“It places the lotion in the basket.”
These seven words immediately send a shiver down my spine as I recall the famous scene from Jodie Foster’s classic movie, “The Silence of the Lambs.”
I’m a child of the 70’s and 80’s, so I vividly remember what I call the “outbreak of the serial killers” that spiked in this time period. It seemed like every other week there was another serial killer on the loose. These creepy, deranged men were lurking behind every corner, just waiting to kidnap our kids or steal young girls from college campuses.
But here we are in 2017. Are serial killers a thing of the past or still a threat? And why this post?
I am writing this post because I am a mom and I have two girls who are young teenagers and I want to prepare them to face many different threats. God is their ultimate protector, but I am their mother and it’s my responsibility to educate them as much as possible so that they can make wise decisions and safely grow up to be young women whom God can use to make this world a much better place.
This post actually started two months ago in August when our family took a vacation to Jackson Hole, WY (you can read about it here), and the place where we stayed for the first two nights did not have a room available for all of us to fit in, therefore we were given two adjacent cabins. For just those two nights, we let the kids have one cabin, while we had the other (our two cabins were five feet apart). When we tucked them in at night, we stressed the following: “do NOT, under any circumstance, open this door for anyone; keep the door locked at all times. Call or text us if you need anything. We will be right next door. Stay in your room. We love you. Go to sleep.”
And because I’m a child of the 80s and watched one too many scary movies (you can read about that lovely period of my life here: One, two….Freddy’s coming for you) I had a schizophrenic conversation with myself that went something like this: “Heather, what if there is a serial killer in this small mountain town, who noticed that you left your kids in a cabin next to yours….and what if??? You are a terrible mother, putting your kids at a huge risk like this.” A moment later another voice would chime in: “Heather, this is a small adventure for the kids. It’s a quiet mountain town. The chances of a serial killer being here are slim to none. Pray for God’s protection and trust in the Lord.”
The “pray and trust in the Lord” side prevailed and all was completely well. There was nothing to it.
But it got me thinking…what’s the deal with serial killers?
And then I thought a bit more deeply about it and a bunch of other questions surfaced as well….
Are serial killers a relic of the past or a current threat to my kids?
Haven’t serial killings gone down over the decades?
How have serial killers changed their methods over the years?
What types of victims do serial killers target? How often do serial killers kill?
Why do they kill?
Are serial killers just waiting to kidnap our daughters from the local mall, grab them as they walk to school, or steal them from their comfortable beds?
What about girls from suburbia with doting/loving/protective parents (umm, like me and my husband), are they at risk?
How can I prepare my girls (and my son) for serial killers? What can I tell them to do/not do, in order to protect them? And not freak them out?
Oh and by the way, did any girls ever get away from serial killers? What can we learn from them?
And while I’m at it (for some future posts) what are the other top threats and dangers that this demographic (young, teenage girls and young women) might come face to face with?
Before I get into the nitty gritty of my research, I have three stories to share with you. I call these my “perhaps/perhaps not serial killer stories.”
(Mom, I’m so sorry if you are reading these for the first time….)
The first one occurred when I was only 22 years old, on an a trip to Europe as a part of a large student tour group. I was alone in Rome one day when I was approached by an Italian man who invited me, in broken English, to join him for a coke. I politely declined and headed for the underground subway system. Unfortunately, the Italian dude followed me into the subway (in a very sneeky, creepy manner) but I pretended I didn’t notice him following me. When the subway pulled to a stop, I entered one of the cars right in front of me while he (sneakily) entered into the next car attached, but hid behind people so I wouldn’t know. I pulled a fast one on him — and at the very last moment — I quickly exited my car right before the door closed. He was trapped in his car. When he went past me, we both stared at each other. His was a look of surprise and frustration, almost anger; mine was a smirk and a “ha ha” — while I laughed at him. I’m so glad I was hyper-vigilant based on all of the 80s horror movies I watched growing up, but why the heck was he following me in the first place?
Se La Vie, creepy European dude.
Another time, Erik and I went to a mall to shop, and while Erik was in a store, I decided to do some people watching; I was on the second floor, looking down at the ground floor. That’s when I noticed a man watching me, partially hidden behind a column. Several minutes went by where it appeared that I must be completely alone at the mall. Occasionally I glanced over the man. He never stopped starting at me. There was something eerie about him and the way he was watching me; almost like he was targeting me. When Erik came over to me I immediately looked over at him to see his reaction. His eyes grew big, he ducked completely behind the pillar, and turned and left the mall in a hurry.
I Saw You, Creepy Mall Dude.
The last story occurred in PERFECT serial killer demographic form (more on that in a second). First of all, this story takes place in CALIFORNIA in the 1990s. As much as I love California, it has the largest number of victims of serial killers (source here). (Hello, there was even a MOVIE, set in the 1990’s, called Kalifornia, that took place in California, that dealt with…you guessed it….serial killings that occurred in California.)
So in my mid-twenties I flew out to visit one of my friends who lived in California named Marla (I actually interviewed her here) and we decided to drive up the famous Route 1— California’s beautiful coastline — doing some tent camping along the way. Everything was going well until we ran out of camping fuel and had to stop at a K-Mart in Monterey, right off of Route 1. We walked into the store and went directly to the camping aisle.
So there we were, two young girls, with little make-up on so we looked extra young, both of us attractive (if I do say so), standing in the camping aisle, looking at camping fuel, alone.
We were easy targets.
Out of nowhere a man in his 40s approached us and said “hey girls, I am new to the area and was wondering if you knew of a good camp-site or state park that I can go to. I’m camping like you are, and I would love a recommendation.” Sensing a creeper, I told him, quite bluntly, “sir, you can go down to the Chamber of Commerce and get recommendations for state parks.”
He then proceeded to tell me that he already knew he could do that, but that he wanted to hear our opinion of where we had already gone, and where we were planning to go to, because he needed a good recommendation.
I told him of a State Park we had just visited (and had no plans of returning to) and he said thank you and left. Or so we thought.
Unfortunately, Creepy Kmart Dude did not in fact leave but followed us around the store, always staying just out of sight from us. Marla and I furtively got into the check out line (always looking out for him), and at the last second he was right behind me in line (he came out of nowhere), so we pretended like we had to return the camping fuel, dashed all around the perimeter of the store, and quickly left.
The last time I saw him he was standing in the middle of Kmart, turning in circles, looking for us.
We Tricked You, Creepy KMart Dude.
Were these three men serial killers? Probably not. But you never know. However, these three stories just confirmed to me that I always need to keep my head held high and be alert to my surrounding, and not put myself in foolish situations.
Now onto the questions I asked at the beginning of this post. I am a research nerd and love knowledge and information, so I will put a bunch of interesting research stats in the P.S. section if you are interested.
For the rest of you, I will briefly answer the above questions and then close with a couple of good stories. After all, my blog’s theme is story-telling.
The Bottom line of Serial Killers today:
Serial killers are still a current threat, but a smaller one. But before you relax in your easy chair and watch the new Netflix series about serial killers and think “well, that’s from the 80s,” just remember that approximately 50 of them are still out there at any given time, trolling for victims. Serial killings peaked in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.
The stat you need to remember is this: somewhere between 3,500 and 5000 persons are killed each year by a serial killer. (Source: Serial Killers, Peter Vronsky)
But even if serial killings are less common, it seems Americans are still fascinated by them. I guess it’s because of the brutality and sadistic nature of their crimes. Or maybe it raises up a primal fear in all of us of a worse case scenario happening to perhaps our own teen daughter as she rides her bike home after work or school one afternoon. Americans like to be in control. Serial killers make us all feel nervous and out of control.
As far as the victim profile of serial killers, let’s take a look at the girl in the movie the Silence of the Lambs, as she pretty much sums up both the demographic and the method serial killers use. First, she was in a vulnerable situation (out walking alone at night), she got tricked by a scam of Buffalo Bill, and she was what he was looking for, specifically he was looking for a larger young lady, (although statistically larger-boned or bigger girls are less likely to be targeted). So the movie got that pretty much right.
Sadly, prostitutes seem to be the number one target of serial killers. Other vulnerable demographics include runaways, hitchhikers, the homeless, and mentally ill. Basically people that authorities won’t miss for awhile and/or that the killer feels “safe” to exterminate.
Vulnerable situations include, as mentioned, being out alone at night, kids outside with no adult around, hitchhiking (as touched on above), and just plain old super unlucky people who are in the wrong place at the wrong time. And yes, they choose a wide variety of victims including men and boys and the elderly. For more information on who they target and why, click here and here.
What about choosing kids? Certainly, children can be the victims of these killers, but the reality is that the abduction and murder of children by stranger is a very rare crime (approximately 43-147 children are kidnapped by strangers every year). Most kids who disappear are runaways and most return home. (source: Serial Killers by Peter Vronsky.) If you teach your kids how to use their intuition and avoid tricky people (I will cover this in part II), you will help your child to be safe.
These killers will most likely not snatch your beautiful 12 year old daughter (or your freshman home from college) from their bed, as long as you lock your doors and windows (and as long as they were not targeted beforehand). In all my research, if a serial killer broke into a home, it was usually through an unlocked door or window. They also have preferred “hunting grounds” which are rarely private homes as the chances of being detected and engaged or killed by the residents or neighbors is exceptionally high.
As far as where they kidnap their victims, I would say mainly from public places, and yes, even the mall or just outside (like on the side of the road). However, I would say your kids and mine are most likely fairly safe as long as they do certain things which I will outline in Part II, but most importantly not being tricked our lured by a bad guy.
Serial killers have changed over the decades in that they use social media a lot more and mass gun violence or gun killings seem to be the new “method” of serial murdering. (here)
I can speak directly to this as years ago, in October of 2002, the Beltway Snipers paralyzed the greater DC metro area where I live (and in fact, several shootings took place just miles from our home). I vividly recall passing FBI agents on the side of the road, toting huge assault rifles, inspecting vehicles, looking for the mysterious “white box truck,” while Erik and I nervously drove past. These two modern day serial killers (John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo) basically paralyzed our entire area for weeks. I was afraid to go to the store, sit on a bench, or put gas in my car. These two serial killers were later apprehended due to the quick thinking of a truck driver.
The question of why serial killers kill is a matter of much debate, but in a nutshell many believe the following factors could contribute: trauma/abuse/brain injury/social isolation as a child, mental illness, a personality disorder such as psychopathology, and I would add another: demonic possession or oppression.
And now to the one thing I hope you will remember after reading this post:
Most victims of serial killers were lured away by a ruse or a scam by the serial killer. In fact, 65 percent of serial killers attracted their victims this way. (stat: here.) Many serial killers then took their victim away with their vehicle.
Ted Bundy was a prime example of a serial killers who lured or used a scam. In addition to being very handsome, smart, and volunteering as a suicide hotline counselor (and a very good one at that, according to his friend Ann Rule who wrote a book about him), he was charming and friendly and caring and had “normal” relationships. However, he had a super dark side. If an opportunity presented itself and he saw the “right looking” young woman at the right time, he either a. pretended like he had a hurt arm and then asked these girls to help him with something or b. pretended to be a cop/security guard at a mall and lured girls that way, and then he committed the unspeakable, up to 100 plus times. (His exact victim count is unknown.)
There were at least three young women who did not become a victim of Ted Bundy. How? In April of 1974, when Ted Bundy was literally snatching young girls off of college campuses, there were two curious reports that came in. One girl reported that she was approached by a young, handsome, neatly dressed man with his left arm in a cast who approached her in front of the school library. He asked her to help him carry his books for him to his car. She reported that as she approached his car, she noticed that that front passenger seat was missing. For some reason that she could not explain, she felt suddenly afraid and placed the books on the hood of the car and hurried off, feeling embarrassed by her “irrational” fear. The second young woman reported that Bundy asked her to help him start his car while he fiddled with the engine in the back (he drove a VW Bug, with the engine in the rear) but she, too, became fearful and suddenly left, saying she was in a hurry and she had to go.
Based on those two stories above, here is my first piece of advice for everyone out there:
TRUST YOUR GUT.
If something feels off, it probably is. It often takes a minute or two (or sometimes longer) for your conscious thought to catch up to what your subconscious is trying to tell you. If you’re not sure about something, and you get that weird feeling, run. Who cares what the other person may think of you. It might just save your life.
(Gavin De Becker calls trusting your guy “the gift of fear” and writes two books about this, and one is oriented to protecting children and teens: here.)
Our kids and teens can also be tricked especially through social media. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, google “To Catch a Predator” (or click here) for just one way that older men are trolling for your younger daughters. It’s disgusting.
We all want to protect our girls from various threats and dangers, and while serial killings may be statistically less than they used to be, (and yes other threats may be more prevalent), it’s still good to know how you can avoid them. I will also be looking for common threads between serial killers and many other dangers that face our daughters and sons today. For example, I have already shown the connection between serial killers and sex trafficking. Are there other connections between all of these threats? If so, what are they? Stay tuned for future posts addressing other threats facing our daughters and sons, such as sex trafficking, gangs, bullying, etc.
In part II, I will tell you what you can do (or teach your kids) to reduce your chances of becoming a victim of a serial killer, and what we can learn from women who got away from them.
In closing, as I was debating writing a post about this topic, I was channel surfing one night when I caught the very end of the movie called The Lovely Bones about a fourteen year old girl who is lured by a serial killer into his underground bunker and murdered (her body was never found). The part that got to me the most is when her mom finally went into her bedroom for the first time since she vanished. Her mom looked around her bedroom, which was untouched since the day she had disappeared, and then tears welled up in her eyes. She felt her daughter’s presence and said to her:
“I love you, Susie.”
I cannot even imagine what it must be like to lose a child to a serial murderer.
That’s when I decided to write this post, if only to educate myself and my kids.
The movie closes with the following lines:
When my mother came into my room, I realized that all this time I had been waiting for her. I had been waiting so long. I was afraid she wouldn’t come. Nobody notices when you leave. I mean, really leave, when you choose to go. At best, you might feel a whisper, or a wave of a whisper, undulating down.
My name is Salmon, like the fish. First name: Susie. I was fourteen years old when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.
I was here for a moment, and then I was gone.
I wish you all a long and happy life.
To read Part II in this series: The Top Ten Ways we can protect our kids from serial killers and other bad guys — Part II
To read Part III in this series: The Five Ways to Survive a Serial Killer (part III – protecting our kids)
P.S for all the research nerds, and those who are secretly fascinated with this subject, here are some more interesting serial killers stats:
- A serial killer may be on the loose in New York City as we speak (click here.) Also, the person or people responsible for the recent deaths of six women in Ohio remain at large (read the story here).
- Concerning the number of victims: there are more than 185,000 unsolved homicides committed since 1980. I can almost bet that a significant number of those homicides were the work of serial killers. So between that and the fact that known serial killers do not always admit to all of their victims, and that many of them have never been caught, the stats, in my view, are off.
- Women accounted for 70 percent of the 1,398 known victims of serial killers since 1985. By comparison, women represented only 22 percent of total homicide victims. (please see this article).
- U.S. serial murder cases with prostitute victims accounted for 32% and/or 35% of all U.S. serial murder cases involving female victims only, 1970-2009, according to these sources: here and here.
- And as for the age that they target, the average age of a serial killers victims was 34 years, with the median age was 29 years and mode being 22 years. (here)
- After peaking at age 29, the chances of being murdered by a serial killer dramatically decrease in one’s 30s, 40s, and 50s. (source here)
- Serial killers sometimes choose a wide variety of victims. It’s hard to completely peg the victims of serial killers, as sometimes serial killers choose unique demographics, such as a straight serial killer choosing gay men as his victims, or hospital-staff-turned-serial-killers choosing elderly patients. And yes, there are women serial killers too.
- And yes, they sometimes target men and boys. There were many young men that died at the hands of John Wayne Gacy and others. Again, these boys were out walking alone at night and/or lured because Gacy pretended to be a police officer or wanted to hire them for a job. He tricked a lot of young men in different ways. Male victims tend to be young men either hitchhiking or seeking work. (To read about this, click here for about 40 different serial killers who targeted men or boys.)
- However, in the course of doing research I found this: the most common circumstance surrounding serial murders in the U.S., however is a home invasion. Roughly 1,500 Americans have been killed by a serial killer during a home invasion since 1900. (source here). However, in a book I read called Serial Killers – The Method and Madness of Monsters by Peter Vronsky, only 10 percent of serial killers invaded their victims homes (page 307).
- There were cases of kids walking to school, or going to the mall, or just outside riding a bike or walking to the store, who just disappeared and were later murdered by a serial killer. In fact, in my local area, they just closed a 40 year old case where two little girls walked to the mall in the mid 70s and were never seen again. (you can read about the Lyon sisters here).
- There are several theories as to the decline in serial killings but it boils down to better police work, technological advances, they-can’t-get-away-with-it-as much-as-they-used-to (due to Internet and surveillance cameras), lack of the celebrity status and air time serial killers used to receive.
- There are three theories of why serial killers kill: some type of childhood abuse or neglect, mental illness or personality disorder (such as sociopath, psychopath) and brain injury (source here.) In my research, it also seemed to extensive bed wetting, cruelty to animals, being bullied or excluded by other kids, etc. that were factors to them becoming future serial killers.
- After the serial killer has tricked and distracted his victim, oftentimes he will quickly smash them over the head with a heavy object. Once they are unconscious, they are moved to another location.
- Serial killers are generally thought to be very approachable and friendly and are able to mimic decent and kind human behavior. Most of them don’t “look” or “act” like a killer. They are charming, handsome, community leaders, and suicide hotline volunteers. They can live next door to us and we’d never know.
- An example of serial killers who targeted: there were serial killer cousins who would troll Florida’s coastline looking for women sunbathing on a beach all alone. They would disable her car in some way and then patiently wait. When the woman came back to her car and it wouldn’t start, there the sadistic cousins would be, being super nice, and offering her a ride. If the woman took their offer for a free ride, it ended up being the last ride of her life. (To read more about David Gore and Fred Waterfield, click here.)
- The source for the first point about serial killings being statistically less came from the FBI’s report Serial Murder: Pathways for Investigations and Radford University/FGCU Serial Killer Database. Updated 9/4/2016.
- Some serial killers pretended to be men in authority. David Allan Gore used his auxiliary sheriff’s badge to trick girls into obeying him. (see source above.) And finally, John Wayne Gacy and the Hillside Stranglers also used a police badge, among many others.