What Makes Serial Killers Tick?
Monsters or Victims?
"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
Where does this urge come from, and why is so powerful? If we all experienced this urge,
would we be able to resist?
Is it genetic, hormonal, biological, or cultural conditioning? Do serial killers have any
control over their desires? We all experience rage and inappropriate sexual instincts, yet
we have some sort of internal cage that keeps our inner monsters locked up. Call it
morality or social programming, these internal blockades have long since been trampled
down in the psychopathic killer. Not only have they let loose the monster within, they are
virtual slaves to its beastly appetites. What sets them apart?
Serial killers have tested out a number of excuses for their behavior. Henry Lee Lucas
blamed his upbringing; others like Jeffrey Dahmer say that they were born with a "part" of
them missing. Ted Bundy claimed pornography made him do it. Herbert Mullin, Santa
Cruz killer of thirteen, blamed the voices in his head that told him it was time to "sing the
die song." The ruthless Carl Panzram swore that prison turned him into a monster, while
Bobby Joe Long said a motorcycle accident made him hypersexual and eventually a serial
lust killer. The most psychopathic, like John Wayne Gacy, turn the blame around and
boast that the victims deserved to die.
They must be insane -- what normal person could slaughter another human, for the sheer
pleasure of it? Yet the most chilling fact about serial killers is that they are rational and
calculating. As the "British Jeffrey Dahmer" Dennis Nilsen put it, "a mind can be evil
without being abnormal."
What They Are
Before we look at who they are, we must first describe what they are. In his book The
Killers Among Us, Steven Egger defines serial murder:
A minimum of three to four victims, with a "cooling off" period in between;
The killer is usually a stranger to the victim -- the murders appear unconnected or
The murders reflect a need to sadistically dominate the victim;
The murder is rarely "for profit"; the motive is psychological, not material;
The victim may have "symbolic" value for the killer; method of killing may reveal this
Killers often choose victims who are vulnerable (prostitutes, runaways, etc.)
Statistically, the average serial killer is a white male from a lower to middle class
background, usually in his twenties or thirties. Many were physically or emotionally
abused by parents. Some were adopted. As children, fledgling serial killers often set fires,
torture animals, and wet their beds (these red-flag behaviors are known as the "triad" of
symptoms.) Brain injuries are common. Some are very intelligent and have shown great
promise as successful professionals. They are also fascinated with the police and authority
in general. They will either have attempted to become police themselves but were rejected,
or worked as security guards, or had served in the military. Many, including John Gacy,
the Hillside Stranglers, and Ted Bundy, will disguise themselves as law enforcement
officials to gain access to their victims.
Who They Kill
Serial killers choose victims weaker than themselves. Often their victims will fit a certain
stereotype which has symbolic meaning for the killer. Bundy brutally murdered
college-age women with long brown hair. Was he killing, over and over again, the
upper-class fiancee who broke off her engagement with him? David Berkowitz, aka "Son
of Sam," was not so particular -- he hated all women: "I blame them for everything.
Everything evil that's happened in the world--somehow goes back to them." Gacy
savagely strangled young men, some of them his own employees, calling them "worthless
little queers and punks." Some believe that Gacy's homicidal rage was projected onto the
boys who represented his own inadequacy in the eyes of his own domineering father.
With rare exception, serial killers objectify and humiliate their victims. Bundy deliberately
kept the conversation brief -- if he got to know the victim and saw her as a real person, it
would destroy the fantasy.
Serial killers are sadists, seeking perverse pleasure in torturing the victim, even
resuscitating them at the brink of death so they can torture them some more. ("How's it
feel, knowing you're going to die?" Gacy asked his victims as he strangled them, even
reciting the 23rd Psalm, urging them to be brave in the face of death.) They need to
dominate, control, and "own" the person. Yet when the victim dies, they are abandoned
again, left alone with their unfathomable rage and self-hatred. This hellish cycle continues
until they are caught or killed.
Why Are They So Difficult to Spot - Getting Away with Murder
We think we can spot lunacy, that a maniac with uncontrollable urges to kill will be unable
to contain himself. On the bus, in the street, it is the mentally ill we avoid, sidestepping the
disheveled, unshaven man who rants on over some private outrage. Yet if you intend to
avoid the path of a serial killer, your best strategy is to sidestep the charming, the
impeccably dressed, polite individual. They blend in, camouflaged in contemporary
anonymity. They lurk in churches, malls, and prowl the freeways and streets. "Dress him in
a suit and he looks like ten other men," said one attorney in describing Dahmer. Like all
evolved predators, they know how to stalk their victims by gaining their trust. Serial
killers don't wear their hearts on their sleeves. Instead, they hide behind a carefully
constructed facade of normalcy.
Mask of Sanity
Because of their psychopathic nature, serial killers do not know how to feel sympathy for
others, or even how to have a relationship. Instead, they learn to simulate it by observing
others. It is all a manipulative act, designed to entice people into their trap. Serial killers
are actors with a natural penchant for performance. Henry Lee Lucas described being a
serial killer as "being like a movie-star . . . you're just playing the part." The macabre Gacy
loved to dress up as a clown, while the Zodiac suited up in a bizarre executioner's costume
that looked like something out of "Alice in Wonderland." In court, Bundy told the judge
"I'm disguised as an attorney today." Bundy had previously "disguised" himself as a
compassionate rape crisis center counselor.
The most coveted role of roaming psychopaths is a position of authority. Gacy was an
active, outgoing figure in business and society, became a member of the Jaycees. Many
joined the military, including Berkowitz who was intensely patriotic for a time. Playing
police officer, however, is the most predictable. Carrying badges and driving coplike
vehicles not only feeds their need to feel important, it allows them access to victims who
would otherwise trust their instincts and not talk to strangers.
Yet, when they are caught, the serial killer will suddenly assume a "mask of insanity" --
pretending to be a multiple personality, schizophrenic, or prone to black-outs -- anything
to evade responsibility. Even when they pretend to truly reveal themselves, they are still
locked into playing a role. What nameless dread lies behind the psychopath's mask?
"What's one less person on the face of the earth anyway?" Ted Bundy's chilling
rationalization demonstrates the how serial killers truly think. "Bundy could never
understand why people couldn't accept the fact that he killed because he wanted to kill,"
said one FBI investigator.
What Makes a Serial Killer Tick?
Just as these killers rip open their victims to "see how they run" (as Ed Kemper put it),
forensic psychiatrists and FBI agents have tried to get inside the killers mind. Traditional
explanations include childhood abuse, genetics, chemical imbalances, brain injuries,
exposure to traumatic events, and perceived societal injustices. The frightening implication
is that a huge population has been exposed to one or more of these traumas. Is there some
sort of lethal concoction that sets serial killers apart from the rest of the population?
We believe that we have control over our impulses -- no matter how angry we get, there is
something that stops us from taking our aggressions out on others. Do serial killers lack a
moral safety latch? Or are they being controlled by something unfathomable? "I wished I
could stop but I could not. I had no other thrill or happiness," said Dennis Nilsen, who
wondered if he was truly evil. Serial killers are undeniably sick, and their numbers seem to
be growing. Are we in the midst of a serial killer "epidemic," as Joel Norris describes it? If
this is a disease, what is the cure?
Is it our modern times that creates them, or have they been in operation before we
classified them as a phenomenon? Although the term "serial killer" was coined in 1971,
early fables of human/monsters reveals that there has always been danger in straying too
far, or in accepting the help of strangers. The carnivorous characters in Grimm's Fairy
tales become vivid metaphors of human bloodlust. Gruesome stories of Bluebeards and
their bloody chambers, big bad wolves, trolls under the bridge and witches in the forest, all
of whom make meals out of unsuspecting innocents, remind us of our contemporary
monsters. These cautionary tales may represent an early, pre-psychological way of
understanding the sadistic side of human nature.
"Lycanthropy," a combination of the Greek words "wolf" and "man", was another early
concept created to describe the horror of senseless sexual murder. In The A-Z
Encyclopedia of Serial Killers Harold Schechter and David Everitt describe the
lycanthropic madman as sexual predators who terrorized 16th century peasant villages, so
much that the authorities "regarded it as one of the most pressing social problems of the
day." Among the most notorious of these medieval "wolfmen" was Gilles Garnier of
France, and the German Peter Stubbe, both of whom attacked children, ripping them apart
and cannibalizing them. Stubbe even went so far as to savagely mutilate his own son,
gnawing at his brain.
The wolfman myth is still popular today -- we still hear how a full moon can bring out the
crazies. Albert Fish, the notorious cannibal killer of children, was called the "Werewolf of
Wisteria," and enjoyed dancing naked in the full moon. Other lunar lunatics include Ed
Gein, who also frolicking in the moonlight, dressed in his mothersuit made from the skin
of women. Unlike Gein, Bobbie Jo Long did not appreciate being adorned in female body
parts -- at puberty he had his abnormally enlarged breasts surgically removed. Even after
the operation, Long claimed to be affected by the moon's cycles through his own bizarre
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hydes
The 19th century gave rise to another chilling predecessor to the serial killer's persona --
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Robert Louis Stevenson created a literary man/monster who
embodied the Divided Self -- appearing civilized and rational on the outside, while inside a
wretched brute struggled to break loose.
One of the most intriguing peculiarities of serial killers is their benign, "Dr. Jekyll"
appearance. They look and behave like everyman or any man -- "abnormally normal", as
Mark Seltzer says. If they come across as potentially dangerous in any way, they will
neutralize it in their behavior. The imposing 6'9'' Edmund Kemper cultivated a "gentle
giant" routine, which helped him to lure female hitchhikers into his car. The charming Ted
Bundy wore a cast, looking meekly pathetic, and asked for help. The young women who
gave him a hand must have thought of it as a random act of kindness. What resulted was a
senseless act of murder. The notorious Gacy entertained hospitalized children in his Pogo
the Clown costume. "You know, clowns get away with murder," he once said. Gacy used
rope tricks from his performance to strangle unsuspecting young men, who thought the
worst they would have to endure would be some hokey entertainment. With many serial
killers, the hidden Hyde comes out only after the victim is lulled into complacency.
As a man obsessed with recreating a human being from dead body parts, Mary Shelley's
Dr. Frankenstein was seeking the same ultimate power of creation as God Himself. While
Dr. Frankenstein attempted to compose a man, our modern day Dr. Frankensteins are
more gifted in the decomposing arts. Jeffrey Dahmer and Dennis Nilsen both tried to
create companionship in corpses. Dahmer operated on his victims, hoping for a own
love-zombie who would never stray. In his own attempts to create the perfect companion,
Nilsen said, "I think that in some cases I killed these men in order to create the best image
of them. . . . . It was not really a bad but a perfect and peaceful state for them to be in"
(As if he were doing them a favor!) "I remember being thrilled that I had full control and
ownership of this beautiful body," he mused. Many believe that Ed Gein was attempting to
reconstruct his mother by stealing body parts from a nearby cemetery.
And of course, one of the most popular monster monikers for serial killers is "vampire." In
Gothic drama, vampires represented the repressed sexuality of straitlaced Victorian
society, creatures of the night driven by beastly desires. The vampire motif is so frequent
that we see localized vampires ("The Vampire of Dusseldorf" Peter Kurten; "The Vampire
of Hanover" Fritz Haarmann; "The Vampire of Sacramento" Richard Chase.) Kurten
claimed that his "chief satisfaction in killing was to catch the blood spurting from a victim's
wounds in his mouth and swallow it." Another deeply demented vampire killer, John
Haigh, claimed that disturbing dreams created his unquenchable thirst for human blood: "I
saw before me a forest of crucifixes, which gradually turned into trees. . . Suddenly the
whole forest began to writhe and the trees, stark and erect, to ooze blood. . . . A man
went to each tree catching the blood. . . . 'Drink,' he said.
Early killers: How did they explain their evil?
The Baron Gilles de Rais
This15th century French aristocrat murdered hundreds of peasant children. Gilles blithely
declared that torturing the innocent was "entirely for my own pleasure and physical
delight, and for no other intention or end." Gilles was unbelievably bold in gathering
victims -- he would send servants out to round up children and haul them back to his
castle, as if he were collecting his rightful harvest from the peasant population. Why would
a military hero and companion to Joan of Arc torture children? Gilles' excuse is
precociously modern -- he blamed his parents. They didn't physically abuse him, however;
the monstrous aristocrat whined that he was the hapless victim of their amoral attitudes.
While lax parenting doesn't sound like a familiar prerequisite for today's serial killer, it was
an arch offense by Medieval standards -- one had to be a diligent guard against the Devil's
cunning ways. As a child Gilles said evil descended "when I was left uncontrolled to do
whatever I pleased and to take pleasure in illicit acts."
Was Gilles de Rais the sole sadistic multiple murderer of his era, or were there others who
used more discretion, choosing victims who were less likely to be missed? It is impossible
to say. Some, like Elliott Leyton, argue that "the curious phenomenon of the murder of
strangers is extremely rare in so-called 'primitive' societies," and that it is primarily in
"modern, industrializing societies that stranger-murder becomes a major homicidal theme.
"We can only speculate. It can be said, however, that the major archetype of the serial sex
slayer emerged in the grimy, gaslit streets of industrialized 19th century London.
Jack the Ripper
Jack the Ripper's infamous Whitechapel murders baffled the police and terrorized London.
As the first sensationalized serial killer, the Ripper became the prototype of the lust
murderer. The mystery of his identity paralleled the mystery of his motive. Nothing like
this was seen before -- why would anyone go lurking in the dead of night, eviscerating
poverty-stricken prostitutes? Clearly the Ripper was insane, thought the police. They
explored the insane asylums, looking for a raving, woman-hating madman. Crazed
immigrants, lunatic butchers, and even syphillis-ridden royalty were suspect. Most
believed Jack the Ripper had to be an immigrant (Americans were a favorite suspicion)
because no Englishman would commit such horrid crimes. The Ripper's bladework had
some speculating he was a deranged doctor. In any case, as the insane asylums were
searched and suspicious whispers echoed in respectable bourgeois homes, it became clear
that the Ripper could be anyone. The uncivilized monster behind Victorian society's prim
veneer had acted out in the ugliest of deeds.
In the 19th century, civilization stopped looking to the Devil as the sole force behind
violent, sadistic behavior. Instead, scientists and writers began searching for the beast
within. As Fred Botting points out, the inhuman was now seen as "in-human". Darwin's
theories on evolution bridged the gap between beasts and man. How far are we from our
grunting, rock-throwing apelike ancestors? Not very far at all, according to 19th century
criminologists Cesare Lombroso and Max Nordau, who believed that violent men had
"primitive" faces with heavy jaws and low foreheads. By measuring the foreheads of
Italian criminals, Lombroso believed he could target the violent criminal.
Although Lombroso and his measuring tape have long since been discredited, the concept
of a lingering animalistic brutality is still popular today. As we move forward, becoming
more technologically advanced, there is something that refuses to budge, some primitive
holdout of the darkest recesses or our psyche. Is it the caveman within, as some
contemporary paleopsychologists say, the vestigial beast that got us through the "survival
of the fittest" when we needed it, but now that we live in a civilized society, it is no longer
Franz Josef Gall promoted "phrenology." By feeling the bumps on a person's head, Gall
believed that he could predict their character and level of intelligence. Physiognomy,
developed by Johann Kaspar Lavatar, claimed to read a person's character in their facial
These theories were all the rage when Herman Mudgett (aka H. H. Holmes) stood trial for
running a deadly boarding house that put the Bates Motel to shame. In Depraved, Harold
Schechter describes how the public, eager to know why Holmes was such a fiend, flocked
to see maps of the killer's head shape, as if a certain pattern in the bumps of his skull
would spell out "murderer." Holmes himself described his own evil metamorphosis: "My
features are assuming a pronounced Satanical cast. . . My head and face are gradually
assuming an elongated shape. I believe fully that I am growing to resemble the devil--that
the similitude is almost completed. In fact, so impressed am I with this belief, that I am
convinced that I no longer have anything human in me." This' "devil made me do it"
routine was a transparent attempt to avoid the hangman's noose. This devil was eventually
hanged for his misdeeds.
"I have several children who I'm turning into killers. Wait til they grow up" - message
scrawled on David Berkowitz's apartment wall, with an arrow pointing to a hole in the
Are some children just born "bad"? Some serial killers are precociously demented,
fascinated by sadistic violence at a very early age. As a child, Ed Kemper was already
beheading his sister's dolls, playing "execution" games, and once told his sister that he
wanted to kiss his second grade teacher, but "if I kiss her I would have to kill her first."
One of first places our society looks to for an explanation is the serial killer's upbringing.
"So many of us wanted to believe that something had traumatized little Jeffrey Dahmer,
otherwise we must believe that some people simply give birth to monsters," Ann Schwartz
In some cases, the abuse of children by their parents is barbaric, and it seems little wonder
that anything but a fledgling serial killer would come from such horrible squalor. As a
child, the "Boston Strangler" Albert DeSalvo was actually sold off as a slave by his
alcoholic dad. Many sadistic murderers portray their childhood as an endless chain of
horrifying sexual abuse, torture, and mayhem. Some stories of torture may be exaggerated
for sympathy (it is always to the killer's advantage to concoct wicked parents as an
excuse) but some have been corroborated by witnesses. Even families that appear healthy
on the outside may be putting on an act. Children can learn the "Jeckyl and Hyde" routine
from parents who are outgoing and social with neighbors and co-workers, but who scowl
at their kid's inadequacies when they get home.
As we examine childhood abuse as a possible key to the serial killer's behavior, we must
remember that many children have suffered horrible abuse at the hands of their parents,
but did not grow up to be lust murderers. Childhood abuse is not a direct link to a future
in crime. And while many girls are victimized as children, very few grow up to be
sadistically violent toward strangers. Childhood abuse may not be the sole excuse for
serial killers, but it is an undeniable factor in many of their backgrounds.
In his book Serial Killers, Joel Norris describes the cycles of violence as generational:
"Parents who abuse their children, physically as well as psychologically, instill in them an
almost instinctive reliance upon violence as a first resort to any challenge." Childhood
abuse not only spawns violent reactions, Norris writes, but also affects the child's health,
including brain injuries, malnutrition, and other developmental disorders.
Some parents believed that by being harsh disciplinarians, it would "toughen" the child.
Instead, it often creates a lack of love between parent and child that can have disastrous
results. If the child doesn't bond with its primary caretakers, there is no foundation for
trusting others later in life. This can lead to isolation, where intense violent fantasies
become the primary source of gratification. "Instead of developing positive traits of trust,
security, and autonomy, child development becomes dependent on fantasy life and its
dominant themes, rather than on social interaction," writes Robert Ressler, Ann Burgess
and John Douglas in Sexual Homicide: Patterns and Motives. When the child grows up,
according to these authors, all they know are their fantasies of domination and control.
They have not developed compassion for others. Instead, humans become flattened-out
symbols for them to enact their violent fantasies.
In looking to the parents for explanations, we see both horrifying mothers and fathers. The
blame usually falls on the mother, who has been described as too domineering or too
distant, too sexually active or too repressed. Perhaps the mother is blamed more because
the father has often disappeared, therefore "unaccountable." When the father is implicated,
it is usually for sadistic disciplinarian tactics, alcoholic rants, and overt anger toward
"We're still blaming mothers." - Joyce Flint, Dahmer's mother
It all seems to begin or end with Mother. Henry Lee Lucas launched his murderous career
by killing his mom; Ed Kemper ended his by killing his mom. Even the Shakespearian
multiple murderer Hamlet had an unnatural obsession with his mother's sexuality. "Serial
murderers are frequently found to have unusual or unnatural relationships with their
mothers," notes Steven Egger in his book The Killers Among Us. In our culture, the
imposing image of "Mother" looms large in our collective psyches, and some writers easily
accept that these killers are lashing out at maternal tyranny. If these murderers are still
dominated by Mother (Hitchcock's Norman Bates is the archetype), then it is easy to
dismiss them as "mama's boys" who never fully matured. Perhaps we find comfort in this
cliche -- the mother is a readymade excuse, particularly in our contemporary era of
obsessive parenting. Yet, as we look at some of the techniques of the serial killers'
mothers, we are inclined to see a deadly link between the womb and the tomb.
In an effort to keep their children chaste, some mothers have linked sexuality with death.
Ed Gein's religiously fanatical, notorious mother convinced her son that women were
vessels of sin and caused disease. In some sort of twisted misinterpretation, Gein made
literal vessels out of women, using their skulls for bowls, and other domestic objects. Ed's
body may have escaped from sexual disease, but his mind was clearly contaminated.
Joseph Kallinger was adopted by sadistic, Catholic parents, and after a hernia operation at
age 6, his mother told him that the surgery was to keep his penis from growing. Kallinger
never questioned her, and as an adult believed it had been stunted. A strict disciplinarian,
Kallinger's mother forced him to hold his open hand over a flame, beating him if he cried.
Kallinger later grew up taking extreme pleasure in torturing others, and became a sadistic
parent himself. After taking an insurance policy out on his 13-year-old son Joey, he slowly
drowned him, deaf to his own son's pleas for mercy.
"I certainly wanted for my mother a nice, quiet easy death like everyone else wants," said
Ed Kemper. His idea of an easy death is markedly unusual -- after beheading his mom, he
shoved her vocal cords down the garbage disposal, raped her headless body, and, by some
accounts, placed her head on the living room mantel and used it as a dartboard.
Admittedly, Kemper's mom was a shrill, tyrannical nag who locked her young son in the
basement when he grew too large and frightened his sisters. As an adult, Kemper and his
mother fought constantly, yet he chose to live with her. Why not just move away and don't
take her calls?
"Hillside Strangler" Kenneth Bianchi's adoptive mother was pathologically
over-protective. When Ken wet his pants, she took him to the doctor to have his genitals
examined. One protective agency wrote that Bianchi's mother was "deeply disturbed,
socially ambitious, dissatisfied, unsure, opinionated and overly protective . . . had
smothered this adopted son in medical attention and maternal concern from the moment of
adoption." As a child Bianchi was very dependent on his mother, yet harbored a deadly
hostility beneath the surface.
Some serial killers had their sexually uninhibited mothers to blame. These mothers
overstepped the boundaries, exposing their children to inappropriate sexual behavior.
Bobby Jo Long killed women he characterized as whores and sluts, who he said reminded
him of his own mom. She had frequent sex (according to him) with men in the same room
where Bobby slept. According to Long, he shared his bed with his mother until he was 13
Charles Manson's prostitute mother Kathy Maddox, indifferently declared his name as "No
Name Maddox" for his birth certificate. She hoisted him off on relatives, and in one story,
famous but probably untrue, she traded the infant Charlie for a pitcher of beer. When he
was sent to live with his aunt, his uncle told him he was a sissy, and punished him by
sending him to school dressed as a girl.
Henry Lee Lucas also suffered gender confusion as a child, courtesy of his mother's
sadism. She was a heavy drinker and bootlegger. For unknown reasons she dressed him as
a girl until he was 7. "I lived as a girl. I was dressed as a girl. I had long hair as a girl. I
wore girl's clothes." She senselessly beat him after he had his hair cut because his teacher
complained. At one point, his mom struck him on back of head with a wooden beam,
fracturing his skull. Lucas was also apparently exposed to his mother's sexual activities.
He killed his mother in 1951.
It is usually the sadistically disciplinarian father that pops up in the serial killer's family
tree. John Gacy's dad berated his son, calling him a sissy, queer, and a failure. A violent
alcoholic, Gacy's father beat his mother, and shot his son's beloved dog to punish young
John. When Gacy later strangled his young victims, he encouraged them to stay brave
while facing death. "Through this ritual, Gacy sought to reassert his own vision of a
masculine identity that had been squashed down by his father," wrote Joel Norris.
Albert DeSalvo's father would bring home prostitutes and brutally beat his mother,
breaking her fingers one by one as young Albert helplessly watched. The elder DeSalvo
sold his children off as slaves to a farmer in Maine, while his mother went frantically
searching for them for six months, as story that has been confirmed by family friends and
social workers. "Pa was a plumber," said DeSalvo. "he smashed me once across the back
with a pipe. I didn't move fast enough."
Not all serial killers were beaten or abused as children. Jeffrey Dahmer had an apparently
normal upbringing, yet grew up to be one of the most notorious sex murderers in popular
culture. In his book A Father's Story, Lionel Dahmer searches for answers to his own son's
deviance. Lionel, who describes himself as an "analytical thinker," believes that Jeffrey's
mother's hysteria and psychosomatic illnesses during pregnancy might be responsible.
He describes Joyce as going through a difficult pregnancy, constantly vomiting, as if her
body was being sickened by what was germinating, an early biological "rejection" by
mother. While pregnant with Jeff, Joyce developed strange fits of rigidity: "At times, her
legs would lock tightly in place, and her whole body would grow rigid and begin to
tremble. Her jaw would jerk to the right and take on a similarly frightening rigidity. During
these strange seizures, her eyes would bulge like a frightened animal, and she would begin
to salivate, literally frothing at the mouth."
As Lionel describes it, it's as if a corpse was giving birth. Father Lionel remains detached
and analytical while Mother Joyce is in the midst of a biological warfare, fighting
hormones with drugs. Lionel asks, ominously, "Why was she so upset all the time? What
was it that she found so dreadful?"
"Then, at the end of the long trial, my son was born." Lionel's first sight of his son is in a
plastic container, which is how the victims of apartment 213 will later be removed. The
bloody chamber of Jeff's apartment, according to Lionel, had its origins in Joyce's drugged
While Lionel implicates Joyce as the biological contaminant in Jeffrey's sickness, he admits
to his own destructive inclinations, which may have been passed on to their son. Lionel
was fascinated by fire and made bombs as child. "A dark pathway had been dug into my
brain," he writes. Little Jeffrey is transfixed by pile of bones, which only seems macabre
after the adult Jeffrey's deadly deeds. At the time, Lionel saw it as normal curiosity.
At age 4, Jeffrey had a double hernia, and had to have surgery. "So much pain, I learned
later, that he had asked Joyce if the doctors had cut off his penis." Lionel thinks this
quasi-castrating surgery affected his son: "In Jeff, this flattening began to take on a sense
of something permanent," he wrote. "This strange and subtle inner darkening began to
appear almost physically. His hair, which had once been so light, grew steadily darker,
along with the deeper shading of his eyes. More than anything, he seemed to grow more
inward, sitting quietly for long periods, hardly stirring, his face oddly motionless."
Both father and son found solace in controlling biological experiments. "In the lab, I found
a wonderful comfort and assurance in knowing the properties of things, how they could be
manipulated in predictable patterns. It provided a great relief from the chaos I found at
home." Jeff became shy and fearful of others, just as his dad had been. "It was as if some
element of my character yearned for complete predictability, for rigid structure," said
Lionel. "I simply didn't know how things worked with other people." Lionel recognized
that Jeffrey was "so intimidated by their presence, that in order for him to have contact
with them, they needed to be dead."
Lionel sees a "terrible vacancy" in own son's eyes, and wonders, "Am I like that?" and sees
his son as a "deeper, darker shadow" of himself. He remembers that at the age of 13 he
wanted to hypnotize and cast a spell over a girl, "so I could control her entirely." At what
point does an innocent fantasy warp into a deadly fascination? Can we control the inner
life of our children? Lionel warns that "some of us are doomed to pass a curse instead."
The frightening conclusion of Lionel Dahmer's cautionary tale is that we can be blind to
our own destructive tendencies, and may innocently pass them on. "Fatherhood remains,
at last, a grave enigma, and when I contemplate that my other son may one day be a
father, I can only say to him, as I must to every father after me, "Take care, take care, take
Adoption as a potential contribution to the serial killer's motivation is fascinating because
it creates two questions. The first one is that the biological parents may have left their
child with deviant genes. (We will look into the genetics of serial killers shortly.) Finding
out that one was adopted may also undermine the sense of identity in a fragile youth, and
make the child prone to fantasizing an identity of his "true" parents, either good or bad.
Was the mother a prostitute? A nun? Was the father a gangster? A hero? And why did
they "reject" their child? This sense of rejection can have profound consequences on an
already unstable psyche. If the child actually meets his biological parent and is again
rejected, the damage is worse. David Berkowitz was deeply hurt when his biological mom
brushed him off. Some have speculated that Berkowitz's "Son of Sam" was an fantasy
attempt to reclaim a parent/child identity that had been crushed in real life.According to
Bundy biographers Michaud and Aynesworth, Ted's emotional growth was stopped in its
tracks after he learned that he was illegitimate at age 13. "It was like I hit a brick wall,"
Bundy had said. Of course, he tried out every excuse he could rummage, so it's difficult to
take his word on this when his family life appeared otherwise healthy.
It goes without saying that adoption does not create serial killers. At worst, it may
dislodge a child's self-identity. But that does not mean that finding oneself in multiple
murder is the only option available to adopted children.
Some lust murderers claim that exposure to violent events ignited their thirst for blood. Ed
Gein, among others, said that seeing farm animals slaughtered gave him perverted ideas.
But wouldn't that make 4-H a breeding ground for serial killers? Both Albert Fish and
Andrei Chikatilo blamed their sadistic bloodlust on frightening childhood stories. Does this
mean we can expect Stephen King's children to top the murder charts? Even truly
traumatic experiences don't automatically create a serial killer. "Acid Bath Murderer" John
Haigh, as a child, ran outside after a WWII bombing at his London home. The bomb came
with "a horrifying shriek, and as I staggered up, bruised and bewildered, a head rolled
against my foot." Joel Peter Witkin, a well-known artist who's work is admittedly
gruesome but fascinating, experienced the same event after witnessing a car accident. So
what makes one person become a serial killer, and another a famous artist?
Reform school in the early 20th century did anything but reform. The stories of sadistic
guards and medieval punishments are almost paralleled by the violent behavior of the
prisoners who went on to serial killing. Fortunately, this sort of extreme discipline is no
longer openly tolerated.
Although 1920's killer Carl Panzram was an incorrigible juvenile delinquent, the brutal
torture he received in reform school aggregated his violent rage. "From the treatment I
received while there and the lessons I learned from it, I had fully desided when I left there
just how I would live my life. I made up my mind that I would rob, burn, destroy and kill
every where I went and everybody I could as long as I lived. Thats the way I was
reformed . . . " Henry Lee Lucas also claimed prison transformed him into a serial killer.
Manson said that he was raped and beaten by other prisoners when he was 14, while a
particularly sadistic guard would masturbate as he watched. The grandfatherly pervert
Albert Fish blamed his sadomasochistic impulses on his experiences at a Washington, D.C.
orphanage: " I saw so many boys whipped, it took root in my head."
For different reasons, many multiple murderers are isolated as children. Lucas, who was
already a shy child, was ridiculed because of his artificial eye. He later said that this mass
rejection caused him to hate everyone.
Kenneth Bianchi was also a child loner, with many problems. One clinical report said that
"the boy drips urine in his pants, doesn't make friends very easily and has twitches. The
other children make fun of him." Dahmer was antisocial as a kid, laughing when he saw a
fellow classmate injured. He later became an alcoholic teenager, routinely ignored by his
As the isolation grows more severe, the reliance on fantasies, especially destructive ones,
can grow. These fantasies of violence often reveal themselves through two of the three
"triads" of predicting criminal behavior, firestarting and animal cruelty.
These secret compulsions are seen as the seeds to greater mayhem. "Violent acts are
reinforced, since the murderers either are able to express rage without experiencing
negative consequences or are impervious to any prohibitions against these actions.
Second, impulsive and erratic behavior discourages friendships," increasing isolation."
"Furthermore, there is no challenge to the offenders' beliefs that they are entitled to act the
way they do." (Ressler, et al, Sexual Homicide) "All learning, according to Ressler, has a
"feedback system." Torturing animals and setting fires will eventually escalate to crimes
against fellow human beings, if the pattern is not somehow broken.
Torturing animals is a disturbing red flag. Animals are often seen as "practice" for killing
humans. Ed Kemper buried the family cat alive, dug it up, and cut off its head. Dahmer
was notorious for his animal cruelty, cutting off dogs heads and placing them on a stick
behind his house. Yet not all serial killers take their aggressions out on pets. Dennis Nilsen
loved animals, particularly his dog Bleep, whom he couldn't bear to face after being
arrested for fear that it would traumatize the dog. Rapist torturer and murderer of eight,
Christopher Wilder, had made donations to Save The Whales and the Seal Rescue Fund.
Peter Kurten loved to watch houses burn, and Berkowitz, when he tired of torturing his
mother's parakeet, became a prolific pyromaniac, keeping record of his 1,411 fires. "Oh,
what ecstasy," said Joseph Kallinger to his biographer Flora Schreiber, "setting fires brings
to my body! What power I feel at the thought of fire! . . . Oh, what pleasure, what
heavenly pleasure!" Pyromania is often a sexually stimulating activity for these killers. The
dramatic destruction of property feeds the same perverse need to destroy another human.
Because serial killers don't see other humans as more than objects, the leap between
setting fires and killing people is easy to make.
Bed wetting is the most intimate of these "triad" symptoms, and is less likely to be willfully
divulged. By some estimates, 60% of multiple murderers wet their beds past adolescence.
Kenneth Bianchi apparently spent many a night marinating in urine-soaked sheets.
Formative years may play a role in the molding of a serial killer, but they cannot be the
sole reason in every case. Many killers blame their families for their behavior, seeking
sympathy. In true psychopathic fashion, serial killers are blaming someone else for their
actions. If their bad childhood is the primary reason for their homicidal tendencies, then
why don't their siblings also become serial killers? And if these conditions truly created
them, serial killers would probably be unionized by now, there would be so many of them
(a sad commentary on our continuing neglect of children.) We must look at other
components to see what pushes a serial killer over the edge.
"I'm the most cold-blooded sonofabitch you'll ever meet," said Ted Bundy. "I just liked to
kill, I wanted to kill." The hallmark of the psychopath is the inability to recognize others as
worthy of compassion. Victims are dehumanized, flattened into worthless objects in the
murderer's mind. John Gacy, never showing an ounce of remorse, called his victims
"worthless little queers and punks," while the "Yorkshire Ripper" Peter Sutcliffe brashly
declared that he was "cleaning up the streets" of the human trash.
In the 19th century, psychopathology was considered to be "moral insanity". Today it is
commonly known as "antisocial personality disorder" or "sociopathology." Current
experts believe that sociopaths are an unfortunate fusion of interpersonal, biological and
Psychopaths/sociopaths are diagnosed by their purposeless and irrational antisocial
behavior, lack of conscience, and emotional vacuity. They are thrill seekers, literally
fearless. Punishment rarely works, because they are impulsive by nature and fearless of the
consequences. Incapable of having meaningful relationships, they view others as fodder for
manipulation and exploitation. According to one psychological surveying tool (DSM IIIR)
between 3 - 5% of men are sociopaths; less than 1% of female population are sociopaths.
Psychopaths often make successful businessmen or world leaders. Not all psychopaths are
motivated to kill. But when it is easy to devalue others, and you have had a lifetime of
perceived injustices and rejection, murder might seem like a natural choice.
The following are environmental factors, psychiatrists say, which create a sociopath:
Studies show that 60% of psychopathic individuals had lost a parent;
Child is deprived of love or nurturing; parents are detached or absent;
Inconsistent discipline: if father is stern and mother is soft, child learns to hate authority
and manipulate mother;
Hypocritical parents who privately belittle the child while publicly presenting the image
of a "happy family".
Tests are showing that the nervous system of the psychopath is markedly different -- they
feel less fear and anxiety than normal people. One carefully conducted experiment revealed
that "low arousal levels" not only causes impulsiveness and thrill-seeking, but also showed
how dense sociopaths are when it comes to changing their behavior. A group of
sociopaths and a group of healthy individuals were given a task, which was to learn what
lever (out of four) turned on a green light. One lever gave the subject an electric shock.
Both groups made the same number of errors, but the healthy group quickly learned to
avoid the punishing electric shock, while sociopaths took much longer to do so.
This need for higher levels of stimulation makes the psychopath seek dangerous situations.
When Gacy heard an ambulance, he would follow to see what sort of exciting catastrophe
was in the making. Part of the reason for many serial killers seeking to become cops is
probably due to the intensity of the job.
Genetics and physiological factors also contribute to the building of a psychopath. One
study in Copenhagen focused on a group of sociopaths who had been adopted as infants.
The biological relatives of sociopaths were 4 - 5 times more likely to be sociopathic than
the average person. Yet genetics don't tell the whole story; it only shows a predisposition
to antisocial behavior. Environment can make or break the psychopathic personality.
When a psychopath does inherit genetically-based, developmental disabilities, its is usually
a stunted development of the higher functions of the brain. 30 - 38% of psychopaths show
abnormal brain wave patterns, or EEGs. Infants and children typically have slower brain
wave activity, but it increases as they grow up. Not with psychopaths. Eventually, the
brain might mature as the psychopath ages. This may be why most serial killers are under
50. The abnormal brain wave activity comes from the temporal lobes and the limbic
system of the brain, the areas that control memory and emotions. When development of
this part of the brain is genetically impaired, and the parents of the child are abusive,
irresponsible or manipulative, the stage is set for disaster.
Can psychopaths be successfully treated? According to the psychiatrists, "No." Shock
treatment doesn't work; drugs have not proven successful in treatment; and
psychotherapy, which involves trust and a relationship with the therapist, is out of the
question, because psychopaths are incapable of opening up to others. They don't want to
Most psychopaths end up in prison, instead of psychiatric hospitals.
Inside the Psychopathic Mind
According to Dr. J. Reid Meloy, author of The Psychopathic Mind: Origins, Dynamics,
and Treatment, the psychopath is only capable of sadomasochistic relationships based on
power, not attachment. Psychopaths identify with the aggressive role model, such as an
abusive parent, and attack the weaker, more vulnerable self by projecting it onto others.
As multiple murderer Dennis Nilsen put it, "I was killing myself only but it was always the
bystander who died."
Dr. Meloy writes that in early childhood development, there is a split in the infant
psychopath: the "soft me" which is the vulnerable inside, and the "hard not-me" which is
the intrusive, punishing outside (neglectful or painful experiences.) The infant comes to
expect that all outside experiences will be painful, and so he turns inward. In an attempt to
protect himself from a harsh environment, the infant develops a "character armor,"
distrusting everything outside, and refusing to allow anything in. The child refuses to
identify with parents, and instead sees the parent as a malevolent stranger.
Soon, the child has no empathy for anyone. The wall has been built to last. "Human nature
is a nuisance, and fills me with disgust. Every so often one must let off steam, as it were,"
said "Acid Bath Murderer" John Haigh.
In normal development, the child bonds with the mother for nurturing and love. But for
the psychopath, the mother is experienced as an "aggressive predator, or passive
stranger." In the case of violent psychopaths, including serial killers, the child bonds
through sadomasochism or aggression. According to Meloy, "This individual perversely
and aggressively does to others as a predator what may, at any time, be done to him."
The Victim Through the Psychopath's Eyes
When they are stalking a victim, psychopaths don't consciously feel anger, "but the
violence shows the dissociated effect." Many killers seem to go into a trance during their
predatory and killing phases. The psychopath seeks idealized victims in order to shame,
humiliate, and destroy them."'I must have' ends with 'It was not worth having,'" says
Meloy. By degrading the victim, the psychopath is attempting to destroy the hostile enemy
within his own mind. At Gacy's trial, forensic psychiatrist Richard Rappaport said that "he
is so convinced that these qualities exist in this other person, he is completely out of touch
with reality. . . and he has to get rid of them and save himself . . . he has to kill them."
The victim is seen as a symbolic object. Bundy described it by using the third person:
"Since this girl in front of him represented not a person, but again the image, or something
desirable, the last thing we would expect him to want to do would be to personalize this
person. . . . Chattering and flattering and entertaining, as if seen through a motion picture
screen." And later, "They wouldn't be stereotypes necessarily. But they would be
reasonable facsimiles to women as a class. A class not of women, per se, but a class that
has almost been created through the mythology of women and how they are used as
objects." If Bundy got to know anything too personal about the victim, it ruined the
In a manic state, the psychopath is fearless and thinks he is omnipotent, sometimes evil
incarnate, as we have seen in Richard Ramirez's "Night Stalker" run. They are completely
out of touch with reality. One psychopath, while in custody, would dress himself as an
Indian warrior using his own feces as warpaint. Many serial killers identify with the myth
of the warrior. Calavaras County torturer Leonard Lake was fascinated by medieval
knights, and on a more modern cinematic note, many serial killers, including Gacy and
Kemper, worshipped John Wayne, the American archetype of the lone warrior.
Psychopaths know society's rights and wrongs, and will behave as if they sincerely believe
in these values. "There are individuals who are so psychopathically disturbed that, in my
opinion, no attempts should be made to treat them," says Meloy. Many psychopaths will
read psychology books, and become skilled at imitating other more "sympathetic" mental
illnesses, such as schizophrenia. They will use any means possible to manipulate their
evaluators. Do psychopaths ever legitimately hear voices in their heads? According to
Meloy, "most functionally psychotic individuals do not experience command
hallucinations, and those who do generally successfully resist them."
John Gacy was "a smooth talker and an obscurer who was trying to white-wash himself of
any wrongdoing. He has a high degree of social intelligence or awareness of the proper
way to behave in order to influence people," said Eugene Gauron, who evaluated Gacy
before the killings began. Still, he was released. Perhaps the most dramatic duping of the
doctors was Ed Kemper's evaluation. Two psychiatrists interviewed him and agreed that
he was now "safe." All the while, Kemper had the head of one of his victims sitting in the
trunk of his car, parked outside the doctors' office. Bundy charmed his way into the good
graces of his jailers, only to escape when they became more lax in their watch of him.
Is serial murderer ultimately a quest for sex or power, or both? It depends on who you
ask. Some believe that sexual domination is an expression of the need for power. "Sex is
only an instrument used by the killer to obtain power and domination over his victim,"
writes Steven Egger. According to Bundy, sex was not the principal source of
gratification. "I want to master life and death," he said. He wanted total control over his
victims: "Possessing them physically as one would possess a potted plant, a painting, or a
Porsche. Owning, as it were, this individual." Others believe that a deviant sexual drive is
the cause, and power is the tool to achieve sexual satisfaction.
Some serial killers will identify with perceived sources of power, in an attempt to siphon
off some of the feeling of control and omnipotence for themselves. Some will indulge in
illusions of religious grandeur, be it Christ or Satan. Others look to the police, and will
mimic them, as if their borrowed authority gives the killer the authority to kill others. One
of the most chilling power role models, however, is Hitler.
As a teenager, British Patrick Mackay was grimly predicted to become a "cold,
psychopathic killer" by one of his doctors. Mackay identified with Hitler, and would pose
in his own handcrafted Nazi uniforms. After confessing to killing eleven people, including
a Catholic priest with an axe, he declared, "I shan't shed a tear. Life is full of shocks of all
descriptions and they have to be faced."
"The demons wanted my penis," wrote David Berkowitz. For the "Son of Sam" murderer,
sex was not something that involved a willing partner. Instead, his warped sexual
fantasies, bred in social isolation, conjured up abstract forces of evil. We usually think of
demons as pursuing loftier goals, such as wayward souls, not penises. But for the lust
murderer, sexuality, power, and domination are intertwined so tightly they bleed into one
another. It is difficult to tell where sexual lust leaves off, and lust for blood takes over.
According to Ressler, Burgess, and Douglas in Sexual Homicide: Patterns and Motives,
the number of "murders classified as 'unknown motives' has risen dramatically." They
believe that there are two types of sexual homicide: "the rape or displaced anger
murderer" and the "sadistic, or lust murderer."
How does a lust murderer differ from a rapist who kill their victims to keep from being
caught? Rapists who kill, according to one study cited in Sexual Homicide (Ressler et al),
"rarely find any sexual satisfaction from the murder nor do they perform postmortem
sexual acts. In contrast, the sadistic murderer kills as part of a ritualized sadistic fantasy."
Mutilation is "overkill," obsessively injuring the victim's body far beyond what it necessary
to kill the victim. Because psychopaths have a low arousal rate, it takes more to stimulate
them. Macabre mutilations excite the lust murderer. For them, killing triggers a bizarre
sexual fantasy which had developed in the dark recesses of their warped minds.
Ressler writes that "since his sexual history is that of solo sex, and he finds interpersonal
relationships difficult, if not impossible, he reverts to masturbatory acts even when a real
partner (his victim) is available. Masturbation generally occurs after death, when his
fantasy is strongest." Because the fantasies do not involve an actual person but a symbolic,
sacrificial victim, the violence can escalate after death. "Mutilations often occur when the
victim is already dead, a time when killer has ultimate control over the victim," writes
Many of the serial killers we have discussed admit to an abnormally strong sex drive. Ed
Kemper, who would often behead his victims before raping them, said that he had a "very
strong sensual drive, a weird sexual drive that started early, a lot earlier than normal." Yet
he fantasized about dead women, not living ones. "If I killed them, you know, they
couldn't reject me as a man. It was more or less making a doll out of a human being . . .
and carrying out my fantasies with a doll, a living human doll." The most disturbing thrill
Kemper got from murder was the sexual excitement in decapitating his victims: "I
remember there was actually a sexual thrill . . . you hear that little pop and pull their heads
off and hold their heads up by the hair. Whipping their heads off, their body sitting there.
That'd get me off," he said.
Kemper went on to say, "With a girl, there's a lot left in the girl's body without a head. Of
course, the personality is gone." Those pesky personalities that serial killers find so
troublesome in their victims explains why they go to such extreme lengths to
depersonalize the bodies of their victims with horrifying mutilations. What is it about a
personality that these killers find so threatening, that they need to obliterate it?
Other killers who had abnormal sex drives include the "Boston Strangler," Albert
DeSalvo, who reportedly needed sexual release at least five times a day. He even went on
to blame the murders on his wife's coldness. "It really was Woman that I wanted, not any
special one, just Woman with what a woman has," he said. David Berkowitz compulsively
masturbated, and "his preoccupation with oral sexuality," wrote Dr. David Abrahamsen,
"suggests his immature sexual development."
Because sex is linked to death, not life, for the lust murderer, the concept of procreation
disturbs them. "Sex should not exist," said John Haigh. "Propagation should be an
insensible act, like the throwing off of acorns by an oak tree."
For some of these killers, sexuality is equated with sin and death by overzealous parents
who were anxious to keep their sons from becoming promiscuous. Their libidinous drive
was channeled into other deviant behavior. "Lipstick Killer" William Heirens claimed that
burglary was his primary form of sexual release. As a child, he had been warned that
sexual contact was dirty and "caused disease." Joseph Kallinger, who was raised by
sadistic Catholic parents who told him his penis had been operated on to keep it from
growing (it was actually a hernia operation) was sexually excited by fires. For Ed Gein,
who had been sternly taught that sex was sinful and degenerate, it almost seems natural
that he would associate his own sexual curiosity with death, the fruit of sin itself.
Killing the Woman Within
Henry Lee Lucas, who was forced to dress like a girl as a child, declared, "I was death on
women. I didn't feel they need to exist. I hated them, and I wanted to destroy every one I
could find. I was doing a good job of it." Many believe that John Gacy was killing young
men who symbolically represented his own hated homosexual self. Bobby Joe Long, who
had an extra X (or female) chromosome, and grew breasts in puberty, brutally murdered
prostitutes, and women who reminded him of his mother's promiscuity.
Currently, there is debate over whether serial killers who are "insecure" in their
masculinity are the most vicious killers, as if they needed to excavate and destroy the
female lurking within. Joel Norris wrote that if "the killer is especially savage with respect
to the bodies of his female victims, police should look for evidence of feminine physical
traits on the suspect. Does he have especially fine hair . . . Are his features
disproportionately delicate?" Yet, as Richard Tithecott points out in his book Of Men and
Monsters: Jeffrey Dahmer and the Construction of the Serial Killer, "The motivation of
serial killers is frequently explained in terms of the need to expel: to expel the feminine, to
expel the homosexual. . . . The question (and the problem) becomes not masculinity but
femininity, or rather femininity's invasion of masculinity." Tithecott goes on to point out
that somehow feminine qualities are to blame for the killer's psychosis, when historically,
almost all aggressive acts are masculine in nature. This targeting of the "female within" is
nothing more than the serial killer's attempt to blame the victim.
Morbid Curiosity and Cannibalism:
Before they begin killing, many serial killers display a fascination with death. This in itself
is not unusual. Perhaps if their antisocial personalities had not gotten in the way, serial
killers may have become doctors, scientists, morticians, or even artists. Gacy worked in a
mortuary, sleeping in the embalming room, alone with corpses, but was fired after corpses
were found partially undressed. Dennis Nilsen pretended he was a corpse and masturbated
in the mirror to his own dead image. As a youngster Berkowitz became fascinated by the
morbid: "I always had a fetish for murder and death -- sudden death and bloodshed
appealed to me," he said.
Jeffrey Dahmer, who loved the dissection in biology class, told a classmate that he sliced
open the fish he caught because "I want to see what it looks like inside, I like to see how
things work." He later gave the police the same excuse -- he cut open his victims "to see
how they work." His attorney rationalized Jeffrey's cannibalism by declaring that "he ate
body parts so that these poor people he killed would become alive in him." Cannibalism is
a literal form of internalization: instead of making room in their hearts for the one they
crave, the cannibal makes room in his stomach for the one they desire. The metaphorical
hunger for another's companionship becomes a literal hunger. Many describe it as a way to
incorporate the other into oneself. Because psychopaths are incapable of experiencing
empathy and love, this crude and primitive form of bonding becomes a sickening
One particularly gruesome example of this notion of "all-consuming love" is Japanese
cannibal Issei Sagawa, who killed and ate a Dutch student. He would lucidly recount how
he coveted his victim: "My passion is so great I want to possess her. I want to eat her. If I
do she will be mine forever." Sagawa hesitates when discovers her womb: "If she had lived
she would have had a baby in this womb. The thought depresses me for a moment." But
Sagawa continued on.
The Martha Stewart of serial killers, Ed Gein's gruesome home improvements featured
lamp shades made from human skin, seat covers, and skulls used for drinking cups. He
also made clothing and bracelets out of body parts. Anatomical textbooks were not
enough to satisfy his curiosity -- he took to grave robbing, and eventually murder.
Are serial killers insane? Not by legal standards. "The incidence of psychosis among
murderers is no greater than the incidence of psychosis in the total population," said
psychiatrist Donald Lunde. The legal definition of insanity is based on the 19th century
McNaghten Rules: Does the offender understand the difference between right and wrong?
If he flees or makes any attempt to hide the crime, then the offender is not insane, because
his actions show that he understood that what he was doing was wrong. Yet what person
in their right mind would filet young children and write letters to the parents, rhapsodizing
over what a fine meal their child made? In the case of Albert Fish, the jury found him
"insane, but he deserved to die anyway." Only a few, including the dimwitted Ed Gein and
sadistic Peter Sutcliffe have successfully pleaded insanity.
Always looking to manipulate, serial killers will do just about anything to convince the
authorities of their insanity. Being declared "legally insane" means avoiding death row, and
if the criminal can convince his keepers that he has fully recovered, there is the hope of
actually being released.
"Acid Bath Murderer" John Haigh drank his own urine in front of a jury to convince them
of his insanity, but only served to repulse them more. William Hickman was stupid enough
to put in writing his intention to convince the jury he is crazy: "I intend to throw a
laughing, screaming, diving act before the prosecution finishes their case. . ." (He closes
this letter to a fellow inmate with "P.S. You know and I know that I'm not insane
One of the most predictable attempts to shift the blame is by creating an evil dark side, or
alter ego. Some of these creations are named as the true culprits of the crimes. While in
custody H. H. Holmes invented "Edward Hatch," who he claimed was the shadowy
mastermind behind the murder of the young Pietzel children. "Lipstick Killer" William
Heirens created George Murman, and actually corresponded with George by letters. John
Gacy based his alter ego, "Jack Hanley," on a actual cop by the same name. Gacy's Jack
was tough, in control, and loathed homosexuality. When Gacy drank too much, the
punishing hand of Jack would take control. One of the most notorious alter egos is
"Hillside Strangler" Kenneth Bianchi's "Steve Walker." Steve came out during hypnotic
sessions as the aggressive opposite to Ken's gentle guy act. Clever hypnotists were able to
snare Steve as a hoax. (It was later revealed that Bianchi had seen the movie "Sybil" two
days prior to his psychiatric evaluation.)
Fabricating an alter ego is a convenient way to pin the guilt on another, even if that other
is within. It's a psychological variation of "the devil made me do it." But diabolical alter
egos are usually clumsy constructions that fall apart under scrutiny. At best, a legitimate
split personality could hope for a mental institution instead of death row. But authentic
cases are exceptionally rare.
Most schizophrenics will resist the aggressive commands of the auditory hallucinations
they hear, according to Dr. Meloy. Santa Cruz in the 1970's had a renaissance of
psychopathic killers. Of course, there is Edmund Kemper, the most articulate of them the
batch. His schizophrenic colleagues, however, are frightening examples of the truly
mentally-ill serial killer.
Herbert Mullin heard his father's voice in his head, commanding, "Why won't you give me
anything? Go kill somebody -- move!" By killing people, Mullin was convinced, he was
actually preventing earthquakes and tidal waves. Unlike most serial killers, he was not
seeking a certain type of victim. His 13 "sacrificial" victims included a family, a priest, a
homeless man and some hapless campers.
Upon his arrest everyone agreed that Mullin was a paranoid schizophrenic, but was found
"legally sane." Unlike many serial killers who try to convince the authorities that they are
crazy, Mullin tried to prove his sanity, stating that he was the victim of a huge conspiracy.
He declared that he "a good American person who was tricked into committing the
crimes. I know I deserve my freedom."
On a self-described "divine mission": John Linley Frazier, slaughtered a wealthy Santa
Cruz family in 1970 because he believed they had been "polluting and destroying the
Earth." Initially he was called an "acid casualty," but later tests revealed Frazier as an
acute paranoid schizophrenic. Nonetheless, Frazier was declared legally sane and
sentenced to life imprisonment.
David Berkowitz's "Son of Sam" routine was a well-constructed attempt to appear
schizophrenic. "There is no doubt in my mind that a demon has been living in me since
birth," he raved. "I want my soul back!" he wrote. "I have a right to be human." Later he
held a press conference, announcing that his story of demons had been an invention.
Are the psychopathic criminals really different from birth? Many parents say that their
children who grow up to be violent offenders are markedly different from their non-violent
siblings. Three-year-old Ted Bundy sneaked into his teenage aunt Julia's room one
morning, and slipped butcher knives under the covers of her bed. "He just stood there and
grinned," she said. Serial killer Carl Panzram himself wrote: "All of my family are as the
average human beings are. They are honest and hard working people. All except myself. I
have been a human-animile ever since I was born. When I was very young at 5 or 6 years
of age I was a thief and a lier and a mean despisable one at that. The older I got the
meaner I got." German child killer Peter Kurten had drowned two playmates by the tender
age of nine.
Are these children just born bad? Environment alone cannot explain deranged behavior --
too many abused and neglected children grow up to be law-abiding citizens. If there is a
genetic explanation, its a slippery, discreet mutation. We don't see entire families of serial
killers. There is no such thing as a "kill gene", but research is revealing some genetic
tendencies to violent behavior. In other words, bad seeds blossom in bad environments.
One study of twins who were raised apart, done by Yoon-Mi Hur and Thomas Bouchard
in 1997, revealed a strong link between impulsivity and sensation-seeking behavior,
"attributed almost entirely to genetic factors." Both sensation-seeking traits and
impulsivity have been "found to be higher in drug abusers, delinquents, and psychopaths."
Do Serial Killers Have an Extra Chromosome?
Multiple murderer Bobby Joe Long had an extra X (female) chromosome, otherwise
known as Klinefelter's syndrome, which meant he had the female hormone estrogen
circulating in higher amounts in his system. His breasts grew during puberty, which caused
him great embarrassment. Long, however, has an abundance of other serial killer
prerequisites. He suffered traumatic and repeated head injuries, among other things.
Conversely, an extra Y (male) chromosome was once in vogue as an explanation to
violence. Mass murderer Richard Speck's legal defense said he had an XYY genetic
makeup, but further tests proved this wrong. While an extra male chromosome seems like
a logical explanation for mutant-aggressive behavior, there is not much evidence that links
the X or Y chromosome to serial killers.
High testosterone in itself is not a dangerous thing, but when it is combined with low
levels of serotonin, the results might be deadly. Testosterone is associated with the need
for dominance (many successful athletes and businessmen have high testosterone levels.)
But since not everyone can be the top dog, serotonin keeps the tension from peaking, and
mellows us out. When serotonin levels are abnormally low, however, frustration can lead
to aggressive, even sadistic behavior, according to a study by Paul Bernhardt.
Some research has shown that violent offenders have higher trace levels of toxic heavy
metals (manganese, lead, cadmium and copper) in their systems. Excess manganese lowers
the level of serotonin and dopamine, which contributes to aggressive behavior. Alcohol
increases the effects. James Huberty, the mass murderer, had excessive amounts of the
toxic substance cadmium in his system.
"After I'm dead, they're going to open up my head and find that just like we've been saying
a part of my brain is black and dry and dead," said Bobby Joe Long, who suffered a severe
head injury after a motorcycle accident. According to many researchers, brain defects and
injuries have been an important link to violent behavior. When the hypothalamus, the
temporal lobe, and/or the limbic brain show damage, it may account for uncontrollable
The hypothalamus regulates the hormonal system and emotions. The "higher" brain has
limited control over the hypothalamus. Because of the physical closeness of sexual and
aggressive centers within the hypothalamus, sexual instinct and violence become
connected for lust murderers. The hypothalamus may be damaged through malnutrition or
The limbic brain is the part of the brain associated with emotion and motivation. When the
limbic brain is damaged, the individual loses control over primary emotions such as fear
and rage. The predatory gaze of the psychopath, according to Meloy, lacks emotions, and
is as cold as a reptile's blank stare. Reptiles are missing the limbic part of their brain, where
memories, emotions, socializing, and parental instincts reside. In other words, serial killers
are aptly described as "cold-blooded," just like their scaly reptilian brethren.
The temporal lobe is highly susceptible to injury, located where the skull bone is thinnest.
Blunt injuries, including falling on a hard surface, can easily damage this section of the
brain, creating lesions which cause forms of amnesia and epileptic seizures. Damage to the
temporal lobe can result in hair-trigger violent reactions and increased aggressive
responses. As a child, Ken Bianchi fell off of a jungle gym, and landed on the back of his
head. He soon began to have epileptic seizures.
Researcher Dominique LaPierre believes that the "prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain
involved in long-term planning and judgment, does not function properly in psychopathic
subjects." Paleopsychologists also believe that there is some sort of malfunction in the
brain of serial killers, that somehow their primitive brain overrides the "higher" brain:
reason and compassion take a backseat to lust, aggression, and appetite. A study by
Pavlos Hatzitaskos and colleagues reports that a large portion of death-row inmates have
had severe head injuries, and that approximately 70% of brain-injured patients develop
Some of these brain injuries are accidental, but many of them were inflicted during
childhood beatings. Among the many serial killers who had suffered head injuries are
Leonard Lake, David Berkowitz, Kenneth Bianchi, John Gacy, and Carl Panzram, who, as
a child, had some sort of head infection. "Finaly my head swelled up as big as a baloon. . .
. I was operated on in our own home. On the kitchen table," he wrote. "I would sure like
to know if this is the cause of my queer actions." Ted Bundy, however, had extensive
X-rays and brain scans, which revealed no evidence of brain disease or trauma.
Crime Times reports on findings that psychopaths have a greater fear threshold, and are
less likely to respond to fear-inducing stimuli, such as sudden, loud noises. In other words,
psychopaths may be immune to fear. The psychopath's heart rate and skin temperature are
low, and their "startle reaction" was substantially less than the average person. The
autonomic nervous system of intensely violent people is intensely sluggish . . . . They need
a higher level of thrill or stimulation in order to have an intense experience," says forensic
psychologist Shawn Johnston.
Studies show that the lack of physical touch can be harmful to the child's development. In
a study of chimpanzees, the babies who were not handled became withdrawn, and later
began to attack others. Some serial killers had been separated from parents at early age, or
were denied their mother's love and physical touch.
These physiological characteristics, however, do not guarantee a serial killer. Many have
brain injuries and biological abnormalities who are not violent. A lump on the head is no
singular forecast for a serial killer. Can evil be reduced to a chemical equation? Perhaps it
is a combination of environment and chemical predispositions. What we do know is that
no singular pattern emerges for serial killers. Many of these biological studies are new, so
perhaps in the future the chemical profile of serial killers will be revealed.
Strange and bizarre fantasies thrive in isolation and anger. For the fledgling serial killer,
fantasies of violence prompt further isolation, which in turn creates a greater reliance on
fantasy for pleasure, according to Robert Ressler (et al) in Sexual Homicide. "As I grew
up I realized, though imperfectly, that I was different from other people, and that the way
of life in my home was different from that in the homes of others. . . . This stimulated me
to introspection and strange mental questionings," said "Acid Bath Murderer" John Haigh.
Eventually, to sustain the fantasy, serial killers come to a point where they need to live it
out. They will dwell on the murder act for years, and drift into almost trance-like states
days before the murder, completely enraptured by their fantasy. Their victims are reduced
to hapless pawns in their wicked reverie. Much of the strange, ritualized mutilations come
from an inner drama that only the killer can understand.
"I made another world, and real men would enter it and they would never really get hurt at
all in the vivid unreal laws of the dream. I caused dreams which caused death. This is my
crime," said Dennis Nilsen. Nilsen's American counterpart Jeffrey Dahmer had a similar
insight: "I made my fantasy life more powerful than my real one."
Yet the brutal, messy reality of murder never completely fulfills the power of the fantasy.
In fact, it is usually a letdown, but the fantasy won't go away -- it is too deeply ingrained
in the killer's psyche. This accounts for the serial nature of lust murder. "The fantasy that
accompanies and generates the anticipation that precedes the crime is always more
stimulating than the immediate aftermath of the crime itself," observed Ted Bundy.
Many serial killers will keep "souvenirs" of their crime, which later refuels the fantasy.
When Bundy was asked why he took Polaroids of his victims, he said, "when you work
hard to do something right, you don't want to forget it."
Doctors B. R. Johnson and J. V. Becker at the University of Arizona are attempting to
understand how deeply fantasy warps the serial killer's mind. They are studying nine cases
of 14 - 18 year olds who have "clinically significant fantasies of becoming a serial killer."
The research is attempting to see if we can spot potential killers based on the potency of
the sadistic fantasies of teenage boys, and if there is any way to interrupt the link between
fantasy and action.
It's one thing to fantasize about killing someone, but it's another thing to do it. What
prompts serial killers to cross the line, again and again? Drugs are often involved,
especially alcohol, as we see in the case of Gacy (who also had Valium, amphetamines,
and pot in his arsenal) Ramirez, Nilsen and Dahmer.
According to Ressler et al, "stressors" are events that trigger the killer into action. They
can be "conflict with females, parental conflict, financial stress, marital problems, conflict
with males, birth of a child, physical injury, legal problems, and stress from a death." As
the killer grapples with frustration, anger, and resentment, the fantasies of killing can
eclipse reality. "Many triggering factors center around some aspect of control," says
Ressler. Gein's mother's death sent him over the edge, while Kemper's fight with his mom
made him crazed ("I remember one roof-raiser was over whether I should have my teeth
cleaned.") Christopher Wilder, who traveled across the country, raping, torturing, and
murdering eight women, claims his murderous rampage began after his marriage proposal
After the Murder
According to Joel Norris, there are 6 phases of the serial killer's cycle: 1) The Aura Phase,
where the killer begins losing grip on reality; 2) The Trolling Phase, when the killer
searches for a victim; 3) The Wooing Phase, where the killer lures his victim in; 4) The
Capture Phase, where the victim is entrapped; 5) The Murder or Totem phase, which is
the emotional high for killers; and finally, 6) The Depression Phase, which occurs after the
Norris writes that when depression sets in, it triggers the phases into beginning again.
Bundy said he never really got what he had hoped for out of the murders, and always felt
emptiness and hopelessness after. Joel Norris aptly describes the "post-homicidal
depression" the serial killer experiences: "The killer is simply acting out a ritualistic fantasy
. . . but, once sacrificed, the victims identity within the murderer's own fantasy is lost. The
victim no longer represents what the killer thought he or she represented. The image of a
fiancee who rejected the killer, the echo of the voice of the hated mother, or the taunting
of the distant father; all remain vividly in the killer's mind after the crime. Murder has not
erased or changed the past because the killer hates himself even more than he did before
the climax of emotion. . . it is only his own past that is acted out. He has failed again. . .
Instead of reversing the roles of his childhood, the killer has just reinforced them, and by
torturing and killing a defenseless victim, the killer has restated his most intimate
Many multiple murderers blame our violent culture for feeding their appetites. Days before
he was executed, Bundy declared that hard-core pornography was responsible for his
murderous rampage. In our entertainment, sex and violence seem to go hand in hand. Is
there any validity to Bundy's claim?
Many serial killers adopt violent figures as their role models. Mild mannered Peter Kurten,
who on the surface was a polished and polite gentleman, idolized Jack the Ripper while in
jail (Weimar Germany as a culture seemed fascinated by the Ripper's nefarious deeds.) "I
thought of what pleasure it would give me to do things of that kind once I got out again,"
he said. Both John Wayne Gacy and Ed Kemper worshipped John Wayne, who obviously
had a broader fan base than only serial murderers, but his vigilante justice appeals to the
killer who feels he has been wronged. To this day many homicidal acts are blamed on
movies and music. Although there is no direct proof that violence in the media creates
serial killers, it may activate the fantasy, and perhaps legitimizes it for some. As Ed
Kemper said regarding violent pornography, "That didn't make me mean. It just fueled the
According to Elliot Leyton, in his book Hunting Humans, serial killers are "not alien
creatures with deranged minds, but alienated men with disinterest in continuing the dull
lives in which they feel entrapped. Reared in a civilization which legitimizes violence as a
response to frustration, provided by the mass media and violent pornography with both the
advertising proclaiming the 'joy' of sadism and the instruction manual outlining correct
procedures, they grasp the 'manly' identity of pirate and avenger."
It is easier for us to see each other only as strangers, or stereotypes. The serial killer stalks
stereotypes. "We are creating strangers of each other," says Steven Egger. "As we become
strangers we begin to see others more as objects and less as human beings."
"Its the anonymity factor," said Bundy on the ease of killing. In the 20h century, the angst
of the city continues to spawn both killers and victims. Serial killers can easily troll for
victims among the "forgotten": runaways, prostitutes, drug addicts, and the
poverty-stricken. Perhaps the anonymity itself is a factor that creates a serial killer. Feeling
disenfranchised, forgotten, ignored in the looming crowd, the psychopath not only kills
those who mirror back his own forgotten, anonymous identity, but even makes a name for
himself, "becomes somebody" in the process.
Serial Killing as a Career?
David Berkowitz illustrates this possibility."Hello from the cracks in the sidewalks of New
York City, and from the ants that dwell in these cracks. . . " he wrote. Berkowitz had no
stable identity -- no achievements, no friends, no attachments. Just isolation. The "Son of
Sam" identity gave him great notoriety and power over others. "I believe they were
rooting for me," he said of the general public. He was thrilled to hear co-workers at the
post office chat about the Son of Sam, with no idea that the mild-mannered David was the
same psycho-killer in the daily newspapers.
Notoriety as a possible incentive is indeed frightening. The serial killers who are initially
motivated by a need for power love the media attention. Gacy treasured his scrapbook of
all the press he received. Jeffrey Dahmer's trial had "the air of a movie premiere, complete
with local celebrities, groupies who hounded for autographs, and a full-scale media
onslaught--of which I was a part," wrote Dahmer biographer Anne Schwartz.
But Dr. Meloy, author of The Psychopathic Mind, warns us against celebrating serial
killers: "If the murder attracts media attention and catalyzes both public fear and
fascination, it will reinforce the psychopathic's concept of self as larger than life. . . . In a
real sense, the popular media may mythologize predators to the degree that they do
become a legend in their own minds. This verification in reality of that which heretofore
had only been experienced in fantasy leads the psychopath to consider predation as the
sole means to achieve notoriety."
When does a serial killer stop? Either when they are caught or killed. Very few have
turned themselves in. Only Ed Kemper called the police to confess, and waited at a phone
booth to be picked up. Recently, a Humboldt county truck driver walked into a police
station with a female breast in his pocket as proof of his deeds. Some plea to be caught,
yet coyly disappear before the cops arrive to arrest them. William Heirens wrote his
memorable message ("For heavens sake catch me before I kill more I cannot control
myself") in bizarre, red lipstick cursive on the wall, while his victim lay dead, shot and
stabbed in the neck. If there are any serial killers who quit because they were satiated or
bored, we cannot know because they are not in captivity.
Some claim that if they could they would have indulged in mass destruction. The
"Vampire of Dusseldorf" Peter Kurten said "the more people the better. Yes if I had the
means of doing so, I would have killed whole masses of people -- brought about
catastrophes." When Carl Panzram wasn't fantasizing about poisoning towns with arsenic,
he spent his time plotting a grand scheme to incite war between the British and the
Americans. "I believe the whole human race should be exterminated, I'll do my best to do
it every chance I get," he told a jury before their deliberation (they sentenced him to death
in less than a minute.)
Are There Any "Reformed" Serial Killers?
Fortunately, our society is not willing to risk the opportunity to find out by releasing them.
In fact, one of the most outspoken critics of "reform" is a serial killer himself, the
unrepentant Carl Panzram: "I have no desire to reform myself. My only desire is to reform
people who try to reform me. And I believe that the only way to reform people is to kill
em. My Motto is, Rob em all, Rape em all and Kill em all."
Conclusion: "A person was a blank"
In the end, all we can conclude is that serial killers are human black holes. That they are so
normal, so generic, so invisible, they terrify us because they mirror us. Henry Lee Lucas
grimly proclaimed that "All across the country, there's people just like me, who set out to
destroy human life." Many of them describe themselves as having a piece missing,
something dead within, or as Bundy said, a void inside. Not only are the victims "a blank"
to the killer, as Lucas put it, they are blank to themselves. "What I wanted to see was the
death, and I wanted to see the triumph, the exultation over the death. . . . In other words, I
was winning over death. They were dead and I was alive. That was a victory in my case,"
mused Ed Kemper. In other words, "Get a life" becomes "Take a life."
Killing others is not an attempt to fill the void, but to spread the void. To make the other
into a lifeless object mimics the killers own lifelessness. "It didn't mean nothing, it just
didn't mean nothing." said DeSalvo. "It was so senseless that it makes sense, you know?"
The serial killer lives on the other side of our social boundaries. He is an embodiment of
the darkness, desire, and power that we must repress within ourselves. He is not a creature
of reason, but of excess and transgression and voracious appetites - selfish, carnal desire.
He breaks the social rules that confine the rest of us- our outrage keeps the boundaries
intact, while our curiosity can explore the dark recesses of our own repressed desires from
a safe distance. He crosses the line into a world of mayhem and depravity. We recoil at
their bloody antics, but remain transfixed.