A serial killer is someone who has murdered three or more people over a period of more than a month, with a cooling-off period between murders. The motive is usually based on psychological (often sexual) gratification, though the motives may also include anger, thrill, money, and attention-seeking.
According to the FBI, more than 70% of serial killers experienced problems related to substance abuse. While only a few serial killers were actually addicted to alcohol and substances, many of them encountered them in their youth.
Many serial killers experienced sexually stressful events in childhood.
Dr. Harold Shipman is regarded as the most prolific serial killer in modern history, with over 250 murders ascribed to him. He was a British doctor who murdered his patients: the oldest was a 93-year-old woman, and the youngest was a 41-year-old man. He hanged himself in his cell in 2004, a day before his 58th birthday.
The blockbuster movie Se7en is a creepy thriller about a serial murderer who contrives to kill his victims in accordance with the seven deadly sins (lust, greed, gluttony, sloth, pride, anger, and envy). Another blockbuster about a serial killer is the Oscar-winning thriller Silence of the Lambs.
America's first serial killer is considered to be Dr. H.H. Holmes, who confessed to 27 murders in the late 1890s. He claimed that he could not help the fact that he was "a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing".
Almost all serial killers admit that they started by acting out their fantasies on small animals before they moved to humans and that animal torture brought them a great source of pleasure. Given that most serial killers are from dysfunctional families, such pathological and abnormal behavior may be ignored. Jeffrey Dahmer's father, for example, had no qualms that his son performed animal dissections. Dahmer impaled frogs', cats', and dogs' heads on sticks.
Former FBI Special Agent Robert K. Ressler (1937 - 2013) is the man credited with coining the term "serial killer" in 1971.
Steven Egger, in his book Murder Among Us, notes that serial murderers are frequently found to have an unusual or unnatural relationship with their mothers (Hitchcock's Normal Bates is an archetype).
While many serial killers were abused or beaten as children, there are exceptions. Jeffrey Dahmer had an apparently normal upbringing, yet became one of the most horrible sex murderers in popular culture. His father wrote a book, A Father's Story, which searches for explanations for his son's deviance.
A study that focused on a group of sociopaths who had been adopted as infants showed that the biological relatives of sociopaths were 4-5 times more likely to be sociopathic than the average person. Researchers note that it is easier for "bad seeds to blossom in bad environments".
Many serial killers report having an abnormally strong sex drive and many fantasized about dead women rather than living ones.
Crime Times reports that psychopaths have a greater fear threshold and are less likely to respond to fear-inducing stimuli. In other words, they may be immune to fear. Additionally, their startle reaction was significantly less than the average person, meaning they need a higher level of thrill or stimulation in order to have an intense experience.
Most serial killers suffered from child abuse. Neglect and child abuse not only impair a child's self-esteem, but they also interfere with his or her ability to function in society, succeed academically, and form healthy relationships with people.
There are six phases of the serial killer's cycle.
- The Aura Phase (where the serial killer begins losing grip on reality)
- The Trolling Phase (when the killer searches for a victim)
- The Wooing Phase (where the killer lures his victim)
- The Capture Phase (where the victim is entrapped)
- The Murder or Totem Phase (which is the emotion high for the killer)
- The Depression Phase (which occurs after the killing)
Many serial killers will keep "souvenirs" of their crimes. For example, when Ted Bundy was asked why he took Polaroids of his victims, he said, "When you work hard to do something, you don't want to forget it."
Very few serial killers turn themselves in. Only Ed Kemper called the police to confess. He waited at a telephone booth to be picked up.
Between 30% - 38% of psychopaths show abnormal brainwave patterns or EEGs.
Most psychiatrists note that psychopaths cannot be successfully treated.
Criminologists estimate that at least 86% of male serial killers are heterosexual. While numerically less, homosexual serial killers include some horrific monsters, such as John Wayne Gacy (1942 - 1994) and Jeffrey Dahmer (1960 - 1994).
John E. Robinson is dubbed the "first Internet serial killer". After being released from prison in 1993 for running a prostitution ring, using the name "Slavemaster", he started to lure women in chat rooms to his home, where he murdered them.
The FBI's Crime Classification Manual places serial killers into three categories: organized, disorganized, and mixed (those who exhibit both organized and disorganized traits). Organized serial killers are often socially adequate, may have a wife or children, and plan their crimes methodically. Disorganized serial killers are far more impulsive and have fewer friends.
Some historical notorious serial killers include the 15th-century nobleman Gilles de Rais, who fought alongside Johan of Arc during the Hundred Years War. After she was executed, he had his servants lure young boys to his castle where he would torture, sexually assault, and kill them.
Nearly 70% of serial killers received extensive head injuries as children or adolescents which, for many researchers, suggests a link between such injuries and serial murder. Some researchers believe that the prefrontal cortex (the area involved in planning and judgment) does not function properly in psychopaths.
In 20th-century America, the serial killer has come to embody a host of gnawing anxieties - anxieties about runaway crime, sexual violence, and breakdown of civil conduct.
Although it is impossible to predict if a child will grow up to be a serial killer, the three warning signs of future psychopathic behavior are:
- Animal torture
- Prolonged bed-wetting
- Juvenile pyromania
Criminologists call these symptoms "The Triad".
While many children wet the bed, this behavior may be a sign of a deeper pathology when it persists beyond the age of 12. Over 60% of serial killers were still wetting their beds as adolescents.
Out of all the states in the U.S., California had the highest number of serial homicide cases in the 20th century, at 16% of the national total. Maine had the lowest: none.
The United States has the highest number of serial killers, with 76% of the world's total. Europe comes in a distant second with 17%.
England has produced 28% of Europe's serial killers, Germany 27 %, and France 13%.
Most serial killers in the U.S. are Caucasian (84%); approximately 16% are African-American.
Men constitute the overwhelming preponderance of serial killers, at over 90%.
While women make up just a very small percentage of serial killers, they constitute the majority of victims: 65%.
The first serial sex killer of the modern era was Jack the Ripper, who slaughtered five London streetwalkers.
It is rare for serial killers to prey on people from another race. Consequently, because most serial killers are white, so are most of their victims: 89%.
In the United States, a great majority of serial killers are single, white males from lower- to middle-class backgrounds. However, there are also Hispanic, Asian, and African serial killers. But, according to the FBI, whites are more likely than any other race to be serial killers based on percentages.
The motives of serial killers generally fall into four categories:
- Visionary (someone who feels compelled by entities such as god or the devil to murder)
- Mission-Oriented (to rid the world of homosexuals or prostitutes or to cure a societal ill)
- Hedonistic (someone who derives pleasure from killing)
- Power- or Control-Hungry
The categories overlap considerably.
A historical survey of serial killers would have to begin at least as far back as the Roman emperor Caligula, who derived great pleasure in torture and murder.
The majority of serial killer arrests are done by patrol officers doing their everyday duties and unrelated to the ongoing serial murder investigation. For example, Larry Yeler was arrested during a traffic stop for a parking violation and Ted Bundy was arrested during a traffic stop for a stolen car.
Most serial killers are young: 44% started when they were in their 20s, 26% in their teens, and 24% in their 30s.
In almost 15% of serial murder cases, the victims are chosen entirely at random.
From an early age, many serial killers are intensely interested in voyeurism and fetishism as well as other paraphilia. Many will start as harmless peeping toms before moving onto the housebreaking, rape, and murder.
In an effort to establish precise criminal classifications, the FBI distinguishes between serial killing and spree killing. A serial killer always experiences an emotion "cooling-off" period between his crimes, a hiatus that lasts anywhere from days to years. A "spree killer", in contrast, is someone who murders a string of people in several locations with no cooling-off period.
Serial killers usually come from families that are dysfunctional and debilitating. Additionally, they are rarely remembered by classmates because they did not have many close friends. Often, they grow up lonely and isolated.
Without any social structure in his/her life, a serial killer is unable to have normal sexual relationships and is thus forced into solo sexual activities. In some cases, they turn to obsessive masturbation, as in the case of Soviet serial killer Andrei Chikatilo (1936 - 1994), who had scars on his genitals due to aggressive masturbation.
Unlike some people with significant mental disorders, such as schizophrenia, psychopaths can seem normal and often charming, in a state of adaptation psychiatrists call "the mask of sanity".
Studies suggest that serial killers have an average or low-average IQ, but they are perceived as having IQs in the above-average range. Only serial killers who used bombs had an average IQ above the population mean.
While many serial killers have an average IQ, there are exceptions. Harold Shipman, for example, was a successful professional (a general practitioner working for the NHS). He even won an award for a children's asthma clinic. However, he is one of the world's most prolific serial killers with up to 250 murders being ascribed to him.
A board game called "Serial Killer" created controversy when it was put on the market. The winner of the game was the person who had the highest body count at the end of the game. The game came packaged in a plastic body bag.
The most prolific female serial killer in history is Elizabeth Bathory (1560 - 1614). After her husband's death, she and four collaborators were accused of torturing and killing hundreds of girls and young women. One witness placed the number at 600 victims, though they were convicted of 80.
Historians note that legends such as werewolves and vampires were inspired by medieval serial killers. There are several subcultures that revolve around the hundreds of serial killers. This subculture includes the sale, collection, and display of serial killer memorabilia, which has been dubbed "murderabilia".
A Chicago band named Macabre has an entire catalog of songs devoted to serial killers. The band calls their music "murder metal".
Many serial killers are fascinated by authority. They have attempted to become police officers or security guards to gain access to victims, such as Ted Bundy, the Hillside Stranglers, and John Gacy.
Because of their psychotic nature, serial killers do not know how to feel sympathy for others. They learn to simulate normal behavior by observing others, but it is a manipulative act.
Henry Lee Lucas described being a serial killer as being "like a movie star... you're playing a part". They covet being in the role of authority.