Serial Killers and You: A Match Made In Fiction

By Leonard Cassuto

Note to readers: Cassuto is an English professor at Fordham University and Author of the just released, “Hard-Boiled Sentimentality: The Secret History of American Crime Stories.”

 

Today’s hyper-vigilant parenting is haunted by a figure behind the curtain: the serial killer.  He’s the boogeyman that slinks through every parent’s nightmares, the predator on the prowl, looking for unattended children.  But how real is the serial killer?

 

Yes, serial killers really exist in the world.  But they also exist in the entertainment world—where they’re much more real.  Hannibal Lecter is the most famous serial killer ever, but he’s imaginary.  So is Buffalo Bill, the other serial killer from The Silence of the Lambs.  These two, and their many knockoffs, helped make the serial killer into America’s most popular monster.

 

But let’s talk real life.  A person’s chances of becoming the victim of a serial killer are two in a million.  Imagine a typical football stadium on game day, filled with people.  Now imagine nineteen more like it.  That’s a million people.

 

You or your child have about the same chance of being struck by lightning as of being murdered by a serial killer. In fact, you have less chance of being murdered, because lightning strikes randomly. Serial killers don’t.

 

Most real-life serial killers target society’s outsiders: prostitutes, the homeless, hustlers, and the like.  On the very rare occasions when a serial killer targets middle class people (young or not), it gets people’s attention because it’s so atypical.  Think of Ted Bundy or Son of Sam: these aren’t ordinary serial killers.  That’s why they get the headlines. 

 

The serial killers in novels and movies are unrealistic precisely because they target middle-class people.  The victims in serial killer books are always people in families because that makes for better suspense.  But that’s not the way that serial killers operate in real life. For regular people living regular middle-class lives, even the two-in-a-million figure is probably too high.

 

The fear of serial killers is fueled by unquestioned anxiety.  It’s an interesting question why these kinds of stories have become so popular — and if you’re interested in why, you should read my new book, Hard-Boiled Sentimentality: The Secret History of American Crime Stories.http://www.lcassuto.com/books/hard-boiled-sentimentality-the-secret-history-of-american-crime-stories

 

It’s worth keeping in mind the difference between overheated imagination and real life when it comes to bringing up children.   After all, that’s supposed to be what we’re teaching them. –

L.C.

10 Responses to Serial Killers and You: A Match Made In Fiction

  1. wahoofive October 24, 2008 at 12:16 pm #

    This is a straw man argument. I don’t think many parents are worried about serial killers. Rather, they’re worried about child molesters, kidnappers, drug pushers, robbers, and so on. These threats may be overrated too, but I don’t think serial killers are high on anyone’s mind. Columbine-type shooters, maybe, but they were in school.

  2. wahoofive October 24, 2008 at 12:18 pm #

    This is a straw man argument. I don’t think many parents are worried about serial killers. Rather, they’re worried about child molesters, kidnappers, drug pushers, robbers, and so on. These threats may be overrated too, but I don’t think serial killers are high on anyone’s mind. Columbine-type shooters, maybe, but they were in school.

  3. K in Kiev October 25, 2008 at 12:33 am #

    I agree that most people are more concerned about kidnappers than serial killers. I am a believer in the ‘free range’ philosophy. My four-year-old and six-year-old occasionally go out to play (together) in our apartment courtyard unsupervised for 20-30 minutes. I must admit I’m nervous, occasionally rmeembering to check out the window. But I’ve been concerned more as I’ve been involved with organizations who help victims of human trafficking. I’d love some real statistics about different crimes in different parts of the world–we live in Eastern Europe, so many of the American statistics don’t apply here.

  4. Sue October 25, 2008 at 10:32 pm #

    Parents have always used the bogeyman as a survival tool to keep their children safe from the predators lurking out of range of the primitive firelight to the modern registered child molester down the street. There are more effective ways to protect children and to help them learn how to protect themselves than to scare the bejeesus- and their ability to think rationally about it -out of them.

    Consider Bruno Bettelheim’s book _The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and importance of Fairy Tales_ The more horrific versions of fairy tales have evolved out of the mainstream over generations to the point now of politically correct and non-violent versions; paradoxical, ain’t it? considering the internalization and invocation of the bogeyman by so many parents today- to terrify themselves as well as their children!

    I think these behaviors and reactions on parents’ parts run deep, seated in the majority of the iceberg of the unconscious, that which is submerged and difficult to define and recognize explicitly which is necessary before one can go about changing those theories.

  5. Jennifer October 26, 2008 at 12:10 am #

    I don’t think it’s strawman. It’s just that parents are concerned about a certain type of serial killer. The article above dealt with the “garden variety” serial, but add a penchant for molesting children, and you have every parent’s nightmare. College girls worry about the rapist variety. But it’s just different versions of the same boogeyman, tailored to a specific fear.
    As a mother, free-range or not, I can’t lie and say I’ve never been worried about it. The Danielle Van Damme cases are enough to scare any parent. I feel deeply for any parent that was unfortunate enough to “win” at the odds…

    BUT, just as I can’t live my life absolutely convinced that I am going to win the lottery (I WISH, lol), nor can I live as though my son were absolutely going to be molested and killed.

  6. Mary November 1, 2008 at 1:53 am #

    I agree with the person from Kiev. I live in Eastern Europe and also work on trafficking issues and child protection–but it is true trafficking isn’t ‘snatch someone off the street'; instead it is a process of ‘grooming’ (usually) rural girls desperate to change their lives, into the glamour of going abroad through false promises.

    I have a teenage girl and keep tabs when she goes out (for several reasons) as societies aren’t all the same–it is traditional here so her behavior is monitored by others as well as myself. Fact of life. No serial killers though, just serial gawkers, commenters, macho remarks by guys who aren’t used to teenage girls walking along unaccompanied.

  7. andrea November 11, 2008 at 5:59 am #

    Well, I always had a feeling I was one in a million. I have had two people I know killed by serial killers. One child in her home, and one an adult in her home. Both were in extremely nice neighborhoods. But, this proved to me that you can worry about it all you want, and sometimes, &^%$^% happens. I have since lived in questionable neighborhoods and enjoyed a tremendous feeling of safety and security—-because I knew my neighbors. If your desire for perfect safety makes you pull away from knowing people, you can never really develop good judgment or an effective radar. Fearing everyone is not the answer.

  8. Denise January 5, 2010 at 3:21 pm #

    I knew 3 women in my small home town in Texas, who were murdered by a serial killer. The killer happened to be a pretty good friend of mine! Strange, he was 19 when he murdered the first woman and was convicted at age 21…..but…….he was Hispanic. Now I move to Austin TX and my closest friend was was raped and murdered by another Serial Killer! What are the chances that by the time I was 19 years old I personally knew four women who were raped and murdered! And….I wonder why I seem to have an unatural fear of these monsters?

  9. car review September 9, 2010 at 5:18 pm #

    BUT, just as I can’t live my life absolutely convinced that I am going to win the lottery (I WISH, lol), nor can I live as though my son were absolutely going to be molested and killed.

  10. Trevor February 22, 2011 at 12:56 pm #

    It’s scary that u have a better chance of being killed than winning to lottery or plane crash