Three features: a victim count of three or more, a break between killings and the desire to dominate and possess – these are the characteristics used to superficially classify serial killers (you can read more about these here).
Join us as we paint a broad character portrait of these individuals: are they able to resist these urges? Are they disturbed? Are they truly, simply evil?
Is there a type?
Statistically, in the United States and other countries, the average serial killer is male, white and from a lower to middle class background. They are usually in their twenties or thirties. As you might have learned from a previous article, childhood abuse may have also played a role in shaping these killers. In their youth, they may wet the bed, torture animals and set fires. Taken together, these red flag signs are known as the MacDonald triad and are thought to be predictors for violent tendencies later in life.
Finally, these killers usually display intelligence in their adolescence and may be fascinated by law enforcement — some may even have worked as police, security guards or been in the military.
You are who you kill
When it comes to selecting a victim, very seldom is this done at random. Aside from the fact that there is usually no previous relationship between the victim and the killer, the victim will often fit a specific description. Beyond this, the victims will have specific (often physical) characteristics that represent something for the killer.
For example, Ted Bundy targeted college-age women with long brown hair — the very same physical characteristics of his ex-fiancée who broke off their engagement. John Wayne Gacy strangled young men, or “worthless little queers and punks”, as he called them. This is thought to have been in a rage rooted in his own domineering father’s dislike of him.
With little exception, serial killers want to dominate and possess their victims. The feeling of controlling lives provides pleasure. Once the deed is done, however, they are spun again into a vicious cycle of self-loathing, loneliness and ultimately murder.
Just like you
Serial killer and necrophiliac Dennis Nilsen once said:
“A mind can be evil without being abnormal.”
The fact serial killers are by any standards rational and “normal” is terrifying in itself. They are usually charming, well-dressed and polite. Just as a chameleon is able to camouflage themselves in a dense forest, these killers are able to mask the evil that lies beneath in everyday society.
Many serial killers are classified as psychopaths who, by nature, are unable to process emotions correctly – never mind understand them. They mimic the emotions they observe their prey exhibiting. In a sense, it is the ultimate disguise. Henry Lee Lucas, who killed at least one hundred and fifty seven people, described being a serial killer as “being like a movie-star…you’re just playing the part”.
Their calm rationality is present throughout — even after apprehended Bundy maintained his level-headed demeanour. One FBI investigator on the case stated that he [Bundy] could never grasp why people didn’t accept that he killed simply because he wanted to.
Driven to murder
The question of what motivates a serial killer is hotly-debated. Explanations (e.g. child abuse, genetics, head injuries, past trauma) only go a short way in explaining what makes these people tick. In light of the fact that a large proportion of the population will have been exposed to one or more of these supposed factors, the question about what predisposes one to being a serial killer remains unanswered.
Really, it comes down to a question of impulse. Are serial killers simply not able to control the rage driven impulse to hurt, maim and kill? The majority of people have the ability to reign in our aggression and prevent this being taken out on others, so is this missing “safety latch” the common thread among serial killers? Herbert Mullin, killer of thirteen people, claimed that the voices in his head made him do it by telling him to “sing the die song”. Other killers claim to have been driven by sexual fantasies influenced by pornography, and still others by the fact their victims deserved to die.
Your turn: What do you think motivates a serial killer? Do you believe that they are truly not able to control their impulses?