Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

What Makes Serial Killers Tick?

Sex & Death

William Heirens
William Heirens

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 substitute.

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 he 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.

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