Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

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?

Henry Lee Lucas
Henry Lee Lucas

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, turned the blame around and boasted 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."

Before we look at who they are, we must first describe what they are. The FBI defines serial murder as:

  • 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 random;
  • 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 meaning;
  • 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 have either attempted to become police themselves but were rejected, worked as security guards, or served in the military. Many, including John Gacy, the Hillside Stranglers, andTed Bundy, have disguised themselves as law enforcement officials to gain access to their victims.

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