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.