Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Stalkers: The Psychological Terrorist

Stalker Types

Book cover: The Psychology of Stalking
Book cover: The
Psychology of
Stalking

Dr. J. Reid Meloy, author of Violent Attachments and editor of The Psychology of Stalking, is an expert on stalking behavior. Pathological attachments, he says, most often occur in males and generally start in the fourth decade of their lives. It follows a fairly predictable progression:

  1. After initial contact, the stalker develops feelings like infatuation, and therefore places the love object on a pedestal.
  2. The stalker then begins to approach the object. It might take a while, but once contact is made, the stalker's behavior sets him up for rejection.
  3. Rejection triggers the delusion through which the stalker projects his own feelings onto the object: She loves me, too.
  4. The stalker also develops intense anger to mask his shame, which fuels the obsessive pursuit of the object. He now wants to control through harassment or injury.
  5. The stalker must restore his narcissistic fantasy.
  6. Violence is most likely to occur when the love object is devalued, as through an imagined betrayal.

Stalkers who are also psychopaths, Meloy says, experience only low levels of empathy or an absence of it altogether. Their relationships tend to be sadistic, based in power over others. He said he believes that this is associated with a lack of early attachment to others in the family. Meloy claims that psychopaths are biologically predisposed to antisocial activity because they have a hyper-reactive autonomic nervous system. Crime or exploiting others excites them. That means they're motivated to do things that heighten their nervous system and have no real conscience about hurting others.

The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that every year over a million and a half people are stalked, over two-thirds of them women. Ninety percent of women killed by husbands or boyfriends had first been stalked. One in 12 women and one in 45 men in the U.S. - about 10 million people - has been or will be stalked sometime in the future. . (Among celebrities and other high-profile people alone, one security company has amassed over 300,000 communications. )

While many stalkers only threaten harm, a small percentage carry out their threats, damaging property or harming pets. With the rise in popularity of the Internet, cyber-stalking has become yet another avenue of danger. Many stalkers have a prior criminal record and show evidence of substance abuse, a mood disorder, a personality disorder, or psychosis. At least half of all stalkers threaten their victims, which increases the possibility of violence. Frequency of violence averages 25 to 35 percent, with most violence occurring between people who have been romantically involved in the past.

The unrelenting harassment causes great emotional stress in the targeted victims. Some people lose their jobs or have to change their identity and move. They may suffer from extreme anxiety, sleep disorders and depression. Some consider suicide. If they have family members or children who are brought under the threat umbrella, they suffer even more from guilt and fear for the others. Even if these incidents get reported, restraining laws can do little against the verbal harassment. In fact some laws require that there be a genuine risk of danger or a pattern of incidents before formal protection is offered.

There's no easy way to predict who might become a stalker. It could be a former boyfriend, girlfriend, or spouse; a fellow employee who has spotted his target in some casual encounter; a hostile neighbor; a video store clerk; and even a stranger who happens to have seen the victim on the street. Even people who were not abusive prior to their obsession can become so in the throes of it, because according to Janet S. Rulo-Pierson, a hospital counselor, they slowly exchange reality for an imaginary world that's more comforting and empowering.

Several stalker typologies have been developed, and according to Dr. Michael Zona and his colleagues from the University of Southern California School of Medicine, stalkers appear to come in three basic varieties, with a perverse twist on stalking that adds a fourth important category:

  1. Simple obsessional
    The most common form is male with a female with whom he was once sexually intimate.
  2. Love obsessional
    A love-obsessed stalker tends to idealize a celebrity or someone he has seen from afar and he develops an unrealistic belief that the target person will agree to a relationship.
  3. Erotomania
    Someone suffering from this more extreme obsession believes that the victim loves him or her.
  4. False victimization
    Claiming harassment and stalking when none exists, this behavior is usually carried on by people with histrionic personality disorders.

Another method of categorizing stalkers comes from the team who wrote the FBI's Crime Classification Manual:

  1. Non-domestic stalker, who has no personal relationship with the victim
  2. Organized (based in a calculated, controlled aggression)
  3. Delusional (based in a fixation like erotomania)
  4. Domestic stalker, who has had a prior relationship with the victim and feels motivated to continue the relationship; this constitutes around 60 percent of stalkers and the aggression often culminates in violence.

Stalkers tend to be unemployed or underemployed, but are smarter than other criminals. They often have a history of failed intimate relationships. They tend to devalue their victims and to sexualize them. They also idealize certain people, minimize what they are doing to resist, project onto people motives and actions that have no basis in truth, and rationalize that the target person deserves to be harassed and violated.

While many stalkers view their actions within a delusional framework and therefore see no need to get help, a few do actually approach professionals. One case resulted in a landmark decision that shifted certain responsibilities onto the shoulders of therapists.

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