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A serial killer is typically defined as an individual who has murdered three or more people over a period of more than a month, with down time (a "cooling off period") between the murders, and whose motivation for killing is largely based on psychological gratification.

Other sources define the term as "a series of two or more murders, committed as separate events, usually, but not always, by one offender acting alone" or, including the vital characteristics, a minimum of at least two murders. Often, a sexual element is involved with the killings, but the FBI states that motives for serial murder include "anger, thrill, financial gain, and attention seeking." The murders may have been attempted or completed in a similar fashion and the victims may have had something in common; for example, occupation, race, appearance, sex, or age group.

Serial killers are not the same as Mass Murderers, who commit multiple murders at one time; nor are they Spree Killers, who commit murders in two or more locations with virtually no break in between, although some killers may be categorized not just as serial killers, but also as mass murderers and other classifications. The english term and concept of the serial killer is commonly attributed to former FBI Special Agent Robert Ressler in the 1970s. The concept had been described earlier by the german police inspector Ernst Gennat in 1930. Author Ann Rule postulates in her 2004 book "Kiss Me, Kill Me" that the english-language credit for coining the term "serial killer" goes to LAPD detective Pierce Brooks, mastermind of the ViCAP system.

Characteristics Edit

The racial demographics regarding serial killers are often subject of debate. In the United States, the majority of reported and investigated serial killers are caucasian males, from a lower-to-middle-class background, usually in their late twenties to early thirties. However, there are african-american, asian, and hispanic serial killers as well, and, according to the FBI, based on percentages of the U.S. population, whites are not more likely than other races to be serial killers. Criminal profiler Pat Brown says serial killers are usually reported as white because the media typically focuses on "All-American" white and pretty female victims who were the targets of white male offenders, that crimes among minority offenders in urban communities, where crime rates are higher, are under-investigated, and that minority serial killers likely exist at the same ratios as white serial killers for the population. She believes that the "serial killers are always white" myth might have become "truth" in some research fields due to the over-reporting of white serial killers in the media.

In South Africa, within the last two decades alone, there were almost fifty murders, making it one of the top five countries when it comes to serial murders. Differences between South Africa and the U.S. are that South African serial murder cases generally have a shorter duration of their killing cycles, whereas serial murder cases in America sometimes last anywhere from a year to 37 years; the longest case in South Africa was eight years. One of the most significant differences between the two countries is that south african serial killers do not show any catathymis, cruelty to animals or history of childhood conduct disorder, and due to the outlaw of pornography in south africa, there is no evidence that fantasy plays any role in the motivation of the offenders, while serial killers in the U.S. are typically motivated by sex, so called "lust killers." Some authors state that african american serial killers are as prevalent, or more so, in proportion to the african american population. According to some sources, the percentage of african american serial killers is estimated to be between 13 and 22 percent. Another study has shown that 16 percent of serial killers are african american, what author Maurice Godwin describes as a "sizeable portion." Anthony Walsh writes, "While it is true that most serial killers are white males, white males are actually slightly underrepresented in the serial killer ranks in terms of their proportion of the general male population" and that "[w]hatever the true proportion of black serial killers in the United States is or has been, it is greater than the proportion of african americans in the general population."

Compared to South Africa and the United States, Australia has a much lower incidence of known serial murders. While South Africa has no known motive for sexual killing, Australia and U.S. share the motive of "lust killing," as well as childhood sexual abuse, drugs, and animal cruelty.

Other typical characteristics of serial killers include:

  • Intelligence, with IQs in the "bright normal" range.
  • Often, they have trouble staying employed and tend to work in menial jobs. The FBI, however, states, "Serial murderers often seem normal; have families and a steady job." Other sources state they often come from unstable families.
  • As children, they are often abandoned by their fathers and raised by domineering mothers.
  • Their families often have criminal, psychiatric and alcoholic histories.
  • They were often abused — emotionally, physically and/or sexually — by a family member.
  • They have high rates of suicide attempts.
  • From an early age, many are intensely interested in voyeurism, fetishism, and sadomasochistic pornography.
  • More than 60 percent wet their beds beyond the age of 12.
  • Many are fascinated with fire setting.
  • They are involved in sadistic activity or torturing animals.
  • They were frequently bullied as children.
  • Some were involved in petty crimes, such as theft, fraud, vandalism, dishonesty or similar offenses.

There are exceptions to these criteria, however. For example, Harold Shipman was a successful professional (a General Practitioner working for the NHS). He was considered a pillar of the local community, even winning a professional award for a children's asthma clinic and was interviewed by Granada Television's World in Action. Dennis Nilsen was an ex-soldier turned civil servant and trade unionist who had no previous criminal record when arrested. Neither were known to have exhibited many of these signs. Vlado Taneski was a career journalist who was caught after a series of articles he wrote gave clues that he had murdered people. Ironically, he was a crime reporter. Colonel Russell Williams was a successful and respected career Canadian Air Force Officer who was convicted of the murder of two women, along with fetish burglaries and rapes.

Psychosis is rarely noted among serial killers. The predominant psychiatric diagnosis noted in the group tends toward the psychopathic, meaning individuals suffer from traits within a specific cluster of dysfunctional personality characteristics, those most commonly associated with antisocial personality disorder or dissocial personality disorder. Psychopaths lack empathy and guilt, are egocentric and impulsive, and theoretically do not conform to social, moral and legal norms. Instead, psychopaths often follow a distinct set of rules which they have created for themselves. They may appear to be normal and often quite charming, a state of adaptation that psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley called the "mask of sanity". In the DSM-IV, psychopathy is listed under Axis II Personality disorders NOS. It is a disorder mainly defined by traits of both antisocial personality disorder and narcissistic. In the near future, the concept of psychopathy requires revision because the new version of the DSM (DSM-V) no longer includes narcissism. Robert Hare created a checklist to differentiate psychopathy from antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), known as the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R). The questionnaire scores people on Axis I interpersonal/affective and Axis II Behavioral traits.(anti- social). His test found that while 50–80 percent of criminals were diagnosed with ASPD, only 15–30 percent scored as primary psychopaths on the PCL-R test.

The Macdonald triad — animal cruelty, pyromania, and persistent bedwetting (also known as enuresis) past the age of five — is often exhibited by serial killers during their childhood. Subsequent research, however, found that bedwetting is not related to psychopathy.

It should be noted that during the 90s, the FBI estimated the presence of 125 active serial killers in the USA. The existence of a cluster of personality traits known in incarcerated serial killers, when evident in a person, does not mean they are, or will become, serial killers.

Development Edit

Many serial killers have faced a lot of problems in their childhood development. Dickey'sTrauma Control Model explains how early childhood trauma can set the child up for deviant behavior in adulthood. The child's environment (either their parents or society) is the dominant factor in whether or not the child's behavior escalates into homicidal activity.

The mother normally plays the largest role in the development of a child. Maternal overprotection — combined with the lack of paternal influence — has resulted in the development of many sexually violent men.

Family, or lack thereof, is the most prominent part of a child's development because it is what the child can identify with on a regular basis. "The serial killer is no different than any other individual who is instigated to seek approval from parents, sexual partners, or others." This need for approval is what influences children to attempt to develop social relationships with their family and peers, but if they are rejected or neglected, they are unable to do so. This results in the lowering of their self-esteem and helps develop their fantasy world in which they are in control. Hickey's Trauma Control Model clearly shows that the development of a serial killer is based on an early trauma followed by facilitators (porn, drugs, and alcohol) and disposition (the inability to attach).

Family interaction also plays an important role in a child's growth and development. "The quality of their attachments to parents and other members of the family is critical to how these children relate to and value other members of society."

Wilson and Seaman (1990) conducted a study on incarcerated serial killers and what they felt was the most influential factor that contributed to their homicidal activity. Almost all of the serial killers in the study had experienced some sort of environmental problems during their childhood, such as a broken home, or a lack of discipline in the home. It was common for the serial killers to come from a family that had experienced divorce, separation, or the lack of a parent. Furthermore, nearly half of the serial killers had experienced some type of physical and sexual abuse and even more had experienced emotional neglect. When a parent has a drug or alcohol problem, the attention in the household is on the parents rather than the child. This neglect of the child leads to the lowering of their self-esteem and helps develop a fantasy world in which they are in control. Hickey's Trauma Control Model supports how the neglect from parents can facilitate deviant behavior especially if the child sees substance abuse in action. This then leads to disposition (the inability to attach), which can further lead to homicidal behavior unless the child finds a way to develop substantial relationships and fight the label they receive. If a child receives no support from those around him or her, then he or she is unlikely to recover from the traumatic event in a positive way. As stated by E. E. Maccoby, "the family has continued to be seen as a major — perhaps the major — arena for socialization."

Fantasy Edit

Children who do not have the power to control the mistreatment they suffer sometimes create a new reality to which they can escape. This new reality becomes their fantasy that they have total control of and becomes part of their daily existence. In this fantasy world their emotional development is guided and maintained. According to Garrison (1996), "the child becomes sociopathic because the normal development of the concepts of right and wrong and empathy towards others is retarded because of the child's emotional and social development occurs within his self-centered fantasies. A person can do no wrong in his own world and the pain of others is of no consequence when the purpose of the fantasy world is to satisfy the needs of one person" (Garrison, 1996). Boundaries between fantasy and reality are lost and fantasies turn to dominance, control, sexual conquest, and violence, eventually leading to murder. Fantasy can lead to the first step in the process of a dissociative state, which, in the words of Stephen Giannangelo, "allows the serial killer to leave the stream of consciousness for what is, to him, a better place."

Criminologist Jose Sanchez reports, "the young criminal you see today is more detached from his victim, more ready to hurt or kill . . . The lack of empathy for their victims among young criminals is just one symptom of a problem that afflicts the whole society." Lorenzo Carcaterra, author of Gangster (2001), explains how potential criminals are labeled by society, which can then lead to their offspring also developing in the same way through the cycle of violence. Before he was executed, serial killer Ted Bundy stated media violence and pornography had stimulated and increased his need to commit homicide, although this statement was made during last ditch efforts to appeal his death sentence.

Organized, disorganized, and mixed Edit

The FBI's Crime Classification Manual places serial killers into three categories: organized, disorganized, and mixed — offenders who exhibit organized and disorganized characteristics. Some killers descend from being organized into disorganized behavior as their killings continue.

Organized nonsocial offenders usually have above average intelligence, with a mean IQ of 123. They often plan their crimes quite methodically, usually abducting victims, killing them in one place and disposing of them in another. They will often lure the victims with ploys appealing to their sense of sympathy. For example, Ted Bundy would put his arm in a fake plaster cast and ask women to help him carry something to his car, where he would beat them unconscious with a tire iron, and carry them away. Others specifically target prostitutes, who are likely to go voluntarily with a stranger. They maintain a high degree of control over the crime scene, and usually have a solid knowledge of forensic science that enables them to cover their tracks, such as burying the body or weighing it down and sinking it in a river. They follow their crimes in the media carefully and often take pride in their actions, as if it were all a grand project. The organized killer is usually socially adequate, has friends and lovers, and sometimes even a spouse and children. They are the type who, when/if captured, are most likely to be described by acquaintances as kind and unlikely to hurt anyone. Bundy and John Wayne Gacy are examples of organized serial killers.

Medical professionals Edit

Main article: Angel of Mercy

Some people with a pathological interest in the power of life and death tend to be attracted to medical professions or acquiring such a job. These kinds of killers are sometimes referred to as "angels of death" or angels of mercy. Medical professionals will kill their patients for money, for a sense of sadistic pleasure, for a belief that they are "easing" the patient's pain, or simply "because they can." One such killer was nurse Jane Toppan, who admitted during her murder trial that she was sexually aroused by death. She would administer a drug mixture to patients she chose as her victims, lie in bed with them and hold them close to her body as they died.


Female serial killers Edit

Female serial killers are rare. They tend to murder men for material gain, are usually emotionally close to their victims, and generally need to have a relationship with a person before killing them. "An analysis of 86 female serial killers from the U.S. found that the victims tended to be spouses, children or the elderly." The methods they use for murder are covert or low-profile, such as murder by poison (the preferred choice for killing). They commit killings in specific places, such as their home or a health-care facility, or at different locations within the same city or state. Other methods used by female serial killers include shootings (used by 20%), suffocation (16%), stabbing (11%), and drowning (5%). Though most female serial killers murder for money or other such material gain others do it for attention. While many female serial killers have been diagnosed with Münchausen syndrome, little research has been conducted focusing on the societal influences—particularly gender roles and expectations of women—which contribute to these women committing multiple murders. Each killer will have her own proclivities, needs and triggers, as specific reasons can only be obtained from the killer herself. "In a review of published literature on female serial murder, sexual or sadistic motives are believed to be extremely rare in female serial murderers, and psychopathic traits and histories of childhood abuse have been consistently reported in these women." On some occasions, women may be involved with a male serial killer as a part of a serial killing "team".

Kelleher and Kelleher (1998) created several categories to describe female serial killers. They used the classifications of black widow, angel of death, sexual predator, revenge, profit or crime, team killer, question of sanity, unexplained and unsolved. In using these categories, they found that most women fell into the categories of black widow and team killer. In describing murderer Stacey Castor, forensic psychiatrist Dr. James Knoll offered a psychological perspective on what defines a "black widow" type. In simple terms, he described it as a woman who kills two or more husbands or lovers for material gain. Though Castor was not officially defined as a serial killer, it is likely that she would have killed again.

A notable exception to the typical characteristics of female serial killers is Aileen Wuornos, who killed outdoors instead of at home, used a gun instead of poison, killed strangers instead of friends or family, and killed for personal gratification. The most prolific serial killer in all of history is allegedly Elizabeth Báthory. Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed (Báthory Erzsébet in Hungarian, August 17, 1560 – August 21, 1614) was a countess from the renowned Báthory family. After her husband's death, she and four collaborators were accused of torturing and killing hundreds of girls and young women, with one witness attributing to them over 600 victims, though the number for which they were convicted was 80. Elizabeth herself was neither tried nor convicted. In 1610, however, she was imprisoned in the Csejte Castle, where she remained bricked in a set of rooms until her death four years later.

An article which addressed some of the misperceptions of female criminality has appeared in the forensic literature. The Perri and Lichtenwald article addresses the current research regarding female psychopathy and includes case studies of female psychopathic killers featuring Münchausen Syndrome by Proxy, Cesarean Section Homicide, Fraud Detection Homicide, female kill teams, and a female serial killer.

Motives Edit

The motives of serial killers are generally placed into four categories: visionary, mission-oriented, hedonistic and power or control; however, the motives of any given killer may display considerable overlap among these categories.

Visionary Edit

Visionary serial killers suffer from psychotic breaks with reality, sometimes believing they are another person or are compelled to murder by entities. The two most common subgroups are "demon mandated" and "god mandated."

Herbert Mullin believed the American casualties in the Vietnam War were preventing California from experiencing an earthquake. As the war wound down, Mullin claimed his father instructed him via telepathy to raise the amount of "human sacrifices to nature" in order to delay a catastrophic earthquake that would plunge California into the ocean.

David Berkowitz ("Son of Sam") is an example of a visionary killer. He claimed a demon transmitted orders through his neighbor's dog, instructing him to commit murder.

In fiction, several serial killes are visionaries, such as Teru Mikami who worshipped Kira as a god.

Mission-oriented Edit

Mission-oriented killers typically justify their acts as "ridding the world" of a certain type of person they perceive as undesirable, such as homosexuals, prostitutes, or people of different ethnicity or religion; however, they are generally not psychotic. Some see themselves as attempting to change society, often to cure a societal ill.

Ted Kaczynski, the "Unabomber", though not a serial killer, targeted universities and the airline industry. He wrote a manifesto that he distributed to the media, in which he claimed he wanted society to return to a time when technology was not a threat to its future, asserting that "the Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race."

The protagonist of the manga/anime series Death Note, Light Yagami (whom goal was to "rid the world of all the wicked and evil"), and Dexter Morgan (who kills serial killers) from Dexter, are examples of mission-oriented serial killers in fiction.

Hedonistic Edit

This type of serial killer seeks thrills and derives pleasure from killing, seeing people as expendable means to this goal. Forensic psychologists have identified three subtypes of the hedonistic killer: "lust", "thrill" and "comfort".

Lust Edit

Sex is the primary motive of lust killers, whether or not the victims are dead, and fantasy plays a large role in their killings. Their sexual gratification depends on the amount of torture and mutilation they perform on their victims. They usually use weapons that require close contact with the victims, such as knives or hands. As lust killers continue with their murders, the time between killings decreases or the required level of stimulation increases, sometimes both.

Kenneth Bianchi, one of the "Hillside Stranglers", murdered women and girls of different ages, races and appearance because his sexual urges required different types of stimulation and increasing intensity.

Jeffrey Dahmer searched for his perfect fantasy lover — beautiful, submissive and eternal. As his desire increased, he experimented with drugs, alcohol and exotic sex. His increasing need for stimulation was demonstrated by the dismemberment of victims, whose heads and genitals he preserved. He experimented with cannibalism to "ensure his victims would always be a part of him".

Thrill Edit

The primary motive of a thrill killer is to induce pain or create terror in their victims, which provides stimulation and excitement for the killer. They seek the adrenaline rush provided by hunting and killing victims. Thrill killers murder only for the kill; usually the attack is not prolonged, and there is no sexual aspect. Usually the victims are strangers, although the killer may have followed them for a period of time. Thrill killers can abstain from killing for long periods of time and become more successful at killing as they refine their murder methods. Many attempt to commit the perfect crime and believe they will not be caught. Robert Hansen took his victims to a secluded area, where he would let them loose and then hunt and kill them. In one of his letters to San Francisco Bay Area newspapers, the Zodiac Killer wrote "[killing] gives me the most thrilling experience it is even better than getting your rocks off with a girl". Coral Watts was described by a surviving victim as "excited and hyper and clappin’ and just making noises like he was excited, that this was gonna be fun" during the 1982 attack. Slashing, stabbing, hanging, drowning, asphyxiating, and strangling were among the ways Watts killed.

Comfort (profit) Edit

Material gain and a comfortable lifestyle are the primary motives of comfort killers. Usually, the victims are family members and close acquaintances. After a murder, a comfort killer will usually wait for a period of time before killing again to allow any suspicions by family or authorities to subside. They often use poison, most notably arsenic, to kill their victims. Female serial killers are often comfort killers, although not all comfort killers are female. Dorothea Puente killed her tenants for their Social Security checks and buried them in the backyard of her home. H. H. Holmes killed for insurance and business profits. Professional killers ("hitmen") may also be considered serial killers. Richard Kuklinski charged tens of thousands of dollars for a "hit", earning enough money to support his family in a middle-class lifestyle.

Some, like Puente and Holmes, may be involved in and/or have previous convictions for theft, fraud, non payment of debts, embezzlement and other crimes of a similar nature. Dorothea Puente was finally arrested on a parole violation, having been on parole for a previous fraud conviction.

Power/control Edit

The main objective for this type of serial killer is to gain and exert power over their victim. Such killers are sometimes abused as children, leaving them with feelings of powerlessness and inadequacy as adults. Many power- or control-motivated killers sexually abuse their victims, but they differ from hedonistic killers in that rape is not motivated by lust but as simply another form of dominating the victim. Ted Bundy traveled around the United States seeking women to control.