Why does America love serial killers? That’s the question Sarah Marshall considers in this essay. She dives into pop culture, homicide statistics, stereotypes about criminals, and her own life to make the case that serial killers, as a frightful concept, reinforce what many Americans wish to believe about themselves and their country:

In the time of COVID, the right to invite death into your home and to spread it around to others became, somehow, the context of a presidential election. As far as I can tell, Americans love killing one another, and always have, but serial killers make us look a little better. The United States was built on the bones and blood of endless murder, of slavery, and of genocide; crucially, the FBI’s current classification of a serial killer stipulates “unlawful” killings, because otherwise, a lot of cops and federal agents would be serial killers too.

Before it hunted serial killers, the FBI busied itself with projects like trying to blackmail Martin Luther King Jr. into suicide, and to call that anything other than attempted murder seems pretty academic; to look at the FBI’s collaboration with the Chicago Police Department in the killing of Fred Hampton and call it anything other than murder would just be a lie. That I grew up thinking of the FBI as the good guys who caught serial killers, rather than as the organization that tried to stamp out the civil rights movement, is the result of many things, the limits of my own education chief among them. But serial killers — both the ones who were caught and the theoretical ones we could imagine were still out there — had a lot to offer the FBI, and the American legal system as a whole. David Schmid writes in Natural Born Celebrities that the serial killer is “the figure that, in a sense, [was] the FBI’s greatest ally.” A champion needs a monster to fight.

These are real crimes, and so are the people who commit them; what I wonder is why we focus so relentlessly on just one corner of the picture, as awful as it may be. In America, the most common cause of death for pregnant women is homicide. Isn’t this just as horrifying? Isn’t it worse? But to develop a cultural fixation on men who kill their pregnant partners is to acknowledge a problem bigger than a few inhuman specimens, born beyond redemption. It is to acknowledge that serial killers terrify us not because they are so different from normal people, but because they are so similar to normal men. They exonerate “normal” American violence because they will always be worse. They drive women back in from the open road and into the arms of a more probable killer.