As New York-based author Ginger Strand researched a book about the interstate highway system, she “kept coming across the idea of the highway as violent, murderous.” Thus was born: “Killer on the Road: Violence and the American Interstate,” which was published by the University of Texas Press in April.
The book received a very nice recent review in the New York Times, so I e-mailed Strand about her work and why she decided to explore serial killers and highways.
What got you interested in this topic? How does one come to write about the evolution and creation of highways and serial killers?
I actually started out researching a book about the interstate highway system. I was interested in how it changed our nation. And one of the things I kept coming across was the idea of the highway as violent, murderous. And then I thought “well, how violent?”
So I Googled “freeway killer.” And I was amazed at how many hits I got. I started looking at the murder stats for the United States. Was the highway system connected to the big upsurge in murder in the early sixties? At that point, I was gripped.
What I discovered was more complicated than “highways produced murder.” But even more interesting.
How long did it take you to research this book? And where did you go to research it? National Archives? Courthouse file rooms?
I spent three years researching this book. I went to trials, went to archives, did interviews. One of the hardest interviews to land, of course, was with the FBI. In the end, they were great.
I also went to archives in Sacramento and Stockton, Calif., Lincoln, Neb., Atlanta, Ga, and many other places. And I drove the routes all the serial killers I write about took. That was actually really key. There’s nothing like going to a places where they kill to help you get into the head of a murderer.
Who did you find to be the most interesting serial killer, and why?
Most serial killers are not actually that interesting as people. The myth that they’re brilliant is just that — a myth. Most of them are sort of like toddlers — “Me me me, and the rest of the world be damned.”
But I suppose Charles Starkweather was the most interesting to me, in terms of his story, not so much because he was interesting as a person, but because he so perfectly encapsulated so many things about the nation at the time.
How did serial killers take advantage of highways?
Criminals who were already inclined toward killing discovered that the highway system provided them with easy victims: hitchhikers, lumpers, people with car trouble. But the more significant phenomenon was the fact that the nation as a whole immediately began to connect the highway system with murder.
This is a subtle point that’s hard to understand. But it’s really not that complicated. We started to see the highway as a violent place. And that wasn’t just about killers using highways; it was about what the highways were doing to the nation.
How many serial killers do you think were never captured and are there killings — or sprees — that you think might be linked to a serial killer that got away with it? Perhaps a better way to ask this question would be: in your research, did you come across any slayings that you think were the work of a serial killer?
I think that the numbers about serial killers on the highways have been inflated — the average American family is not at risk on their vacation. But I think the numbers for prostitutes have been deflated. There is an epidemic of serial killing going on out there on the highways — but since the victims are largely truck stop prostitutes, it’s invisible. No one cares.
What lessons can we take away from this beyond the fact that killers/criminals always seem to be taking advantage of the same technology/advances that help society? Robbers targeted trains and banks and hijackers commandeered airpl anes for profit, for example.
The lesson is that we make the world we live in. And we can make it better or worse. Robbers may have targeted trains, but it wasn’t at all the same thing — it wasn’t an entire way of making the world driving sociopathic individuals over the edge. That’s what the interstate highway system did, and we have to start thinking about that today. So we can make it better.