The victim counts of Jeffrey Dahmer (seventeen), and that of Columbine Shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold (thirteen), are somewhat comparable. However, despite the fact that these killers are responsible for a large number of deaths, they are categorised in very different ways.
Serial killers, like Jeffrey Dahmer, Christopher Wilder and Richard Ramirez, tend to be classified as sexual killers. The other category refers to mass killers — for example, Omar Mateen, who carried out the horrific shooting in a Florida’s Pulse nightclub.
But, what characteristics separate these two types of killers? Some differences you may be expected, but some may come as a bit of a surprise…
On the clock: time frame
One key difference between mass killers and sexual killers is time frame. Mass murderers, by definition, kill a large number of people over a short period of time, without any “breaks” in between kills. These kills usually occur at just one location.
On the other hand, sexual killers tend to kill their victims over an extended period of time — often seeking out another when the urge and desire overwhelms them again. Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer, killed his victims over a period of at least sixteen years, only being brought to justice after twenty. While these killers usually have some sort of a pattern to their behaviour — for example, a preferred body dumpsite or location for the murder to occur — there is a lot more variation.
I dreamed a dream: the motivations
The motivations behind these two types of killers differ markedly. Mass killers, such as those that target schools or universities, are usually driven by the need to right a perceived wrong. You may have read our recent article where we talked about the case of Michael Carneal who opened fire on a prayer group at his school in retaliation for bullying he experienced. Ironically often, if not always, their actions only serve to intensify their psychological torment.
Sexual crime may be driven by disturbing fantasies. Unsurprisingly, no two serial killers tend to have the exact same fantasy which serves to explain the difference in modus operandi between them. For example, for Ted Bundy, complete sexual ownership of a lifeless corpse was his ultimate desire whereas Jeffrey Dahmer took control of his victims by actually consuming them. You can read more about this in our article on cannibalism.
Mine all mine: the feeling of possession
Ted Bundy once described how a murder can be a sexual experience. He described how:
“The initial sexual encounter would be more or less a voluntary one that did not wholly gratify the full spectrum of desires that he had intended. And so, his sexual desire builds back up and joins… this other need to totally possess her. As she lay there, somewhere between coma and sleep, he strangled her to death.
The key word here is “possess”. Sexual killers achieve gratification through full ownership of their victims. Sexual killers savour their “work”, obsess over it, keep records and even souvenirs to retain that feeling of possession for as long as possible.
Where this differentiates sexual killers from mass killers, is that mass killers, may be driven by a need to correct a situation. It is the end result of their actions that they (falsely) believe will give them a sense of satisfaction. On the other hands, sexual killers revel in the act of murder itself.
Can’t fight this feeling: emotional state
Mass killings are often committed by individuals in a depressed and paranoid mental state. They seem themselves as somewhat heroes of retribution taking vengeance on the world they fear and hate. Often these attacks end in the killer committing suicide.
This is almost in complete contrast to the controlled, cunning and clinical sexual killer. Aside from potential psychopathology (such as psychopathy or paranoid schizophrenia), these individuals tend to be in a reasonably stable state of mental health. While we might want to perceive them as deranged, many of them certainly wouldn’t have been able to befuddle investigators for as long as they had without some sort of rationality on their side.
Your turn: Can you think of any other differences between mass and sexual killers? Contribute to the discussion below.