The Inner Workings of a Serial Killer

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Serial killers have long been of interest to American popular culture as well as criminal psychologists. A serial killer is defined as an individual who commits three or more acts of murder over an extended period of time (Allely, Minnis, Thompson, Wilson, & Gillberg, 2014). Typically, these killings involve the sexual assault of their victims as well as sadistic acts of torture.

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These men and women who commit these extreme and prolonged acts of violence are important yet difficult to study. Due to the rarity of serial killers, more research needs to be done to further the existing scholarship regarding serial killers. Serial killers are an extreme example of the behavior that can arise from people who have anti-social personality disorder. Not only does the presence of a personality disorder influence their actions, but biological and social processes have an impact on whether a person will engage in this severe level of killings. Sometimes these murders are calculated and victims are chosen to fit a desired killing type, or victims are chosen due to opportunity. These serial killers can be charismatic and charming, such as Ted Bundy, or isolated and detached like Jeffrey Dahmer. The factors that aid in the making of a serial killer are complex and involve specific psychological aspects of personality, biological processes, and negative environmental stressors.

The presence of anti-social personality disorder is one of the main psychological indicators that a person is at risk for engaging in serial killings (Kocsis & Irwin, 1998). Individuals who have anti-social personality disorders have a persistent disregard for human life (Kring, Johnson, Davidson, Neale, 2016). They feel almost no empathy for their victims and may know that what they are doing is wrong, but they continue to kill regardless of the consequences. Not all people who are diagnosed with anti-social personality disorder will become a serial killer, but most serial killers have an anti-social personality disorder diagnosis (Culhane, Hilstad, Freng & Gray, 2011). According to the DSMV, the criteria for anti-social personality disorder is age at least 18 with an evidence of conduct disorder before age 15, and a pervasive pattern of disregard for the rights of others since the age of 15, as shown by at least three of the following: repeated law breaking, deceitfulness, lying, impulsivity, irritability and aggressiveness, reckless disregard for own safety and that of others, irresponsibility as seen in unreliable employment or financial history, and lack of remorse (Kring, Johnson, Davidson, Neale, 2016). The combination of these criteria puts an individual at risk for committing serial murders.

Another important psychological element to serial killers is psychopathy. Psychopathy involves the continuous violation of the rights of others, as well as a complete disregard for such rights (Kocsis & Irwin, 1998). It also involves a lack of empathy with the feelings of others and a lack of remorse for any offence or injury to others, as well as an inflated self-concept and superficial charm (Kocsis & Irwin, 1998). This psychopathy is seen in the brutal nature of the killings as serial killers have little to no regard for the harm that they inflict on their victims. The victims are seen as a means for the serial killer to gain some sense of satisfaction, typically sexual satisfaction (Kocsis & Irwin, 1998). In addition, serial killers lack any real empathy, so their emotions are purely manipulative (Kocsis & Irwin, 1998). For example, serial killer Ted Bundy used his charismatic attitude to give his victims a sense of comfort, which then allowed him to lure them to their deaths. Psychopathy is a personality dimension that is prevalent in most serial killers but not all (Kocsis & Irwin, 1998).

Narcissism is another dimension of personality that is seen in serial killers. Narcissists believe that they are special and important and must be treated as such. Narcissist have a need for admiration and recognition of their importance, and when this attention is not given, they can become quite upset. Similar to psychopathy, narcissism consists of a lack of empathy for others (Kocsis & Irwin, 1998). However, there is a distinction between the two as psychopaths percieve other people as objects for self-gratification, whereas narcissists need to establish a sense of their superiority over others and demand admiration (Kocsis & Irwin, 1998). This feature of narcissism is prevalent in many serial offenders (Kocsis & Irwin, 1998). The desire for admiration in serial killers is seen through the exhibitionistic behaviors of some serial offenders (Kocsis & Irwin, 1998). For example, Australian serial killer John Glover boasted of his self-perceived superior intellectual abilities despite not having a college degree and having a below average IQ. Serial killers who exhibit narcissistic tendencies feel great pride for their kills and this pride is exemplified when publicly recognized by police or news outlets. This is used as a tactic by law enforcement to trick the killer into revealing more information. This was seen in the case of Edmund Kemper, as the more praise Kemper received for the ingenuity of his offences, the more information he would reveal (Kocsis & Irwin, 1998). Understanding the elements of narcissism are not only important for the reasonings behind serial killer’s actions, but can also be used to apprehend them.

Sadism is another important psychological element to a serial killer’s personality. Sadism is when an individual takes pleasure in harming others, and some may even experience sexual gratification watching their victims suffer (Kocsis & Irwin, 1998). Not all sadists are serial killers, as not all kill their victims, but instead use psychological torture and manipulation to satisfy their urges. Sadists use a variety of methods to inflict damage on their victims. Some common examples would be taking away the autonomy and free will of their victims or physically torturing their victims (Kocsis & Irwin, 1998). Jeffrey Dahmer is a well-known sadistic serial killer. Dahmer brutally tortured and killed his victims. In addition to this physical torture, Dahmer inflicted psychological torture on his community. At a search party for one of the missing persons he murdered, he served soup that he made with the human remains of his victims. While the personality dimensions of anti-social personality disorder, psychopathy, narcissism, and sadism, consist of diagnostic differences, they all function towards the psychology of the serial offender (Kocsis & Irwin, 1998).

The biological processes behind serial killers are also important to note. Certain developmental and intellectual disabilities have recently been associated with serial offenders. Autism spectrum disorder may play a role in an individual becoming a serial offender. Criminal psychologists are advocating for the new diagnosis of Autistic psychopathy, which would function as a subcategory of Asperger’s syndrome (Allely, Minnis, Thompson, Wilson, & Gillberg, 2014). Research suggests that Autistic Psychopathy may trigger the incentive of some of these serial killers (Allely, Minnis, Thompson, Wilson, & Gillberg, 2014). The question of whether there is a connection between ASD and extreme violence is still unanswered because empirical research investigating offenders with Autism Spectrum Disorders is relatively rare (Allely, Minnis, Thompson, Wilson, & Gillberg, 2014). There is also research supporting neuro-chemical imbalances and aggression. Low serotoninergic activity has been linked to impulsive, self-destructive violence, while an increase in synaptic serotonin levels have been linked to aggression (Allely, Minnis, Thompson, Wilson, & Gillberg, 2014). The increase of dopamine and norepinephrine also will heighten aggression. Monoamine oxidase-A (MAO-A) is an enzyme that is associated in the metabolism of norepinephrine, serotonin and dopamine and its levels are genetically determined (Allely, Minnis, Thompson, Wilson, & Gillberg, 2014). Men with low MAO-A activity are three times more likely to be convicted of a violent crime by the time they are 26 years old than men with high MAO-A activity (Allely, Minnis, Thompson, Wilson, & Gillberg, 2014). Hypoglycemia is also associated with impulsive, violent behavior, and the link may be mediated via serotonergic mechanisms and alcohol consumption. (Allely, Minnis, Thompson, Wilson, & Gillberg, 2014). Individuals who have the biological predisposition for aggression and violent behaviors will be more likely to commit serial murders. It is also suggested that individuals who suffer from head injuries will be more likely to commit violent criminal offences (Allely, Minnis, Thompson, Wilson, & Gillberg, 2014). Anti-social personality disorder and many of the other personality dimensions that are found in serial killers are genetic. The biological risk factors mentioned above put these individuals at a significantly greater risk for developing into a serial murderer.

In addition to the biological and social factors, environmental influences also have an important impact on the making of serial killers. In a study of more than 60 serial murderers, researchers found that psychological and/or physical abuse was a prevalent trait of serial killers’ childhoods (Allely, Minnis, Thompson, Wilson, & Gillberg, 2014). Not all children who suffer from abuse will become serial killers, but childhood emotional and physical trauma can be an influential factor in serial offenders. In a group of 62 male serial killers, 48% had been rejected as children by a parent or some other important person in their lives (Allely, Minnis, Thompson, Wilson, & Gillberg, 2014). In many cases, serial killers faced extreme abuse as children and grew up in environments with little nurturing or comfort. Children are more likely to thrive emotionally if there are positive interactions with their parents (Culhane, Hilstad, Freng & Gray, 2011). The children who live in abusive and neglectful households on average have more behavioral and emotional problems, which in extreme cases can lead to serial murders (Culhane, Hilstad, Freng & Gray, 2011). Some serial killers may also face bullying and teasing from their peers. For example, serial killer Ronald Dominique was bullied for many years for being gay (Forsyth, 2015). He explains that this bullying over his sexuality resulted in him having many negative thoughts regarding his sexuality. Dominique raped and murdered over 23 men, most of whom were male prostitutes (Forsyth, 2015). These violent crimes against gay men could be a result of the severe bullying that Dominique faced as a teen for being a homosexual. Serial killer Edmund Kemper faced emotional and physical abuse from his mother. He was constantly ostracized in his family and was forced to sleep in the garage, and oftentimes his mother would restrict his food or water. Kemper developed a strong hatred for women and brutally raped, beat, and tortured ten women (Forsyth, 2015). His mother and grandmother were two of his victims (Forsyth, 2015). The environmental and social aspects of an individual’s life have important consequences on behavior, and in the cases of extreme abuse and social ridicule, these factors can aid in the development of serial offenders.

The treatment for serial killers is extremely difficult as most do not undergo therapy until they are incarcerated. Due to the nature of these serial offenders, most do not want to undergo treatment as it means that they will need to stop their killings (Culhane, Hilstad, Freng & Gray, 2011). The most common forms of treatment include mood stabilizers, such as anti-psychotics and social skills training (Kring, Johnson, Davidson & Neale, 2016). However, the combination of these treatments may not be effective, due to the lack of empathy and regard for others that serial offenders exhibit.

There are a variety of factors which go into the creation of a serial killer. These violent offenders are rare, but usually generate a sizable interest among the public. The psychological, biological, and environmental elements are complex and work together to create the behavioral and compulsive response to calculated multiple killings. When trying to understand the inner workings of a serial killer it is important to note the individual interactions of the dimensions of one’s personality, their specific biological processes, and well as the presence of negative environmental and social factors.

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