If our media consumption tells us anything about our cultural predilections, then we are endlessly fascinated by serial killers. Our media landscape is riddled with these macabre, often disturbing tales. We devour serial killer stories, whether they be fictionalized accounts like Dexter, or documentaries like Conversations with a Killer: the Ted Bundy Tapes. We’re even there for stories that blur the line between fact and fiction like Mindhunter and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. We just can’t seem to get enough of people killing people.
The culture creators in Hollywood are nothing if not responsive to our viewing preferences, and they seem to have realized long ago that we are a dark bunch of weirdos. But what about the active serial killers still walking among us? Who is the worst boogeyman, still hard at work, who will inspire the next generation of blockbuster content?
Killers hiding among us
The difficulty with nailing down the identity of active serial killers, is that they usually don’t become known until they are nearing apprehension. Past killers like Ted Bundy accrued atrocities for years before authorities had a name and a face they could push to the public. Dennis Rader, who killed under the self-styled pseudonym BTK (short for bind, torture, kill), murdered 10 people in the Wichita, Kansas region between 1974 and 1991, according to his profile on Biography. After the ’91 killing, BTK went dormant. Authorities didn’t identify him or make an arrest until 2004.
To identify the most dangerous active serial killer in 2020, we have to agree on a definition. According to Psychology Today, the FBI defines a serial killer as “someone who commits at least three murders with an emotional cooling off period in between.” But the FBI’s definition seems pretty broad. It includes members of violent criminal organizations like Cosa Nostra and urban gangs, with a completely different criminal profile. These killers are terrifying and dangerous in their own right, and they certainly rack up the body counts, but they don’t satisfy the typical archetype we think of — the reclusive, white male loner.
Serial killers in 2020
Psychology Today suggests using a prototype model to identify killers. This approach focuses on three famous murderers as prototypical serial killers for the purpose of categorization — Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and the still-at-large Zodiac Killer. The more closely a killer’s profile matches one of the prototypes, the more likely they should be treated (psychologically) as a serial killer. Jennifer Phillips of Eastern Illinois University argues that there may even be 38 distinct serial killer prototypes, but for our purposes let’s stick with the top three. So which active killer in 2020 most closely resembles the prototypes?
Forensic psychology data assembled by Dr. Mike Aamodt suggests that serial killing activity peaked in the 1990s, and has seen a steady decline over the last two decades. As a result, there are no active manhunts for named serial killers matching the psychological prototypes. By the FBI’s definition, there may be as many as 2,000 active serial killers in the U.S. alone, but these killers are largely members of terrorist and organized crime organizations.
However, that’s not to suggest there isn’t a Bundy or BTK still operating in the shadows. The scariest thing about serial killers may be that we never know the depth of their crimes until long after they’ve been stopped.
Nothing to smile about
In 2019, Rolling Stone did a profile of the Smiley Face Killer, a nameless serial killer (or killers), still at large, allegedly responsible for over 40 drowning deaths of mainly college-educated white men in the Midwest. Hard evidence on the Smiley Face Killer is scarce, but the theory has serious adherents. They picked the name because smiley face graffiti was found near several places where they believe the deceased men were killed. If true, the Smiley Face Killer could be the most prolific — and therefore most dangerous — active serial killer in 2020. Critics of the “Smiley Face Killer” theory suggest that the victims were most likely binge-drinking and drowned accidentally, and point out that smiley face graffiti is absurdly common in basically any city.
Other at-large serial killers include the never-apprehended Zodiac Killer and a possible serial killer known as the Chicago Strangler, who may be involved in dozens of murders in that city in the last few years.
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