A Peek In The Mind Of A Serial Killer

“I was born with the devil in me. I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to write.”

— H. H. Holmes (words of one of the oldest and most infamous serial killers)

As an avid viewer of serial killer documentaries, movies, and shows, it has always been very fascinating to think about how their mind works. The question that the author always sought answers for is how do they justify their gruesome acts to themselves and the world, also what motivates them to commit such heinous crimes.

Defining a serial killer

Criminologists and Psychologists generally classify multiple homicides into three categories that are mass, spree, and serial. A serial killer is characteristically the one who manslaughters three or more people, typically in the facility of abnormal psychological gratification. The murders take place over one month and comprise a substantial gap between the successive killings. Various authorities set various standards for the minimum amount of killings to three and some at four.[1]The time between the killings is known as the cooling-off period. Serial killings are demarcated by three main fundamentals i.e. motivation, time, and number. The average number lies from 2 to 10 and the modal number comes out 3. The time differentiates them from mass and spree murderers. General motivation of serial killers remains financial, political, sexual, or military gain which separates them from the hitmen, terrorists, and army combats.

History

The early recordings of serial killers were written as fantasy folklores like vampires, werewolves, leopard men, manhunters, etc. Then came the ancient writings which said that various kings like Lieu Pengi, Joan of arc who killed people for their greed and gratification as serial killers. There are also records of various cults like the “Thuggee Cult” which did serial killing as a ritual.

Jack the Ripper was an unidentified killer who has been named as the first modern serial killer. He killed at least five women or more in London in1888. H.H Holmes who was responsible for at least 9 victims in the early 1890s was the first documented modern serial murderers in the United States of America. In India, there are 20 documented serial killers since 1947.

Categories of serial killers

Hedonistic- Driven by Lust/Sexual Pleasure, rush or gain (financial)

Eg:- Jeffrey Dahmer (1978-1991) – He killed 17 men and raped and dismembered them, also performed necrophilia(performing sexual acts on a dead body) and cannibalism(eating human beings).

Power/Control-Driven by Satisfaction of having complete control, sex, and to gain power by dominating victims. They are very smart and are adored by the people around them.

Eg:-Ted Bundy-He stalked, kidnapped, raped, and killed 35 young women from the ages 15 to 25.

Mission oriented-Driven by revenge, targeting a specific group/agenda. They have the mentality that these kind of people don’t need to be in the world. They are not psychotic.

Eg:-Joseph Paul Franklin who killed 12 young black males who had white girlfriends.

Visionary-They Suffer from some sort of psychosis, Delusions, Hallucinations, and Feel compelled or commanded to kill. The most common reason is the belief in the thought of God or demons. Here Victims are not especially targeted.

Eg:-David Berkowitz (Son of Sam) – his first killing was a  “demon that possessed his neighbour dog”. He confessed to eight murders  and was suspected of many arsons

Thrill SeekersThese are the killers who find delight and pleasure in outwitting the law. They love testing and blackmailing the police. They treat the killings as a game and a way to get everyone’s attention while doing the murders. They send messages to the police which contain hints so that they can catch him and they also keep a detailed journal of their killings, like an itinerary. They are perfectionists and narcissistic. These types of killers are named by the police as “Son of Sam” to keep them to profit from the marketing to their stories for a biography, series, or book. E.g.:- The Zodiac Killer – his whereabouts are still unknown.[2]

Characteristics on which serial killers decide their victims

Desirability– It includes the attractiveness or appeal of the victim to the killer. The factors of desirability depend on the offender. It may include various criteria like sex, race, ethnicity, age, body type, etc.

Vulnerability– It refers to the magnitude to which the victim is prone to or at risk of the attack by the killer. E.g.- the victim walking alone in the night is more vulnerable than walking with some friends

Availability– It is determined based on the circumstances and the day to day life of the victim which makes them more easily available for the offender. E.g. – if the victims’ lifestyle includes constant intoxication they will be seen as more available by the killer.[3]

The prime motivation of serial killers

Anger– It is generally a feeling of disdain towards a definite group of people which maybe because they are oppressed by them from a young age or they have developed hate towards them because of their gender, race, ethnicity, etc.

Criminal connections– The killer gets consideration in return for the offence because they are a criminal who is a part of a gang or a cult.

Monetary gain– Offenders can gain financially, not by being a part of a group but by the crimes that are comfort killings, homicide during a robbery, or for an insurance or a fund.

Ideology or philosophy– They commit murder to propagate their or their groups’ goals, beliefs, and ideas. E.g.:- Alkayda – a terrorist group

Thrill or power– They get an adrenaline rush or a feeling of empowerment when they commit murders. Many killers’ brain scan reports suggest that when they are done killing the same hormone dopamine is released which is released when you see someone you love.

Psychosis– Here the offender suffers from a severe mental illness like hallucinations, schizophrenia, multiple personality disorder, paranoia, delusions, etc.

Sexually driven killings– It is propelled by the sexual needs and desires of the offender. In some cases, they also like to dominate the other person to fulfil their sexual fantasies

Categories of the serial killings

There are mainly two types of serial killings – organized and disorganized. Disorganized means that there was no pre-planning to the killings and it was more because of the sudden eruptions of violence, anger, or the need for a thrill. These murderers generally involve in further activities after killing like dismembering the body, abuse, and the acts of necrophilia. The killings are more ‘Process focused’. The other type of killing is organized in which there is elaborate planning of the killings. They are perfectionists and generally are a part of the normal world who just kill and don’t want anyone to know. These killings are more ‘Act Focused’.

Common personality characteristics of a serial killer

There are various characteristics which are common in most of the serial killers. Most of the killers have had a troubled childhood and as it is said that the brain is moulded the most when someone is a child. Many families they have been brought up with have an environment that is filled with people having psychological and behavioural problems like alcoholism, drug abuse, and temper issues. The killers have had a problematic emotional relationship with their families because they get neglected or had a traumatic childhood because of their broken families. Serial killers always set a definite goal and make themselves understand that only attaining them will give them peace and fulfilment. Many kinds of research have proved that every serial killer possesses some kind of sexual undertones which acts as an instigator for their killings.

Free will is a very evident characteristic of a serial killer. They never act under pressure and always do the killings by their own will. They use fantasy as a coping mechanism and incorporate this in their daily lives as if it is an addiction and always act on this. Serial killers gradually see a downfall in their social and personal relations with people and go down the hill of addiction to cope with it which makes their killings more aggressive. Serial killers ordinarily seem to manifest to have a narcissistic personality and be the core of antisocial personality disorder. They have a belief that people can’t understand them and they are always wrong. They are very impulsive and the need more adrenaline rush than a normal person to feel normal.

They have a sadistic nature and feel pleasure when someone is in pain. They don’t feel guilty for their acts at all. [4]They mostly act psychologically without having an external motive. They seem to have a great ability to conceal. Serial killers never truly bond with anyone because they think relationships are vain but some show this behaviour just for a certain group of people. E.g. in the series ‘Paatal Lok’ one of the main protagonists Vishal Tyagi who was a serial killer showed sympathy with people who love dogs. Many serial killers kill because they have an underlying issue of insecurity and instability.

They are very manipulative and normally seem to charm a lot of people. Serial killers don’t stop killing until they are caught because they feel it is the only thing that can keep them safe and alive. Most of them possess certain negative personality traits like a preference for autoerotic activity, aggression, chronic lying, rebelliousness and fetish behaviour, inability to distinguish fantasy from reality are some negative personality traits which develop in serial killers resulting in their increased isolation. [5]

Demographic

The statistics collected by various sources show that the majority of the crimes committed worldwide are by men. In terms of serial killing, the percentage of men is much higher than that of females. The ratio of male to female committing single murders is 9:1 and that of serial murders is 19:1. Though the female killers are rare they do exist and some of them have committed gruesome crimes. Female killers generally work in pairs. Ordinarily, females are more prone to be a victim of a serial killer than a male. The first kill of a serial killer is generally of a person they know which is in counter to the stats of a single homicide. The victims of a serial killer are mostly strangers because they have a fear of getting caught so they don’t attack people close to them whereas in single murders the victim is generally someone the offender personally knows. Killings of a serial killer is not territorial most of the times but some confine to a single place where they feel is safe to carry out their killings.[6]

Female and juvenile Serial Killers

Female serial killers are exceptional in comparison to males. To describe female killers they have been categorized into various classifications like the black widow, an angel of death, sexual predator, revenge, profit, team killer, the question of sanity, unexplained and unsolved, etc. Most of the women fall into the category of the black widow or team killer. Motivations for them may include seeking attention, addiction, or psychopathological behavioural factors, the common motivation remains generally killing men for some material gain usually being close to the victims and have an emotional attachment to them. Women serial killers don’t have a fantasy to kill nor do they usually seek thrill in the killing, they kill for a purpose and a goal to achieve.

The most common killings by females have been motivated by disdain or hatred towards men, children, or any other particular type of person. The majority of the killings also have a financial motive behind them. One female killer named Alieen Wurnose killed 6 men while hitchhiking as a prostitute, she claims each of them raped her but the main motivation was just pure hatred towards men. The movie ‘Saat Khoon Maaf’ was vaguely inspired by the serial killer Nannie Doss who killed her previous four husbands.

A study shows 65.4 per cent of male serial killers stalked their victims, compared to 3.6 per cent of female serial killers.[7] Female serial killers don’t leave the body behind and they are less sadistic than the men. They are silent killers and have fairly long killing sprees and that’s why they are harder to catch. They do not torture their victims but are motivated by the control they can have over them.

Juvenile serial killers are very rare. They dint have a long killing spree when they are just in the juvenile stage but most of the serial killers tend to have had their first murder at a young age They are divided into three main categories primary, secondary, and maturing killers. The youngest serial killer to date is an Indian boy Amardeep Sada who started killing at the age of 7 and was arrested at 8. He killed 3 babies in one year and his parents covered up his two first murders. As the juveniles can only be arrested and detained for three years in a juvenile home, he is now released and lives with an unknown name.

Conclusion

Dennis Rader, known as the BTK Killer –“When this monster entered my brain, I will never know, but it is here to stay. How does one cure himself? I can’t stop it, the monster goes on, and hurts me as well as society. Maybe you can stop him. I cant.”[8]

Serial killers have always been an interesting study for criminologists and psychologists. People develop mental disorders if they have seen or done even the slightest of these heinous crimes, but on the other hand, there are these serial killers who have such a strong mind and will to do the same again and again. This is what interests and terrify people. There was a weepy voiced killer who after every killing used to call the police and confessed to the killings crying and begged them to arrest him but would never surrender nor did he wanted to get caught.

This shows that these killers know they are wrong but their desire to kill is so overpowering that they can’t help it. In the last decade, serial killer cases have declined due to more efficient investigation by the officials and advancement of technology. It is also a question of interest that whether serial killers are born or made. Many Psychological researchers have claimed that nobody is born a criminal but their upbringing and the surroundings, therefore, shape them to be one. Only the killers who are suffering from a mental illness can be said as a born killer and that too only if their illness is not stimulated or originated from an external happening.

Serial murders are a bit like natural disasters: in the scheme of things they are quite rare, but when they happen they demand our attention. They interest us for several reasons, but especially because they are so dramatically threatening, and they profoundly challenge our sense of our everyday safety. [Todd R. Clear, Foreword]”[9]People are fascinated by murder and murderers, and feasibly the morbid curiosity works from an inborn drive to pay attention to a phenomenon that can ultimately harm us makes us so interested to understand the mind of a serial killer.


[1]  The social psychology of crime: groups, teams, and networks y David V CanterLaurence J AlisonOffender profiling series, v. 3.

[2] What are the Different Types of Serial Killers?-Psychology of psychopaths 4a-0- https://sites.google.com/site/psychologyofpsychopaths4a/what-is-the-profile-of-a-serial-killer-1/what-are-the-different-types-of-serial-killers

[3] Understanding What Drives Serial Killers by Scott A. Bonn PhD Wicked Deedshttps://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/wicked-deeds/201909/understanding-what-drives-serial-killers

[4] Psychology of a serial killer- http://web.lemoyne.edu/~Freemams/index_files/psych_serial.htm

[5] Jack Rosewood, ‘The Big Book of Serial Killers: 150 Serial Killer Files of the World’s Worst Murderers’- https://www.insider.com/common-traits-of-serial-killers-2018-5

[6] Beasley, J. O. (2004). Serial murder in America: Case studies of seven offenders. Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 22, 395—U4.- http://psychology.iresearchnet.com/forensic-psychology/criminal-behavior/serial-killers/

[7] Psychology may help explain why male and female serial killers differ by PENN STATE- 20-MAR-2019- https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2019-03/ps-pmh032019.php

[8] 21 Serial Killer Quotes That Will Chill You To The Bone By All That’s Interesting-https://allthatsinteresting.com/serial-killer-quotes#1

[9] Serial Killers Quotes- https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/serial-killers

Anushka Singh from Sharda University, Delhi

Anushka aspires to excel in the legal field and actively work towards contributing to the society as a humanitarian. She is a very optimistic person who dreams to achieve great heights while staying grounded

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