or more murders committed as separate events, usually by one offender acting alone over a period of time ranging from hours to years. Often the motive is psychological, with the offender's behavior reflecting sadistic sexual overtones, and the victims—children, the insane, the elderly—being relatively powerless. Law enforcement officials estimate that in the 1990s there were between thirty and fifty serial killers active at any given time in the United States.
Records of serial killings in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and the murders by Jack the Ripper in 1888 attest that the practice is not new, nor are serial killings strictly a U.S. phenomenon. The former Soviet Union bred a number of serial killers, although their existence did not become manifest until the collapse of Communism in 1990. Andrei Chikatilo, a schoolteacher and factory procurer from the small coal-mining town of Shakti, committed fifty-two known killings, the victims mostly children under age twelve.
The largest number of serial killers, however, have been North American, with the United States producing an estimated 85 percent of the world's serial killers. Although victims of serial murders are few in comparison with other murders—an estimated 3,500 to 5,000 annually in the 1990s—the twentieth century saw a marked increase in serial killings. Although experts disagree on why this was the case, many suggest that the media's tendency to portray graphic violence may influence psychologically unstable individuals, while others suggest that American freedoms, including easy access to weapons, may make it easier for serial murderers to operate.
Serial murders are committed by members of all races and both genders, acting in pairs or even in gangs, but the greatest number are committed by single white males between twenty-five and thirty-five years of age. A small percentage of serial murderers act because of greed or the possibility of gain. Curiously, the number of female killers in the United States with such purposes is almost triple that for female serial killers who act for other reasons. Serial killings, once recognized, receive great attention from the media.
Among the most notorious serial killers of the second half of the twentieth century were Ted Bundy, who raped and murdered women in several states in the 1970s and 1980s (executed in 1989); Albert DeSalvo, known as the Boston Strangler; New York's David Berkowitz, known as Son of Sam; Wayne Williams of Atlanta; Richard Ramirez of southern California; and Jeffrey L. Dahmer, who by his own admission tortured, killed, and dismembered men and boys in Milwaukee and was convicted in 1992 of killing fifteen. Sentenced to fifteen consecutive life terms, Dahmer was bludgeoned to death in prison in 1994.
Lester, David. Serial Killers. Philadelphia: Charles Press, 1995.
Newton, Michael. Hunting Humans. 2 vols. New York: Avon, 1990.
Norris, Joel. Serial Killers. New York: Doubleday, 1988.