A serial killer is a person who murders three or more people with a “cooling off” period between each murder and whose motivation for killing is largely based on psychological gratification. One hypothesis is that all serial killers suffer from some form of Antisocial Personality Disorder. They are usually not psychotic, and thus may appear to be quite normal and often even charming, a state of adaptation which Hervey Cleckley calls the “mask of sanity.” There is sometimes a sexual element to the murders. The murders may have been completed/attempted in a similar fashion and the victims may have had something in common, for example occupation, race, or sex.
The term serial killer is said to have been coined by Michigan State University alumnus and FBI agent Robert Ressler in the 1970s. Serial killer entered the popular vernacular in large part due to the widely publicized crimes of Ted Bundy and David Berkowitz in the middle years of that decade.
Psychology and development
Serial killers are specifically motivated by a variety of psychological urges, primarily power and sexual compulsion. They often have feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness, sometimes owing to humiliation, bullying, and abuse in childhood and the pressures of poverty and low socioeconomic status in adulthood. In many cases, serial killers commit crimes to compensate for these factors and to provide a sense of potency and often revenge by giving them a feeling of power, both at the time of the actual killing and afterwards. The knowledge that their actions terrify entire communities and often baffle police adds to this sense of power. This motivational aspect separates them from contract killers and other multiple murderers who are motivated by profit. For example, in Scotland during the 1820s, William Burke and William Hare murdered people in what became known as the “Case of the Body Snatchers.”
One theory about the pathology of serial killers, propounded by Helen Morrison, states that they are not a result of sexual abuse, inadequacy, or socioeconomic status, but are rather the result of retarded emotional development. In her theory, the low level of emotional development causes serial killers to have fractured or disparate personalities – that is they are missing components that are usually present. Low emotional development also explains some common traits among serial killers such as enjoying holding soft materials against their mouths (being the primary sensory organ of infants) which was observed in Richard Otto Macek, John Wayne Gacy and others.
Morrison’s theory also suggests that a serial killer has not developed basic levels of emotional control and that, as a result, has “feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness, sometimes owing to humiliation and abuse” which draw them to killing; rather, the act of killing is actually a kind of experimentation, which is uninhibited due to the subject’s low or non-existent level of sympathy/empathy with the victims.
The element of fantasy in a serial killer’s development is extremely important. They often begin fantasizing about murder during or even before adolescence. Their fantasy lives are very rich and they daydream compulsively about domination, submission, and murder, usually with very specific elements to the fantasy that will eventually be apparent in their real crimes. Others enjoy reading stories or seeing photographs in magazines featuring rape, torture, and murder.
Some serial killers display one or more of what are known as the “Macdonald triad” of warning signs in childhood. These are:
Fire starting, or arson invariably for the thrill of destroying things, for gaining attention, or for making the perpetrator feel more powerful.
Cruelty to animals (related to “zoosadism”). Many children may be cruel to animals, such as pulling the legs off spiders, but future serial killers often kill larger animals, like dogs and cats, and frequently for their solitary enjoyment rather than to impress peers.
Bed wetting beyond the age when children normally grow out of such behavior.
When caught and tried in a court of law in the United States, some serial killers will plead not guilty by reason of insanity. In most U.S. jurisdictions, the legal definition of insanity is still generally based upon the classic common law “right or wrong” test delineated by an English court in the 1843 M’Naghten case.
The M’Naghten Rules, as it is generally known in the legal profession, hinges upon whether the defendant knows the difference between right and wrong at the time of the offense. With some serial killers, extensive premeditation, combined with lack of any obvious delusions or hallucinations that would hinder the defendant’s ability to elude detection after committing multiple murders, make this defense extremely difficult and almost uniformly unsuccessful in achieving a not guilty verdict. However, it does allow the defense to introduce evidence about the killer’s background that would normally be deemed inadmissible (for example, a history of having been abused as a child), in hopes that some sympathy from the jury will spare the client a death sentence.
Serial murder before 1900
Further information: List of serial killers before 1900
Although the phenomenon of serial murder is popularly regarded as a modern one, it can be traced back in history with a limited degree of accuracy.
Liu Pengli of China, cousin of the Han Emperor Jing, was made king of Jidong in the sixth year of the middle period of Jing’s reign (144 BC). According to the Chinese historian Sima Qian, he would “go out on marauding expeditions with 20 or 30 slaves or young men who were in hiding from the law, murdering people and seizing their belongings for sheer sport.” Although many of his subjects knew about these murders, “so that [they] were afraid to go out of their houses at night,” it was not until the 29th year of his reign that the son of one of his victims finally sent a report to the Emperor. Eventually, “it was found that he had murdered at least 100 or more persons.” The officials of the court requested that Liu Pengli be executed; however, the emperor could not bear to have his own cousin killed, and Liu Pengli was made a commoner and banished.
In the 15th century, one of the wealthiest men in France, Gilles de Rais, is said to have abducted, raped and killed at least 100 young boys whom he brought to his castle as pages. The Hungarian aristocrat Elizabeth Báthory was arrested in 1610 and subsequently charged with torturing and butchering as many as 600 young girls. Like Liu Pengli, De Rais and Báthory were rich and powerful; therefore, although their crimes were known in their areas, they were not brought to justice for a long time. Chronicles of the times dealt largely with the affairs of the powerful; moreover, there was a lack of established police forces, at least in Europe, during those centuries. Therefore, there may have been many other classical or medieval serial killers who were either not identified or not publicized as well.
Thug Behram, a gang leader of the Indian Thuggee cult of assassins, has frequently been said to be the world’s most prolific serial killer. According to numerous sources, he was believed to have murdered 931 victims by strangulation by means of a ceremonial cloth (or rumal, which in Hindi means handkerchief), used by his cult between 1790 and 1830, thus holding the record for the most murders directly committed by a single person in history. Some individual executioners of the Nazi Einsatzgruppen and their collaborators in Eastern Europe approached similar tallies of victims. In total, the Thugs as a whole were responsible for approximately 2 million deaths, according to Guinness World Records. The notoriety of the Thugs eventually led to the word thug entering the English language as a term for ruffians, miscreants, and people who behave in an aggressive manner towards others. Recent scholarship has cast doubt on the Thuggee cult and suggested that the British in India were confused by the vernacular use of the term by Indians and may also have used fear of such a cult to justify their colonial rule (see Kevin Rushby’s Children of Kali: Through India in Search of Bandits, the Thug Cult, and the British Raj).
The unidentified killer Jack the Ripper killed prostitutes (the exact number of victims is not known) in London in 1888. Those crimes gained enormous press attention because London was the centre of the world’s greatest power at the time, so having such dramatic murders of financially destitute women in the midst of such wealth focused the news media’s attention on the plight of the urban poor and gained coverage worldwide. He has also been called the most famous serial killer of all time.
In his 1886 book Psychopathia Sexualis, Richard von Krafft-Ebing notes a case of serial murder in the 1870s, that of a French man named Eusebius Pieydagnelle who had a sexual obsession with blood and confessed to murdering six people. Joseph Vacher was executed in France in 1898 after confessing to killing and mutilating 11 women and children, while American serial killer H. H. Holmes was hanged in Philadelphia in 1896 after confessing to 27 murders.
Some historical criminologists have suggested that there may have been serial murders throughout history, but specific cases were not adequately recorded. Some sources suggest that legends such as werewolves and vampires were inspired by medieval serial killers.
Types of serial killers
A significant number of serial killers will show certain aspects of both organized and disorganized types, although usually the characteristics of one type will dominate. Some killers descend from being organized into disorganized behavior as their killings continue. They will carry out careful and methodical murders at the start, but become careless and impulsive as their compulsion takes over their lives. Regardless, the FBI generally categorizes serial killers into the two different types.
Organized/Nonsocial Offenders are usually of high intelligence, have an above average IQ (110> range), and plan their crimes quite methodically, usually abducting victims, killing them in one place and disposing of them in another. They will often lure the victims with ploys appealing to their sense of sympathy. For example, Ted Bundy would put his arm in a fake plaster cast and ask women to help him carry something to his car, where he would beat them unconscious with a metal bar (e.g. a crowbar), and carry them away. Others specifically target prostitutes, who are likely to voluntarily go with a serial killer posing as a customer. They maintain a high degree of control over the crime scene, and usually have a solid knowledge of forensic science that enables them to cover their tracks, such as by burying the body or weighing it down and sinking it in a river. They follow their crimes in the media carefully and often take pride in their actions, as if it were a grand project. The organized killer is usually socially adequate, has friends and lovers, and sometimes even a spouse and children. They are the type who, when captured, are most likely to be described by acquaintances as kind and unlikely to hurt anyone. Some serial killers go to lengths to make their crimes difficult to discover, such as falsifying suicide notes, setting up others to take the blame for their crimes, and faking gang warfare or natural deaths. Coral Watts, Ted Bundy, and John Wayne Gacy are well-known examples of this type of serial killer.
Disorganized/Asocial Offenders are often of low intelligence, have a below average IQ (<90), and commit their crimes impulsively. Whereas the organized killer will specifically set out to hunt a victim, the disorganized will murder someone when the opportunity arises, rarely bothering to dispose of the body but instead just leaving it at the same place in which they found the victim. They usually carry out “blitz” attacks, leaping out and attacking their victims without warning, and will typically perform whatever rituals they feel compelled to carry out (e.g., necrophilia, mutilation, cannibalism, etc.) once the victim is dead. They rarely bother to cover their tracks but may still evade capture for some time because of a level of cunning that compels them to keep on the move. They are often socially inadequate with few friends, and they may have a history of mental problems and be regarded by acquaintances as eccentric or even “a bit creepy.” Usually they are very introverted people, too. They have little insight into their crimes and may even block out memories of committing the murders. Ed Gein is a prime example of this type of serial killer.
Arguably the medical profession has produced the most serial killers, primarily as doctors but closely followed by nurses. One example is Harold Shipman, an English family doctor, who portrayed victims as having died of natural causes; between 1971 and 1998 he killed at least 215, and possibly well over 250, of his own mostly elderly patients – and until very near the end of his killings it was not even suspected that any crimes had been committed.
The motives of serial killers can be placed into five different categories (suggested by Holmes and DeBurger, 1988), although there may be some serial killers that have characteristics of more than one type.
Contrary to popular opinion, serial killers are rarely insane or motivated by hallucinations and/or voices in their heads. Many claim to be, usually as a way of trying to get acquitted by reason of insanity. There are, however, a few genuine cases of serial killers who were compelled by such delusions.
Herbert Mullin killed 13 people after voices told him that murder was necessary to prevent California from suffering an earthquake. Mullin went to great pains to “point out” that California did indeed avoid an earthquake during his murder spree.
Edward Gein killed two women (or more, exact number is unknown) who bore passing resemblances to his mother. He also used the flesh of exhumed female corpses to fashion a “woman suit” (as well as various other household adornments, such as curtains and lamp shades) for himself so that he could “become” his mother. After his arrest he was placed in a mental institution for the rest of his life.
So-called missionary killers believe that their acts are justified on the basis that they are getting rid of a certain type of person (often prostitutes or members of a certain ethnicity), and thus doing society a favor. Aileen Wuornos is often described as a missionary killer. In Wuornos’ case, the victims were not prostitutes, but their patrons. Dr John Bodkin Adams, meanwhile, was a British fundamentalist Christian (a member of the Plymouth Brethren). His rich, ‘non-believing’ victims were killed partly in order to redistribute their wealth to people Adams considered more “deserving,” usually – but not always – himself. Missionary killers differ from other types of serial killer in that their motive is generally non-sexual.
This type kills for the sheer pleasure of it, although what aspect they enjoy varies. This is the most common type of serial killer depicted in slasher and horror movies, psychological thrillers, and so on. Yang Xinhai’s post-capture statement is typical of such killers’ attitudes: “When I killed people, I had a desire [to kill more]. This inspired me to kill more. I don’t care whether they deserve to live or not. It is none of my concern.” Some killers may enjoy the actual “chase” or “trolling” phase of hunting down and ensnaring a victim more than anything, while others may be primarily motivated by the act of torturing and abusing the victim while they are alive. Some, such as Dennis Rader, Wichita’s notorious “BTK (Bind Torture Kill) Strangler,” who killed 10 known victims, enjoyed both the hunt and torturing his victims after capturing and subduing them. Yet others, like Jeffrey Dahmer, may kill the victim quickly, and then indulge in necrophilia or cannibalism with the body. Usually there is a strong sexual aspect to the crimes, even if it may not be immediately obvious; some killers obtain a surge of excitement that is not necessarily sexual, such as David Berkowitz, who got a thrill out of shooting young couples in cars at random and then running away without ever physically touching the victims. It is hypothesized that these individuals have a high tolerance for endorphins. Normal individuals can get a natural high from activities ranging from taking a run to riding a roller coaster. Sociopaths have a high tolerance, meaning they must do something that causes more of an endorphin rush. Murdering someone is said to be the biggest endorphin rush one can experience. It is also worth noting that some killers of this type, such as Gary Ridgway, the infamous “Green River Killer,” may attempt to justify their actions in missionary terms after being caught (Ridgway, for example, preyed primarily, though not exclusively, on prostitutes and runaways), but their choice of socially “undesirable” victims is often a matter of convenience more than anything else… i.e., they know these types of victims will accompany them alone to secluded locations willingly, will probably not be reported missing until a significant period of time after their deaths, and the deaths/disappearances will generally not lead to a large amount of public outcry.
Most criminals who commit multiple murders for material ends (such as Mafia hit men) are not classed as serial killers, because they are motivated by economic gain rather than psychopathological compulsion. There is a fine line separating such killers, however. For example, Marcel Petiot, who operated in Nazi-occupied France, could be classified as a serial killer. He posed as a member of the French Resistance and lured wealthy Jewish people to his home, claiming he could smuggle them out of the country. Instead he murdered them and stole their belongings, killing 63 people before he was finally caught.
Power and control
Their main objective for killing is to gain and exert power over their victim. Such killers are sometimes abused as children, leaving them with feelings of powerlessness and inadequacy as adults. Often they indulge in rituals that are linked, often very specifically, to forms of abuse they suffered themselves. Many power/control-motivated killers sexually abuse their victims, but they differ from hedonistic killers in that rape is not motivated by lust but as simply another form of dominating the victim.
Serial killers in popular culture
Serial killers have been featured in many novels, movies, songs, comic books, true crime, soap operas, video games, and other media. Films such as The Silence of the Lambs, Psycho, Scream, Se7en, Copycat , Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Halloween and the Friday The 13th series, have featured serial killers as villains, antiheroes, and even protagonists. Examples of famous fictional serial killers include Hannibal Lecter, Norman Bates, Freddy Krueger, Carnage, Leatherface, Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, Patrick Bateman, Serge A. Storms, John “The Jigsaw” Kramer, Sylar, Dexter Morgan and various others. A few of these have become some of the most famous and popular characters in modern popular culture. Serial killers have also been portrayed in video games such as Condemned: Criminal Origins, and its recent sequel Condemned 2: Bloodshot.
Serial killer memorabilia and serial killer lore is a subculture revolving around the legacies of various infamous and notorious serial killers. While memorabilia is generally confined to the paintings, writings, and poems of infamous killers, a market has expanded in recent years with serial killer encyclopedias, trading cards, and action figures. Some of the best known articles of serial killer memorabilia include the clown paintings of John Wayne Gacy and the poetry of Jack Unterweger.
Criminologists have long recognized that there are links between most serial killers and their chosen victims. One such link is the association between demographic factors and likelihood of victimization. While overall the odds of falling victim to a serial killer are very minute in comparison to other violent crimes, and to the population as a whole, the outcome of these crimes can often be the most extreme. Compared to all other types of crimes, homicide in general has one of the lowest victimization rates.
Demographically, serial murderers tend to target more women than men, and kill strangers more often than family or acquaintances. This as opposed to single-homicide offenders, who tend to kill men and women equally, while killing friends and family more often. Serial murderers’ killings are often sexually motivated. The sexual motivation supports the idea that serial murderers tend to have specific criteria and specific sexual interests that motivate their selection of certain victims. This victim selection process sets serial murderers apart from other types of killers.