Forget Hannibal Lecter. Hollywood's portrayal of serial killers as deranged loners with unusually high IQs is dangerously wrong and can hinder investigations, according to the FBI.
The agency warns that efforts to track down serial killers are often impaired by screenwriter storylines, the proliferation of "talking head" experts on television who speculate without knowing the facts and the anecdotal evidence picked up and used by inexperienced investigators and prosecutors.
A report, by the agency's behavioural analysis unit, says serial killers often have families and homes, are gainfully employed and appear to be normal members of the community.
"On television and the silver screen, serial killers are usually white males and dysfunctional loners who really want to get caught," an FBI spokesman said. "Or, they're super-intelligent monsters who frustrate law enforcement at every turn."
The report, compiled by law enforcement and mental health experts, found that serial killers were "much different in real life" and that "the racial diversification of serial killers generally mirrors the overall US population".
The authors also challenge the myths that serial killers are only motivated by sex, and travel in order to kill, or that they are evil, insane geniuses who cannot stop killing and want to get found out. "Serial killers do not want to get caught: over time, as they kill without being discovered, they get careless," they said.
Challenging the misconception that serial killers are all loners, the report points to Robert Yates, who killed 17 prostitutes in Washington during the 1990s. He was married with five children, lived in a middle-class neighbourhood and was a decorated army helicopter pilot.
It mentions Dr Michael Swango, a former US Marine, ambulance worker, physician and health care employee. He was convicted of four murders in New York and Ohio but is suspected of having killed up to 50 people.
The FBI report is aimed at dispelling the common myths, which agents say can limit the public's potential to observe suspicious activity or become witnesses.
"The more that we can get that information out there to them, hopefully we'll have a higher solution rate in solving these cases and enhancing the public safety," the spokesman said.Reuse content