TV and Film portrayals of serial killers compared to real life cases

The possible effects on public perceptions of and reactions to serial killers

Term Paper, 2016

19 Pages, Grade: 2:2





To Catch a Killer

Profile of a Serial Killer

Serial Killers Across Demographics

Serial Killers in Film

TV Ratings to Kill For

Cultural Implications of Fictional Serial Killers

Jack the Ripper

Harold Shipman

Ted Bundy

Jeffrey Dahmer

The Future of Serial Killers in Mass Media




Serial killers are a macabre phenomenon in modern society, and the way they are portrayed has drastically changed over the past few decades. In a world where entertainment industries rake in billions of pounds every year, there are no topics that are considered too sensitive to monetise, and that includes serial killers. This paper examines the comparisons between fictional serial killers, media productions based on real killers, and the actual cases of serial killers. As well as looking at the accuracy of film and television portrayals of serial killers, this paper addresses another very important point – What effect does this oversaturation of gory media have on the public’s perceptions and opinions of serial killers?


Human beings have long been known to share a fascination for the macabre, an interest which the TV and film industries readily capitalise on. As such, films and shows depicting graphic gore, murder, and criminal intrigue are amongst the most popular genres today. Over the past 70 years, there has been a significant rise in popularity for films that include crime, and it is argued that this could be partially responsible for the rise in actual crime rates (Allen et al., 1997). In 2007, there were over 1000 films featuring serial killers, and the majority of them were made after 1990, demonstrating a clear rise in their popularity over time (Jarvis, 2007). But the question is, how accurate are these film and TV portrayals of serial killers when compared to real cases? Are the scientific methods shown in these forms of media similar to what real detectives and forensic psychologists would use, or is their main purpose to sensationalise and to capitalise on the public’s desire for entertainment?

Crime in films is well-documented, and it has been argued that understanding popular criminology is an integral part of understanding criminology at a wider level (Rafter, 2007). Sexually motivated crimes are one of the most commonly depicted crimes in the movie industry, however they’re often connected to other crimes such as murder, and even serial murder. These films often feature a detective or other officer of the law as the main protagonist, with the violent criminal being the antagonist that serves to endear the protagonist to the public. They feel such hatred towards the fictional bad guy, that they’re more likely to identify with and empathise with the good guy, and while there are often criticisms of the police in real life, when it comes to crime films, the police are usually portrayed in a heroic manner (Chase, 2002).

The term ‘serial killer’ was first popularised in the 1970’s by the film industry, but that’s not indicative of when they first started appearing, before that they were simply known as mass murderers. Indeed, there have been cases of serial killers dating as far back as the 1880s, when police arrested Henry Howard Holmes for being a conman, and it was realised that he was responsible for a string of murders (Wilson & Seaman, 1990).

Serial killers can be considered from a variety of angles, but there are usually three main areas that they can be defined by – sexually motivated, a sympathetic perpetrator, or a generic serial killer. The discourse surrounding serial killers also shares a similar narrative, and often crimes will be interpreted in a way that points towards the killer being sexually motivated, and caters towards the typical understanding of male violence (Bartels & Parsons, 2009). Violent behaviour, especially towards women, is an underlying part of Western culture, that is often justified using flawed logic, and it’s suggested that some criminals may internalise these feelings of justification, and extend them to acts of violence such as domestic abuse, as they’re used to seeing women as the victim, and it’s a common theme within society (Towns & Scott, 2008). The same rationale is applicable to serial killers, who usually view their victims as non-human, and feel no empathy towards them, and gender ideologies play a strong part in a man’s ability to attack a woman (Lau & Stevens, 2012).

Serial killers are a rare, yet ever-present threat, that society seeks to dehumanise, to assure themselves that there’s something wrong with an individual who commits such atrocities. People need clarification that it’s not normal, that these people are monsters, a dangerous other that shies away from ordinary society. Even when someone who outwardly appears to be an ordinary individual is found to be a serial killer, public and media rhetoric insist on referring to these people using non-human terms, in order to distance themselves, and try to identify at what point the individual changed from ‘person’ to ‘monster’ (Elliot, 2015).

To Catch a Killer

One of the most important tools that forensic psychologists can use to identify a serial killer is criminal profiling. This involves breaking down circumstantial evidence, and witness descriptions, in order to try and form a set of likely demographics to describe the suspect.

The concept of applying scientific knowledge to a crime in order to catch and identify a suspect is not a new one. In fact, there have been instances of forensic knowledge being applied to cases from as early as 44 BC, where a physician in the Roman Empire called Antitius used his medical expertise to determine which of the stab wounds was the fatal blow for Julius Caesar (Ramsland, 2005). Over the years, significant progress has been made, and investigators are able to identify factors such as time of death and weapons with much more accuracy, even being able to identify things such as the height or the killer from seemingly erroneous details such as blood spatters. There are databases of identifying features such as fingerprints, and DNA coding to identify individuals based on blood samples.

However, despite the advancements in criminal profiling tactics over the past decades, there is still limited viability in real world applications. There have been very few studies conducted to evaluate the accuracy of criminal profiling, and thus the effectiveness of it when it comes to catching the suspects. This is at least partially due to the fact that there are several methodological and logistical obstacles to conducting empirical studies into this area, and most of the quasi-experimental studies that have been done follow the same general design. (Kocsis, 2013). Therefore, it is necessary to build a better framework for testing the efficacy of these methods, as well as actually running the studies into criminal profiling, especially as there is no set criteria for who can be considered a profiler, and this could range from a professional psychologist, to a student. While criminal profiling can be a serious aid in narrowing down a list of suspects, especially in cases where there is no link between the victim and the killer, and there is little to no forensic evidence (Aydin & Dirilen-Gumus, 2011), it can also be a hindrance if the profile is incorrect, as it could lead to certain suspects being overlooked if they don’t fit the profile, and can mean that trails go cold.

Criminal profiling is not viewed with much optimism amongst the psychological community, and it was found that fewer than 25% of forensic psychologists and psychiatrists consider the field to be scientifically valid and reliable, and around 40% of them considered criminal investigative analysis to be a valid scientific tool. However, although there was a clear disdain for profiling from a scientific standpoint, it was generally agreed that there were potential uses for it from a law enforcement point of view (Torres et al., 2006).

So, although there are impressive advancements occurring in criminal profiling, the television and film industry greatly exaggerate the effectiveness and capabilities of criminal profiling, to an extent that is by no means an accurate portrayal of real life profiling techniques. What looks good on screen is not necessarily what works in actual criminal investigations (White et al., 2011). The ramifications of this are potentially problematic, as most of the public’s perceptions on criminal profiling will be based on what they have gleaned from popular media such as police procedural dramas, and thus when a jury is formed, the jurors will hold a lot of initial pre-conceived misconceptions.

Profile of a Serial Killer

In real life cases, there are many different psychosocial risk factors that can predict a likely candidate for a serial killer. By continually updating the profile of serial killers, and adding different profiles to the database, it can help future serial killers be tracked down more easily, and can help to answer fundamental questions such as “how could anyone kill so many of their fellow humans”. A study was conducted that found that out of 239 serial killers that were examined, 67 (28.03%) had either definite, probable, or likely Autism Spectrum Disorder. It was also found that 51 (21.34%) had had a definite or suspected head injury. Of those 106 serial killers who were found to have had a head injury and/ or had Autism Spectrum Disorder, it was found that 58 (55%) of them also had additional psychosocial stressors (Allely et al., 2014). This suggests that neurological factors may be strongly related to serial killing behaviours, and this could be used to enhance criminal profiling, as well as try and work on the social attitudes of children who suffer traumatic head injuries, or have Autism Spectrum Disorder, so that they can be morally conditioned from an early age.

As well as giving this evidence, the researchers also suggest that it’s necessary to build a profile for the typical serial killer in order to satisfy the need for them to be identified as outcasts, as if there are specific subsets that can cause a person to want to do that to their fellow humans. Serial killing has a deep societal impact, and there is a need to distance oneself from them, to want to excuse their behaviour as being controlled by an external force (Allely et al., 2014).

Most serial killers murder within their own racial group, as is the case with the majority of murders, serial or not. However, in approximately 2% of serial killings, the victim’s race was one of the leading factors that the offender considered when choosing the victim. It is suggested that in cases where serial killers murder outside of their own racial group, it is possible that racism was at least a partial motive (Newton, 1992).

However, despite the ability to build profiles with some degree of accuracy, these cannot be used to confidently predict serial killing behaviour (Meloy, 2000). This is due to the scarcity in which serial killing behaviours occur in the general population, as well as the fact that most serial killers are very different, and although there are certain demographics that are more commonly associated with serial killing, it is possible for a serial killer to be anyone. Some are straight, some are gay; some are sexually motivated, some are asexual. The modus operandi differs between killers, as does their method of choosing victims, some spend weeks going over the details, others kill on a whim, and it’s for this reason that profiling can only tell us so much.


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TV and Film portrayals of serial killers compared to real life cases
The possible effects on public perceptions of and reactions to serial killers
Royal Holloway, University of London
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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552 KB
Psychology, Media, Film, TV, Serial Killers, Murder, Portrayal, Public Perception, Sensationalism
Quote paper
Melika Jeddi (Author), 2016, TV and Film portrayals of serial killers compared to real life cases, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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