Why were there so many serial killers between 1970 and 2000?

here are a few of the things from drum over the past several years–
from 2016:

from 2018:


By they year 2045, 45% of all media is murder related podcasts, documentaries, and dramatic recreations.

Scientists see that there is a point of “peak murder”, where no new, interesting serial killers can be mined for content, and there is fear that this will lead to a crash of the economy.

So they did the only natural thing - build a time machine and send people back in time to commit serial murders. The era where some photo documentation is available, but not constant surveillance or refined forensic practices, makes the most obvious and best time period to commit serial murders.

Every time you tune into a show and find out about a new serial killer you hadn’t heard of, you know that the program is working.


We’ve been at war continuously since 11 Sept 2001, so the new crop of serial killers should just now be coming to maturity. Thanks, Raytheon, Boeing, et. al.!

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Right? I mean, how much did the pearl-clutching news reports and the various panics of the 80s contribute to people just being more vigilant and less prone to being randomly snatched? How much did changes to policing on the local and national level make it more difficult to pull off crimes like this? Or the surveillance state (not an endorsement of said state)?

Crime is like any other thing in human culture - shaped by a variety of factors that do include biology, but also the type of economy we live in, our gender relations, our institutions, etc.

It strikes me that insisting on the environmental/biological as the driving factor is akin to the Marxist insistience that it’s always the economy. Both leave open too many questions and are too reductive in my view. Both play a role in how our society/culture looks and what makes something like this possible.

Could be another factor.

I think that’s more of the “it bleeds, it leads” phenomenon.

I just don’t think that lead is the sole reason that this phenomenon happened when it did. I don’t buy that the environmental is all determining, just like I don’t buy that economics is all determining. They both shaped people’s lives and outcomes, but it just doesn’t explain it all.

Hm. Just thought of this… In the late 60s, the Hays code largely stopped being enforced/ended and the 70s and 80s were a renaissance of low-budget slasher films… :thinking:


I read the first one, and it is 100% correlation fishing. That’s directional and could be interesting to research, but there’s nothing causal in that entire story. It’s a lot of correlation, sure, but nobody talked to a neurologist, for example. It’s all economists and statisticians lining up graphs. That is not science. It is a hypothesis-forming.

Saying “hey this crime map lines up with this lead map” and concluding lead makes people murder is a HUGE leap completely unsupported by evidence.


i don’t think of it as the sole contributing factor but if you look at the evidence, i think it is probably the single greatest contributing factor. maybe as much as 60-70% conservatively. it honestly wouldn’t surprise me if it was larger. the effects are noticeable across multiple countries over multiple periods of lead reductions in multiple cultural groups with many if not most of the same outcomes. environmental lead is one hell of a poison and has deleterious effects particularly on developing organisms.


I just don’t buy the environmental determinism theory. It’s too pat and dismisses human agency. I think you’re aware of my views on that.


The correct question is “why were so many serial killers brought to our attention between 1970 and 2000?”.

There have always been serial killers and there probably always will be. The 24/7 news cycle that started in the 1970s just made us more aware of them, so current serial killers are being even more careful with their sprees.

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Also, I can’t help but notice that the decline in serial killers directly corresponds to the increase in inflation:

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Do you have proof to back that up, especially going back to before the modern period? Serial killing has a specific historical definition, and it’s not just about murder and violence in general. Pre-modern societies likely had different means of dealing with, channeling, and categorizing violence in their society, which different levels of acceptance of violence (such as the acceptability of revenge carried out by individuals/family units, etc). Right up until the 1950s, that form of violence carried some level of acceptance within society (such as with lynching, with juries letting people off the hook for the violence).

I’d argue it eems that serial killing is a specific, historically bound phenomenon, created by specific historical realities (mass mediated news coverage, environmental factors as noted by @navarro, cultural factors such as a back lash to feminism, maybe some economic factors, too, like the rise of individualism in neoliberalism, etc).


Wartime might provide a haven and outlet for serial killers. Marcel Petiot for instance. In the years 1970 - 2000 the USA (this article addresses the US experience) may have provided fewer opportunities of this nature and the consequence may have been experienced at home??

Is there a consistent definition of what a serial killer actually is?

There’s some quibbling over details, but it’s generally agreed to be killing three people over the course of a month or more, with a cooling-off period between the murders.

I’m not familiar with the book, but it strikes me that it’s projecting an idea back into the past. I’ll have to check it out at some point.

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Lead exposure as a child is widely shown to lead to cognitive difficulties and poor impulse control. whether that leads to serial killing is an unanswered question but the neurological effects are well documented.

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They were all born during wartime. … their fathers were returning war veterans with PTSD

That would suggest that, thanks to the last 20 years of war, we’d be seeing a new wave of serial killers right about… now. Thankfully, it seems like other factors play a significant role.

Given that the causal link between violent crime (in general) and lead exposure is the lead resulted in poor impulse control, that’s a whole other kettle of fish, really, from serial killers - at best it would be one of many contributing factors, and doesn’t explain the underlying pathology, just part of why the killer was giving in to those urges.

There are precise definitions for “serial killer” and “spree killer” that aren’t sensationalized (so there are a lot more serial killers than the famous ones). There do seem to be different motivations and dynamics at play, on the whole, and the number of serial killers has decreased. (Though one could debate by how much exactly.) But yeah, the culture could absolutely play a role - as has been mentioned in previous articles, if nothing else the culture provides more or fewer opportunities for people to be serial killers (e.g. more hitch-hikers, homeless or root-less populations). I wonder how forensics plays a role - budding serial killers might be more likely to be identified and caught now, before they can technically become serial killers, for example. Killers who target certain (marginalized) demographics are a lot less likely to be identified as killers (as their deaths aren’t examined closely, or at all), even now, but which groups are in those outsider demographics changes. (Up until fairly recently, you could kill white men with little police interest as long as they were gay, for example.)

And, of course, not so many decades ago, white men could just openly murder people of marginalized demographics without getting in trouble, so they didn’t even get counted as “killers” much less the serial variety.

It seems like that kind of media attention is a significant factor in spree killings, but not so much with serial killings, where the “serial killer personality” is getting set in childhood. What I’ve read is that the different types of killers aren’t interchangeable, so it’s not media influencing them to become one type rather than another.

Yeah, “known” is doing a lot of work there. To know you have a serial killer, you have to have a police force that cares enough that someone is dead to investigate it (or even see it as a crime), and the forensic knowledge and networks to connect disparate killings to one another. We now have the later, so known killings are more likely to be tied together if there’s a connection, but we still have a big problem with the former for certain populations. (If you’re a poor person with a substance abuse problem, especially if you’re BIPOC, the cops are very unlikely to lift a finger looking into your death.) Also, you have to have enough population density and/or tracking of the population such that people can’t just disappear without anyone knowing and the bodies never being found. (I think about my own ancestors, where people moved across country by themselves, even as children, and didn’t stay in contact with anyone they knew. When that’s common, there’s a lot of opportunity for people to completely disappear without anyone looking.)

I mean, the most prolific US serial killer that we know about, was only identified in the last few years for killings he committed in the '80s, and went undetected for decades because his victims were largely not even identified as having been murdered.


I’m actually not convinced we have a change at all. The number of serial killers sit really close to the statistical noise floor even during the peak period they mention. A tiny shift in the murders occurring in a variety of suburbs rather than the core city, and someone missing the connection would be enough to look like a massive decline. We don’t solve a huge share of murders and it isn’t unreasonable that we aren’t seeing some things as connected. The article focuses on news stories, rather than deaths or convictions. News cycles ebb and flow for any number of reasons, completely unconnected to the actual crime rate.

Personally, I’ve been sold on the contribution of lead to homicides more generally. It fits what we know with crime data and what we know about the impact of lead on impulse control, but I think those same things don’t generalize over to serial killers. The evidence for the lead hypothesis is strongest in crimes of passion where a relatively minor shift in behavior can swing things. Serial killers may almost never be the masterminds of pop fiction, but they generally have a few minutes of foresight, even in just grabbing a knife or rope. I don’t think the evidence extends that far.

As I acknowledged, in my initial post, yes. I take issue with extrapolating from that to a whole range of large scale societal effects, which people here are quick to do.

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I’m a little surprised we’ve spent so much time on lead without anyone raising the infamous and controversial freakonomics hypothesis directly – that roe v. wade correlated with a drop in crime a few decades later

The six factors that, according to his analysis, did not contribute to the crime drop: a strengthening economy; the aging of the population; innovative policing strategies; gun-control laws; right-to-carry laws; and the increased use of capital punishment…

Then there were the factors he found did contribute: the increase in the number of police; an increase in the number of criminals imprisoned; and the decline of the crack-cocaine trade, which had been unusually violent

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I consider that a feature of this thread, not a bug. :slight_smile: That whole book is pretty thoroughly debunked at this point (and I did reference it jokingly for this reason in my initial questioning of The Great Lead Hypothesis).