There is a startling moment at the beginning of new Netflix series Crime Scene: The Times Square Killer (2021). Peter Vronsky, an historian and chronicler of American serial killers, is attempting to place the show’s subject, Richard Cottingham, in a broader social context when he drops an unusual statistic. “At the time of the Times Square Torso Murders, there was, what we sometimes call, tongue-in-cheek, the golden age of serial murder,” he begins, before adding: “1970 to 2000—we had 82 percent of about all 20th-century American serial killers emerge in that 30 year period.”
The series’ director Joe Berlinger doesn’t follow up on it likely because it’s not entirely relevant to the story he’s telling—The Times Square Killer admirably centers the sex workers targeted by Cottingham—but the side tangent from Vronsky highlights a theme hiding beneath the surface of so much true crime media. Where did American serial killers come from—and where did they go?
In the period Vronsky describes, between 1970 and 2000, the United States encountered well over 250 unique serial killers, with most appearing in the period between 1970 and 1979. Cottingham first manifested as a figure of intense media fascination at the tail end of that decade, a gruesome discovery in the waning days of disco. His crimes were lurid enough that one of his nicknames, The New York Ripper, would inspire fictional films like Lucio Fulci’s gore-soaked 1982 slasher of the same name. Cottingham wasn’t alone. Fictional works influenced by the crimes of serial killers were wildly popular, and soon you could find movies about everyone from the Zodiac Killer to the Boston Strangler. One subgenre of film (and later television) would embrace and mythologize American serial killers.
True crime documentaries have existed almost as long as film itself. Early newsreels reported on crime in a fashion not dissimilar to modern television news. Even in the seventies, when serial killers were first emerging as a media sensation, films like Manson (1973) offered brief detours into the minds of killers. But something interesting happened as the crimes of the seventies dragged on into the eighties. American media seized on stories of a changing country, one rife in violent crime and overrun by killers, and suddenly a new genre was born—the bastard child of the lurid voyeurism of mondo movies and the unblinking eye of the then-recent documentary film. The serial killer phenomenon could develop alongside television as a medium, one influencing the other in a kind of feedback loop, and home video stores and niche cable channels could deliver to the masses pseudo-documentaries with titles like and Murder: No Apparent Motive (1984) and Death Diploma (1987). This was a new frontier, both in subject matter and advertising. As criminal profiler Robert Ressler observes in Murder: No Apparent Motive: “The types of crimes you’re seeing today did not really occur with any known frequency prior to the fifties.”
Oddly, it seems like some true crime documentaries had a clear understanding of the American serial killer from the very beginning. In 1982, Sheldon Renan and Leonard Schrader released The Killing of America, a documentary about, guess what, American violence. The film taxonomizes assassins, spree killers, and snipers, but the most interesting section comes towards the end when the directors move into serial killers. Dropped in the early days of the epidemic, there wasn’t yet a phrase to describe what was happening, so they opt for the phrase “sex killer” to identify men like Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, and Lawrence Bittaker. As they move from subject to subject, Renan and Schrader don’t have to venture a guess as to where these monsters came from. The answer is clear.”I am an American, and I killed Americans,” states “Co-ed Killer” Ed Kemper, speaking to Renan about the nature of his crimes. “I did it in my society.”
It wasn’t that these figures were new. The Harpe Brothers were killing strangers when America was in an embryonic state. But a combination of factors aligned to create conditions under which their numbers could flourish in front of TV cameras. Some of the more arcane explanations range from the construction of an interstate highway system (facilitating ease of transport) to white flight (shrinking tax bases in cities which, in turn, led to urban decay and spikes in urban crime), but equally important in understanding the mythologizing of the American serial killer is the public nature of serial murder in the second half of the 20th-century. What men like Cottingham had over killers of generations prior, what elevated them from aberration to phenomena, was an accomplice. The media.
Year by year the media told the stories of serial killers with increasing (and frightening) frequency. Ed Gein crawled out of his grave (and into headlines) in 1957. Richard Speck and Tony Costa appeared just a few years later, to close out the sixties in horrifying fashion. So, by the end of the seventies you couldn’t turn on the television or open a newspaper without seeing the names of a handful of new serial killers or stories graphically depicting their crimes. In Cottingham’s preferred territory of New York City alone, in 1977, you would have encountered media coverage of Cottingham, David Berkowitz and Paul Bateson. As the old adage goes: if it bleeds, it leads.
If modern true crime documentaries like Crime Scene: The Times Square Killer are still shocking it is because they’ve abandoned the question of where these killers came from, which is by now passé, to ask, “Where did they go?” The Times Square Killer devotes some time to Cottingham, but it doesn’t try to understand him. He is understood in the same way Ted Bundy is understood, the product of a specific place and period in history. What happens when that moment passes? Today, America may present as less violent in statistics and charts and graphs, those things that never touch the lives of real people, but it certainly doesn’t feel that way. If anything, it seems somehow more violent. Terrorist attacks, riots, mass shootings. The end is nigh! But wait, where did the serial killers go?
The United States saw a dramatic decrease in the number of reported cases of serial killers after 2000, as if the monsters had somehow disappeared again into the night. Yet their stories began appearing with greater frequency in true crime documentaries. How does one explain this disconnect? Late in The Times Square Killer, a character remarks on how revitalization efforts undertaken in the 1980s by New York City’s Office of Midtown Enforcement transformed Times Square from a cesspool of sex and violence, the throbbing pulse of the city’s libidinous death drive, into, literally, Disneyworld. In 1994, as Joel Rifkin was facing charges for serial murders spread across New York City and Long Island, The Walt Disney Company purchased the historic New Amsterdam theater as part of a plan coordinated with the city to push vice out of Times Square. Within a generation crime rates dropped and the violence was all but gone. Could this be the answer, neoliberalism and its discontents?
Maybe they haven’t disappeared. True crime media, produced with increasing speed in a kind of perpetual murder machine, troubles our understanding of the serial killer question. Many now see a much grimmer reality hiding beneath the statistics and charts and graphs. In the work of Joshua Zeman, notably Cropsey (2009) and The Sons of Sam (2021), we find conspiracies around every corner; Zeman argues police have been using serial killers to cover up Satanic ritual murders, either to make up for their own incompetence or for reasons more nefarious. This view on police corruption and incompetence pervades modern true crime media in less fantastic ways as well. Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop (2015) explores the cop-as-killer as it shines a light on Gilberto Valle, the almost-killer cop who meticulously plans to murder and eat his victims. Could law enforcement be the problem, a wolf in sheep’s clothing? They’re certainly not the solution. The Confession Killer (2019) portrays American law enforcement less as a group working to fix society’s problems than as one fumbling through its own mistakes and cognizant of the serial killer phenomenon as an exceptionally good cover story for those errors. By the end of the series, it’s unclear if its subject Henry Lee Lucas has killed only two people or the two hundred-plus he claims, but we know for certain the police are lying. If they could lie about Lucas’s victims, what else might we have we been misled to believe?
The one message that comes through in true crime media across generations is that that in America serial murder has never been just a crime; it’s a way of life.”The funny thing is people talk about serial killer culture,” observes the serial killer-inspired artist Hart Fisher in Serial Killer Culture (2014), “and what they don’t understand is, that’s American culture.”
From the moment people like Richard Cottingham first appeared before the public, dead-eyed and emotionless in a 1980 mugshot for the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office, there was an innate media fixation on both the murders and the murderers. In America, killing is culture—and our culture is killing. Though the focus may change every now and then—American serial killers are now more akin to avatars in modern culture wars than their prior association as mythological figures—the stories remain the same.