American Serial Killers

By Peter Vronsky

Most true crime books are timely, flexed-out reportage, cashing in on the notoriety of a headline-grabbing trial and doing little to advance public understanding beyond what you’d get reading the news. Survey books give a bit more perspective, but often don’t provide more than capsule accounts of the most celebrated bloodletters and badmen.

Peter Vronsky is one of the better workers in this busy field and in his several books on the subject he always gives the reader a bit more in the way of informed and original insight. Yes, this latest account of serial killers active in the United States in the back half of the twentieth century covers all of the greatest hits, as well as some curious “footnotes” (I was interested to learn that Harvey Murray Glatman, the Glamor Girl Slayer, was the first killer to photograph his victims, at least that we know of), but it’s precisely the fact that these years constituted such a take-off, followed by a sharp drop around the turn of the millennium, that calls for investigation and analysis.

The numbers are remarkable. In the 1950s there were 72 reported serial killers in the U.S. In the 1960s, 217, in the ‘70s 605, in the ‘80s 768, and in the ‘90s 669. But then a trailing off, with 371 in the 2000s and 117 in the 2010s.

There’s more to the story than just these statistics. Anyone who reads much in this area will know that these same epidemic years (1970-2000) didn’t just produce a greater number of serial killers but all of the names that are still most recognized today: Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, David Berkowitz (Son of Sam), Richard Ramirez (the Night Strangler), Jeffrey Dahmer, and many others known almost exclusively by their nicknames: the Hillside Strangler, the BTK Killer, the Green River Killer et al. But since Dahmer, what killers have caught the public’s imagination and the media’s eye in the same way? Vronsky lists off eighteen of the more prominent, only to say “If you haven’t heard of them, you are not the only one. Some didn’t even have monikers.” I count myself among the ignorant, pulling a blank on all eighteen.

Have serial killers changed? Has the way we cover them changed? Or are we just not as interested as we used to be? And what conditions – social, political, economic, cultural – gave rise to the epidemic in the first place? These are interesting questions, even if no conclusive answers are available.
On the question of what gave rise to the epidemic Vronksy suggests the after-effects of military service in brutal wars by a parental generation and the influence of crime magazines in making sexual violence an accessible fetish. Borrowing on a term used by anthropologist Simon Harrison, Vronsky sees these as being two elements in a Satanic cultural mix (diabolus in cultura) that combined around mid-century into the perfect breeding ground for the later serial killer explosion.

I would have preferred it if Vronsky had not leaned so heavily on the particular root sources he identifies, but he doesn’t present his case with a lot of wiggle room:

The baby-boom generation of future serial killers was a nest of two thousand sick baby snakes, drinking their fathers’ traumas, their mothers’ neuroses, and sucking up the culture of rape and murder sold to them at the supermarket magazine rack, on TV and movies, and getting stepped on by bullies and rapists and life itself. That’s how a surge of serial killers will be formed, simple and easy. You don’t need a psych degree or a complex theory to figure it out; just peruse a men’s adventure or true-detective magazine from the 1960s and ask your granddad, if he’s still around, what he witnessed in the “last good war.”

This is a thesis Vronsky previously put forward in another serial-killer book, Sons of Cain, but while the specific connections he makes (parental traumas passed down to the next generation plus “rape culture” magazines) aren’t imaginary or wholly speculative, they still strike me as incidental. Most Boomers were spoiled rather than abused, and the mix of sex and violence in the media today are more advanced than anything in the primitive “sweats.” A counter-argument though might be made (indeed has been made) that today we’ve become inured to porn, or that Internet porn in particular has become a kind of mellowing drug for people with violent dispositions. Meaning that the serial killer epidemic might have been a kind of social trauma that we collectively had to go through in order to arrive at our current narcotized, surveillance state.

In any event, while I appreciate the boldness of the argument I think it’s also hard to generalize. Serial killers are a mixed bag. Much is made here of Ted Bundy’s iconic status as the epidemic’s poster boy, the one who would “define for us the new postmodern serial killer.” But Bundy himself strikes me as being highly atypical in most ways.

We are left to wonder whether the serial killer epidemic of 1970 – 2000 will be repeated. Are such phenomena cyclical, or was this a one-off? It’s a pressing question, as Vronsky is concerned at the potential fallout from such crises as the 2008 subprime meltdown, the war on terror, and the COVID-19 pandemic. “We are looking into the abyss of a new American Noir like the one in the 1940s but worse.” I’d agree that the potential is there, as we’ve already seen political and economic institutions straining and beginning to crack. I see the same dark moon rising that Vronsky does, but whether it will produce more of the sorts of lunatics described in these pages is harder to say. It seems to me likely that the same percentage of people carry within them these violent impulses, and if serial killers are opportunists I would expect them to become more active as the sort of opportunities created by, for example, social breakdown arise. Things tend to fall apart all at once, from the personal to the political.

Review first published online March 23, 2021.

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