If you shoot someone in the head with a .45 every time you kill somebody, it becomes like your fingerprint, see? But if you strangle one, stab another, and one you cut up, and one you don’t, then the police don’t know what to do. They think you’re four different people. What they really want, what makes their job so much easier, is pattern.
—Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, 1986
Did you know, Helen, that more books have been written about Jack the Ripper than Abraham Lincoln? It’s a sick world, isn’t it, Helen?
Girls be like “this my comfort show” and it’s a netflix serial killer series
—@ihyjuju, Twitter, 2022
When I was in high school, I would lie in bed at night and think about how to outsmart a serial killer. The odds of my ever needing to do this seemed pretty slim, but I spent a lot of time thinking about it anyway. My plan, honed over many sleepless hours, was to talk to the killer enough to get him to see me as a person, or at least to distract him enough to hesitate and give me a chance to escape. Now I think I would have been better off focusing on learning to drive. I wanted freedom of movement, a chance to experience the world as if I were something other than a sweet treat waiting to be consumed, which was how I had been taught to see myself and everyone else: the two genders, eater and eaten. I wanted to feel like I could protect myself if I needed to, so I thought about how I could pacify the serial killers I would encounter, because as far as I knew, the only route to the things I wanted or needed was through soothing and circumventing an angry man. I was raised by an anxious mother and a domineering—see me avoiding the word abusive—father, and I grew up understanding that I was kept home and away from the world because it was full of men who wanted to hurt me; and that home was the domain of my father, a man who, at times, wanted to hurt me. And, as you can probably imagine, I have been confused ever since.
In the fall of 2019, news outlets breathlessly announced that the FBI had identified a new serial killer, the most prolific in American history. His name was Samuel Little, and he had given up his story to a Texas Ranger named James Holland, who interviewed him after theorizing his connection to a cold case in Odessa, got a confession, and kept going. Little spent forty-eight days drinking Dr Pepper, eating pizza, and describing his murders to Holland. Then Holland described Little to the world: He was smart. He had a photographic memory. He had confessed to ninety-three murders. And he had evaded detection for so long, Holland told 60 Minutes, because “he was so good at what he did.”
I first heard about Samuel Little through this 60 Minutes segment, which introduced him, for anyone who lacked context, as the man who had committed “more [murders] than…Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer combined”; a “cunning killer” who “preyed upon…women he believed the police wouldn’t work too hard to find.” He drew portraits of his victims, and the FBI made them public in the hopes that they could be connected to more cold cases.
And I guess my first question—before I ask whether killing people within the wide swath of humanity that the police don’t care about actually means you’re smart, or means you’re just lucky because you’re gambling in a casino with the best odds in the world; before I ask why we seemed to be so excited to have found not just a new serial killer but the most prolific one; before I ask why we use the word prolific so unthinkingly in this context, as if some serial killers are like J. D. Salinger and others are like Stephen King—my first question, still, is this: How are we even to know that Samuel Little had a photographic memory if almost all the women in his drawings look so much like one another? Why do so many of them have the same almond eyes, the same smokey eye makeup, the same face shape? Why did the seventy-nine-year-old man who happened to be the most prolific murderer in American history also happen to have one of the most impressive memories in American history? And if you’ve committed just a handful of murders—an unremarkable number, one that won’t even get you on the leaderboard—then wouldn’t it be, well, not a terrible idea to confess to a few dozen more? What if it makes you into something special, and helps the police close unsolved cases all over the country, and makes a great story for the people on TV, who will all want to talk to you now?
Watching the first days of excited Samuel Little coverage, I thought: If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
And then I wondered how the deadliest serial killer in American history could fall into the category of “too good to be true.”
In the last few years, millennials have been accused of “killing” mayonnaise, diamonds, American cheese, “education as we know it,” milk, malls, cars, lunch, golf, napkins, and—in a fit of overachievement—both marriage and divorce. After all this killing, which is the only way headline writers are allowed to express that Kraft Singles saw a 1.6 percent decline in sales in 2018, it’s remarkable that there was anything left to destroy. But somehow, we managed. ARE AMERICAN SERIAL KILLERS A DYING BREED? a Guardian headline wondered in 2018, and to me, the answer was clear. Millennials killed the serial killer.
In this context, “killing” means either to be less interested in a product or lifestyle than previous generations, or simply to be unable to afford it. Economically, this is murder. And along these lines, I have joked for years that maybe we see fewer serial killers these days because millennials just can’t afford it as a hobby. To be a serial killer, you tend to need a house with a basement or garage, or at least a car. You need a job that pays well enough to let you waste gas driving around and looking for victims, and one that doesn’t eat up so much of your time and energy that you just want to sleep on your rare days off. The millennial serial killer probably has one of those floral day planners that says hustle on the cover in gold. The millennial serial killer wonders how his dad did it. This is the joke I tell, but is there any truth to it? Are serial killers harder to find, and if they are, does it have anything to do with the economy? Fewer homeowners equal fewer murder basements?
“There could be thousands of serial killers that we don’t know about,” one professor says, rather hopefully, in the Guardian article, “and for some reason we’re not identifying [them] today as well as we did in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.” But most people quoted in the piece—and most people I talk to lately—agree with true crime writer Peter Vronsky that “there seems to be a decline in American serial killing.” First manufacturing, and now this.
People suggest a lot of possible explanations: There are more security cameras now, so it’s much easier to find a recorded image of a person or their car. Cell phones track our movements, and, to a great extent, our thoughts. DNA evidence makes it easier to link crimes and solve cold cases; advances in technology—some, like ViCAP, inspired by serial killers themselves—mean the authorities have the advantage. Sentencing is harsher than it once was, so serial killers are now less likely to be paroled after committing violent crimes, or a single murder, which means they don’t have the chance to mature into what they would once have become. Or if they do, they now get caught after two or three murders instead of after a dozen. People who would have been serial killers in the past are now mass shooters. People aren’t as trusting now; we have learned from the serial killer stories of the past, and are less likely to be easy victims. True crime has wised us up.
Of all these theories, the last one is the hardest for me to take seriously: the idea that people can educate themselves out of victimhood seems, like Samuel Little, too good to be true. I don’t think Americans have suddenly evolved to be less murderable, and I don’t think you can give the police too much credit either: despite the vast technological resources now available, the homicide clearance rate was 54 percent in 2020, and 77 percent of the homicides for which data was available involved firearms. In 1976—during what we now call “the golden age of the serial killer”—the homicide clearance rate was 82 percent. The homicide rate that year was 8.8 per 100,000 people, and in 2020 it was 7.8 per 100,000. Crime statistics are bound to be imperfect, but if these ones are to be generally trusted, it’s worth pointing out that 82 percent of 8.8 is 7.2, and 54 percent of 7.8 is 4.2. The police have not gotten better at solving murders, but they have managed to create the illusion that they did. Today we understand that we are constantly surveilled, and feel that we therefore must be safer than ever. It would be unthinkable to surrender your freedom and get nothing in return.
Maybe the question we’re really asking is not where all the serial killers have gone, but where we can find the interesting ones. Plenty of people will tell you that they love watching serial killer documentaries, but the genre they’re describing is more specific than its name suggests. In Lady Killers: Deadly Women throughout History, Tori Telfer notes that “some say Jack the Ripper was England’s first serial killer, but that’s only because others have been forgotten. About forty years before Jack came along, England suffered through a terrible spate of murderers… They were poor, migratory, and desperate. They did it for the life insurance, or to have one less mouth to feed. They got caught. They were women.”
One of the best ways to go unnoticed as a serial killer, it seems, is to be a woman. For as far back as there is a recorded history of serial murder, women have been doing it too. And yet, Telfer observes, as late as 1998, FBI profiler Roy Hazelwood—who theoretically should have known better—claimed that “there are no female serial killers.” Aileen Wuornos might have been able to erroneously capture the title of America’s first female serial killer because she killed like men did: she went out and found her victims on the road, and she let us tell a story where sex and murder went hand in hand. Much more often, women kill a string of people who are dependent on them as caretakers: nurses, mothers, wives. This also has also tended to disqualify them from the FBI’s definition of the serial killer, which for decades referred to someone who murdered at least three strangers, with cooling-off periods in between. In 2005, around the time Criminal Minds started airing, the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit hosted a Serial Murder Symposium, where, among other activities, they streamlined the definition of serial murder, scaling it down to “the unlawful killing of two or more victims”—because “a lower number of victims would allow law enforcement more flexibility in committing resources to a potential serial murder investigation”—and removing the condition that the victims must be previously unknown to the killer. This means that the number of serial killers in the world actually increased dramatically over the course of four days at a Sheraton in San Antonio. So where are they when we need them?
Sometimes I think it’s all a matter of what we pay attention to, and what we pay attention to is a matter of what we allow ourselves to fear. The murders we hear about for our entire lives—the ones we may even call “iconic,” whatever that means or is trying to mean—don’t cut through the noise of the rest of the world just because they are uniquely awful, or uniquely revealing of human nature. In real life, as far as I can tell, unendurably sad or cruel crimes are around almost every corner, but they’re rarely committed by masterminds; often, they’re committed by cops. And sometimes a crime can be spectacularly, giantly cruel and still not break into America’s Top 40, because… why? Why did Xanadu flop? Because no one can predict a sure hit, not really. This is show business, kid.
Case in point: a crime I think about often is the 1987 Christmas massacre committed by Ronald Gene Simmons, which I bet you’ve heard of only if you watch Oxygen a lot during the holidays. But in case you haven’t: Over the course of five days, Simmons methodically killed his wife, his children, his children’s spouses, and his children’s children, including the seven-year-old girl he had fathered by sexually abusing his oldest daughter, Sheila, when she was a teenager. Simmons had controlled and abused his wife and children for decades, and tightened his chokehold when, fearing suspicion about Sheila’s pregnancy, he moved the family to a thirteen-acre tract in rural Arkansas. After three of his older children—including Sheila—left home, became independent, and started quietly making plans to help their mother escape as well, Simmons decided to kill them all. When he was done, he spent a day at home drinking beer, watching TV, and eating raw onions and cheese. Then he drove into town and started shooting, less methodically, at people he felt had wronged him, killing two and wounding four. Among his family, there were no survivors.
In all, Simmons murdered sixteen people that day, fourteen of them family members. And if you like superlatives—and true crime, like figure skating, is all about superlatives, the firsts and mosts and bests—it was also the largest recorded mass murder of a family in American history. So why don’t we hear about this story more often? Where’s the hastily assembled Netflix documentary? If it were a question of sheer numbers, you’d think we’d talk about this guy—this tiny Jim Jones—at least as often as we talk about David Berkowitz, who killed six people and wounded seven. And if it were a question of evil, however you define it—or at least of how shocking the crimes were—then isn’t it slightly more shocking to murder your own flesh and blood one by one than it is to gun down a stranger?
Of course, we have to acknowledge here that mass murdering commands a different kind of media attention than serial killing does, especially before the internet and the twenty-four-hour news cycle come into play. As the Son of Sam, David Berkowitz got to hold New York City hostage for months. Simmons, on the other hand, had kept his family in such profound isolation that no one learned of their deaths until he gave himself up to the local police. And rural Arkansas is not a great city, like New York or Los Angeles, where millions of lives are altered by one man’s crimes, and it is not a place too famously wealthy or idyllic or white to admit murder, like Boulder, Colorado, or Scarsdale, New York, or Beverly Hills, California. Simmons didn’t look particularly not like a murderer, so there could be no creepy delight in contemplating the distance between his family man mask and his murderous soul. The murderer had been the family man all along, but no one had noticed, no one had bothered to notice—and if they had, the assumed right of a man to exert total control over his wife and children might have been enough to make them look away.
What I have come to believe is that Ronald Gene Simmons never made it into America’s murderer hall of fame because the story of his crimes didn’t provide what we needed most, and what we make people into icons for giving us. He didn’t give us the foil-biting pleasure of learning the details of something terrible that was happening beyond daily life, and beyond the family. What can you do with the story of a hell that was hidden in plain sight? Stories like that ask us to see our world differently, but serial killer stories—or at least the ones we tell and retell—make the light of home seem warmer and brighter, and the world beyond seem darker and scarier and less worth going out into.
On May 7, 1972, after years of cruising the areas around Santa Cruz, California, and dreaming of killing and possessing women, Ed Kemper picked up two Fresno State students, Mary Ann Pesce and Anita Luchessa, who were hitchhiking from Berkeley to Stanford. Pesce tried to talk to Kemper, to ask him about his problems; to get him to see her, maybe, as human. He murdered them both, later saying he “felt that they were old enough to know better than to do the things they were doing… out there hitchhiking, when they had no reason or need to. They were flaunting in my face the fact that they could do any damn thing they wanted, and that society is as screwed up as it is.
“So that wasn’t a prime reason for them being dead,” Kemper continued. “It was just something that would get me a little uptight, the thought of that, them feeling so safe in a society where I didn’t feel safe.”
I am woman, watch me grow, see me standing toe to toe / as I spread my loving arms across the land / but I’m still an embryo with a long, long way to go / until I make my brother understand
—Helen Reddy, “I Am Woman,” 1972
You know if someone came in here, they wouldn’t believe what they’d see? You and me with long faces plunged into despair because we found out a man didn’t kill his wife. We’re two of the most frightening ghouls I’ve ever known.
—Rear Window, 1954
Me: brutally murdered and found dumped on the side of the highway
Two 35yr old women with a podcast: ok murder muffins we got a real oopy goopy spoopy story for you today!
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—@randyshart, Twitter, 2022
“What a remarkable creature,” Dr. Elliott Leyton writes in Hunting Humans: The Rise of the Modern Multiple Murderer, “was Edmund Emil Kemper III”; and this is certainly one way to put it. Kemper was remarkable, Leyton goes on, “not only in that his murders combined two usually separate homicidal themes—killing both relatives and young women—but also in his personal attributes. He was immense… Yet this was no deranged Frankenstein’s monster, for his IQ measured a gifted 136… His mind perceived the world clearly and conventionally… We must pay serious attention to Kemper.”
This was the passage that finally made me realize what Leyton’s breathless tone has been reminding me of: the satirically imagined murder “connoisseur” who narrates Thomas De Quincey’s “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” The essay, first published in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1827, could have been written today. Addressing an audience of his fellow enthusiasts, De Quincey’s speaker muses that “the truth is… relatively to others of their class, both a thief and an ulcer may have infinite degrees of merit. They are both imperfections, it is true; but to be imperfect being their essence, the very greatness of their imperfection becomes their perfection.”
This speech is being delivered to us in the luxurious quarters of a Regency-era gentlemen’s club: the kind of place where, as a London city guide put it a few decades later, the upper crust went “to lose a fortune at a sitting, and the next day enjoy a dainty dinner, drink their three bottles each, and afterwards make great speeches in the House of Commons.” At White’s, perhaps the best-known and most exclusive of all the clubs (and one that remains in operation, and refuses entry to women, to this day), “Lord Carlisle lost £11,000 in one night, and another gamester actually lost £34,000, but going on, recovered the greater part. The members betted heavily on everything—how long an old gentleman would live, whether a beauty of the day would be married within a certain period, or whether she would make a faithful wife when she was married. One member was mad or drunk enough to bet £1,500 that a man could live twelve hours under water, and another member was mad or drunk enough to take the bet. A reckless sot was induced to make the experiment; of course he died, the bet was lost, and nobody was hanged for this playing at murder.”
The members of De Quincey’s club don’t seem to be up to anything quite so sinister. Rather than betting on the lives of the poor, they are gourmands of the murder story, and they acknowledge that they possess extremely refined taste. “People begin to see,” De Quincey’s narrator says proudly, “that something more goes to the composition of a fine murder than two blockheads to kill and be killed—a knife—a purse—and a dark lane. Design, gentlemen, grouping, light and shade, poetry, sentiment, are now deemed indispensable to attempts of this nature.” This is also the voice, I think, of the modern true-crime enthusiast: the countless tweets and memes and merch that people use to proclaim their “love,” ha ha, of murder. Consider the following tweets:
if I’m ever murdered, I don’t want a candlelight vigil. i want two hilarious friends to make a podcast about it
If they want me to get Disney+ Mickey better start solving some cold cases real quick.
Hear me out a party bus but it picks up other moms and we get to sleep while it drives around playing true crime podcasts and nobody talks to us or asks us for anything
At any free moment, I am watching true crime documentaries or listening to death podcasts. In unrelated news, my husband said he’s uncomfortable disagreeing with me.
What feels new, maybe—although it isn’t—is not true crime media as a whole, but this kind of self-awareness about it: to call a podcast My Favorite Murder is to show that you understand the ghoulishness of your own interest. But to point it out is also to forgive it, or at least to find solidarity in that common ground. The women who now feel comfortable celebrating their love of true crime seem also to be finding comfort in the idea that they know what kind of story they are in, and understanding a story means you can follow its rules. And I’m not trying to exclude myself from this mind-set, this way of existing. I understand it because I do it, because I grew up doing it; because even now, if I am with a friend and we agree to split up and meet back somewhere in an hour, I think: And that was the last time she was seen alive. Sometimes I think it about myself, sometimes about my friend, sometimes about both of us. I think it not because I believe it will happen, but because if I think of it first, it can’t happen; because if I understand the story, I can beat it. I can outwit the serial killer. I can see to the final page. And it would all work perfectly if I really did live in a true crime book. But I don’t.
It’s hard for me to condemn true crime fandom, and not just because it’s been such a huge part of my own life. It feels like condemning the desire to eat Triscuits. And as gross and voyeuristic as it can get, the female-consumer–driven true crime media of today has never grossed me out nearly as much as books by male authors like Elliott Leyton, which sometimes reveal much more about the author than his subject. In one passage, Leyton describes the (now largely forgotten) serial killer Christopher Wilder, who “abducted eleven beautiful and elegant women” and “[subjected] them to electric shocks and other tortures before killing them,” but whose “motivation,” Leyton argues, “was only sexual.”
This is the kind of passage that makes me wonder if men actually know what sex is, and if their own fascination with serial killers has to do with the fact that they see themselves in them. To say that Wilder could have satisfied his urges by frequenting sex workers, as Leyton helpfully suggests, seems like a misreading of either sex or Wilder or both: if you abduct women, torture them, and kill them, you’re getting something you can’t access in a consensual encounter. You are getting—I think—the experience not just of dominance but of ownership, of ultimate control. You own a woman. And it’s hard to think that serial killers like Wilder came up with this idea all by themselves. America has never quite accepted the idea that women aren’t a commodity, or that a man’s ability to attract and control women isn’t essential to his validity as a man. To say that a man abducts and possesses women because he wants to have sex is to say that sex is possession, or that sex is indistinguishable from rape. This kind of writing worries me more than anything said by an actual serial killer.
True crime media made for or by women rarely reveals this kind of absurdity; it reveals other absurdities instead. Regardless of its actual demographic, mass-market true crime seems aimed almost exclusively at white women, and rarely mentions any other kind of victim. You can’t understand the rules of the story if no one bothers to tell a story about you. True crime tells middle-class cis white women in particular that we are in danger, but that our murders, if they happen, will matter to someone, will leave a tear in the fabric, will seem unfair. It reassures us that we are endangered: that we are, still, the real victims here—not sex workers, not trans women, not women of color—even if nothing has happened to us yet. It reminds us that men see us as possessions, and lets us forget that Black Americans were literally defined as less than human by the law, and in many ways remain so. To identify as a victim, or as someone defined by your potential to become one, is also a handy way of erasing your own power. Or maybe, even more meaningfully, it’s a way of confessing that there is only one form of power you believe you will ever have.
He was not inconsequential. Not anymore.
—William Goldman, No Way to Treat a Lady, 1964
Jack the Ripper became a legend by offering a gold mine to journalists; the Son of Sam terrorized New York City during a tabloid circulation war, and was considerate enough to generate even more coverage by writing to journalist Jimmy Breslin. The letters that we think of when we think of Jack the Ripper—“They say I’m a doctor now, ha ha”—could have been written by the killer, or, as many have theorized, by a journalist trying to gin up a story. (Looking beyond the ones commonly attributed to Saucy Jacky, the vast majority of them must have been: the police and the press received hundreds.) There was nothing new about Jack the Ripper’s murders, but there was novelty in his apparent interaction with the press. Ever since, we have loved stories of serial killers who seem, in a way, to be killing for us: to be motivated not by their own unavoidable compulsions but by a desire to shock the public, to terrorize a city, to outwit the police, and to bring us together.
In the stories we tell, serial killers are driven by a desire for celebrity and power, but relatively few seem to have fixated on this kind of transaction—killing for headlines—as a significant motive. In our fictional serial killer stories, we have avoided learning much about our subject, and instead told on ourselves. We have revealed the easiest way to get our attention.
I don’t know if someone who would have been a serial killer a few decades ago would be a mass shooter today; I don’t think that’s knowledge any of us can have. But it’s hard to think of the shift between then and now without thinking about Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the perpetrators of the Columbine massacre, who, Rachel Monroe writes, “had no intention of being ciphers,” and spent “their final days… [debating] which director would film the story of their lives, Quentin Tarantino or Steven Spielberg.” On the morning of the attack, Monroe relates, Harris left a recorded message for his parents: “People will die because of me. It will be a day that will be remembered forever.”
The most haunting thing about all this, to me, is that Harris and Klebold were right: they, too, understood the rules of the story they were in. Their code phrase for the day of the shooting was NBK: Natural Born Killers. This wasn’t a reference to a movie about a mass shooting, a concept that barely existed at the time, and of which there are still, comparatively, very few fictional depictions. It was a reference to Oliver Stone’s movie about a pair of serial killers in love, and the media obsession they inspire. We show our own hand in the stories we tell, and in the ’90s, we told story after story in which the reward for killing was attention, fascination, and a kind of immortality. We imagined serial killers being motivated by the desire for fame, and few of them seem to have been. But this behavior seems remarkably widespread among mass shooters, and they didn’t figure it out all by themselves.
Investigators / and forensic experts / unravel my life, / Assemble / the beginning, / Middle, / End, / Assuring / that all will / be / Remembered, / told, / shared.
You tell me / hands and other / weapons wait, / but there are rules / I can follow— / park close / to the door, / buy mace / to spray / in the determined eyes / of ursine men, / step my runs / in zigs / and zags— / you are / Scheherazade / weaving beautiful / Tales that keep / me coming / back for the beginning, / for the middle, / for the end, / in a world without beginnings / without middles, / with endless endings.
—Amelia Tenne, “Ode to the Murder Show”
When you guys pick and choose that stuff, it demeans the work. What’s important was, there were people getting killed, and you saw some breasts.
—Danny Steinmann, director of Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning
Samuel Little died in prison, of COVID, in December 2020, and the truth of whatever he did is now gone too. In retrospect, the news of his alleged crimes broke at perhaps the last moment that serial killers could be imagined as a statistically meaningful risk to American life. In the time of COVID, the right to invite death into your home and to spread it around to others became, somehow, the context of a presidential election. As far as I can tell, Americans love killing one another, and always have, but serial killers make us look a little better. The United States was built on the bones and blood of endless murder, of slavery, and of genocide; crucially, the FBI’s current classification of a serial killer stipulates “unlawful” killings, because otherwise, a lot of cops and federal agents would be serial killers too.
Before it hunted serial killers, the FBI busied itself with projects like trying to blackmail Martin Luther King Jr. into suicide, and to call that anything other than attempted murder seems pretty academic; to look at the FBI’s collaboration with the Chicago Police Department in the killing of Fred Hampton and call it anything other than murder would just be a lie. That I grew up thinking of the FBI as the good guys who caught serial killers, rather than as the organization that tried to stamp out the civil rights movement, is the result of many things, the limits of my own education chief among them. But serial killers—both the ones who were caught and the theoretical ones we could imagine were still out there—had a lot to offer the FBI, and the American legal system as a whole. David Schmid writes in Natural Born Celebrities that the serial killer is “the figure that, in a sense, [was] the FBI’s greatest ally.” A champion needs a monster to fight.
These are real crimes, and so are the people who commit them; what I wonder is why we focus so relentlessly on just one corner of the picture, as awful as it may be. In America, the most common cause of death for pregnant women is homicide. Isn’t this just as horrifying? Isn’t it worse? But to develop a cultural fixation on men who kill their pregnant partners is to acknowledge a problem bigger than a few inhuman specimens, born beyond redemption. It is to acknowledge that serial killers terrify us not because they are so different from normal people, but because they are so similar to normal men. They exonerate “normal” American violence because they will always be worse. They drive women back in from the open road and into the arms of a more probable killer.
“The golden age of the serial killer” coincided almost exactly with the rise and fall of women’s liberation, and the killers whose victims we paid the most attention to were the ones who killed, and usually sexually assaulted, “nice girls”: pretty, white, middle-class college students, the exceptions to the general rule that women are disposable. Their continued deaths or disappearances looked bad for the police, which made the idea of the serial killer as a mastermind more attractive: you can’t blame yourself for failing to take down a genius, or someone motivated by an evil so pure it seems like its own kind of protection. This is the serial killer we’re talking about when we wonder where the serial killers have gone: the kind whose activities we notice because we care about the people they kill, even if we care about them largely as the prized property of the ruling class. These are the specimens we can imagine as truly inhuman, and they changed us forever, perhaps because we allowed them to, because they gave us so much in return. Serial killers proved both that women couldn’t survive alone in the world and that prisons were too comfortable, sentences too light, and trials too biased in favor of the defense. None of these things were ever true, and the latter beliefs have gotten much less true since the 1970s. Serial killers helped us learn to see prisons as places that sealed their inhuman evil away from the rest of the world, and forget that they contain human beings.
Are there fewer serial killers than there used to be, or are we playing that old trick on ourselves and remembering the past based on what we paid the most attention to? We do catch serial killers today, and sometimes they even make good copy: Israel Keyes fit the methodical-mastermind role better than most serial killers ever have; Shawn Grate got his clueless girlfriend to clean up a victim’s blood, then used the same victim’s ring to propose. This is, by any metric, fantastically cold-blooded, but I had never heard of this story before I researched this piece, and I bet you hadn’t, either.
Keyes and Grate are white, but many of the serial killers who were discovered or apprehended in the past decade or so have been Black, and that feels related too. We love nice white girls as victims, but we love nice white boys as serial killers even more. White America loves masterminds, but we seem to think only white people are capable of playing this role; a Black serial killer is—to quote Veep—as useless to us as a forty-year-old woman. Samuel Little was Black, as were many of his victims, and the cynic in me says that the only reason any of them were scooped out of obscurity is because he vaulted to the top of the victim count podium. The most dramatic serial killer collar in recent memory was that of Joseph DeAngelo, a retired cop who Americans know better as the Golden State Killer. But the drama of his capture, meaningfully, was connected not to any recent crimes, but to murders and sexual assaults he had committed through the ’70s and ’80s. Were these men so compelling to us not because their identification made us any safer, but because they seemed like remnants of a lost time?
If America loves serial killers, and I think we do, we love them most when they feel a little far away, something to joke about or stuff our real fears beneath. Maybe we want to believe that we have hunted them to extinction, that all the money we keep funneling into law enforcement and incarceration really has made us safer, and this is the proof: the extinguishing of a raging inferno that never really was. “By the 1980s, with the encouragement of the FBI,” Scott Sayare writes in another Guardian article, about a French serial killer expert who turned out to be a fraud (and a bit of a serial killer fanboy), “the American news media had begun to speak of an ‘epidemic’ of serial murder, one that claimed thousands of lives each year. After pushing this theory for several years, however, the bureau quietly withdrew its claims: serial killers are now thought to account for less than 1% of homicides.” This feeling of a precipitous change, in other words, is connected not to serial killers themselves, but to the world we learn to imagine we live in.
The numbers we now have, as much as we can trust them, do suggest a downward trajectory, but not an exponential one. Mike Aamodt’s serial killer database shows 1987 to be the year with the most active American serial killers: 189. In 2015, there were 30 active serial killers. Which is fewer, but not none. And, without hazarding a guess that thousands of serial killers are quietly at work, it’s worth pointing out that whether or not a serial killer is active in a given year is sometimes in the eye of the beholder. How many serial killers currently go unnoticed because they are “smart” enough to kill Indigenous women, Black women, brown women, poor women, trans women, and sex workers? How many of them don’t even bother to kill women, despite the cultural consensus that this is their job?
Something almost too obvious to notice may be at work here, too: true crime media is, by definition, about the past. If it were about a present danger, it would just be called the news. Americans first started hearing about “serial killers” in the 1970s, but it was only in the 1990s, after the massive success of both Jonathan Demme’s adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs and Dr. Robert Hare’s Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths among Us, that serial killers took over the entertainment industry. 1991, the year The Silence of the Lambs became the fourth top-grossing movie of the year—before going on to sweep the Oscars—was also, revealingly, the year Jeffrey Dahmer was apprehended in Milwaukee, after one of his victims, Tracy Edwards, escaped his apartment and got help. It was, yet more revealingly, the second time this had happened: the first victim who got away, fifteen-year-old Konerak Sinthasomphone, ran into the street, and, with the help of two Black women, found the police, who gamely returned him to the custody of his killer. There had been no ongoing manhunt for Dahmer before he was caught. The police hadn’t been bothered by the disappearances of his victims, few of whom were white and many of whom were gay. No one had been looking for him. But he was, it seems, the last of the serial killers we lament the disappearance of: the last of the household names.
After Dahmer, the most famous serial killers would be, for the most part, fictitious. And perhaps this was also because, by the end of the ’90s, no real person could live up to the myth. To be a serial killer, fiction suggested, you had to be a genius (The Silence of the Lambs) and a philosopher (Se7en); it helped if you owned an actual dungeon (Kiss the Girls), but a portfolio of fabulous San Francisco real estate would do (Basic Instinct). You couldn’t just go out there and follow your instincts: you had to meticulously plan your murders and perhaps pay homage to your mentors (Copycat) to get ahead. By the time NBC’s Hannibal rolled around, audiences had spent so many years with the serial killer as arty mastermind that it didn’t seem ridiculous to have a serial killer who posed preserved human bodies in a massive “mural,” or one who lobotomized her victims and filled their skulls with beehives. (“Who am I doing this for? Am I doing it for myself, or the press?”) At a certain point, I think, actual serial killers got left behind by their fictional counterparts. And maybe that’s a good thing. The real serial killers of the world are as human as the rest of us: damaged, dangerous, and often pretty boring. They aren’t prophets. They have no wisdom to share with us. All we can learn from them is how a human psyche can produce the compulsion to kill; and how the killers who escape society’s notice can reveal not their own genius, but our deepest flaws.
If we have moved on from truly fearing the serial killer, though, then maybe it’s because we have so much else to be afraid of, and can finally focus on the enemies we need to fight. The past few years have seen the political rise of undisguised white nationalism in America; have shown us that our country is unable or unwilling to do anything about mass shootings; have shown us police officers that make serial killers look like amateurs. These forces, these killings, were always present, always happening, always there for white Americans to see. But there were so many serial killers; we were so busy, and so endangered, that we couldn’t look away. Can we look away now, or will we just keep retelling our fictions?
 It’s hard to think of a serial killer who isn’t remembered as smarter than they really were. There is probably no more extreme example of this than Ted Bundy, a mediocre law student who defended himself at his own murder trial, where he managed only to convince the jury that he was definitely a murderer, though he is remembered as a mastermind because he had a nondescript face and a lot of preppy clothes. He looked like a lawyer, which is what the photographs of his trials still convey.
There is precedent for this behavior, perhaps most instructively in the case of Henry Lee Lucas, who confessed to hundreds of murders in the 1980s, many if not almost all of which he appears to have had nothing to do with. His continued confessions did, however, earn him cigarettes, strawberry milkshakes, and celebrity. I know this because writer Rachel Monroe told me about it on an episode of You’re Wrong About,a podcast I host and which sometimes lands firmly in true crime territory, which is why I can’t be too moralistic about the whole thing.
 Over the past few years, amid the lucrative flowering of true crime podcasts and TV, many people have observed that the genre is having a moment. If that’s true, then the moment is an exceedingly long one. Crime stories have always compelled us, and it used to be much harder to get a clear picture without actually smelling the blood. In The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Reveled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime, Judith Flanders writes that after the murder of the Marr family—including their baby—in 1811, “visitors traipsed through the gore-spattered rooms, peering not only at the blood splashes… but also at the bodies themselves.” If you didn’t want to visit the murder scene, or simply couldn’t, you could always attend the victims’ funerals. And before there were grocery store paperbacks and cable TV, there were broadsides and penny bloods and theatrical productions. One dramatic depiction of an infamous 1823 murder tried to edge out the competition by offering audiences a chance to see the very furniture that had been at the scene of the crime. Before the widespread use of photography, you could privately contemplate a murder scene by looking at a Staffordshire pottery diorama of it—if you could afford one. If not, you could take after the boy shown in a cartoon first printed in Punch in 1845, who asks a news vendor for “a nillustrated newspaper with a norrid murder and a likeness in it.” And if none of that satisfied, you could always buy a piece of the murderer’s clothes, or a section of the rope used to hang him. “Such was the excitement over” the execution of a convicted murderer in 1827, Flanders writes, that “it was reported that [the hangman] had sold off the rope sections at a guinea an inch.” But the owners of this memorabilia still showed great restraint compared with the anonymous “gentleman” who intended to have a book about the trial bound in the murderer’s own skin, which he was able to acquire from the hospital where he was dissected.
It also appears that for as long as true crime media has existed, it has served as a marker of class and race. Victorians fretted over how penny bloods and theatricals would corrupt members of the working class, especially children. To consider yourself able to consume crime media as a spectator who can only be shocked by the killer, rather than influenced to become more like him—whose nature is not regarded as intrinsically violent—is to feel secure of your place in a social class generally held above suspicion.
 Criminal Minds was a CBS police procedural that premiered on September 22, 2005, and aired its 324th and final episode on February 19, 2020. (You may also know it as the show your parents always watched because it came on right after Jeopardy!) It depicts members of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) as they hunt down a new serial killer each week, zooming all over the country (or at least the parts that look like the greater LA area) in a Learjet. The team was initially led by Senior Agent Jason Gideon, played by Mandy Patinkin, until Patinkin left the show early in its third season and was replaced by Joe “Joey Zasa” Mantegna, who stayed on as Agent David Rossi until the final episode. Years later, Patinkin told New York magazinethat agreeing to star in Criminal Minds was “the biggest public mistake I ever made… I thought it was something very different. I never thought they were going to kill and rape all these women every night, every day, week after week, year after year.”
Which gives you a pretty good feel for the show, but let me give you some more. Criminal Minds began its life as one thing and ended it as another, and it’s worth trying to track that progression. Because I can’t expect you to go off and watch all fifteen seasons (even though I do recommend it), here is a highly abridged yet still overwhelming selection of the show’s Wikipedia synopses, which will take you chronologically through all of Criminal Minds,and most of the twenty-first century so far. What follows is the lazy girl’s homage to Carmen Maria Machado’s “Especially Heinous,” a piece of beautifully imagined fantasy fiction about Law & Order: SVU. These synopses imagine nothing. I’m just telling you what happened on TV:
Season 1, episode 1, “Extreme Aggressor”
When a Seattle, Washington woman goes missing and authorities connect her disappearance with three unsolved murders, the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit sets out to apprehend the killer and rescue his latest victim. Unit chief Aaron Hotchner is assigned to determine whether veteran profiler Jason Gideon, called out of medical leave for this case, is fit to return to duty permanently.
Season 1, episode 4, “Plain Sight”
When six San Diego, California women are raped, murdered, and posed with their eyes glued open, the BAU sets out to profile a killer who evades the authorities by striking in broad daylight and blending into the neighborhoods he targets.
Season 1, episode 10, “The Popular Kids”
When a high school student’s body is found near Massanutten Mountain and his girlfriend is reported missing, the BAU attempts to determine whether or not the crimes were committed by a Satanic cult. Reid confides in his teammates about his battle with a series of recurring nightmares.
Season 1, episode 15, “Unfinished Business”
A notorious Philadelphia, Pennsylvania serial killer seemingly resurfaces after an eighteen-year absence, but with differing methods and older victims, and sends a taunting letter to retired FBI profiler Max Ryan. The BAU struggles to determine if this is a copycat, or if the killer has resumed his killing spree.
Season 1, episode 22,
“The Fisher King, Part 1”
When each individual BAU member receives a mysterious message while on bureau-mandated vacation, the team suspects they have become pawns in an elaborate fantasy game and sets out to identify a budding serial killer with a deadly fixation on Arthurian legend.
Season 2, episode 7, “North Mammon”
When three Pennsylvania teenage girls are abducted on the night of a pep rally, the BAU finds themselves forced to profile an entire town. JJ struggles with personal demons and the team continues to reel from Elle’s abrupt departure.
Season 3, episode 2, “In Name and in Blood”
With Gideon missing, Hotch transferring, and Prentiss resigning, Strauss and the remaining members of the BAU set out to track down a Milwaukee, Wisconsin spree killer who cuts
women’s hearts out with a chisel.
Season 3, episode 19, “Tabula Rasa”
When a suspected Roanoke, Virginia serial killer wakes up from a coma and insists he doesn’t remember the crimes he committed four years earlier, the BAU relies on brain fingerprinting to determine if his claims are true.
Season 4, episode 8, “Masterpiece”
When a narcissistic psychopath (Jason Alexander) obsessed with the fibonacci sequence confesses to killing seven people and claims that five more will die, the BAU attempts to locate his latest victims before time runs out. Meanwhile, Todd struggles to deal with the fact that the team does not yet trust her.
Season 4, episode 13, “Bloodline”
When a Harvest, Alabama couple is stabbed to death in their home and their daughter is abducted, the BAU determines the crime was committed by a Romani family enacting a ritual aimed at acquiring wives for growing sons.
Season 5, episode 5, “Cradle to Grave”
When three Albuquerque, New Mexico women are abducted, impregnated, and strangled to death minutes after giving birth, the BAU sets out to track down a serial killer with an unusual motivation. Meanwhile, Hotch starts giving Morgan additional duties after receiving a surprise visit from Section Chief Strauss.
Season 5, episode 6, “The Eyes Have It”
With Morgan officially replacing Hotch as Unit Chief, the BAU sets out to profile and track down an Oklahoma City, Oklahoma serial killer who removes his victims’ eyes and keeps them as souvenirs.
Season 6, episode 14, “Sense Memory”
The BAU returns to Los Angeles, California, to determine a serial killer’s bizarre agenda after three women are abducted, drowned in methanol, and found with a piece of skin removed from their right foot. Meanwhile, Morgan notices a drastic change in Prentiss’ behavior.
Season 7, episode 2, “Proof”
When two Durant, Oklahoma women are sexually assaulted and blinded with sulfuric acid, the BAU searches for a killer determined to exact revenge against a face from his past. Meanwhile, JJ confronts Reid about his recent behavior and Rossi organizes a team cooking lesson.
Season 7, episode 20, “The Company”
When Morgan’s older sister gets into a car accident while attempting to follow a woman who eerily resembles their presumed-dead cousin Cindi, the BAU juggle reopening the case into her disappearance and tracking down a sexual sadist involved in a sadomasochistic ring.
Season 8, episode 16, “Carbon Copy”
When two Philadelphia, Pennsylvania nurses are found exsanguinated with their eyelids removed, the BAU suspects the crimes were committed by “The Replicator” (Mark Hamill) and sets out to prevent him from striking again. Meanwhile, Blake struggles with her personal demons after learning Strauss wants to make amends for her past actions.
Season 8, episode 24, “The Replicator”
When “The Replicator” hacks into Garcia’s computer system, kills Strauss by breaking into her hotel room and forcing her to drink ecstasy-laced wine, and leaves Hotch a taunting message, the team juggles mourning the loss of one of their own and identifying the motive behind the stalker-
turned-serial killer’s twisted spree.
Season 9, episode 18, “Rabid”
When three sets of human remains are excavated from a shallow grave outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the BAU attempts to track down a killer who infects his victims with rabies and films them as their symptoms worsen. Meanwhile, Garcia and Reid juggle preparing for an upcoming fitness test and keeping their plans secret from Morgan.
Season 10, episode 6, “If the Shoe Fits”
When two Missoula, Montana college students are stabbed to death, the BAU sets out to track down a female serial killer who believes she is an iconic fairy-tale character. Meanwhile, JJ struggles to come to terms with her suppressed feelings about a family tragedy.
Season 10, episode 15, “Scream”
When several Diamond Bar, California women are abducted and tortured, the BAU sets out to catch a killer who witnessed profound abuse as a child. Meanwhile, Kate becomes concerned when her niece Meg makes a date with a boy she met online.
Season 10, episode 23, “The Hunt”
When Meg and her best friend are abducted while preparing to meet who they think is a teenage boy, the BAU hunts for a predator connected to an online human trafficking ring that caters to serial killers.
Season 11, episode 10, “Future Perfect”
The BAU returns to Florida after two people are found dead in St. Augustine and find themselves profiling a killer who performs gruesome medical experiments on his victims in an attempt to find a cure for a mysterious disease. Meanwhile, Garcia grows stir-crazy as the search for the hit man network continues.
Season 12, episode 5, “The Anti-Terror Squad”
When three of the four members of a family from Winona, Minnesota are gunned down in their sleep, the BAU sets out to determine if the sole survivor was behind the killings or if she was deliberately spared. Meanwhile, Garcia attempts to find the perfect gift for Alvez’s dog.
Season 13, episode 17, “The Capilanos”
When a Guymon, Oklahoma man is stabbed to death during a home invasion and his seven-year-old son claims a man dressed as a circus clown killed him, the BAU attempts to determine if the child’s statement is true or not.
Season 14, episode 7, “Twenty Seven”
When three people in the Washington metropolitan area are hospitalized with life-threatening injuries after being attacked with a machete, the BAU works with the local field office to track down a pair of spree killers driven to take a life every twenty-seven minutes.
Season 15, episode 1, “Under the Skin”
When mutilated bodies appear in the Washington [DC] metropolitan area, Rossi becomes convinced they are the work of Everett Lynch (Michael Mosley), otherwise known as “The Chameleon,” the serial killer who nearly killed him and then disappeared. Meanwhile, Reid and JJ struggle in dealing with an awkward situation.
Season 15, episode 6, “Date Night”
When a father and daughter are kidnapped in Washington, DC, Reid is forced into another confrontation with hit woman Cat Adams (Aubrey Plaza), which threatens his date plans with Maxine.
Season 15, episode 10, “And in the End”
With Reid in the hospital from a brain injury caused by the BAU’s standoff with Lynch, the rest of the team continues their hunt for Lynch, which leads to a violent and climactic final confrontation. Meanwhile, Rossi contemplates retirement, while Garcia makes a life-changing decision that will alter the course of the BAU’s future forever.
What I notice when I read through this list—aside from the fact that the person or persons responsible for writing these synopses is extremely fond of the word juggle—is how the show started off as a fairly straightforward police procedural, and gradually turned into a prime-time soap opera set in a world where every fifth person is a serial killer. It’s weird to call the show’s first episodes “realistic” or “low-key”: even the pilot ends with Gideon running into an active serial killer because he happened to stop for gas on a scenic drive (Inigo Montoya has one nemesis; Jason Gideon has dozens). But something interesting happens after the first season: the writers seem simply to have run out of actual serial killers to use as inspiration.
As the seasons progress, Criminal Minds moves away from the stories that true crime is generally stuck with—the man who sexually tortures woman after woman for reasons he never really tries to articulate—and into a gory wonderland. Simply murdering strangers is not enough. Like Las Vegas casinos, every killer has a theme: the eyeball guy, the Fibonacci guy, the rabies guy. The serial killers in Criminal Minds make me think of the monologue from The Kids in the Hall where David Foley plays a burned-out serial killer having a tea break: “The funny thing about killing—after the first time you’ve killed, the second time, it’s easy. The third time you start to get cocky, so you’ve gotta be careful… and oh, by around the seventh time, you’re likely to feel like you’re in a bit of a rut, want to get artistic with it, you know. Start cutting off the middle toe of each victim so you’ll be known as ‘The Middle Toe Murderer.’ But at that point, I don’t know, I think that’s showboating. You know, you’ve got to ask yourself: Who am I doing this for? Am I doing it for myself, or the press?”
The hugeness of the American serial killer demographic in the world according to Criminal Minds becomes apparent when, at the end of season ten, we learn that serial killers are abundant enough to create a customer base for a sustainable human trafficking business. And it’s also important to point out, I think, that this story line asks us to imagine a world—as Showtime’s Dexter and NBC’s Hannibal did around the same period—where serial killers are not maladjusted loners who often seem to feel they have very little ability to connect with other human beings, but actually form a hidden social class, visible all around us, if only we care to look.
I grew up doing my math homework while watching Copycat on TNT, which seemed to air it about four times a week between 2001 and 2005. It’s a movie that seems deeply silly to me now, but was everything I wanted when I was fourteen. In it, Dr. Helen Hudson (Sigourney Weaver)—a serial killer expert who has been agoraphobic ever since a serial killer (Harry Connick Jr.) almost killed her after she delivered a lecture on serial killers—helps San Francisco detective MJ Monahan (Holly Hunter) catch a serial killer who is imitating other serial killers in the order in which Helen named them in her lecture on serial killers. The movie assumes two things, both of which I found extremely comforting: (1) you can make a good enough living studying serial killers to afford a San Francisco apartment so huge that you won’t even notice when one of them is hiding in it; and (2) serial killers are a learnable, knowable, and ultimately totally predictable group. They are utterly different from normal people, so normal people can master them as a field of knowledge and taxonomize them accordingly.
The great dream of criminal profiling—which Criminal Minds uses in a much more restrained way than many actual experts in the field—is to be able to study a crime scene and envision the person who left it behind. In reality, the efforts of both FBI profilers and criminal profilers are sometimes breathtakingly accurate and sometimes utterly useless, or even disastrously misleading. The science in Behavioral Science Unit (science became analysis in 1997) was developed by FBI agents Robert Ressler and John Douglas, who interviewed thirty-six serial killers in the 1970s. “The more they learned,” Malcolm Gladwell wrote in a 2007 New Yorker article, “the more precise the associations became. If the victim was white, the killer would be white. If the victim was old, the killer would be sexually immature.” The methodology Ressler and Douglas developed based on these interviews is used by criminal profilers to this day. But, Gladwell argues, someone trained in this discipline could produce a profile of a killer that seems accurate in the same way that horoscopes do: “so full of unverifiable and contradictory and ambiguous language that it could support virtually any interpretation.” When the BTK Killer was still at large, Gladwell writes, “the best minds in the F.B.I. [gave] the Wichita detectives a blueprint for their investigation. Look for an American male with a possible connection to the military. His I.Q. will be above 105… He won’t be comfortable with women. But he may have women friends. He will be a lone wolf. But he will be able to function in social settings. He won’t be unmemorable. But he will be unknowable. He will be either never married, divorced, or married, and if he was or is married his wife will be younger or older. He may or may not live in a rental, and might be lower class, upper lower class, lower middle class or middle class.” And this description, as vague as it was, still managed to get a lot wrong.
All of which makes sense if you think about it. The hard part is thinking about it. When I was a teenager, watching Copycat and The Silence of the Lambs and reading Ann Rule, it never occurred to me to question the wisdom of a system that involves a guy taking a good hard look at a crime scene and throwing out some guesses. But the guesses are made into something more real by the office he represents, and by the fact that we want to live in a world where someone, somewhere, just knows.
The fact is, Criminal Minds was made for people like me: teenage girls who trusted authority a little too much, and who had their friends over to watch Snapped marathons on Oxygen. (Finally, a show where husbands are murdered by their wives, instead of murdering them!) Oxygen, for what it’s worth, has had an interesting trajectory as well: in the beginning, it was simply marketed as “Fresh Television for Women” (Kate & Allie reruns, Inhale Yoga with Steve Ross)—something a little cooler and more Gen X–focused than Lifetime, “Televison for Women,” which was a gallery of TV movies about women alternately stalking and being stalked, murdering and being murdered. Remember the one where Tracey Gold almost dies of anorexia? Remember the one where Tracey Gold is murdered by Courtney Thorne-Smith? Remember the one where Tracey Gold blinds a college administrator so she can keep using the scholarship of the girl she murdered? What I’m saying is, “Television for Women” has a history of turning into the true crime channel. Recent Oxygen shows include Florida Man Murders, Framed by the Killer,and The Real Murders of Orange County. Snapped is still going strong.
In Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession,her book on true crime and the women who both shape it and are shaped by it, Rachel Monroe describes a trip to CrimeCon, the fan convention that Oxygen started organizing after it officially became a true crime channel in 2017. “Oxygen shows feature a stable of authoritative crime experts,” Monroe writes, “mostly men with handsome-haggard faces and law enforcement experience. They’re real people, but they always seem half in character… There seemed to be at least one of them on every true crime show, these inexplicably sexy cop-dads. One of them, former FBI profiler Jim Clemente, wearing a cowboy hat, strode out onto the stage to a round of huge cheers.” Clemente also worked as a consultant on Criminal Minds, doing so, his website says, “because it was an opportunity to teach; he says the collaboration works well, creating an accurate picture of the BAU for the public.” At CrimeCon, Clemente addresses the audience of “a couple thousand women and a smattering of men,” asking: “Why are you here? Do you love the genre? Do you want to solve a cold case?… I have a theory. You want to learn so you can protect those you love. It’s a very altruistic goal.” Later on, an Oxygen employee offers Monroe a different insight into the audience for true crime TV. “People leave it on all night,” he tells her. “They fall asleep to it. People tell me all the time that they find these shows soothing.”
I am one of the people who fall asleep to these shows, specifically to Law & Order and Forensic Files,but Criminal Minds can do the trick as well. This is the same show that Mandy Patinkin said he had to leave because “it was very destructive to my soul,” and it remains to be seen what it’s doing to my soul: What does it do to a person to watch women being raped and murdered “every night, every day, week after week, year after year”? What does it do to a country?
Maybe my favorite episode summary, out of those I’ve listed above, is the one for “Proof,” the second episode of season seven: “When two Durant, Oklahoma women are sexually assaulted and blinded with sulfuric acid, the BAU searches for a killer determined to exact revenge against a face from his past. Meanwhile, JJ confronts Reid about his recent behavior and Rossi organizes a team cooking lesson.” “When… Meanwhile” is a poetic form akin to the haiku, and by this point in the show’s run, we know how it’s working here, and how it will let us fall asleep. When serial killers torture and murder their victims, BAU agents appear and stop them in their tracks, and meanwhile have little adventures, tell jokes, cook, laugh, and bond. Every week there’s a new serial killer, but that’s to be expected, and over time it becomes background, the everyday existence of the characters we love, whom all this is really about.
Something that’s hard to explain about Criminal Minds,and that the discordance of these summaries shows—sulfuric acid, cooking lesson—is its sweetness. We get inured to the unsubs, the stabbings, the flayings, the dungeons, the rabies, the baby farming, and the hearts cut out with chisels, through sheer repetition; this is the world we live in, just like these are the characters we identify with. We get to hear two things we apparently want to be true: The world is a terrifying place, evil beyond all hope of redemption, but we can still have love and joy and friendship in our own little world. And even if a serial killer abducts you or frames you for murder—both of which happen to poor Spencer Reid—your friends will help you get through the trauma. In an era of prestige TV shows that take pride in killing off fan favorites, or keeping audiences guessing until the end, the finale of Criminal Minds is about Agent Rossi deciding to retire from the BAU, throwing a party where everyone says goodbye, and then deciding not to retire after all. Then Garcia decides to leave the BAU and everyone gets to say goodbye again. A serial killer from Rossi’s past returns, and the team handily defeats him, then goes straight back to talking about how much they all mean to one another. The show’s writers thought about killing off a character in the finale, but couldn’t bear to get rid of anyone, so they blew up the team’s Learjet instead.
 Of course, there are also plenty of exceptions. Simmons avoided becoming a national obsession, but others don’t: Scott Peterson and Chris Watts are perhaps the most recent, and striking, examples. “The husband did it” stories are also a staple of true crime TV, and they’re much more abundant on Oxygen than they are in the national news, which doesn’t cater to a majority-female viewership.