Despite the stereotypical portrayal often associated with serial killers, they are a group of people impossible to pigeonhole, writes Ekaterina Tikhoniouk
There have always been violent killers lurking in the background of every society and civilisation of the world, going right back to ancient times. History’s earliest serial murderer is thought to be Lui Pengeli of China, a cousin of the Han Emperor Jing. In the years after being made king of his region in 144 BC, Pengeli is believed to have killed over 100 people for sport. Another infamous early murderer was Vlad the Impaler, a 15th century Wallachian prince who impaled over 20,000 people.
The first known American serial murderer was H. H. Holmes, who was convicted of nine murders and hanged in 1896. Holmes confessed to killing 27 people in the three years before his arrest, although many investigators believed that he might have actually had over 100 victims. There have been many other notorious serial killers in the last century such as Ted Bundy, Ed Kemper, David Berkowitz, John Wayne Gacy and Ed Gein.
But what exactly is a serial killer? There are many different definitions, but the most common is that a serial killer constitutes someone that has murdered three or more people. All the murders often have elements in common with each other. The killer sometimes preys on people that are all a certain age, gender or profession, or murders every victim in a particular fashion.
Moreover, every serial killer has his or her own personal ‘stamp’. Ed Gein preyed on middle-aged women; while Elizabeth Bathory killed young virgins and bathed in their blood in the belief that this would keep her young forever.
The actual term ‘serial killer’ was coined in the mid-1970s by FBI agent Robert K. Ressler and was named after the serial films he grew up watching.
The FBI defines a serial killer as someone who murders more than three victims, one at a time, with a cooling off period between each kill, differentiating serial killers from mass murderers (who kill four or more people at the same time), or spree killers (who murder in multiple locations over a very short period of time). Serial killers, on the other hand, kill over longer periods of time, sometimes with years passing in between kills.
But what is it about these despicable sociopaths that we find so fascinating? It is possible that serial killers attract so much interest from the general public because what they do is often so bizarre and horrific. Ever since the era of Jack the Ripper, serial killers have instilled terror in the masses, as well as a sense of morbid curiosity.
Tales and rumours of Jack the Ripper’s killings spread like wildfire through 19th century London (eventually becoming horror stories told to frighten misbehaving children for many generations thereafter). Similarly, frenzies of media coverage surrounded the cases of notorious killers such as Ted Bundy and Dennis Rader.
In fact, the past two decades have seen the rise of a bizarre new phenomenon: the buying and selling of serial killer memorabilia or ‘murderabilia’. Personal items of serial killers, such as clothing, letters, paintings and sculptures can be bought over the internet, as well as serial killer action figures, calendars and trading cards.
This morbid fascination with serial killers is as strong as ever in our pop culture – you need look no further than the popular TV series Dexter. This series, already in its fifth season, describes the life of Dexter Morgan, a blood-splatter expert who works in the Miami forensics department.
Dexter is also a pathological serial killer whose stepfather had, from an early age, taught him to control his overwhelming urges to kill. Instead of butchering innocent people, Dexter tracks down other serial killers – those that have slipped through the grasp of the Miami police department, or who had been wrongfully deemed not guilty of their crimes in court. This self-professed monster then exacts his own form of punishment on them by personally butchering them.
The series Dexter dispels one of the most deep-rooted myths about serial killers. On the outside, Dexter Morgan is mild-mannered, outgoing and a great father figure for his girlfriend’s kids. He has contact with his sister, his girlfriend, her two kids and countless colleagues on a daily basis, yet no one is able to see through his facade.
The show underlines the downright frightening fact that even in real life, it is almost impossible to detect a serial killer. Serial killers often lead elaborate double lives; a serial killer can be a caring father and husband on the outside and a homicidal maniac on the inside. Anyone you know can be a serial killer; the postman, your sister’s boyfriend, the man who collects your rubbish every Tuesday, even your own husband.
The majority of serial killers aren’t recluses. In fact, many live in plain sight of their communities. For example, Ted Bundy, who was convicted of the murders of 33 women, was often seen as an attractive, charismatic man. Dennis Rader, the ‘BTK Killer’ who murdered ten victims in Kansas, was married with two kids and was a local government official, as well as president of his church.
There are many other myths and incorrect perceptions surrounding serial killers. If you were asked to visualise a serial killer, chances are you would imagine someone socially inept who has no friends or partners, was a loner in school, and tortured small animals as a child. The main issue that most people seem to agree on is that this serial killer would be completely and utterly insane.
Yet research and profiling of serial killers, as originally developed by the FBI’s Behavioural Sciences Unit in the 1970s, shows that almost all of the above assumptions are incorrect. Former FBI profiler John Douglas believes that most serial killers are psychopaths who are suffering from chronic mental disorders, with violent or abnormal social behaviours. Only a small handful are actually classified insane, such as Richard Trenton Chase, who believed he needed to drink human blood in order to stay alive.
Another myth is that serial killers have no social skills. According to demographics of serial killers throughout history, these people are often charming and well liked by their peers and community. While many describe themselves as ‘empty’ or ‘devoid of emotion’, they are very capable of faking emotions and good social interactions. Cold and calculating, they have no problems manipulating people. Many killers have subsequently stated that it is far too easy to fool people, especially psychiatrists, by simply telling people what they want to hear.
On the silver screen, serial killers have been glorified as evil geniuses, able to outsmart the police force at every turn. However, such ideas are ultimately rather fanciful, although many do have above average intelligence.
Another popular myth is that all serial killers are men, but profilers approximate that about 10 per cent are actually women. One type of female serial killer is termed the ‘angel of mercy’. These often work in professions such as nursing and as doctors in hospitals. Stealthily murdering one patient after another, usually through drugs overdoses, these serial killers believe that they are releasing patients from their pain.
It is extremely difficult to understand the psyche of a serial killer, but it is even harder to ascertain why these people are compelled to kill their innocent victims. Here we run up against the age-old argument of nature versus nurture. Are serial killers created through childhood trauma or abuse, or are they simply born that way? And is there such a thing as a serial killer gene?
Unfortunately, research into serial killers to date cannot give us a solid answer, but serial killers’ profiles do follow certain trends. Children who grow up to become serial killers are often from foster homes or single-parent homes where they were raised by a domineering mother, as well as suffering physical or sexual abuse at the hands of family members. The Macdonald triad, which is a set of sociopathic characteristics developed by J.M. Macdonald in 1963, identifies animal cruelty, continued bedwetting past the age of five and pyromania as markers of sociopathic and possibly homicidal tendencies.
Some serial killers have developed an internalised hatred of their overbearing, controlling mothers, sometimes without even realising it. Ed Gein chose victims that were of roughly the same age as his domineering mother. After being rejected by his real mother, David Berkowitz became violent and murderous. He didn’t attack his mother directly, but the majority of his victims were similar in appearance to her.
On the other hand, many serial killers also had a background of mental health problems and disorders, which may have had some influence on the development of their personalities. John Wayne Gacy suffered psychomotor epilepsy – a condition that caused a clouding of consciousness. He also experienced increased emotional bursts of anger and fear, which could have influenced his behaviour in adulthood.
It is impossible to pinpoint what exactly causes a person to become a serial killer, but another theory centres on the neglect and abuse that many serial killers experience as children. A study conducted by the FBI showed that each case had “similar patterns of severe childhood neglect”. Most killers were physically or sexually abused as children and it is this pattern of abuse and neglect that may have led them to grow up without a sense of anyone but themselves.
It seems that these poor, abused, unloved and unwanted children never learned to love, trust or empathise, and eventually grew up to become monsters.