Serial Killers: the Motive

Serial murders and the people who commit them are often intriguing to the public. Everything about the killer’s personal life is considered interesting and it sparks a deep dive into their background. While the information may be interesting, it is also an important factor in their criminal career. Background information is a look into the makings of a serial killer. Everything from childhood neglect and abuse to race is considered when thinking of someone’s predisposition to murder. There are motives and characteristics that are found to be common among serial killers and it is best to know which ones to look for when analyzing a serial killer. Knowing which characteristics to look for would aid in profiling active and potential serial murderers. Having adequate and extensive profiles could potentially aid in solving past and current murders while also preventing new ones.

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Motivation and Serial Killers

People often misunderstand a serial killer’s motive to kill. Also, many people do not understand what could provoke such actions. Motivation consists of the forces acting on or within an organism to initiate and direct behavior. (Petri,2015). Most serial killer motivation stems from the childhood and background. The characteristics of serial killers show similarities throughout many different case studies. Many serial killers had traumatizing childhood, where they were neglected, and experience difficult hardship during their younger years of life.

Characteristics of a Serial Killer

What is a serial killer? A serial killer is commonly defined as a person who has murdered more than three people on at least three separate occasions with a period of rest between kills. The exact number of serial killers all throughout history is not known, but the number estimates are as high as 1,500. A question commonly asked is why these murders occur. The reason this question is so common is due to the vast amount of serial killers and the cruel nature of the crimes. Discovering the reason why these serial killers kill has brought up many aspects of the killer’s background. Possible reasons why they commit those crimes have been thought to been biological reasons, though no one is born a serial killer (Iona,2013) and familial contributions. However, instead of asking why serial killers kill, we should be asking what most serial killers have in common. The reason why we should be asking that is, so we can determine who is more likely to become a serial killer. There are many aspects to look at when determining who has a predisposition to commit serial murder. There are several characteristics ranging from race and age to childhood experiences that can predetermine whether someone will become a serial killer. There have been almost 90 serial killers in the United States in the last 40 years and there are over 30 active serial killers at any given time. Looking at common traits that most serial killers share could be beneficial to help lower these numbers.

Common Characteristics

Childhood Occurrences as a Factor

In the serial killer community there is more instance of childhood abuse than that of the general population. Abuse, which can be defined as the cruel treatment of humans or animals, is separated into several categories. Those categories are physical abuse, sexual abuse, psychological abuse, and neglect. Mitchell and Aamodt (2005), conducted a study focused on 50 serial killers who had valid background information. Information about the childhood abuse of each killer was gathered from books, newspaper articles, and online sites. Abuse was broken down into the previously defined categories, physical abuse, sexual abuse, psychological abuse, and neglect and was then compared to societal norms from 2001. All categories of abuse, excluding neglect was significantly higher in the serial killer population. For serial killers, the prevalence of physical abuse was 36% in comparison to the general population as was sexual abuse which was 26% and psychological abuse which was 50%. Neglect was equally prevalent in both the serial killer and societal norm populations at 18% each.

In addition to suffering childhood abuse, bedwetting during childhood is common in serial killers. 60% of serial killers wet the bed well into their adolescent years (Miller, 2004). Wetting the bed past the age of 5 is seen as a humiliating act. Many of the parents of serial killers would belittle and demean them, causing even more humiliation. Despite the higher rates of adolescent bedwetting in serial killers, the bedwetting does not exactly mean that they will become a serial murderer. However, bedwetting past the usual age does correlate to violent acts against animals. Most serial killers have admitted to acting out their violent fantasies on animals (Simons,2001). Those violent acts are often ignored or missed by their parents, as most serial killers have dysfunctional backgrounds.

During childhood many serial killers reported having negative fantasies. Most of their fantasies were about control and violation. Some had fantasies about mutilating their genitals and their own personal traumas repeatedly (Allely et al, 2014). They never discussed any of their fantasies, but they often thought of fulfilling their fantasies frequently. The violent childhood fantasies of the serial killers follow them into adulthood (Carlisle,1993). Before committing their first murder, their fantasies were centered around actually committing the murder, while after committing the first murder, they would focus on acting out the next murders with greater efficiency, no matter if the murders were committed in childhood or adulthood.

Head injuries received during childhood are common within the serial killer community. 70% of serial killers had received head injuries during their childhood (Miller, 2014). These head injuries were the product of repeated physical abuse, accidents, or birth injuries. Head injuries can be linked to aggressive and violent behavior. Damage to the areas of the brain responsible for hormones, aggression, emotion, and motivation can cause spontaneous aggression.

Gender, Race, and Age as biggest indictors

Gender, age, and race of serial killers is very important. It is crucial to know what you are looking for and physical appearance is necessary knowledge. That knowledge can also help with narrowing down the motives, victims type, and murder methods of serial killers. Most serial killers are white males and most victims of serial killings are white females (Defronzo, 2004 &2007). However contrary to popular belief minorities have higher rates of serial killing than one would think (Branson,2012). As stated previously, most serial killers are white with rates over 50%, while African-Americans have numbers just over 40%. Those numbers were just for the United States, but globally speaking they are not much different with white serial killers having numbers over 50% and African-Americans having numbers at 30% (Miller,2014).

When comparing male to female serial killers there is a significant difference. Over 90% of all serial killers have been male, with less than 10% being female. (Miller, 2014) There is also a significant difference in the motives and victims between men and women serial killers. While males tend to murder victim’s unknown to them, females murder those who are close to them. Many female serial killer victims are men and then come children and the elderly, opposite of the victims of males. The motives of women are opposite of men as well. While men primarily commit serial murder for enjoyment purposes such as power and lust (Herrero et al,2017), women do it for financial gain, comfort, and revenge. The most popular type of female serial killer is the Black Widow, which is one who murders three or more husbands or lovers for financial gain (Wattis, 2016).

The method in which female and male serial killers murder is also very different. Female serial killers tend to be very effective, while also using quieter and less messy methods than males (Bartels & Parsons,2014). For many female serial killers, poison is the preferred method. Other methods such as shooting, stabbing, suffocation, and drowning are also found with female serial killers, although not as commonly. Male serial killers on the other hand generally use shooting as the murder method, with strangulation, stabbing, and bludgeoning coming in close. Even though shooting is the primary method for males, strangulation and stabbing are considered the most personal methods and it adds to their enjoyment of the kill.

Serial killers are at their peak during their 20’s and 30’s. The average age of a serial killer, combining all races and genders, is 29. The average age at first kill is 28 for males and 30 for females. However, some serial killers acted out their first murder during childhood, while a few committed their first one over the age of 50 (Miller,2014).

Characteristics in real cases

Most, if not all these common serial killer characteristics can be applied to real life cases. Past serial killers have had several things in common and have been the basis for what to look for when searching for a serial murderer.

Prime Examples

Ted Bundy

Ted Bundy was born in Burlington, Vermont on November 24, 1946, in a home for unwed mothers (Piel,2015). His mother was just a teen and his father were unknown. His maternal grandparents took on the role as his parents, while his mother posed as his sister. His grandfather was described as abusive with tyrant behavior. Despite this, Ted clung to his grandfather. His real mother moved him out of his grandparent’s house to Washington when he was 4 to get him away from her parents dysfunctional and abusive behavior.

As a teen he reported being a loner and walking the streets looking for pornography or open windows, so he could spy on unsuspecting women. He confessed to having violent fantasies about controlling women and getting them to obey him. He also had a juvenile record for theft. Ted Bundy’s earliest confirmed killed occurred when he was 28.

Bundy tended to prey on young women in college who tended to be attractive, starting in Washington, then in Utah, Colorado, and finally Florida. Bundy would lure these women in under false pretenses, often pretending to be an injured man sporting a sling for in his arm or cast for his leg. He would convince them to help carry his books or unload items from his car. Once they got to his car he would hit them over the head with a pipe or crowbar. Bundy was able to rape then murder a confirmed number of 30 women (Piel, 2015). He primarily strangled or bludgeoned his victims before mutilating them postmortem. He prolonged his acts by going back to see his victims at their dump sites or even taking them home in order to gain further sexual enjoyment. In some cases, he even displayed the victims decapitated heads in his apartment and slept with their corpses until the smell made it insufferable.

Bundy had many of the common characteristics of serial killers. He was raised in an abusive home as a child and he had violent fantasies. He was a white male, which makes up many serial killers, and he committed his first murder at 28, which is the average age for such. All his victims were white females, which is the most common victim type. His motive for killing was enjoyment, which is the primary motive among males. He preferred to murder his victims by strangulation or bludgeoning, common male serial killer practices.

In conclusion, there are several characteristics that can indicate a serial killer. While some characteristics are found to be more common, they are all still important. It is best to investigate childhood occurrences when profiling active and current serial killers as it would be vital to gather background information about a potential serial killer. When profiling potential serial killers, accessing the characteristics and their backgrounds can be vital to solving current and future serial murders.

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Serial Killers: The Motive. (2019, Jul 03). Retrieved January 29, 2023 , from

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