Serial Killer Stereotypes Are Challenged By Author
It's almost impossible to identify a serial killer based on the stereotypes that the media feeds to society, said Katherine Ramsland, a forensic psychologist, educator, and professional writer on criminal psychology.
"One of the reasons we don't spot them is because we believe media myths," said Ms. Ramsland during a talk on Thursday, August 11, at a Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce luncheon.
Ms. Ramsland's latest book, The Human Predator: A Historical Chronicle of Serial Murder and Forensic Investigation, is due in stores in October, and describes the entire history of serial killers since the time of ancient Rome.
"The real cases are better than what you see in fiction," she said, adding that a lot of screenwriters don't do their research, or make composites of serial killers, rather than singling one out.
"The only thing all serial killers have in common is that they've all killed someone... That's one of the reasons I wrote The Human Predator," said the author, mentioning that many have very different characteristics from what society views as the norm.
There are many reasons that serial killers murder, including being motivated by anger or greed, being addicted to the challenge of the hunt, or being sexually compelled, said Ms. Ramsland, noting that the FBI defines a serial killer as a person who kills at least three people, with a "cooling off period" in between each one.
She said that one of the most notorious serial killers, Jack the Ripper, doesn't enter her book until Chapter 5: "He's not the first one by a long shot."
Studying the Criminal Mind
The author of 25 books, Ms. Ramsland speaks around the country on topics ranging from criminal investigation to the art of narrative nonfiction, and has appeared on several television programs, including the Today Show, and documentaries on A&E, the Learning Channel, and the Discovery Channel.
"Forensic science takes me a lot of places," said Ms. Ramsland, adding that she was almost unable to attend the Chamber's talk because she was in her hometown of Ann Arbor, Mich. the previous day, assisting with a criminal investigation that will be aired on 48 Hours.
A resident of Princeton for 18 years who taught philosophy at Rutgers University, Ms. Ramsland currently lives in Bethlehem, Pa., and teaches courses at DeSales University, where she started an undergraduate program in forensic psychology. She also teaches criminal justice courses in the master's program.
"My students often suspect me because I know how to do it and get away with it," she said jokingly to her audience.
She mentioned recently investigating John Norman Collins, a good-looking, clean cut student at Eastern Michigan University who killed seven students in the late 1960s.
"No one could tell by the look in his eye... that this guy was a murderer," said Ms. Ramsland.
To some it might appear that there are less serial killers today because they aren't reported on as much in the media.
"There are as many as there ever were," said Ms. Ramsland. "Since 9/11 I can't even keep up."
The reality of the threat is often ignored, because people want to feel safe, they want to know they can spot danger. This is how serial killers prey on humans: they use their trust against them, she said.
"You should not be that trusting; that is how people become victims," she said, noting that victims are most often prostitutes, followed by young women and children.
An Unusual Suspect
A recent case concerned Dennis Rader, known as "the BTK strangler." A 30-year member of the Christ Lutheran Church, an elected president of the Congregation Council, and a Cub Scout leader, he was far from any stereotype of what the media says a serial killer should be, said Ms. Ramsland.
"Most of them aren't psychopaths... they know how to manipulate and charm," she said. "They are very good at what they do."
While only 18 percent of serial killers are female, they can be the most cunning. Both the killer with the most victims (650) and the youngest (10 years old) were female, said Ms. Ramsland. As clever as serial killers are, or as hard as they are to identify and catch, their most common flaw is their arrogance, which can lead them to slip up and make a mistake.
And, contrary to the movie persona, they aren't necessarily smart or good looking.
"Even the dumb ones can get away with it for a period of time," she said, pointing out that some killers do have remorse, including one who wanted so badly to be caught, he took the police to where he had buried the bodies.
Ms. Ramsland has a master's degree in forensic psychology from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, a Ph.D. in philosophy from Rutgers University, and a master's in clinical psychology from Duquesne University.
She writes extensively about forensic science and psychology for Court TV's Crime Library (www.crimelibrary.com), and has published more than 100 articles on serial killers, criminal investigation, and criminal psychology. She is also a frequent contributor to The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Ms. Ramsland will give a talk on her book, The Human Predator, on October 27, at Barnes & Noble Princeton. For more information about the author and her works, visit www.katherineramsland.com.