Why Were There So Many Serial Killers In The '70s And '80s (And So Few Now)?

There are many defining characteristics of the different decades that we have lived through and, for the '70s and '80s, serial killers were a large part of the narrative. But why were there so many serial killers in the '70s and '80s? What was it about that particular span of time that made mentally unstable people lean toward serial murder rather than a spree killing or domestic terrorism? Well-known serial killers from the 1970s and 1980s such as David Berkowitz, AKA the Son of Sam, Ted Bundy, and Jeffrey Dahmer are just a few of the killers who made up the rich tapestry of serial murderers at the time, but what drove them to kill? And why aren’t people killing at the same rate now?

Theories about the crime rate shed some light on why there are fewer serial killers now than there were in the '70s and '80s, but there’s still no definitive answer as to why that time period was such a breeding ground for sadistic killers. There are some obvious reasons why there were more serial killers in the '70s and '80s - it was just easier to do at the time - but there is also a plethora of other oblique possibilities as to why there may never be another serial killer boom as terrifying as the one that America endured during the '70s and '80s.

  • The Idea Of Being A Serial Killer Used To Be Sexy
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    The Idea Of Being A Serial Killer Used To Be Sexy

    Theory: In the '70s and '80s, most of the serial killers that you would read about or see on the news were... kind of hot. Or at least people believed them to be attractive, and the bad-boy appeal of viciously murdering people definitely added to whatever allure they had. Modern killers just aren't the same - guys like the "Crossbow Killer" and the "Kensington Killer" are murderers who have done their homework, which makes them dorks. And while nerds may be de rigueur, there's nothing sexy about dorks who kill.

    Verdict: The wave of people finding serial killers sexy definitely crested in the '90s with the publishing of American Psycho, but are there fewer serial murderers now simply because creeps want people to think they're hot stuff? Probably not.

  • The Media Exacerbated The Situation
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    The Media Exacerbated The Situation

    Theory: In the '70s and '80s, popular media became obsessed with serial killers. They splashed their murderous faces across newspapers, magazines, and television sets while reporting bonkers-sounding inaccuracies like the lie that there were 5,000 serial murder victims every year. This obsession created an echo chamber where people began to try to outdo media darlings like Ted Bundy (the handsome, Republican guy next door), John Wayne Gacy (the guy who dressed up like a clown and killed teenage boys), and Richard Ramirez (the man dubbed "The Night Stalker," who claimed that Satan gave him the power to kill). But as the '90s turned into the 2000s, the media began covering more acts of domestic terrorism and squashed the symbiotic relationship between serial killers and the media. 

    Verdict: Saying that the media - as bloodthirsty as it can be - influenced potential serial killers to follow in the footsteps of Timothy McVeigh or Ted Kaczynski by covering those horrific crimes only provides only a partial answer as to why there are fewer serial killers now than there were 30 years ago. But it is possible that, by changing their coverage away from lionizing serial killers, that a few killers decided to go into woodworking or whatever else could hold their interest instead.

  • Police Didn't Have The Data We Have Now
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    Police Didn't Have The Data We Have Now

    Theory: Slate reported that one of the main reasons there aren't as many serial killers now is because it's become harder to kill multiple people over a long period of time without police being able to register and track your methods, DNA, and MO. Rather than being gumshoes and putting in long hours on the streets, police are working smarter to find potential serial killers.

    Verdict: Even if a potential serial murderer hasn't been located by the police (yet), they're still providing data about where they are, who they're with, and what they're wearing to apps like Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. And if they're using a Fitbit? Forget about it. Police aren't just able to track their steps, but are able to obtain time-stamped information about the places this would-be killer has been and the routes they take on a daily basis.

  • Law Enforcement Was Not As Organized As It Is Now
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    Law Enforcement Was Not As Organized As It Is Now

    Theory: It's safe to say that the police in the '70s and '80s weren't prepared for the wave of serial murders that were about to sweep the country. In some cases, like the Dean Corll case in Houston, the police simply didn't care that teenage boys were vanishing, so they never looked into a possible link between the numerous disappearances. Not every cop was terrible at their job, though - most of them just weren't keen on communicating with police departments in other cities or states, which is how guys like John Wayne Gacy and Ted Bundy were able to move around and murder so freely. Today's cops, though, are ready for this kind of thing - there's better communication between departments and all around better detective work, which keeps a one-time killer from becoming a serial killer.

    Verdict: Whether cops were driven to be better at their jobs because they were embarrassed at having had so many murders committed on their watch, or because they simply had to get better to keep up with killers who were tallying up an insane number of victims doesn't really matter. What does matter is that today's police usually know what to look for when they're hunting for a serial killer. But a more knowledgeable police force alone can't be the only reason that there are fewer serial killers now than there were in the '70s and '80s.

  • The FBI Began To Use Science To Catch Killers
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    The FBI Began To Use Science To Catch Killers

    Theory: In the '70s and '80s, the FBI was doing its best to chase down serial killers, but there's only so much that can be done when you're Dale-Coopering around. It wasn't until the '90s that Howard Teten, an FBI criminal investigator, created a way to profile serial killers by analyzing their lifestyles, their physical attributes, the location of their victims, the way these killers committed their murders, and exactly how they left their victims. Patterns emerged and suddenly it became easier to catch killers before they begin serializing their work.

    Verdict: Howard Teten didn't solve a bunch of serial murders by himself, but he definitely helped catch a lot of nightmare people through his research. Go, Teten, Go!

  • 1974 Was Cursed
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    1974 Was Cursed

    Theory: 1974 was a crazy year that may have been built on a Native American burial ground. Vietnam was still happening (it ended the next year), Watergate was ruining the conservative party, Patty Hearst was kidnapped, "Waterloo" won the Eurovision song contest, and 92 people died in a plane crash. It wasn't great. And aside from all of that, Ted Bundy committed his first murder, Dennis Rader (BTK) killed his fist victim, John Wayne Gacy committed his second murder, Paul John Knowles went on a murder spree, and Coral Eugene Watts killed the first of his 90 victims the same year - 1974 was cursed

    Verdict: Okay, 1974 probably was not cursed - it is weird that all that stuff happened, though.