Serial Killers have long fascinated the general public, not only because their crimes are so heinous, but also because they embody the extremes to which psychological disorders can take a person. In the name of psychological insight, the lives of serial killers are dissected down to the most minute detail in the hopes of understanding what factors contribute to making a 'monster'. The Crime Classification Manual defines serial murder as "three or more separate events in three or more separate locations with an emotional cooling off period in between the homicides." (Douglas et al., 1992). What motivates the serial killer is an area of much research. Whether we are any further ahead in our understanding of the psychotic personality is debatable, however. The question of environment vs. genetics is a matter of contention in the study of serial killers, as is the question of power vs. pleasure motive. By looking at such serial killers as John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, David Berkowitz and Jeffrey Dahmer, we hope to gain a clearer understanding of the many influences in developing the antisocial, or psychotic personality. "Antisocial personalities feel little and fear little, and in extreme cases, the results can be horrifyingly tragic." (Myers, 2001,p562).
One of the main considerations that goes into the study of antisocial (or psychotic) personalities, is the question of causality. Is someone born to be a serial killer, or does the extreme (often abusive) environment of childhood shape them into what they will later become? Like most nature vs. nurture dichotomies, the answer appears to lie somewhere in between. While it is true that most serial killers suffered through an abusive childhood, there is evidence of a biological influence as well. Studies done with adopted siblings and twins show a genetic component in the prevalence of criminal behavior. (Myers, 2001). Furthermore, brain patterns differ between violent offenders and the normal brain, indicating some contribution of biology to the violent crimes carried out by serial killers.
Genetic influences help wire the brain. Adrian Raine compared PET scans of 41 murderers' brains with those from people of similar age and sex. Raine found reduced activity in the murderers' frontal lobe, which helps control impulses. This was especially true for those who murdered impulsively." (Myers, 2001,p563).
Biology, however, is not the only contributing factor to a psychopathic personality. The majority of serial killers also had very abusive, violent childhoods. It is speculated that the presence of sexual abuse in the killer's past shows up in the sexual nature of many serial crimes. Although there are examples from a variety of serial killers, some characteristics are typical of this kind of criminal. Most serial murderers are "white, heterosexual males in their twenties and thirties who are sexually dysfunctional and have low self-esteem. Their methodical rampages are almost always sexual in nature." ("Serial killer hit list"). There are other traits as well that psychologists use to characterize serial murders. One such dichotomy is the degree of order or disorder in a crime scene. This indicates "the degree of personality aberration." (Connor, 2004).
Disorganized" serial killers are usually socially dysfunctional and of below average intelligence. This category of serial killer returns to the crime scene to relive memories of the murder. The murder itself is usually a surprise attack and the killer usually leaves the body where the crime is committed, often leaving physical evidence behind. (Connor, 2004).
By contrast, the organized serial killer has an above-average intelligence and lures his victims to their death by seduction. There is usually a history of extreme physical abuse in these cases, and the killer outwardly seems to lead a "normal" social life. With the organized type of serial killer, the body is often dismembered and disposed of at a site other that the original murder scene. These killers leave little physical evidence behind. (Connor, 2004).
Both disorganized and organized serial killers often take souvenirs from their victims as "trophies." These are often body parts but may be pieces of clothing or jewelry. In several cases, it has been the existence of these trophies that has led to the eventual arrest of the killer.
What makes serial killers particularly difficult to apprehend is the apparent lack of motive. For other murders, police begin their investigations by looking at known associates of the murder victim. Serial killers often have no readily apparent motive, at least, not one that would make sense to most people. This is one of the reasons serial killers may go undetected for lengthy periods. Their crimes are simply not attributed to one individual. With the advances in technology, particularly in the area of criminal databases, connecting serial crimes is becoming more feasible. Serial killers have a tendency to carry out their crimes in the same manner, with similar victim characteristics, and similar murder methods. Even the collection of trophies is often same from crime to crime. By searching crime databases using known information from the murder scene, investigators are often able to link different murder cases back to one killer.
Much of the investigation of the psychopathology of the serial killer revolves around defining motive for the crime. Although we can speculate about various contributing factors, in interviews after the fact, the antisocial murderer will often lie about motivating factors, confounding researchers looking for insight into the killer mind.
Douglas and Olshaker (1999) identify four motives for serial murder; sexual lust, control, domination and manipulation. Of these, the sexual lust-motivated serial killer is the most common.
The serial killer who seeks sexual pleasure may be of several different types. "Lust murders can be disorganized or organized, and the sexual orientation can be either heterosexual or homosexual. The primary difference is that an organized lust killer can usually escape police detection." (Connor, 2004). Ted Bundy fits the profile of an organized lust killer, who seemed quite personable, and was able to seduce at least twenty-two women to their deaths. A variety of deviant practices often accompany the lust murder. These may include pedophilia, bestiality, pyromania, necrophilia, torture and cannibalism, although the latter three are usually found in the disorganized serial killer. (Connor, 2004).
There are a variety of factors that contribute to the psychopathic personality. Any attempt to distill this extreme personality disorder down to one or two variables, such as childhood abuse or sexual dysfunction, is bound to be an oversimplification. Vaknin points out that,
The choice of weapons, the identity and range of the victims, the methodology of murder, the disposal of the bodies, the geography, the sexual perversions and paraphilias -- are all informed and inspired by the slayer's environment, upbringing, community, socialization, education, peer group, sexual orientation, religious convictions, and personal narrative. (Vaknin, 2004).
Part of the psychopathology of the serial killer is the extreme narcissistic personality. This trait was seen in several famous serial murderers.
Ted Bundy was responsible for raping and killing over twenty young women in the mid to late-70s. Bundy fulfilled many of the characteristics of the organized lust killer. He went undetected for years, and outwardly appeared to be a normal, even charming, individual. Like many serial killers, Bundy's victims shared certain physical similarities. He often lured them into his confidence by wearing an arm sling and appearing to need assistance. Although Bundy was apprehended in 1975 for a Utah murder, he managed to escape from custody and relocated to Florida where he continued his killing. By all accounts, Bundy had an above-average intelligence. He graduated with a psychology degree and defended himself against the murder charges for which he was eventually executed in 1989. ("Serial killer hit list").
John Wayne Gacy also fit the description of organized serial killer. Gacy is responsible for murdering over thirty young boys, often gaining their trust by dressing as a clown. "The prototypical organized killer, he had all aspects of the murder worked out before each kill. Once he entered his murderous fantasy, there was no turning back." ("Serial killer hit list").
Organized serial killers are more likely to murder for pleasure, as opposed to disorganized serial killers, who tend to murder out of a desire for power.
A variety of deviant sexual practices often accompany the murder. In the case of Bundy and Gacy it was rape, and homosexual pedophilia as well for Gacy. Victims of serial killers are often dismembered, sometimes for the sake of collecting a memento of the crime. "Serial killers often mutilate their victims and abscond with trophies - usually, body parts. Some of them have been known to eat the organs they have ripped - an act of merging with the dead and assimilating them through digestion." (Vaknin, 2004).
This cannibalism, or "merging" with their victims is typical of several famous serial killers. One such killer was Jeffrey Dahmer, who is responsible for having murdered at least seventeen men in a string of homosexual serial killings.
Dahmer, like other serial killers, could be classified as a psychotic, antisocial personality. In addition to cannibalism, Dahmer's psychopathology included necrophilia. Dahmer lured his victims to his…