Serial killers have a certain mystique around them, many are fascinated by how and why they do what they do. What led them to lash out? What triggered them to commit heinous crimes? What led the concept of reality to overcome their fantasies?
According to The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, there is evidence that only 16% of all serial killers are women. In the 'community' of serial killers, men form the majority of the population. In this article, we will look into the minds of some notorious serial killers, an analysis of their history, social setting and other factors that may have been the reason for their actions.
Studies have revealed that most male serial killers possess similar emotional development issues. For many, it is the act of killing that gives them gratification, sexual or otherwise and for others, what comes before the killing, mainly sexual assault and/or torture, gives them gratification. Many serial killers have a history of childhood abuse and trauma, which raises the question: are serial killers born or made?
Let’s start off by saying, not all children that are abused turn out to be serial killers and not all serial killers have a history of childhood trauma. However, it would be illogical to discount that the element of childhood trauma is a mere coincidence among serial killers. Criminologist Dr. Adrian Raine believes that biological and social factors go hand in hand with the making of a murderer. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) profiler Jim Clemente said, “Genetics loads the gun, their personality and psychology aim it, and their experiences pull the trigger.” Research says that many serial killers show signs of sociopathy and psychopathy at an early age, around 11-13 years, mainly with showing interest in verbally expressing their fascination about killing. More often than not, it starts off by killing small animals and pets. These are potential red flags, of course there are exceptions but broadly speaking, there are certain traits that serial killers possess which are noticeable at an early age.
A study by researcher Abbie Marono, with the help of ex-FBI profiler Joe Navarro, reveals how various types of trauma can lead to the profiling of serial killers and the type of crimes they commit. The study involved examining the association among 4 serial killer typologies — lust and rape, anger, power, and financial gain — and 3 categories of child abuse — psychological, sexual, and physical. The study revealed “sexual abuse was potentially connected to the rape/lust and anger typologies. It was also associated with a tendency for overkill, postmortem sex, and moving the body to a different location from where the murder took place. Psychological abuse was associated more with rape/lust and financial gain typologies. Acts of crime associated with childhood psychological abuse tended to involve torture.
In contrast, physical childhood abuse was found to be associated with the rape/lust typology, as well as behaviours such as carrying out the act quickly, binding the body, and leaving the body at the crime scene.”
A study was conducted by Michael G. Aamodt and his colleagues of 50 serial killers explained, “Our data showed that a much higher percentage of serial killers were abused as children than the population in general. It certainly makes sense that the type of abuse received as a child — physical, sexual, or psychological — could influence a serial killer’s behaviour and choice of victim.” It is believed that parents who abuse their children - sexual, emotionally or physically, instil the notion of resorting to violence to any situation. Another study explained that children who have suffered childhood sexual trauma generally sexually violate their victims before killing them and those who have not suffered childhood sexual abuse do not display sexually violent behaviour.
Furthermore, there are biological factors that also play a significant role in determining one’s behaviour Neurophysiology has uncovered neurological and physical abnormalities that may begin as early as the prenatal stage in some humans. Many serial killers have been labeled with some sort of neurological disorder. Thus, these repetitive serial killers may be reacting to chemicals and hereditary factors in their brains rather than on pure evil. The concept of id, ego and superego, first introduced by psychologist Sigmund Freud, also may come into play. Id is responsible for one’s primitive consciousness such as food and sex whereas superego, of morals and values. If the id overpowers the superego, one’s morals and the line between right and wrong becomes blurry. Additionally, studies have also revealed that most serial killers see themselves as the victims of all evils in the world. This may be because they have suffered as children, or it could just be the nature of their feelings. Serial killers victimise themselves and justify their actions to themselves (and others).
For instance, Dennis Rader is a serial killer, also known as BTK killer - a name that he coined for himself which essentially is a short description of his modus operandi - bind, torture, kill. As a child, his parents were always busy working and he especially resented his mother. In his early years, he possessed sadistic sexual fantasies and zoosadism by torturing, killing and hanging small animals. Rader acted out sexual fetishes such as voyeurism and cross-dressing and would steal women’s underwear. As he grew older, he had a wife and a daughter and was elected the president of the Christ Lutheran Church, he was also a Cub Scout leader - basically a seemingly upstanding citizen. Raider went on to kill ten people between 1974-1991 in Wichita and Park City, Kansas, and sent taunting letters to police and newspapers describing the details of his crimes. He managed to have a double life, on the one hand he was a husband, father and a respectable man and on the other, he was a violent man who did unimaginable things to people he did not even know. Rader managed to blend into society as a family man so much so that he was never a suspect in the series of murders he committed. Upon arrest, psychologist Robert Mendoza was hired by his court-appointed public defenders to conduct a psychological evaluation. Mendoza diagnosed Rader with narcissistic, antisocial and obsessive-compulsive personality disorders: “He observed that Rader has a grandiose sense of self, a belief that he is "special" and therefore entitled to special treatment; a pathological need for attention and admiration; a preoccupation with maintaining rigid order and structure; and a complete lack of empathy for his victims.”
Serial killers have been romanticised and made so common in our day-to-day terminology. Due to the emergence of media and globalisation, some people aspire to be serial killers - for a twisted version of fame or just copycatting murders. Various shows and movies have been made on serial killers like Ted Bundy, Son of Sam, BTK Killer, Jeffrey Dahmer. Shows like Criminal Minds and the Mentalist show profiling as a main way to catch serial killers, although in reality, the police depend more on forensic evidence for the sake of making an airtight case. However, profiling and history of other serial killers does play a role in identifying some aspects of a murderer’s motivations - which in turn helps in the identification of suspects.