“I don’t march to the same
drummer you do.” –
Convicted killer Douglas Clark a.k.a. The Sunset Strip
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
Is serial murder a
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
A combination of aberrant psychology, childhood abuse, and
peer rejection leading to the development of fantasies that involve death and
sex and then manifest in fire-starting and animal cruelty can hardly fail to
produce someone who, given the opportunity, will kill and kill again.