“I don’t march to the same drummer you do.” –
Convicted killer Douglas Clark a.k.a. The Sunset Strip Slayer
What makes a serial killer? Is there something unique in their genetic make-up, their physiology, thought patterns, or upbringing? Do they lack morality or social programming? Are they unable to control their rage and sexual urges? Are they mad or bad? What sets them apart?
These questions have vexed criminologists, profilers, psychologists, and forensic psychiatrists for decades. They’ve been the subject of countless studies and dissertations. They’ve formed the basis of thousands of man-hours worth of interviews and investigation. And yet, definitive answers remain elusive.
Serial killers themselves have offered some suggestions. Henry Lee Lucas blamed his upbringing; Jeffrey Dahmer said that he was born with a part of him missing; Ted Bundy blamed pornography; Herbert Mullin, said it was voices in his head ordering him to kill; Kenneth Bianchi blamed an alter-ego, while Bobby Joe Long said a motorcycle accident turned him into a serial sex killer. Some, like John Wayne Gacy, even had the temerity to blame their victims.
As for the rest of us, we console ourselves that they must be insane. After all, what sane person could slaughter another for pleasure? What normal person could perpetuate the atrocities that serial killers do, and repeat them again and again?
Yet the most terrifying thing about serial killers is that they are not shambling, jabbering ogres, but rational and calculating, impossible to tell from the general populace until it’s too late.
So what exactly is a serial killer?
The National Institutes of Justice define serial murder as;
“A series of two or more murders committed as separate events, usually, but not always, by one offender acting alone. The crimes may occur over a period of time, ranging from hours to years. Quite often the motive is psychological, and the offender’s behavior and the physical evidence observed at the crime scene will reflect sadistic sexual overtones.”
And the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit provides us with some traits common in serial killers.
§ They are typically white males in their twenties and thirties.
§ They are usually quite smart, with an IQ designated, “bright normal.”
§ Despite their intelligence, they are underachievers, often doing poorly at school, and ending up in unskilled employment.
§ They often come from broken homes with an absent father and domineering mother. Some are adopted. Often, there is a history of psychiatric problems, criminality, and substance abuse in their families.
§ Many were physically, psychological, and/or sexually abused in childhood. Some have suffered head trauma due to abuse or accident.
§ In adolescence, many of them wet the bed, started fires, and tortured animals.
§ They have problems with male authority figures and strong hostility towards women.
§ They manifest psychological problems at an early age. Many have spent time in institutions as children.
§ They have a general hatred towards humanity, including themselves. Some report suicidal thoughts as teenagers.
§ They display an interest in sex at an unnaturally young age. As they mature this interest becomes obsessive and turns towards fetishism, voyeurism, and violent pornography.
A Façade of Normality
The traits listed above might incline you to believe that you’d be able to spot a serial killer a mile off, but the frightening truth is that they are masters at camouflage, deceit, and deception. They know exactly how to blend in, how to avert your suspicions, how to put you at ease. They are the charming stranger who strikes up a conversation with you on the bus, the lost driver who courteously asks for directions, the man hobbling on a cane who politely asks for your help.
Like all skilled predators, they can sniff out the slightest hint of an opportunity, they know who to target and how to stalk. Being psychologically vacant they are adept at assuming whatever role they need, and that role will be the one required to snare their victim. To quote serial killer, Henry Lee Lucas, “it’s like being a movie star... you're just playing the part.”
Is serial murder a recent phenomenon?
Since we’re trying to understand what makes a serial killer, this is a valid question, and the answer depends who you’re listening to, because there are two distinct schools of thought. One believes that societal influences since just before the turn of the 20th century (and especially since WWII) have created the perfect conditions for the emergence of serial killers. They point to serial killers as a symptom of crowded rat syndrome, a product of class struggle and a manifestation of our attitudes towards sex.
The only problem with this argument is that it suggests that serial killers are purely a product of their environment. I consider that unlikely and am more inclined towards the second hypothesis, which holds that serial killers have always lived among us.
Adherents to this belief point to acts of human barbarism throughout history, from the terrible legends that appear in folklore, to the crimes of Gilles de Rais and Elizabeth Bathory, to the vicious outlaws and desperados of the Old West. They regard tales of werewolves, vampires, and man-eating trolls, as attempts by our less sophisticated ancestors to make sense of the hideous crimes committed by historical serial killers. A number of these legendary monsters, like the German “werewolf” Peter Stubbe and his French counterpart, Gilles Garnier, were in fact captured and put to death. They proved to be, not lycanthropes, but all too human monsters, serial killers, in fact.
What makes a serial killer?
No single cause will ever provide an answer as to why serial killers are driven to commit murder again and again. Rather a combination of factors, physiological, psychological, and environmental, must be in play. Nonetheless, we can look at the known commonalities in captured serial killers and draw some conclusions. Is this a comprehensive list? Hardly. We simply don’t have the knowledge to solve the enigma of the serial killer.
All serial killers, except perhaps for the small minority that are genuinely psychotic, are psychopaths. They would not be able to commit their horrendous crimes otherwise. Psychopaths are characterized by their irrationally antisocial behavior, their lack of conscience, their emotional emptiness, and their appetite for risk, all of which could easily be applied to serial killers.
Lacking in empathy, they have no problem in turning their victims into objects, there to be exploited and manipulated. Being devoid of emotions (in the way that you and I would understand them) they are like a blank screen, onto which can be projected whatever suits their needs in the moment. This is what makes them so good at play acting and manipulation.
Being compulsive thrill seekers, they are literally fearless, sometimes abducting victims in broad daylight, or with clear risk of discovery. This thrill seeking behavior also means that they are less easily stimulated than normal people. They require higher levels of excitement to get their rocks off, even if it means murder and mayhem.
Does this mean that all psychopaths become serial killers? Absolutely not. Most psychopaths aren’t even criminals. In fact, many excel in fields like business and political leadership. Not all psychopaths are serial killers, but all serial killers, most certainly, are psychopaths.
A second factor that must be present in all serial killers is sexual deviance. Serial murders are by their nature, sex crimes. A sexual motive is a requisite in both the Institutes of Justice and FBI definitions and an examination of any serial murder (even those that appear to have a different motive) will undoubtedly prove that the killer achieved some form of sexual release in the commission of the crime.
According to Ressler, Burgess, and Douglas in Sexual Homicide: Patterns and Motives, there are two types of sexual homicide: “the rape or displaced anger murder” and the “sadistic, or lust murder.”
For some murderers, the rape is the primary objective for the crime, the murder committed to cover it up. For others, the act of murder and the ritual acts associated with it, provide the sexual release. The annals of serial murder abound with such cases, Bundy, Kearney, Kemper, Nilsen and others were necrophiles; Rader, Kraft, Berdella et al. achieved sexual release through torture; others like Kroll and Fish, through cannibalism. Still others are aroused by stabbing or by the “intimate” act of strangulation.
And with serial killers this deviance usually manifests in childhood. Fledgling serial killers are often flashers, peeping toms, molesters of younger children, chronic masturbators, even, as in the case of Harvey Glatman, juvenile sadomasochists. And even if they’re not committing sex crimes at a young age, they’re thinking about them.
Other Common Factors
But even a psychopath with unusual sexual appetites won’t necessarily become a serial killer. He might find a partner (or more likely, partners) to cater for his tastes, or he might visit prostitutes who will do the same for a price. He may turn his talents towards becoming a ‘love ‘em and leave ‘em’ pick-up artist.
No, something else needs to happen to push our young psychopath over the threshold. An additional X-factor, or factors, needs to be in place. Thanks to the work done by the FBI in interviews with captured serial murderers, we know what some of those factors are.
The idea that someone might be inherently evil would have been scoffed at not too long ago. However, as we begin to understand more about the unique reality that murderers inhabit, it becomes clear that their warped view of the world takes root at an early age.
“Trash Bag Killer” Patrick Kearney said that he knew from age 8 that he would kill people; Ed Kemper had a crush on his second grade teacher, but told a friend, “if I kiss her I would have to kill her first”; Ted Bundy was leaving butcher’s knives in his aunt’s bed at the age of just 3; John Joubert was slashing girls with a razor blade before he reached his teens; Harvey Glatman was practicing sadomasochism when he was only 4 years old.
Not every abused child becomes a serial killer, but a disproportionately high number of serial killers suffered abuse as children. “Boston Strangler,” Albert De Salvo’s father was a particularly brutal man who regularly beat his wife and children with metal pipes, brought prostitutes home and even sold his children into slavery. Joseph Kallinger's mother forced him to hold his hand over a flame, and beat him if he cried. Henry Lee Lucas’ mother beat him so hard she fractured his skull. She also forced the young boy to watch her having sex with men.
And yet, others serial killers grew up in seemingly normal homes - Jeffrey Dahmer, for example, or Joel Rifkin, or Patrick Kearney. Some, like “Pied Piper of Tucson,” Charles Schmid, were even pampered and indulged, their every desire catered to.
Many serial killers seem to come from a home with an absent or passive father figure, and a dominating mother. This was certainly the case with both Henry Lee Lucas and Ed Kemper, both of whom eventually murdered their mothers.
Joseph Kallinger’s mother was a sadist; Ed Gein’s a religious nut who constantly warned him of the dangers of sex. Bobby Joe Long’s mother made him sleep in her bed until he was thirteen. Ed Kemper’s mom locked him in the cellar because she said his large size frightened his sisters. Charles Manson’s mother reportedly traded him for a pitcher of beer. And at the other end of the scale was “Hillside Strangler” Kenneth Bianchi’s cloyingly overprotective mom.
Either way, dysfunctional mother/son relationships seem to be present in the upbringing of an alarmingly high number of serial killers.
Millions of children are adopted every year and grow up to live normal, productive lives. But there are an unusually high percentage of serial killers who were given up by their birth mothers for adoption. David Berkowitz, Charles Schmid, Joel Rifkin, Kenneth Bianchi, and Joseph Kallinger (to name a few) all fall into this category.
Finding out that one was adopted can be devastating for any child, creating a sense of disconnect, an uncertainty over one’s identity. And, in a child already suffering with other issues (such as some of those mentioned above), it can be particularly devastating, unleashing feelings of rejection and simmering anger.
Exposure To Violence
Some serial killers blame juvenile exposure to violence for their misdeeds. Ed Gein, for example, claimed that seeing farm animals slaughtered gave him perverted ideas, while both Albert Fish and Andrei Chikatilo blamed their brutal murders on frightening stories they were told as children. As a child, John George Haigh saw a man decapitated by a bomb during the London blitz in WWII. Richard Ramirez was only thirteen when his cousin committed a murder right in front of him (those who knew him at the time said he showed no emotion and continued to idolize his cousin).
Rejection by Peers
Many serial killers are outsiders and loners in childhood. The nerdy Joel Rifkin was picked on and bullied throughout his school years. Likewise, the diminutive and sickly Patrick Kearney. Henry Lee Lucas was ridiculed and ostracized because of his glass eye, Kenneth Bianchi because of his incontinence. Jeffrey Dahmer was deliberately antisocial as a kid, a teenaged alcoholic who laughed when he saw a classmate injured. Harvey Glatman preferred spending time alone in his room indulging in autoerotic strangulation.
Separated from their peers, these troubled youngsters begin to rely on fantasy to bridge the gap. Often these begin as “revenge fantasies” against those who have wronged them, like abusive parents or schoolyard bullies. The relief that these fantasies bring, leads to ever more violent daydreams, which may begin to manifest through two of the three “triad” behaviors, fire-starting and animal cruelty.
The role of fantasy in the metamorphosis of a killer has been extensively studied. All of us fantasize at some time, perhaps about asking a pretty girl out, or meeting our favorite celebrity or turning out for our favorite sports teams. The fantasies of a fledgling serial killer, though, are a deep and disturbing mix of murder, mutilation, and aberrant sex.
Serial killers will dwell on these fantasies (sometimes for years), deepening them and adding layers of detail. Eventually though, the fantasy will no longer be enough and they’ll feel compelled to act, the pressure building until it is impossible to resist.
How long before fantasy manifests in reality? Peter Kurten, Jesse Pomeroy, and Mary Bell committed multiple murders as children, Yosemite killer, Cary Stayner, said that he’d fantasized about killing a woman for 30 years before he eventually followed through.
Brain damage, especially to the hypothalamus, limbic region, and temporal lobe can cause severe behavioral changes, specifically as regards emotion, empathy, and aggression responses.
Many serial killers - Leonard Lake, David Berkowitz, Kenneth Bianchi, John Wayne Gacy, Carl Panzram, Henry Lee Lucas, Bobby Joe Long, among them - have suffered head injuries, either in accidents or in childhood beatings.
Others, Ted Bundy for example, have been subjected to extensive X-rays and brain scans, which revealed no evidence of brain damage or trauma. Neither does everyone who suffers head trauma become a killer. So while brain damage or dysfunction is undoubtedly a factor in the behavior of some serial killers, it is far from being a universal “kill switch.”
Psychopaths find it difficult to accept responsibility for their actions, so it is unsurprising that many serial killers blame society for their acts. The poster boy for this theory is Ted Bundy. Bundy has spoken at length about the influence of violent pornography on the killer that he became.
Is there any validity to his claims?
We do seem to be a society that glorifies violence, from live footage of bombs falling on Baghdad, to movies in which the hero is every bit as violent as the bad guy he’s trying to defeat. Porn, too, is easily available, both online and in movies and magazines. But neither of these provides a rationale for serial murder. If everyone who watched a Rambo movie or downloaded porn was to become a serial killer we’d have an epidemic on our hands.
At the beginning of the article, I asked, “What makes a serial killer?” The reasons may be more complex than we think, perhaps beyond our comprehension. A better question to ask may be, “Is anyone capable of serial murder?” And the answer to that is an emphatic “No!”
The creation of a serial killer requires a perfect (or more appropriately, an imperfect) storm, whereby some of the factors mention above, and perhaps some others that are not, are blended together into a toxic brew with psychopathy and sexual deviance.