The Psychology of a Serial Killer
Can we identify the markers that show a potential serial killer?
I am fascinated by serial killers. Not in the write them letters and ask them to marry me way, but in their psychology.
From an early age, I have loved psychology, from Watson and his rats to Zimbardo and his prison. More specifically I am fascinated with criminal psychology. What makes a murderer, murder and what makes serial killers keep murdering?
Psychology is a huge subject, it also changes regularly. There are however some factors that are common to the majority of serial killers. Many of these characteristics are found within serial killers.
What Defines a Serial Killer
It is important when we start this process that we identify what is a serial killer compared to a spree killer. The FBI has laid out some clear markers for this.
A minimum of 3–4 victims
A cooling-off between kills. — This is the important characteristic that separates serial killers from killers such as Devin Patrick Kelley.
The victims are usually strangers to the murderer, which leads the murders to appear random and unconnected. They normally have a type of victim they go for, Jack the Ripper preferred prostitutes, Harold Shipman elderly women. The victims in these cases are symbolic, Kemper was said to murder women who reminded him of his mother. Once this symbolism is understood, capture is easier.
Serial Killers are sadistic and controlling in nature
They rarely kill for profit, instead, they are motivated by psychological needs.
They normally choose vulnerable victims such as women on their own, prostitutes and children.
The typical statistics for a serial killer is a white male, between 20–30 from a lower to a middle-class background.
Six Stages of a Serial Killers Cycle.
There have been six clear steps identified as part of a serial killers cycle.
Aura phase — The person begins to lose their grip on reality.
Trolling phase — Having lost their grip on reality, they start searching for a victim
Wooing phase — they lure the victim to them, using their charm and acting skills
Capture phase — the victim is caught
Murder phase — the serial killer is on a high as they have fulfilled their potential
Depression phase — They are depressed and low because the event is over, this depression leads to them starting the cycle again.
Classic Serial Killer Characteristics
Through extensive interviews with many serial killers, behavioural analysis has provided us with some common characteristics associated with them. Edmund Kemper was one serial killer who participated in many interviews.
Many serial killers come from unstable childhoods. They have a sense of abandonment and can even be said to have attachment disorder. The lack of discipline, love and boundaries could explain why in later life, they push legal boundaries. They are normally rational and calculating, which aids them from escaping capture for as long as they do.
Some show deviant behaviour such as being addictive to pornography. Some will have been involved with the police in their teenage years, due to petty crime. They may even have served shorter sentences before going on to murder. This was especially true with Fred West and Ian Brady, both had been known to the police as teenagers. The crimes they commit are normally arson, petty crime or cruelty to animals.
They have a fascination with police and authority and put themselves in the path of cases, so they can observe the police. It is common for a killer to return to the scene of their crime or even ‘help police’ with their enquiries. Ian Huntley is a prime example of this. When the two children he murdered were being searched for, he gave many interviews to the press.
A small percentage will say that they have heard voices which commanded them to kill. In severe cases serial killers will state that the victims deserved to die, this was especially true with John Wayne Gacy.
Serial Killers Have the Ability to Wear a Mask
Many killers when brought to justice seem like everyday people. They hide their depravity behind a mask. They can wear clothes that help them fit in and stay below the radar of others and the police. They can seem to be quiet people who keep themselves separate, but they are rarely suspected. Their true personality is hidden behind the façade they portray. Both Sutcliffe and Shipman were so good at wearing this mask, their wives claimed not to have suspected them of any wrongdoing.
Serial killers are psychopathic in nature. They show no empathy for others, because of this they are poor at keeping relationships. Even though they learn to simulate normal behaviour. They are actors with a natural ability to perform and seduce. It would be wrong though to state anyone who passed the psychopath test will kill. Many successful businessman and women score high, yet never get the urge to kill.
Henry Lee Lucas described being a serial killer as being like a movie star.
Many serial killers when interviewed talk about the urge to kill.
It was an urge…a strong urge, and the longer I let it go the stronger it got, to where I was taking risks to go out and kill people — risks that normally, according to my little rules of operation, I wouldn’t take because they could lead to arrest.’ — Edmund Kemper
The urge is a powerful and lethal part of a serial killers mind. This is clear when we look at Brady, the more he thought and imagined the perfect murder the more hungry to kill he became. As time continued, he needs to kill became urgent. His situation and feelings were then escalated when he met a willing accomplice in Hindley. Many people argue that he may not have killed if the two hadn’t met. I question whether Hindley would have killed, I believe the urge was too strong in Brady. He was always going to kill, it was a matter of time.
In addition to this urge, many serial killers have a lack of moral and social code that is inherent in society. Not everyone kills, the moral latch that is missing from serial killers is the one that stops them. For example, when we argue with our partners many of us have the latch that stops us from hitting them, these people don’t.
I wished I could stop but I could not. I had no other thrill of happiness. — Denis Nilsen
Many serial killers are caught due to an error they make. Their arrogance at being important and untouchable leads, them to make silly mistakes. Shipman altered doctors records for his patients, not realising computers were time-stamped. Sutcliffe was discovered driving a car with false number plates.
When caught many serial killers will try to use the mask of insanity, to avoid taking responsibility for their crimes. Allittwas determined to prove herself insane and escaped being punished in a prison, due to her acting skills. Both Kemper and Brady have had stays in mental hospitals during their incarcerations. When this mask is removed, the true persona of a serial killer is revealed.
Ted Bundy could never understand why people did not accept that he just needed to kill. He killed because he wanted to and why should he stop.
What’s one less person on the face of the earth anyway? — Ted Bundy
After capture, some serial killers try to take their own life. It is not being caught that causes this, it is because they are stuck in the depression stage of the cycle, not being able to kill again. The ritualistic fantasy is lost. Their victims no longer represent what the killer thought they did. They realise that murder has not erased their past and they can not change the event that resulted in the killing. They then develop a loathing for themselves, which is multiplied from before they started killing.
Many people go through horrific life events who do not murder others. These events do not make a serial killer, but a combination of them can make a person more likely to become a killer. It is also fair to conclude that some serial killers have none of these psychological traits, yet still kill. They are characterised as being evil and no other explanation is given.
A mind can be evil without abnormality. — Denis Nilsen
Whether the environment plays a part in these evil thoughts, remains to be researched. Serial killers are on an increased and it is concerning that we are entering a serial killer epidemic. Research has been conducted on specific biological and genetic markers to identify killers, which can be identified as early as five years old. To learn more, professionals need to keep interviewing and compiling data from these individuals. Individuals that kill in discriminatory to satisfy an urge and thrill. Once we get a clearer picture, maybe we could eliminate the urge to kill before the murder.
There could be as many as 4000 unidentified serial killers in the US alone as of 2019 — Author and former police detective Michael Arntfield.