Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Review of Scott Bonn's Why We Love Serial Killers

Before delving into Scott Bonn’s Why We Love Serial Killers, readers should question the necessity of yet another addition to the bloated inventory of serial homicide literature. Written as a foray into an overcrowded field, one not clamoring for another voice, Killers is the culmination of an endeavor to advance Bonn’s contentious standing as a “serial killer expert”. Bonn produces a convoluted and systematically flawed work, displaying a cursory understanding of serial homicide offenders and a tenuous grasp over what motivates them. Be forewarned, midway through Killers, Bonn abandons his pledge to “set the record straight about serial killers” (xviii) after failing to deliver on his commitment to “present the truth” (xviii).

Admittedly, the promise of a “groundbreaking approach” (9) was enough to convince this reviewer to “embark on a journey to the dark side” (xix). Bonn exhibits a lack of confidence in captivating other readers, though, and implements a tactic designed to coax them forward through beguilement. Plying an enchantment technique throughout Killers, Bonn encourages the reader’s continued participation by conjunctively pairing the words “insights” (97) and “revelations” (114) with “compelling” (9), “unique” (57), “exclusive” (15), “important” (115) and “new” (19). This reviewer, initially duped by Bonn’s pretense, assembled this evaluation to discourage others from undertaking the arduous task of reading this text.

Killers is a confounding work, predicated on its reader’s limited understanding of the serial homicide phenomenon. If we truly love serial killers, as Killers’ title suggests, we should be familiar with the themes Bonn rehashes over fifty percent of the book. The remaining narrative is impelled by lore and consists of repackaged notions always better stated in the original, mostly uncredited, source works. Echoes of one such publication, Wiest’s Creating Cultural Monsters: Serial Murder in America [1], can be found throughout Killers. Mark Seltzer establishes the connection between the serial killer and celebrity in Serial Killers: Death and Life in America's Wound Culture [2]. By routinely reminding us of our ignorance, Bonn is able to reinforce his self-assumed mastery of the subject matter and conceal Killers’ numerous falsities and shortcomings.

Highlighting its indiscriminate structure, the central tenet of Killers is not addressed until the tenth chapter with a meager six pages devoted to the reasons “people are fascinated with serial killers” (185). This discussion should have been contained to an empirically researched academic paper rather than a full length, anecdote-dense book. By conveying his arguments in such a mainstream medium, Bonn exposes his desire to contribute to the serial killer’s inflated image. Curiously, Bonn utilizes Peter Vronsky’s Serial Killers: The Method and Madness of Monsters [3] as a source for background information, even though its subtitle stresses the “monstrosity of the serial killer, creating a perception that they are not one of us (218).” Bonn quotes Vronsky frequently, an act that makes Killers feel more like a supplement than a standalone compendium.

One need not venture deeply into Killers to discover Bonn equating monsters and serial killers. The former are referred to as “tormented and misunderstood souls” (xvii). This sympathy is extended to Dennis Rader and David Berkowitz, Bonn’s primary research subjects, an act that sometimes borders on hagiography. Empathizing with killers under the guise of research is not criminal but doing so while purporting to offer access to the reality of serial homicide that has been “hidden from view” (15) is, to this reviewer, analogous.

In a duplicitous maneuver, the role criminologists play in maintaining the serial killer in the forefront of public consciousness is omitted from Killers. Perhaps because, as David Schmid says on page four of Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture [4] “To note the phenomenon [of celebrity serial killers] would necessitate some consideration of how popular treatments both contribute to and depend upon that celebrity.” Bonn, who authors one such ‘popular treatment’ in Killers, strays from this inward examination and instead levels accusations against law enforcement, the media and the public for their “combined efforts” (211) in assisting serial killers attain attention.

Concomitantly catering to and purposefully exploiting the “sad truth about the public’s fascination with serial murder” (202), Bonn adorns the front cover of Killers’ with images of “notorious serial predators” (8). In shaming the public for their supposed contribution to the construction of the serial killer (185), Bonn creates a perturbing atrocity tale where Killers’ own readership becomes the “targeted group worthy of punishment” (163). Perhaps others can rectify the paradox inherent in Bonn’s use of “distorted and stylized media images of serial killers” (162) to “entice” (178) an audience while simultaneously denouncing that body and profiting from them for “selfish purposes” (178).

Distinguished as a former media executive turned “not your average academic”, Bonn is promoted as the ideal individual to analyze society’s obsession (185) with serial killers. While dissecting Killers, it became exceedingly difficult to untether these roles from one another, however. Bonn’s fascination with real-life serial killers segued from a self-professed love of their Hollywood depictions and movie monsters (xvii). This admission, interwoven into Bonn’s origin story, should have properly framed our expectations but raises questions that remain unanswered.

Can a criminologist be a detached observer while remaining entrenched in the myths and stereotypes they helped promulgate? Should a criminologist be allowed to condemn those that consume these ideas without acknowledging their own complicity?

Answering these inquiries requires an understanding of the mechanisms under which these specialists claim expertise. Academic researchers typically establish a long track record of peer reviewed, empirical studies before being hailed as a subject matter expert. Bonn fast-tracked this process, catapulting himself forward by leaning on his media contacts and “Wicked Deeds” [5] weblog fan base. Bonn transformed himself into someone qualified for a classification as “expert” by regurgitating popular tropes and attaching himself to murderers he dubs the most “infamous in the world” (181). In essence, Bonn is an amalgam; manufactured by coupling a shared proximity to other prominent researchers and their ideas.

Throughout Killers, Bonn carefully cultivates the perception that serial killers remain “elevated to rock star status” (177), an argument that would be disproved if readers were presented with an accurate depiction of how serial killers interact with society in modern times. To preserve the essence of a profitable construct from a bygone era, Bonn refuses to acknowledge that the phenomenon of serial murder is fundamentally different in 2014 than it was in 1972. As Chris Beam exclaims in Blood Loss – The decline of the serial killer [6], “infamous crimes almost always needle the anxieties of their periods...sensational crimes that don't play into a larger societal narrative fade away.” Simply stated, we, as a society, no longer afford the serial killer the stature they once were granted.

In selecting a small subpopulation of only the “notorious” and “most infamous” serial predators (8) whose deeds neatly support Killers’ premise, Bonn presents the same distorted depiction of serial killers (153) he later accuses the media of disseminating. From the first page, we are transported back to the 1970s while Bonn wields sensationalized and hyped serial killers (174) like Dahmer, Bundy and Gacy as educational tools. By remaining affixed to this period, any semblance of knowledge potentially gained into the impact of the serial killer on modern day society is sacrificed in the process. With such an intense focus on the past, Killers would have been more aptly named Why We Loved Serial Killers.

Since modern day examples of serial killers are excluded from analysis in Killers, Bonn inevitably offers the same “simple black-and-white explanations of crimes” (216) he chides us all - law enforcement, the media and the public - for creating. In the past, criminologists focused on Bundy, Dahmer and Gacy as prototypical serial killers because data indexing “lesser known” offenders did not exist. Today, however, the Radford Serial Killer Database [7] is accessible to all researchers. Bonn’s lapse in consulting this resource is inexcusable. Far worse, nearsightedly depending on unreliable FBI data - showcasing it as the exemplar - is a detriment to the work being performed by data scientists. Bonn continues to introduce subsequent generations to outdated archetypes by employing this tired strategy.

Bonn actively contributes to the disproportionately high level of media attention and exposure (162) these offenders have received by dedicating an entire book to killers accounting for no more than one percent of all murders in the US (18). Even after confessing to directly “feeding the ego” of Dennis Rader (130), Bonn chastises journalists for giving serial killers “exactly what they desire – a bright spotlight on the public stage” (178). Such converse behavior perfectly encapsulates Killers’ tone: exploitation masquerading as research in the author’s quest for renown. As such, we should rightfully consider Killers akin to the entertainment media that its author derides.

Killers is by no means a product of scientific examination of serial homicide. As a result, Bonn incorrectly asserts that New York City homicide detective Augustine Papay is wrong to state that the serial homicide numbers “would always be higher in California” (34). According to an analysis of the Radford/FGCU Serial Killer Database Kills by U.S. State (1900-2014) [7], California had twice as many killers at 309 than New York at 154. The states of Florida, Texas and Illinois had 241, 187, and 117 killers, respectively, placing New York fourth overall among states with the highest incidence of serial homicide. As demonstrated, the continued use of Bundy, Dahmer and Gacy as examples of the “typical” serial murderer and the reliance on outmoded FBI data does a great disservice to society by misrepresenting the threat that modern offenders pose.

Readily apparent from the first chapter is Bonn’s disconnect from the research community. He illustrates professional hitmen as “strictly financial” killers (14), inflates the importance of the emotional cooling off period (14) and unnecessarily draws a distinction between spree and serial killers (12). Each of these mainstays have been under scrutiny by academic researchers for several years. The majority agree: hitmen are criminal enterprise (77) serial killers, the cooling off period is arbitrary, and disregarding spree killers ignores the further evolution of the serial killer. Dennis Rader, Killers’ second research subject, authenticates the unjustified continuance of the cooling off period concept by stating that he spent his supposed “time of de-escalation” (132) instead “trolling for the next perfect victim” (133). Serial killers are constantly primed for homicidal activity and have a tendency to maintain interest in killing even when involved in their “seemingly normal lives” (14). In that respect, serial killers do not ‘de-escalate’ because they never truly escalate in the first place.

While the prospect of being presented with “a realistic and accurate picture of serial homicide” (36) appealed to this reviewer, it was discouraging to learn that Bonn’s version directly parallels that of several other researchers. The contents of chapter two are an almost complete recounting of ideas presented in Serial Murder: Multi-Disciplinary Perspectives for Investigators [8]. Bonn even recycles information found in this reviewer’s op-ed, Breaking the Stereotype of a Serial Killer [9]. Fifteen years after Fox and Levin wrote about popular myths and empirical realities in their seminal chapter for Homicide: A Sourcebook of Social Research [10], Bonn naively categorizes Killers as forging a new, uncharted path.

Even after acknowledging that “graphic images of serial killers sell countless books” (20), Bonn recalls violent murders, dredging up these incidents rather vividly. It is unnecessary to recount the Green River Killer’s necrophilic tendencies (26), Dahmer’s penchant for dismemberment (81), Kemper’s use of decapitation (165) or Bundy’s preference for rape and torture (223), especially if these instances are supposedly ingrained into our psyches by the media.

Bonn juxtaposes the words ‘love’ and ‘serial killers’ in Killers’ title to seize our attention but he then takes journalists to task for using hyperbole (173) and “inflammatory language” to describe serial killers (178), branding this action “unethical”. Bonn further dilutes his argument by referring to serial killers as savage (title), notorious (8), morbid (15), cold-blooded (74), ruthless (63), barbaric (164), grizzly (162), terrifying (216), chilling (131), vile and insidious (118), fiendish and evil (107),  twisted (85), insatiable (86), venomous (135), monstrous (225), ghoulish (189) and cunning (151) whose crimes are incredible (25), infamous and prolific (66), unbelievably shocking (155), fascinating (166) and compelling (131). Serial killers are woefully misrepresented at the expense of Bonn’s aim to market Killers to casual readers using flair.

In granting serial killers the title “world’s most savage murderers”, Bonn prompts the reader to believe that he assumed great risk in confronting this topic. Bonn also typifies Killers’ research subjects as possessing evil qualities, even after stating that “the use of the word evil is devastating because it strips the bearer of all humanity” (177). According to Bonn, Berkowitz “has come to personify evil” (114) and Rader is said to have committed “acts of evil [that] defy comprehension” (115).  

Bonn faults the media for “oversimplifying” the true diversity of serial killers and their motivations (10), but then contrarily appoints the improperly ubiquitous ‘Jack the Ripper’ as the hallmark of such immediate concepts as killing within a comfort zone (27), the disorganized serial killer (60), modus operandi and signature (47). Bonn exemplifies the mentally ill offender again using a set of still unsolved murders, these having taken place in the early 1970s. As a product of his dependence on archaic information, Bonn portrays the crimes of “Charlie Chopoff” as a “recent” example (46), further exposing readers to the exact stereotypes he supposedly set out to debunk in Killers.

Take, for instance, Bonn’s representation of serial killers as dysfunctional loners and misfits (150) lacking clear cut motives (214), driven to kill by overwhelming urges (14) and compulsions (74), to feed their insatiable wants and uncontrollable desires (148), killing only strangers (74) they are personally attracted to (228) randomly (228) and more frequently over time (149), while enraptured in fantasy (67), drifting into a trance state (88), usually during the nighttime (31) because they were abandoned by their mothers (75) whose level of gore contributes to the quickness of their apprehension (21). Taken together, each of these delineations serves to personify the serial killer as a marauding heathen, indistinguishable from the very monsters that aroused Bonn’s obsession.

Aside from each of these inaccuracies, in hinting that serial killers could be anyone (187) and characterizing their murders as motiveless (216), Bonn incites the same terror (216) he accuses the police and news media of deliberately creating (159). Even though we are compelled to invest in Killers’ “how-to-manual” approach in victimization avoidance methods, the existence of hundreds of serial killers that have killed acquaintances, committed murders serving other criminal interests (75) to conceal another crime such as armed robbery (33) or for personal and retaliatory motivations (13) such as anger (67) or revenge (13) have been egregiously discounted. If readers succumb to Bonn’s persuasion that serial killers behave as presented in Killers, the consequences could be incalculable.

Bonn bases his conclusions on interviews conducted with “thirty-six serial predators” (42) as the source of “massive amounts of data” (42) agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation used to supposedly deduce the inner workings of these multiple murderers. In fact, only twenty-five of these research subjects were serial killers [11]. In a report released by the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime titled Serial Murder – Pathways for Investigations [8], former SSA Robert Morton acknowledges that reliance on small sample sizes “diminishes any predictive value of the study.” Nowhere in Killers does Bonn indicate that results from the FBI’s meetings were generalized, generating the aforementioned myths cataloged in the prior chapter.

In describing Berkowitz’s conversion to God, former NYPD sergeant Joseph Coffey affirmed that “It’s a total charade designed to promote himself” (112), a statement that could be directly applied to Bonn’s motivations in crafting Killers. Bonn is prideful in connecting with Berkowitz, obtusely reveling in building a relationship based on mutual predation. Here, each man enhances their chance at notoriety by attaching themselves to the deeds of the other. Bonn benefits from exaggerating the qualities of a “larger than life public monster” (101), describing Berkowitz as evoking more panic than any other serial killer in the last fifty years (215) and one of the most notorious criminals of all time (97). The reader is meant to bestow Bonn with legend status after admiring the bravery he demonstrates in entering the “chilling, indestructible fortress” (105) to confront Berkowitz.

In direct opposition to this image, Bonn is greeted by a “genuinely warm” (105) man. After this anticlimactic reveal, Bonn insists that “revelations” (114) were obtained, referring to his assumed debunking of the “popular myth” (79) that Berkowitz committed murders at the behest of a demonic dog. According to Bonn’s own research, however, the FBI arrived at this same conclusion in 1979 (104). That Berkowitz was able to convince Bonn of the presence of “vulnerability, humility and remorse” (105) within him says more about Bonn’s susceptibility to being deceived than Berkowitz’s ability to manipulate. Perhaps because Bonn is enamored by both Rader and Berkowitz, deeming the former “fascinating” (127) and the latter “engrossing” (104) and “engaging” (105), he granted these offenders the opportunity to use him as a platform to spread their messages and maintain their relevance.

A confluence of factors contributed to this reviewer’s negative opinion of Killers. While Bonn’s faulty interpretations of key concepts detracted from Killers’ readability, this reviewer also expended some time discerning which parts of Killers were inadvertent retreads, intentional overlap, or the results of intellectual negligence. It is unfortunate that Bonn invested insufficiently in the research process when compiling Killers because it is evident throughout the work.

While the distinction between psychopaths and sociopaths has been detailed by authors such as Walsh and Wu [12], Bonn muddles these doctrines in Killers with unfounded statements such as “when a psychopathic male serial killer takes on a subordinate partner it will generally be a female” (64). Although the organized/disorganized dichotomy has not been used by the NCAVC “in day to day operations for over 10 years” [13], Bonn insists on subjectively retrofitting offenders into these categories without submitting them to any form of psychological testing. As a “classic example” of a serial killer fitting each typology, Bonn unsurprisingly selects Ted Bundy for organized (61) and ‘Jack the Ripper’ for disorganized (60).

In the only original aspect of Killers, Bonn uses Emile Durkheim’s theories as a framework. This is itself an imprudent decision as they are based on the erroneous assumption that serial killers are “unable to control their compulsion [to commit murder]” (148). Three pages later, Bonn declares that serial killers “will strike when they perceive law enforcement presence to be weakest” and that they “may delay an attack” (151). It is not facetious to stipulate that both realities cannot exist within the same killer. Such a thorough examination is important and warranted when assertions of this nature are made to bolster feeble rationalizations.

Bonn’s haphazard application of sociological theories to serial homicide results in many inconsistencies and the invalidation of his previous points. To make the integration and regulation (150) theory fit, preceding remarks about the dysfunctional loner serial killer myth (25) are disregarded. The concept of moral panic (158) is broached only to be reversed by Bonn, stating that “societal reaction to serial killers does not constitute a moral panic” (185). The impact of serial murder on society (139) is introduced but Bonn neglects to mention the havoc these offenders wreak on victim’s families. Instead, he confusingly uses suicide (144) as a gateway to discussing the effects of anomie on the killers themselves. Murderers are excused from responsibility, epitomized as byproducts of an uncaring society rather than individuals operating at the behest of their own conscious decision to kill.

In the same vein, Bonn compares the benefits of killing serially to those offered by drugs, referring to killers as junkies “in need of a fix” (107) to whom instilling fear in others is comparable to an “aphrodisiac” (188). Instead of imparting new insights into modern day offenders, Bonn continues to traverse old ground and infringe upon ideas already established by other researchers. The pairing of serial killing and addiction was more eloquently covered by Anderson in Genesis of a Serial Killer [14]. It is obvious that Bonn overlooked the works of Douglas [15], Gibson [16,17] and Guillen [18] when he wonders about the role killers play in their social construction of their public identity, contemplating that “this question is rarely, if ever, addressed by criminologists” (178). Douglas’ coverage of Dennis Rader in his Inside the Mind of BTK [15] envelops the entirety of Bonn’s glib effort in Killers.

The similarity to another monograph is more suspicious, however. This reviewer cannot conceive that Bonn was unaware of Dietrich and Hall’s The Allure of the Serial Killer [19] as many of the explanations about society’s attraction to serial killers supplied in Killers are proposed first in the uncited Allure. Each considers the conflation of attraction and repulsion (back cover); both posit that our fascination with serial killers arises from a need to understand their heinous actions (186); each state that serial killers offer the opportunity for violence to be consumed safely (190); both propose that serial killers “elicit excitement similar to disasters” (185); both suggest that society “can learn something about itself” (212) by analyzing the serial killer; each contemplates the “pleasurable mix of excitement and horror” (217) or the co-occurrence of fear and pleasure; both believe that serial killers are envied since they do not abide by rules, helping us to “exorcise our dangerous urges vicariously” (224); each discuss the importance of morality and empathy (225) in accordance to framing the way society interacts with these killers; and lastly, both address society’s capability to grant serial killers “anti-hero” (227) status.

Regardless of any other issues, most importantly, the timeliness of Killers is severely minimized due to the use of outdated sources. For example, five editions of Eric Hickey’s Serial Murderers and Their Victims [20] have been produced since the second edition that Bonn cites as a reference. Had Bonn cared to access a recent version, he would have ascertained that, since 1995, half of all known serial killers are African American. Instead, Bonn claims that minority groups represent “20 percent” (22) of the serial killer population.

Hopefully criminologists in training will realize that following the roadmap laid forth in Killers is a dangerous prospect. Merely sharing correspondence or an interview room with a serial killer does not automatically convert someone into a serial killer expert. Making inroads in the domain of serial homicide research by repeating age-old falsehoods using “anecdotal information” (17) will indeed earn one a spot amongst those who “think [they] know a lot more about real-life serial killers than [they] actually do” (6) as Bonn does with Killers.

True crime aficionados will enjoy Killers as Bonn relates the material in an intelligible fashion, making for effortless consumability. As a summation of how society reacted to serial killers long ago, Killers is a decent source and one that should be referenced as a matter of historical record. Hopefully, casual readers will eventually discover other, more rigorously researched works with greater bearing on the contemporary. This reviewer suggests that serious researchers leave Killers to decay on the true crime shelf. Any of the aforementioned works should be read instead, especially Ron Rosenbaum’s more astute (and concise) Slate piece, Why America loves serial killers [21] from which Bonn no doubt drew inspiration.

Overall, the experience of reading Killers was overly onerous, made worse by Bonn’s cognizance and full embrace of his role in the trafficking of human suffering. As a pioneer in the enterprising use of serial murder for profit, Bonn excuses his own “vested interest” (173) in continuing an “unending serial cycle” (7) by employing killers like Jeffrey Dahmer as an “entertainment commodity” (220). Bonn opens Killers by thoughtlessly dedicating it to the “victims and their families” all while maintaining the celebrity of these serial killers and re-victimizing victims’ families for the selfish purpose of financial profit (221).

In the closing line of Killers, Bonn pronounces that “we love serial killers because we need them” (229). One may scour Killers and find no truer words than this disclosure. Bonn desperately needs serial murderers to continue killing as a form of morbid job security. Offenders like Darren Deon Vann and Tiago Rocha present an invaluable opportunity to hock Killers to the masses, ensuring that future editions remain popular. Killers is undoubtedly deserving of its inevitable placement among the other superfluous books on the subject. This reviewer only hopes that before that happens, we direct some attention to the flagrant breach of human decency that works such as Killers represent.


1)      Wiest JB. 2011. Creating Cultural Monsters: Serial Murder in America. CRC Press/Taylor & Francis Group. Florida, USA.
2)      Seltzer, M. 1998. Serial Killers: Death and Life in America's Wound Culture. Routledge, London, UK.
3)      Vronsky P. 2004. Serial Killers: The Method and Madness of Monsters. Penguin Group, London, UK.
4)      Schmid D. 2005. Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture. University Of Chicago Press, Chicago, USA.
5)      Wicked Deeds weblog. 2014. Sussex Publishers, LLC. New York, USA.
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9)      Yaksic E. 2013. Op-Ed. Breaking the stereotype of a serial killer. Available at: Accessed: October 12, 2014
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15)  Douglas, J. 2008. Inside the Mind of BTK: The True Story Behind the Thirty-Year Hunt for the Notorious Wichita Serial Killer. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New Jersey, USA.
16)  Gibson D. 2004. Clues from Killers: Serial Murder and Crime Scene Messages. Greenwood Press, California, USA.
17)  Gibson D. 2006. Serial Murder and Media Circuses. Greenwood Publishing Group, California, USA.
18)  Guillen T. 2002. Serial Killer Communiqu├ęs: Helpful or Hurtful. Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, Volume 9, Issue 2. 55-68. Available at: Accessed: September 30, 2014
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20)  Hickey E. 2015. Serial Murderers and Their Victims. (In press). Cengage Learning, Massachusetts, USA.
21)  Rosenbaum R. 2011. Why America loves serial killers. The Spectator, London. Available at: Accessed: October 20, 2014