Trending Thursday: Serial Killer Trends in YA vs Pop Culture

Welcome to Trending Thursday, a weekly feature in which I pick a trend and we discuss. Since I've been doing a couple of theme weeks on Spies and Serial Killers, I decided to talk YA Serial Killer Trends today.

If you read Monday's post that ran down a short history of Serial Killers in YA over the last decade, you saw that YA fiction saw a big uptick in books featuring serial killers from 2012 to the present. This trend parallels a similar one on TV.  A June 2013 article in the Hollywood Reporter cites a new Culture and Media Institute study claiming that there are currently up to 20 shows about serial killers on TV, things like like Bates Motel, Hannibal, The Following, The Cult, The Bridge, Ripper Street and The Fall. According to the article, 2013 featured a 35% increase in serial killer shows from the year before because "everyone is trying to capture that Dexter audience."

The interesting thing about this trend is that it doesn't reflect reality. You'll be happy to know that the number of serial murders is actually decreasing.  A 2013 study conducted by researchers at Radford University shows that serial killings in the U.S. peaked in the 1980s and have been on the downtrend ever since.

Why? There are a number of theories, but this Slate magazine article suggests that better law enforcement -- things like the widespread computerization of police records and better forensic technology over the past few decades -- played a part. 

So when books like Dear Killer use the "incompetent police" rationale to explain why the killer never gets caught? That idea doesn't really hold water.

Will the Serial Killers in YA have staying power as a trend? I'm not so sure. 

First off, you have the squeamishness factor. Though you could argue that teens and young adults often have a high tolerance for violence and gore, some people also feel that extreme violence isn't appropriate in YA. As both a parent and a lover of creepy thrillers, I have conflicting feelings about this issue.

Then there's the credibility factor. One of my longstanding problems with YA mysteries and thrillers is that it's much harder to make them feel credible. In general, teenagers aren't asked to consult on murder cases or put on special teams by the FBI. Adult thrillers typically feature world-weary police detectives or highly trained FBI agents, most of whom have a dark past, a broken marriage and a drinking problem -- something hard to replicate in YA. If you read my Compare and Contrast review of Dear Killer and Killer Instinct, you know that I found credibility issues in both books. 

Is a teen serial killer even credible? Though a 2008 Radford University study showed that 14% of serial killers over the past 15 years were under the age of 20, the idea of a female teenage serial killer is much more unlikely; the 2013 Radford study said that the number of female serial killers has declined sharply thus far in the 2000s, in which women have made up only 5% of serial killers

So... decreased serial murders in real life is excellent news. The proliferation of serial killer shows and books is good news ... if you enjoy that kind of thing. As for the YA angle, as an avid reader of YA thrillers, I find that the most successful YA thrillers and serial killer books are: 
a) those that incorporate either paranormal or historical elements, since those help overcome the inherent credibility problems, or  
b) those that manage to successfully integrate a protagonist's fascination with violence and/or sex into coming of age issues in a way that feels thoughtful rather than gratuitous. 

But that's just me. Do you love shows like Dexter or the Following? Do you read YA Thrillers and Serial Killer books? Tell me what you think in comments.


  1. I'm not really a serial killer fan. My husband has watched Hannibal a few times on tv, but I can't. It gives me the creeps. I don't like the gore, violence, and evil the characters emulate, and it's hard for me to connect with the characters a lot of the time if the MC is the serial killer. Now if the MC is someone trying to figure things out, that is a little better, but the gore still has to be limited. Thank goodness real trends aren't following book trends!

  2. I am not a big thriller fan i general, so YA novels about serial killers is not something I'd usually pick up - it just isn't something that keeps my attention. I saw few episodes of Dexter, but mostly because of there wasn't noting better to watch on TV.
    Great post.

  3. So... YAY! for less serial killers!

    I completely agree with you about the credibility of YA mystery/thriller books. You have to really separate yourself because in reality it's just.. no. Not happening. For me the ones that work best are the ones that are supernaturalsih or are of a more ridiculous nature, but I don't typically read darker YA because I am a wimp (I could never handle a book with a teenage serial killer!).

    I also completely agree with you that incompetent police is the worst and never fails to annoy me. That should not be your grand master plan for how things go wrong (especially if it is multiple police incompetency's).

  4. I love thrillers, serial killer one are really interesting to read. :)

  5. I'm a huge horror fan and generally prefer the protags to be investigator/good guy types rather than the killer. It's hard to run a very dark character. The line between fascinating, sympathetic, and too dark is very thin and difficult to straddle. Your post is terrific - well balanced and so perceptive! I really enjoyed reading it! :)

  6. I haven't watched any serial killer TV shows (I don't watch a lot of shows, exceeeept Supernatural) buuuut I am a sucker for reading them. I agree that the credibility factor of having teens outwit everyone?? It can be iffy. It needs to be done really really well, in my opinion, to float. Paranormal aspects are awesome, but, if I have to pick, I always go for the realistic serial killers (gosh, that sounds so warped). I loved "I Am Not a Serial Killer" by Dan Wells, but I was pretty surprised it turned paranormal/supernatural instead of actually being a real mystery to crack.

  7. lol the police were SO ridiculously incompetent in Dear Killer. No way was that realistic at all.
    I do like serial killer books, but I agree, they're usually more interesting and more realistic (well, not necessarily more realistic, but it's easier to suspend your disbelief I guess) if they're mixed with paranormal elements and things :)

  8. I have started to watch Dexter and love the show.

  9. I definitely agree with you. Serial Killers and YA don't go very well so I've resorted to looking at 'Adult' for my crime 'thrill'. I do read the occasional mystery when it comes to YA but it's more like brain candy than anything else and really, the police aren't completely clueless and the likelihood of them being bested by a teenager is really low. I just find it ridiculous that these amateurs can somehow turn out to be better then the police without any experience.

    Great Post!!!

    Rashika @ The Social Potato

  10. I totally agree. Teenagers committing or solving serial murders just isn't all that realistic. Although I think this is a really interesting trend with some real potential, I agree that adding credibility is the only way any of these books are going to make a big splash, at least for me. I don't mind as much if the book is a paranormal or historical, because there are a different set of rules for those sorts of books. But as long as there is a logical reason why a teenager is involved in something so adult, I would totally be open to this trend in YA contemporary.

  11. Yeah science!
    I love murder mystery shows (like Castle!) though not necessarily "serial killer" thrillers and don't usually read a lot of (YA) thriller, but with the increase of them, I'm starting to try check them out more. I've read The Naturals and it was good, but I'm still sitting on the fence with this genre.
    Great post!

    Cyn @ Bookmunchies

  12. Hah, this is a really great discussion post. I didn't realize there was an increase of serial killers plotlines in YA AND films/movies. I haven't read Dear Killer yet, but I did read a review of a very good friend, and it did seem unrealistic and awful (to the point I now refuse to read my ARC). The police right now in this day and age are hardly stupid; they have the tools and mechanisms to find criminals more efficiently, so I really don't get the idea of a teenager outwitting them (lolz really?). The best one I've read was I Hunt Killers, though. Damn, that was awesome.

    Great post! :D

    Faye @ The Social Potato Reviews

  13. Serial killers are fascinating to read about, but in real life? Eh, not so much... But I'd love to see more YA books about that, though there's very few since yeah, the credibility factor is hard to do. And yes, I've just watched the Following recently, and it's disturbing and creepy but I love it!

  14. I do not read serial killer books (not YA and not adult ones either) but I do enjoy YA thrillers from time to time, but those that have some paranormal touch to it! Great post!


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