5 Common Myths About Serial Killers

Miranda Barbour and Serial Killers: Misconceptions
Miranda K. Barbour
Mike Staugaitis/AP

02/21/2014 AT 08:00 AM EST

Miranda Barbour is currently in the headlines for her claims that she murdered 22 men through Craigslist. While the truth of her confession – and along with it, the label of "serial killer" – have yet to be proven, here are some popular misconceptions about serial killers as well as the actual facts.

Myth: A Serial Killer Is Someone Who Has Killed Many People

• Serial murder is defined by the FBI as "the unlawful killing of two or more victims by the same offender(s), in separate events." This excludes instances of mass murder like the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings.

5 Common Myths About Serial Killers| True Crime, Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, True Crime

Robert K Ressler

Paul Harris / Getty

• Robert Ressler, an FBI investigator, is credited with coining the term "serial killer." Ressler's research (which included interviews with 36 incarcerated serial killers, including Jeffrey Dahmer), was instrumental in institutionalizing the idea of psychological profiling.

Myth: Serial Killers Are Everywhere

• John Douglas, a former chief of the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit and author of Mind Hunter notes that, "A very conservative estimate is that there are between 25 and 50 active serial killers in the United States" at any given time.

• Serial murder remains a relatively rare event, comprising less than one percent of all murders in a given year.

Myth: Serial Killers Are Dysfunctional Loners

• Not all serial killers fit the "crazy loner" stereotype like Dahmer or David Berkowitz (the Son of Sam). Many, including the BTK Killer, John Wayne Gacy, and the Green River Killer, all worked regular jobs, had families and were active in their communities.

Myth: Serial Killers Are All White Males

• While most serial killers are statistically white males, there have been a number of exceptions to that rule: Charles Ng, a Hong Kong native living in California, was active during the 1980s; and Derrick Todd Lee, an African-American man, killed several women in Louisiana from 1992-2003. Also, Miyuki Ishikawa was a Japanese midwife who is believed to have killed at least 100 infants during the 1940s.

Myth: Serial Killers Are All Men

• Deborah Schurman-Kauflin, Ph.D., a criminal profiler who has interviewed 25 female serial killers, says, "Female killers can actually be more lethal than their male counterparts because they use covert murder methods. That is, often, there is little to no evidence that a homicide has been committed."

• The most high-profile female serial killer is Aileen Wuornos, who killed seven men in Florida in 1989 and 1990. She was the subject of two documentaries by Nick Broomfield, Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer and Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, as well as the 2003 drama Monster, which earned Charlize Theron an Academy Award for her portrayal of Wuornos.

• According to the Kelleher Typology, female serial killers can be divided into five groups: Black Widows (women who kill husbands or other companions and family members), Angels of Death (women in caretaker positions who murder individuals in their care), Sexual Predators (Wuornos, who worked as a prostitute while carrying out her crimes, is the only identified example), Revenge Killers (women who systematically kill out of hate or jealousy) and Profit Killers (women who kill for financial gain).

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