Are Female Serial Killers More Dangerous?

As recently as 1998, no less of an expert on serial killers than Roy Hazelwood stated, “There are no female serial killers.”

He was a smart man, but he couldn’t have been more wrong.

Perhaps it’s taken so long to recognize that women can be serial killers because of an unconscious bias on the part of the media and law enforcement. The popular stereotype of a serial killer is someone who kills strangers, usually women, and tortures and mutilates them to gratify some sadistic appetite for control or sex. Their work is usually wet and bloody, the stuff of Hollywood slasher flicks.

But none of those characteristics are necessary to fit the FBI’s definition of serial murder: “the unlawful killing of two or more victims by the same offender(s), in separate events.”

While the methods of female serial killers are very different than those of males, they are no less gruesome – or deadly.

Who are female serial killers?

Female serial killers typically prey on people they know, such as family members or patients in their care. Their weapon of choice is poison, followed by smothering. They kill primarily for two reasons: financial gain (most commonly) or for the sadistic thrill of taking a life. Theirs is the stuff of the Gothic novel and the Greek tragedy: domestic, quiet, and intimate.

Because the work of female serial killers is so subtle, the deaths are often categorized as accidents, illness, or other natural causes. Therefore, female serial killers are able to evade capture twice as long as males, remaining free to kill and kill again. So despite being rarer – only 15 percent of serial murders are committed by women – their body counts tend to be higher and their “careers” longer.

Why do males and females kill differently?

Penn State psychology professor Marissa Harrison, the lead author on a 2014 study on female serial killers (full article is behind a paywall) interprets this difference as reflecting ancestral tendencies: “Female serial killers gather and male serial killers hunt.”

I submit that it’s not so much about hunting vs. gathering, but again, about power. Most serial killers prey on those who have less power than they do. Unlike most males, females experience their power over those they care for, such as family members, children, the elderly and sick.

There are exceptions, of course. Aileen Wournos killed “like a man,” targeting strangers to shoot and rob. And “Angel of Death” Charles Cullen, perhaps the most prolific serial killer in US history, was a nurse who murdered helpless elderly patients at the hospitals where he worked.

Despite that, take it to heart: never underestimate a dangerous woman.

Can Data Find Serial Killers?

One man, a former newspaper reporter, says yes. Watch the video below:
Now, to be clear, the data don’t find the actual killers. What they do is identify when there are multiple victims in an area, who may be similar demographically (such as age, race, and gender), and have been killed in a similar way. This could be a huge help for law enforcement in different jurisdictions to be able to see that a serial killer is at work in their area. Read more about it at The Atlantic.

I’m excited to see where this goes. What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments.

Mindhunter’s Mixed Bag

Despite its many flaws, it’s a gripping crime drama you can’t look away from.

Netflix’ Mindhunter, based on the book Mindhunter: Inside the F.B.I.’s Elite Serial Crime Unit by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker, has some flaws. Quite a few of them, in fact. For one, stab-your-eyes-out title cards that seem designed to induce seizures.

For another, the fact that Holden Ford’s (played by Jonathan Groff) fellow law-enforcement officer doesn’t understand why “these sad hippies” are still distrustful of the FBI in 1977 also rang pretty false. The FBI had been waging a war on the civil rights of anti-war and Black Power activists for years. Less than 10 years had passed since the assassinations of MLK, Bobby Kennedy, and Fred Hampton. It was only six years since COINTELPRO had been exposed. The Pine Ridge shootout happened only two years earlier. Many people were, and still are, rightfully distrustful of the FBI. For the writers not to have known this smacks of either ignorance or historical revisionism.

But most of all, for a series based on the science of learning about what goes on in people’s heads, it’s got the worst character development. I can never tell where their boss, Unit Chief Shepard (played by Cotter Smith) is coming from. One second, he’s chewing them out. The next, he’s congratulating them. It makes no sense. He makes no sense.

And Holden’s girlfriend, Debbie Mitford (played by Hannah Gross): she starts out smart and challenging, her knowledge about sociology and flirting surprising and useful assets to him. But by the end of the first season, she’s somehow become distant and bitchy, with no explanation as to why. While I like that their sex scenes included him going down on her, I’m not sure why there needed to be any sex scenes in the first place.

Finally, the character of Holden Ford: ugh. Just, ugh. He has no discernible personality whatsoever, “a collection of quirks in search of a character” as the AV Club’s Sean Collins writes. No matter where he goes, he always wears a suit, even when it marks him as a narc in his psychology class. He delivers his lines with the same feeling as someone under a thick coating of Xanax. He claims he worked undercover, which would clearly be impossible. He can’t even blend in in a college classroom. The only place he could have “infiltrated” would be a white-collar criminal enterprise composed of entirely clueless conspirators. Which might actually make me respect the character more.

But, for all that…I couldn’t look away. The tantalizing scenes with the ADT tech in Park City, Kansas (yes, I know who it is, but don’t want to spoil it), the faded neutral color palette of the 1970s, the pitch-pefect soundtrack … it hooked me and reeled me in.

Watching Cameron Britton nail Edmund Kemper was absolutely thrilling. The scene in episode 3 where he slowly, calmly grabs Holden’s throat while explaining how difficult it is to commit necrophilia with a decapitated corpse … I was biting my nails. Of course, that was nothing compared with his last scene of the season, which I also won’t spoil. But it does make you think, “Could I really sit across the table from a serial killer?”

And, if your truest answer is anything but yes, then Mindhunter is the next best thing.