Serial killers are criminals who commit three or more murders over a considerable period of time, for psychological and psychopathic gratification.
- Who Is A Serial Killer?
- What Is Serial Killing?
- Serial Killing Vs Mass Murder
- What Are The Traits Of A Serial Killer?
- Types Of Serial Killers
- How Does One Become A Serial Killer?
- Sane Vs. Insane Serial Killers
- Serial Killer Myths
- A History Of Serial Killing
- Serial Killers At A Glance
- Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Who Is A Serial Killer?
A serial killer is a type of multicide perpetrator who kills three or more people over a long period of time. A 2012 study 1 defines it as “a perpetrator who murders three or more people over a period of time” for abnormal psychological gratification.
Modern criminology explains that serial killers display amplified traits of psychopathy 2, exhibiting “shallow affect, lack of empathy, guilt and remorse, irresponsibility, and impulsivity”. In most cases, crime experts attribute this psychopathy to harrowing developmental experiences and mental deterioration.
Such experiences hark back to child abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence, poverty, social or romantic failures, etc. More often than not, serial killers act on motives 3 drawn from anger, thrill-seeking, attention-seeking, financial gain 3, fulfilling a delusional goal, etc.
But, even if the motives are well-pronounced, the serial killing can be both organized and unorganized. Nonetheless, all serial killers operate on one base reason, killing for the act of killing itself. As a result, they typically won’t stop until they have been killed or caught by law enforcement. In most cases, they follow a pattern 4 about their type of victims, killing methods, killing frequency, etc.
Most serial killers, during trial, have been medically evaluated and popularly speculated to be suffering from serious mental health conditions. However, even if serial killers are considered mentally unstable 5, they are not adjudicated as insane under the law. This is because serial killing or serial homicide is a premeditated, consciously perpetrated, voluntary act of violence directed to cause harm or loss of life.
Read More About Empathy Here
What Is Serial Killing?
According to a 2020 study 6, serial killing or serial homicide is an all-inclusive term for the “unlawful killing of two or more victims in separate events”. It is a form of multicide in which unconnected murders of strangers take place at regular or irregular intervals over a significant period of time.
The threshold number of murders 7 in a serial killing range from 3 to 5 but never less than two. Serial killing is often accompanied by other crimes such as rape, burglary, necrophilia, pedophilia, theft, spree killing, etc.
Serial Killing Vs Mass Murder
Serial killing is often confused with other types of multicide 6 like mass murder, spree-killing, or contract killing. However, despite the conceptual similarities, the acts are essentially different—distinguished by factors 8 like:
- Number of homicides
- Number of victims
- Killing methods
For instance, mass murder is four or more murders occurring at one event without any distinctive time lapse between them. On the other hand, spree-killing is any murder that occurs at two or more locations with no emotional cooling-off period in-between. In contrast, the sure signs of a serial killer comprise murdering three or more people, with cooling-off periods in-between, over a lengthy stretch of time.
What Are The Traits Of A Serial Killer?
The time-tested Macdonald triad 9, formulated in 1963 by the renowned psychiatrist J. M. Macdonald is used in modern times to predict or detect violent criminal tendencies, especially those associated with serial homicide. According to this triad of sociopathy, the telling signs of a ‘born’ serial killer 10 are already present in childhood. These involve:
- Arson, or setting fires
- Cruelty to animals
- Enuresis, or unintentional bed-wetting during sleep
However, the Macdonald triad has seen much flexibility and elaboration in recent years, thanks to rigorous in-field practices in criminology and forensic studies. Recent research 11 shows that the characteristics of a serial killer include:
- Exhibiting the signs of psychopathy
- Being egocentric
- Having grandiose and sadistic ideas of pleasure
- Being cruel, ruthless, and remorseless
- Having no or shallow emotions
- Lacking basic human values (like empathy)
- Lacking responsibility for their crimes
- Being superficially charming
- Being deceitful, and manipulative
- Being fuelled by certain motives to kill (like lust, profit, power, excitement, etc.)
- Being attention- and sensation- seeking
- Having poor conduct control (like impulsivity, recklessness, etc,)
- Having tendencies related to vandalism, arson, theft, etc.
- Indulging in extreme risk-taking behavior
- Having a history of childhood abuse, domestic violence, etc.
- Suffering from mental health conditions (such as antisocial personality disorder, ADHD, narcissism personality disorder, substance abuse disorders, schizophrenia, psychosis, etc.)
Read More About Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Here
Types Of Serial Killers
According to research 12, based on their ‘human’ characteristics, serial killers are primarily distinguished into two major types:
A. Organized Killers
Organized killers are meticulous in planning and executing their murders. They plan out every detail of their crime in advance and take caution to not leave behind any incriminating evidence of their crime.
B. Unorganized Killers
Unorganized killers do not plan out their crimes beforehand and are haphazard in their execution. Most often, unorganized killers are associated with deep-seated mental illnesses that trigger their homicidal behavior.
Organized and unorganized killers can, in turn, be distinguished into several types based on their motives for serial homicide. These include:
1. Visionary killers
A visionary serial killer operates to satisfy his/her personal visions. These visions are more or less grandiose delusions of an unstable mind associated with religious beliefs, ritualistic practices, and participation in the occult.
Examples of this type of killer include Herbert Mullin and Richard Chase who murdered people in the 1970s as blood sacrifices.
2. Mission-oriented killers
Mission-oriented serial killers kill to “rid” society of a specific group of people. These killers are mostly linked to racist, religious, and ethical extremism. Examples of mission-oriented serial killers include Joseph Paul Franklin who targetted Jews, Blacks, and interracial couples, during 1977–80, in America.
3. Hedonistic killers
A hedonistic serial killer is a homicide perpetrator who thrives on hedonism and kills for pleasure. This type of serial killer is usually driven by the “thrill of the kill”, sex, or money.
Hedonistic killers can further be divided into three types:
3.1. Lust killer
A lust serial killer tortures, rapes, and mutilates victims for his/her own sexual gratification. In most cases, necrophilia and human trophy collecting are associated with lust serial killing. Good examples of lust killers are Theodore “Ted” Bundy and “Killer Clown” John Wayne Gacy.
3.2. Thrill killer
A thrill killer kills for the pleasure of killing and satisfying his/her adrenaline rush. Thrill killers are usually associated with stalking, death threats, break-ins, etc. A good example is Robert Hansen who stalked and murdered at least seventeen women in Alaska in the years 1980–83.
3.3. Comfort killer
A gain or comfort killer is a serial killer who kills for “profit” aka monetary or material gains. A good example is Dr. Henry Howard Holmes, a comfort killer who operated in Chicago during the late nineteenth century.
4. Killers seeking power/control
A power or control serial killer is someone who seeks to gain power and control over their victims. In such cases, the most common expression of power is organized sexual domination, torture, mutilation, and ‘trophy collection’ of human body parts. Such grotesque collections, according to experts, serve to empower the perpetrators.
The Zodiac Killer, who terrorized the San Francisco Bay Area, the US, in the 1960s is a good example of killers seeking power and control.
How Does One Become A Serial Killer?
According to research 13, most serial killers have a history of abuse, neglect and/or mental health conditions. This contributes to an unstable state of mind and behavior and conduct disorders that are harmful to themselves and others around them. Modern forensic practices attribute the urge for serial killing to structural and functional changes in the brain caused by harrowing developmental experiences in life, such as –
- Child abuse
- Parental neglect
- Romantic rejection
- Sexual abuse
- Poverty, etc.
A person becomes a serial killer the moment he/she decides to kill for the sake of killing. Most studies 14 argue that serial killers are naturally born and the first signs of homicidal behavior typically appear in childhood—with abusing or killing animals.
Often victims are chosen randomly; at other times, they choose their victims based on their fantasy of the “ideal victim” and certain social reservations based on race, gender, physical characteristics, etc. Yet, not all victims fit the qualifications completely and, in most cases, victims are chosen because they tick off some part of the list and have the traits the serial killer easily recognizes from his/her fantasy.
Sane Vs. Insane Serial Killers
Organized killers handpick their victims according to their obsessions or fancy. They are also more likely to engage in fetishism, partialism, necrophilia, or human trophy collection. It is found that most serial killing cases around the globe concern children, young women, homosexual men, couples, etc.
The unorganized killers, in the absence of thorough planning, randomly select their crime spots; but, even then, they target a select social group. However, most serial killers kill for the thrill of killing.
In contrast, in insanity-related homicide, murders by people suffering from psychiatric disorders constitute a lonely and passive affair. There is an absence of malice aforethought, application of excessive violence, presence of impulsivity, and lack of meticulous planning. Nevertheless, all serial killers are alike in their approach to the criminal situation: guilt-free, cruel, and remorseless.
Despite the differences in motive and mechanism for murder, serial killers have one thing in common: they go to extraordinary lengths to cover up their crimes and avoid detection. In fact, experts contend that it is the repeated success of escaping murder convictions that fuels serial killers’ confidence in the long run and encourages their murder spree.
In most cases, the thrill of avoiding capture boosts their need to kill. They may send out titillating messages to the media and law authorities—challenging them into cat-and-mouse chases associated with the serial killers’ own capture and punishment.
Serial Killer Myths
Serial killers and serial killings are the subjects of never-ending fascination, urban legends, and paraphilia. The seamless crime documentaries and debates show how fascinated people are by the grotesque murder methods, the twisted psychology of the perpetrators, the techniques to avoid detection, and subsequent incarceration, trial, and punishment.
Nonetheless, most serial killing cases have witnessed extreme media frenzy and stereotypical representations and, over the years, have accumulated a substantial body of myths and false, exaggerated notions.
Some of the most common serial killer myths include:
1. All serial killers are men.
Serial killers can be both men and women, even though female serial killers are rare compared to their male counterparts. In some cases, because of the meticulous documentation of modern-day serial killers in the US, it is widely believed that serial killers are mostly white men. This is not true.
For instance, a 2006 study 15 claims that, compared to 77% of male serial killers, female serial killers amount to 23%. It was also found that “the most common motive identified was material gain or similar extrinsic gratification while the ‘hedonistic’ sadistic or sexual serial killer seems to be extremely rare in women”.
2. All serial killers have an above-average IQ.
It is widely believed that serial killers are geniuses with an IQ level above the average person. Instead, it is found that serial killers are people of average intelligence with enhanced streaks of psychopathy 16.
3. All serial killers are motivated by sex.
It is a popular notion that all serial killings are lust killings. This is a predominant generalization, as serial homicide is motivated by several causes (such as material gains, visions, the thrill of adventure, etc.)
4. All serial killers can’t stop killing.
It is widely believed that serial killers do not stop until they have been killed or caught by law enforcement. In some cases (like the Zodiac Killer), the killer stops on his/her own accord without any incarceration or death sentence.
5. All serial killers have mental health conditions.
Criminal psychology always strives to locate the motive of serial killings in the murky minds of the perpetrators. Experts try to signal out certain mental disorders—like schizophrenia, ADHD, psychosis, antisocial personality, and narcissistic disorders—that appear to contribute to the killing spree and associated wicked acts.
They even try to trace and recognize the source of such mental health conditions, like childhood abuse, trauma, parental violence, bullying, etc. Hence, more often than not, people consider serial killers as “social casualties”. They fail to see that serial killers mostly kill for the sake of killing itself.
Read More About Psychosis Here
6. All serial killers want to get caught.
Many people think serial killers, who are too knee-deep in crime, get deranged and long to be discovered so as to put an end to their killing spree. However, as case studies show, criminals do not long to be caught. They take extreme care to escape the consequences of their actions and that is why when they get caught—it is usually by accident.
A History Of Serial Killing
There have been serial killers throughout history. Historical criminologists suggest that the folklores of werewolves, vampires, and similar supernatural entities are actually drawn from real-life instances of serial killing in the remote past. Some of the more well-known serial killers in history include the Hungarian aristocrat Elizabeth Báthory of Transylvania, the Thuggees of India, Gilles de Rais, and so forth.
However, the template of modern era serial killing and crime investigation was laid out with the Ripper murders of the 1880s. The event made the investigation of serial homicides more organized, more structured, more scientific, and more interdisciplinary, so to speak. In fact, the majority of well-documented serial killers in the 20th and 21st centuries belong to the US.
An infamous serial killers list
Some of the worst serial killers in history include:
1. Jack The Ripper
The foremost modern and most notorious serial killer in history, the anonymous “Jack The Ripper” operated in Victorian London, in the 1880s. He raped, murdered, and mutilated at least 5 prostitutes and is the subject of an unending stream of urban legends.
The “Ripper Murders” comprise a watershed moment in criminology as it was this serial killer who started the trend of massive police manhunts and significant innovations in modern forensic science and criminal investigation techniques.
2. H.H. Holmes
Herman Webster Mudgett or Dr. Henry Howard Holmes (H. H. Holmes) was an American con artist and serial killer who operated in Chicago in the 1890s. He is said to have killed more than 30 people in his three-story hotel, the “Murder Castle”. He ran swindling operations, bone smuggling rackets, and life insurance scams till his capture and death at the turn of the century.
3. Ted Bundy
Perhaps the most notorious of male serial killers, Theodore “Ted” Bundy was charged with lust serial killing of at least 30 women, across 5 American states, between 1973 and 1978. In prison, he was diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder and mania as he exhibited different appearances, signatures, names, and criminal methods at different times.
Bundy’s case was sensational as he was handsome and charismatic and, throughout the trial, he pulled stunts like firing his lawyers, escaping through a courthouse window, or proposing marriage to his girlfriend mid-trial.
4. John Wayne Gacy, “The Killer Clown”
In 1970s America, John Wayne Gacy, a “friendly contractor” in suburban Chicago was charged with kidnapping, murder, and sodomy of at least 33 homosexual young men. He buried them in the crawl space of his home. Gacy sometimes appeared at children’s birthday parties as “Pogo the Clown” and his arrest sparked a mass phobia of clowns or “Coulrophobia” 17.
5. David Berkowitz, “The Son of Sam”
In New York in the 1970s, “The Son of Sam” David Berkowitz (a mailman by profession) was convicted of “spree shooting”—killing 6 and wounding 9. Later investigation revealed that he was associated with a satanic cult group and all his murders were “ritual killings”. He reinforced these claims by “confessing” his demonic possession and how he shot dogs and drank their blood before every killing spree.
6. Harold Shipman, “Dr. Death”
Harold Frederick Shipman was an English practitioner who killed more than 250 people in the years 1975–98. His method of operation was administering lethal doses of diamorphine, falsifying medical records and death certificates, and forging inheritance papers.
7. Pedro Lopez, “The Monster of the Andes”
One of the most notorious serial killers in Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, Pedro Lopez was charged with the murder of more than 300 people in the years 1969–2002. He mostly raped and strangled tribal women and pre-teen girls and buried them in mass graves.
8. Jorge Beltrao Negromonte
Along with his wife and his mistress, Jorge Beltrao Negromonte da Silveira formed part of the Brazilian cannibal trio who lured women into their homes, slaughtered them, and baked them into stuffed meat pastries called “salgados” to sell in the neighborhood. After they were caught in 2012, it was found that the trio suffered from chronic schizophrenia and psychosis.
Read More About Schizophrenia Here
9. Vera Renczi, “The Black Widow”
The most famous female serial killer, Vera Renczi or “The Black Widow” was a Romanian serial killer who killed 35 men by arsenic poisoning. Her victims included her husbands, her lovers, and her children.
10. The Zodiac
The anonymous and never-caught “Zodiac Killer” operated in Northern California in the 1960s, claiming about 37 lives. He sent a series of taunting letters and cards to regional papers, threatening killing sprees if these were not printed. Most of the letters contained cryptograms and ciphers declaring that the killer was ‘ritualistically killing’ to ‘collect’ slaves for the afterlife.
11. Aileen Wuornos
Aileen Wuornos was an American serial killer, who also engaged in street prostitution along the highways in Florida. In the years 1989–90, she killed and robbed several of her male clients.
12. The Stoneman
The “Stoneman” operated in the Indian cities of Bombay and Calcutta in the 1980s, killing more than 26 homeless and destitute people in their sleep. The murderer operated on the streets, killing victims by dropping a heavy stone or concrete slab on their heads.
13. Other notable mentions
Other notable mentions of serial killers include:
- Béla Kiss, who pickled his victims in alcohol
- The Joshi-Abhyankar serial murderers
- Peter Sutcliffe, “The Yorkshire Ripper”
- Joachim Kroll, “The Ruhr Cannibal”
- Amir Qayyum, “The Brick Killer”
- Sleepy Hollow Killer
More often than not, what we know of serial killers are products of colorful storylines and headlines. These were directed to create “larger than life” socially constructed “celebrity monsters” who reduced the severity of their criminal actions into stylish “wickedness” and piqued newspaper sales.
Nonetheless, this “wickedness”—time and again—poses significant investigative challenges to law enforcement, not to mention attracting an over-abundance of attention from the media, mental health experts, academia, and the general public.
Serial Killers At A Glance
- Serial killers are criminals who commit more than 3 murders over a considerable period of time.
- They act on motives drawn from anger, thrill-seeking, attention-seeking, financial gain, fulfilling a delusional goal, etc.
- Most serial killers have a history of abuse, neglect and/or mental health conditions.
- The characteristics of serial killers include psychopathy, impulsive behavior, lack of remorse, manipulative tendencies, risk-taking behavior, etc.
- Most serial killers follow a pattern in their type of victims, killing methods, killing frequency, etc.
- Cases of serial killers are sensationalized by the media. Resultantly, what we know of them is based on myth and speculation.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
1. Who are some of the famous serial killers?
Ted Bundy, John Gacy, Jack the Ripper, David Berkowitz, Albert DeSalvo, Edmund Kemper, and the Zodiac killer are some famous serial killers.
2. What are some best movies about serial killers?
Psycho, Last Night In Soho, Frenzy, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, Blood and Black Lace, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Zodiac, The Silence of the Lambs, and Extremely Wicked are some best movies and shows about serial killers.
3. Is serial killing a mental illness?
While serial killers are linked to a bevy of mental disorders during the trial, most of them are not adjudicated as insane under the law. While the tendency of serial killing may have its origin in mental health conditions in some criminals, serial killing in itself is not a mental illness.
4. Are all serial killers psychopaths?
All psychopaths are not serial killers, but all serial killers are psychopaths. The latter possess traits consistent with psychopathy. These get amplified during their killing sprees and other criminal activities.
5. Do serial killers love their families?
Case studies show that serial killers exhibit protective and loving behavior towards their own families, even when they are killing other people. They usually lack basic humanistic and social values like empathy, respect for life, guilt, etc., and put on a superficial mask of humanity.
6. How do serial killers think?
Psychopathic and predatory behavior are common in most serial killers. Consequently, they are sensation-seeking, remorseless, impulsive, and ruthless.
7. How do serial killers select their victims?
Serial killers select their victims based on their fantasy of the “ideal victim” and certain social reservations based on race, gender, physical characteristics, etc.
8. Who are some famous serial killers with bipolar disorder?
Anthony Hardy, Ted Bundy, Tommy Lynn Sells, and Gary Lee Sampson are some famous serial killers with bipolar disorder.
9. Why do serial killers exist?
There is no explanation as to why serial killers exist. People turn into serial killers as they become motivated by factors like anger, thrill-seeking, financial gain, sexual appetite, and attention-seeking.
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