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. –