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The Male Serial Killer: Who is a Serial Killer and How Childhood Experiences Contribute to their Personality Development.
“Serial killers are the cream of the crop – they stay on the street for years. Some never get apprehended at all” (Egger, 1986). Serial killers do things that the rest of society finds deplorable. They murder with incredible depravity, with no outward show of remorse, and evade capture for frighteningly long periods of time. Most members of society ask themselves how someone could be capable of such actions. It is incomprehensible to most people what it is that could drive someone to murder another in the manner of a serial killer. Most people can understand murder in the heat of the moment, even if they find it unacceptable. It is incredibly difficult for the average person to conceive of the type of personality that can kill a stranger simply for the thrill of it. Yet this is what the serial killer lives for – that one moment of perfection when he controls every aspect of the life of another human being. Who is a serial killer, and what contributes to the development of this type of personality? This question has been the focus of intense research by numerous law enforcement agencies and the psychological community for approximately fifteen years.
As research into the female killer has shown that very few, if any, are true serial murderers, this research has dealt strictly with the male serial killer. Generally female multiple murderers have been classified as spree, rather than serial, because of the time frame of their crimes, and the underlying motivations. It has been shown that females tend to kill in bursts of anger or revenge, and murders are closely linked
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chronologically, thus setting them firmly in the category of spree killer (Ressler, Burgess, & Douglas, 1988).
First, clarification is necessary as to what it means to be classified as a serial killer. There are several key distinctions between spree killers, mass murderers, and serial killers. These distinctions are what makes serial homicide unique among all forms of murder. One very recent and highly publicized example of a spree killer was Andrew Cunanan. His murders were committed in a frenzy that suddenly erupted and then ended in his own violent death. The is typical of the spree killer. The crimes are committed in a short time span with revenge as the primary motivator. On the other hand, mass murderers do all their killings at once, usually in one place, and they give little thought to escape or evading arrest (Kelleher 1997). Victims of mass murderers may or may not know the perpetrator. The Oklahoma City bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building is a classic example of this type of murder. Serial killers are entirely different. The serial killer must be credited with at least three kills before being categorized as serial. A serial killer will kill continuously and not stop unless he is made to stop. This killer will have a cooling off period after each murder, but will continue. A serial killer may even wait years before claiming another victim; the point is that there will undisputedly be another victim. Serial killing has been, in the past, a stranger to stranger crime. It has only been recently that this is beginning to change. For the most part, however, the perpetrator and the victim do not know one another and have most often not has any previous contact. The serial killer is motivated to kill in
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the way that most people need water; it is an absolute need. Generally this need to kill is fueled by fantasies that have been building for a long period of time. They personalize their murders in the manner of death they choose for the victim; very hands on, as in stabbing or strangulation as opposed to killing with a gun, which is seen as a rather distant method. They are sane, plan to avoid detection, and generally seek to control others through their crimes. Power is a central motivator to the serial murderer. The profile of a serial killer as set out by McKenzie (1995) closely follows profiles currently in use by major crime units across North America, and is as follows:
He is male, between the ages of 25-35, and he is white. The majority of the time he will kill white victims. The ages of his victims will vary greatly, depending on his particular “interests.” His intellect ranges from below average to above average. He doesn’t know his victims or have any particular hatred for them most of the time…they are normally strangers to him. He doesn’t come from one social class or another; he can come from skid row or Park Avenue…just as his victims. Like many of us, he is often married, has children, and works. (p. 4)
A common misconception among the public is that there is only one type of serial killer, when there actually are four distinctive types (Dehart & Mahoney, 1994). The Visionary Motive Type is generally considered insane. A visionary killer will often hear voices in his head telling him to commit the crime. The Missionary-Oriented Motive Type displays no psychosis to the outside world, but on the inside this killer has a need to rid the world of what he considers immoral or unworthy individuals. This type
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of killer will select a group of people to kill off (prostitutes, for example). The Thrill
Oriented Motive Type simply enjoys the thrill of the hunt. They are extremely sadistic, reveling in the sheer joy of the act of killing. The final category encompasses the majority of serial killers. The Lust Killer is not truly what the name implies. Their killings do display a certain degree of sexual motivation, however the underlying motivator is the control and power they exert over their victims. For them, the amount of pleasure they derive from the act is in direct correlation with how much they can torture their victim; the more heinous their action, the more powerful they feel. This killer is in touch with reality and has relationships. Each of the above types can be divided further into either an organized or disorganized category (Hale, 1993). An organized killer has a job, family, and an outwardly normal life. He organizes his deception very well. The disorganized killer is commonly a loner, sloppy in appearance, and an underachiever when it comes to grades, job performance, and relationships.
Science has recently undertaken the task of investigating how someone becomes a serial killer through research into the childhood experiences of convicted multiple murderers. Research conducted by several psychologists, psychiatrists, and law enforcement departments have come to remarkably similar conclusions regarding the formation of the serial killer type of personality. The conclusion that the formation of such a personality begins early in childhood has come to be accepted within this community as fact. To date, studies conducted on convicted serial killers has revealed an uncanny psychological resemblance that is extraordinary, which makes previous
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serial killers a good reference point for the study of future ones. This research has been borne out by the research conducted by Keppel and Birnes (1997) in which 36 convicted serial killers were interviewed regarding their childhood experiences.
The top four behaviours reported by the serial killers as significant in their development are surprising, yet perfectly plausible when one stops to consider how those behaviours are interwoven and how, together, they lead to a maladjusted personality. Daydreaming, compulsive masturbation, isolation and chronic lying, when viewed separately, could be attributed to childhood phases and thus quickly passed over. When viewed as a group however, they are the largest single indicator of future homicidal behaviour yet to be discovered. For one reason or another, when a child is frequently left alone for long periods of time his mind begins to keep him company; thus begins the fantasy or daydream world. It is during these fantasies that the masturbation begins. While the fantasies may start out as normal, as a healthy response to the prolonged deprivation of stimulus, the continued isolation gives the child a chance to add to his fantasies, making them grow until they become the dominant force in his life. Considering the fact that most serial killers cite a fantasy of control or power as a large part of their motivation, this childhood behavior becomes a critical indicator of future murderous tendencies.
It has also been very clearly demonstrated that serial killers were abused as
children, to one degree or another. The levels and types of abuse vary widely from sexual, physical, and emotional abuse to simple neglect. The abuses may be full
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forced and obvious, or very subtle and not so easily identified. The most important factor in the abuse has appeared to be how it was perceived by the child (Keppel and Birnes, 1997). When the child felt the abuse was unwarranted it was seen as much harsher than in situations where they felt that the parents had a reasonable justification to beat or neglect them. In other words, if the child felt that they deserved to be punished for something, they did not see it as abuse.
Another common factor among the interviewed serial killers appears to be their relationships, or lack thereof, with their families. It has been shown that the future killers did not learn to inter-act sufficiently with members of their families. The relationships were strained, and sometimes nonexistent. The significance of this is that by not learning how to relate to family members, they were also not learning how to relate to other members of society. If they were not taught to value their relationships within the family unit, how could they have learned to value those outside that family?
These behaviours combine and continue to worsen as the child matures. Without early psychological intervention, the possibility of a child reared under these circumstances becoming a murderer, and specifically a serial killer, increase dramatically (Holmes, 1989). Unfortunately there is not a perfect solution for stopping serial killers, even with such accurate indicators during childhood. Study of previously convicted serial killers has certainly been an aid in understanding the motivations behind behaviours, however it is not conducive to stopping serial killers before they commit their crimes. Knowing the indicators of a possible serial killer type of personality
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does not allow the medical, psychological, or legal communities to prevent the murders that are likely to occur. Research into this phenomenon will only assist in its prevention when parents of these children learn to understand the possible consequences of abusive actions, understand the warning signs in childhood behaviour, and undertake to prevent the tragedies that could result by securing psychological assistance for a child displaying these indicators.
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