Serial killers are people who kill on at least three occasions with a break in between each murder. The crimes commited are a result of a compulsion that may have roots in the killer’s (often dysfunctional) youth and psychopathological disorders, as opposed to those who are motivated by financial gain (e.g., contract killers) or ideological/political motivations (e.g., terrorism, democide).
Where does this urge come from, and why is so powerful? If we all experienced this urge, would we be able to resist?
Is it genetic, hormonal, biological, or cultural conditioning? Do serial killers have any control over their desires? We all experience rage and inappropriate sexual instincts, yet we have some sort of internal cage that keeps our inner monsters locked up. Call it morality or social programming, these internal blockades have long since been trampled down in the psychopathic killer. Not only have they let loose the monster within, they are virtual slaves to its beastly appetites. What sets them apart?
A serial killer is someone who commits three or more murders over an extended period of time with cooling-off periods in between. In between their crimes, they appear to be quite normal, a state which Hervey Cleckley and Robert Hare call the “mask of sanity.” There is sometimes * but not always * a sexual element to the murders.
A mass murderer, on the other hand, is an individual who commits multiple murders in a single event and in one location. The perpetrators sometimes commit suicide, meaning knowledge of their state of mind and what triggers their actions is often left to more speculation than fact. Mass murderers who are caught sometimes claim they cannot clearly remember the event.
A spree killer commits multiple murders in different locations over a period of time that may vary from a few hours to several days. Unlike serial killers, however, they do not revert to their normal behavior in between slayings.
Serial killers have tested out a number of excuses for their behavior. Henry Lee Lucas blamed his upbringing; others like Jeffrey Dahmer say that they were born with a “part” of them missing. Ted Bundy claimed pornography made him do it. Herbert Mullin, Santa Cruz killer of thirteen, blamed the voices in his head that told him it was time to “sing the die song.” The ruthless Carl Panzram swore that prison turned him into a monster, while Bobby Joe Long said a motorcycle accident made him hypersexual and eventually a serial lust killer. The most psychopathic, like John Wayne Gacy, turn the blame around and boast that the victims deserved to die.
They must be insane * what normal person could slaughter another human, for the sheer pleasure of it? Yet the most chilling fact about serial killers is that they are rational and calculating. As the “British Jeffrey Dahmer” Dennis Nilsen put it, “a mind can be evil without being abnormal.”
What They Are
Before we look at who they are, we must first describe what they are. The FBI defines serial murder as:
A minimum of three to four victims, with a “cooling off” period in between;
The killer is usually a stranger to the victim * the murders appear unconnected or random;
The murders reflect a need to sadistically dominate the victim;
The murder is rarely “for profit”; the motive is psychological, not material;
The victim may have “symbolic” value for the killer; method of killing may reveal this meaning;
Killers often choose victims who are vulnerable (prostitutes, runaways, etc.)
Statistically, the average serial killer is a white male from a lower to middle class background, usually in his twenties or thirties. Many were physically or emotionally abused by parents. Some were adopted. As children, fledgling serial killers often set fires, torture animals, and wet their beds (these red-flag behaviors are known as the “triad” of symptoms.) Brain injuries are common. Some are very intelligent and have shown great promise as successful professionals. They are also fascinated with the police and authority in general. They will either have attempted to become police themselves but were rejected, or worked as security guards, or had served in the military. Many, including John Gacy, the Hillside Stranglers, and Ted Bundy, will disguise themselves as law enforcement officials to gain access to their victims.
Who They Kill
Serial killers choose victims weaker than themselves. Often their victims will fit a certain stereotype, which has symbolic meaning for the killer. Bundy brutally murdered college-age women with long brown hair. Was he killing, over and over again, the upper-class fiancee who broke off her engagement with him? David Berkowitz, aka “Son of Sam,” was not so particular * he hated all women: “I blame them for everything. Everything evil that’s happened in the world*somehow goes back to them.” Gacy savagely strangled young men, some of them his own employees, calling them “worthless little queers and punks.” Some believe that Gacy’s homicidal rage was projected onto the boys who represented his own inadequacy in the eyes of his own domineering father.
With rare exception, serial killers objectify and humiliate their victims. Bundy deliberately kept the conversation brief * if he got to know the victim and saw her as a real person, it would destroy the fantasy.
Since the days of London’s “Jack the Ripper,” the gruesome acts of serial killers have instilled fear * and a morbid curiosity * in the general public. The victims, murdered in horrendous fashion, are often society’s most innocent and vulnerable.
But these seemingly random acts of violence often follow some deliberate paths into which the innocent have unwittingly wandered.
Retired FBI agent spent a good part of his career climbing inside the minds of these remorseless killers to find out the method to their madness. He say’s it’s all about control.
“If there is any one common motive among serial killers, it’s playing God, having the power over life and death of another individual,” says Experts. “It’s a very intoxicating experience.”
Experts worked on just about every major serial murder case in the United States during his last 10 years with the agency
He says the most common motive for a perpetrator is some type of sexual perversity, but adds, “there is no one single profile of serial murderer.”
Experts says there is “an underlying psychopathology that drives these offenders. It could be a sexual motive…while others may be more practical homicides,” such as the “Unabomber,” Ted Kaczynski, who killed in a campaign against technology.
The crimes of Tommy Lynn Sells, the convicted murderer of a 13-year-old Texas girl, don’t follow a single motive pattern. Experts says some of his crimes seem to be sexually motivated while others were possibly acts of anger or a desire to eliminate witnesses.
Most serial killers are what Experts calls “losers in life,” outcasts and failures who thrive on the exhilaration gained from overpowering a victim.
Constructing a profile of an unknown assailant begins with a careful analysis of the elements, including crime scene components, autopsy data and victim selection. This is compiled and used, says Experts, to “find the underlying pathology and learn how to use that” against the criminal.
It is not uncommon for a killer’s method to evolve, says Experts. “Crime is dynamic and (an) offender may change…and becommore comfortable over time,” making it more difficult for authorities to apprehend the suspect, he says.
“They run the gamut of intelligence,” adds Experts. “The bright, adaptive ones are the ones that are most difficult to capture.”
He is quick to point out that while many serial killers are mentally disturbed, few suffer from insanity. “The reality is they are not crazy, they are not insane in the terms of being legally insane,” says Experts. “They understand very well that what they are doing is wrong, but they do it anyway and they try very hard to get away with it.”
Why Are They So Difficult to Spot * Getting Away with Murder
We think we can spot lunacy, that a maniac with uncontrollable urges to kill will be unable to contain himself. On the bus, in the street, it is the mentally ill we avoid, sidestepping the disheveled, unshaven man who rants on over some private outrage. Yet if you intend to avoid the path of a serial killer, your best strategy is to sidestep the charming, the impeccably dressed, polite individual. They blend in, camouflaged in contemporary anonymity. They lurk in churches, malls, and prowl the freeways and streets. “Dress him in a suit and he looks like ten other men,” said one attorney in describing Dahmer. Like all evolved predators, they know how to stalk their victims by gaining their trust. Serial killers don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves. Instead, they hide behind a carefully constructed facade of normalcy.
Mask of Sanity
Because of their psychopathic nature, serial killers do not know how to feel sympathy for others, or even how to have a relationship. Instead, they learn to simulate it by observing others. It is all a manipulative act, designed to entice people into their trap. Serial killers are actors with a natural penchant for performance. Henry Lee Lucas described being a serial killer as “being like a movie-star … you’re just playing the part.” The macabre Gacy loved to dress up as a clown, while the Zodiac suited up in a bizarre executioner’s costume that looked like something out of “Alice in Wonderland.” In court, Bundy told the judge “I’m disguised as an attorney today.” Bundy had previously “disguised” himself as a compassionate rape crisis center counselor.
The most coveted role of roaming psychopaths is a position of authority. Gacy was an active, outgoing figure in business and society, became a member of the Jaycees. Many joined the military, including Berkowitz who was intensely patriotic for a time. Playing police officer, however, is the most predictable. Carrying badges and driving coplike vehicles not only feeds their need to feel important, it allows them access to victims who would otherwise trust their instincts and not talk to strangers.
Yet, when they are caught, the serial killer will suddenly assume a “mask of insanity” * pretending to be a multiple personality, schizophrenic, or prone to black-outs * anything to evade responsibility. Even when they pretend to truly reveal themselves, they are still locked into playing a role. What nameless dread lies behind the psychopath’s mask?
“What’s one less person on the face of the earth anyway?” Ted Bundy’s chilling rationalization demonstrates the how serial killers truly think. “Bundy could never understand why people couldn’t accept the fact that he killed because he wanted to kill,” said one FBI investigator.