Why do some people kill other people? More importantly, why do some people enjoy killing lots of people just for the fun of it? This is a basic description of what a serial killer is. But what possesses these human beings to commit such heinous crimes? Some say that genetics are responsible, while others blame the environment that the killers grew up in. The causes of psychopathy remain a mystery. We don’t even have a reasonable answer to the question of whether psychopathy is a product of Mother Nature or a part of upbringing. One of the best sources of information about whether traits are a result or nature of nurture comes from the Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart, a project originally led by Minnesota Professor of Psychology Thomas Joseph Bouchard, Jr. This study has shown that psychopathy is 60 percent heritable, which indicates that psychopathic traits are due more to DNA than to upbringing.
Recent genetic studies of twins imply that identical twins may not be as genetically similar as previously assumed. Though only a couple hundred mutations take place throughout early fetal development, the mutations are likely to multiply over the years, leading to infinite genetic differences. This leaves open the possibility that psychopathic traits are largely genetically determined. Another factor pointing towards the idea that psychopathy is genetically determined was identified by in a study at University of Wisconsin, Madison. When dealing with the terrible notion that some people take pride in murdering others, one should expect some abnormality in the brain, the immediate source of psychopathic traits. Scans of the brain revealed that psychopathy in criminals was associated with reduced connectivity between the amygdala, a part of the brain that processes negative stimuli, and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), a region in the front of the brain that deciphers the reaction from the amygdala. When the connection between these two areas is low, processing of negative stimuli in the amygdala does not translate into any strongly felt negative emotions.
This fits well into the picture we have of psychopaths. They do not feel nervous or embarrassed when they are caught doing something bad. They do not feel sad when other people suffer. They are incapable of experiencing empathy and love. Even though they can feel physical pain, they themselves are not in a position to suffer from emotions hurts. The Wisconsin, Madison study shows a relationship between criminal psychopathy and brain abnormality. As this brain abnormality in the majority of cases of psychopathic criminals is not abruptly acquired, there is good reason to think that it’s grounded in the psychopath’s DNA. There are, however, some limitations of the study because it measured criminal psychopaths, but not all psychopaths are criminals. Everyday you walk by people who are aggressive, narcissistic, manipulative, and impulsive. They may be considered psychopaths, but they were able to move away from fantasies of murder and destruction.
Another limitation of the study is that it doesn’t show that reduced activity between the amygdala and vmPFC is an irregularity specifically connected to psychopathy rather than to a range of mental disorders that have been associated with severe crimes, including paranoid schizophrenia and extreme sexual fetishes. And though the Wisconsin study sheds some light on what may bring about the traits of psychopathy, it still remains puzzling. We don’t know the reason behind the reduced connectivity in the emotional system. It could be caused by a dysfunction of neurotransmitters, for example, by a disturbance to the main excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate. Or it could be a degenerative disease that leads to a reduction of the brain’s white matter, which is responsible for connectivity among neurons. We may never actually know.
What we do know, or at least understand, is that a disproportionate number of serial killers exhibit one, two, or all three of the Macdonald triad of predictors for future violent behavior. These being: Animal Cruelty, Pyromania, and Bed Wetting. Torturing animals is an incredible red flag, whether you’re trying to find a killer or not. Animals are often seen as “practice” for killing real human beings. Jeffery Dahmer, the “Milwaukee Cannibal”, was notorious for his animal cruelty, cutting off the heads of dogs and placing them on a stick behind his house. Ed Kemper, “The Co-ed Killer”, buried the family cat while it was still alive, dug it up again, and then finished by cutting off its head. But not all serial killers take their angers out on pets. Dennis Nilsen, otherwise known as the “Muswell Hill Murderer” and the “Kindly Killer”, loved animals, especially his dog Bleep.
Rapist torturer and murderer of eight, “Beauty Queen Killer” Christopher Wilder had made donations to Save The Whales and the Seal Rescue Fund. Nevertheless, the majority of multiple murderers have, at some point in their lives, tortured and/or killed an innocent, non-human creature. But this pain suffered by animals is not the only warning sign out there. “Oh, what ecstasy,” said American serial killer Joseph Kallinger, “setting fires brings to my body! What power I feel at the thought of fire! … Oh, what pleasure, what heavenly pleasure!” Pyromania, an impulse control disorder where someone constantly fails to resist the desire to deliberately start fires in order to relieve tension or for instant gratification, is often a sexually stimulating activity for these killers. Known as both “The Vampire of Düsseldorf” and the “Düsseldorf Monster”, Peter Kurten enjoyed watching houses burn, and David Berkowitz (Son of Sam), when he tired of torturing his mother’s parakeet, became a prolific pyromaniac, keeping record of his 1,411 fires.
The vivid damage of property feeds the same perverse need to end the life of another human. Because serial killers don’t see people as more than objects, the leap between setting fires and killing people is simple and easy to make. The last of Macdonald triad, bed wetting, is the most intimate of these symptoms, and is less likely to be intentionally revealed. By some estimates, 60% of multiple murderers wet their beds past adolescence. Kenneth Bianchi, one of the “Hillside Strangers”, apparently spent many a night marinating in urine-soaked sheets. Though these “symptoms” may be present in serial killers, they are not confirmed to be the root cause of multiple murders. What happens during adolescence may play a role in the molding of a serial killer, but it can’t be the sole reason in every case. Many killers blame their families for their behavior, seeking sympathy.
It is true psychopathic fashion. Serial killers more often than not blame someone else for their disturbing actions. But if their bad childhood is the primary reason for their homicidal tendencies, then why don’t their siblings also become serial killers? And if these conditions truly molded them, serial killers would probably be everywhere by now. We must look at other components to see what pushes a serial killer over the edge. What is it that pulls the trigger?
Experts in studying serial killers have named the triggers that set off the psychopath’s murderous actions, a “stressor”. “Stressors” are events that prompt the killer into action. They can be simple or complicated ranging from arguments, physical injury, or the loss of a job to parental conflict, financial stress, marital problems, legal problems, or stress from a death. As the killer struggles with frustration, anger, and resentment, the fantasies of killing can surpass reality. Christopher Wilder (Beauty Queen killer) claims his murderous rampage began after his marriage proposal was rejected. According to Joel Norris, author of several books about Serial Killers, there are seven phases of the serial killer’s cycle: 1) The Aura Phase, where the killer starts to lose grip on reality; 2) The Trolling Phase, when the killer hunts for a victim; 3) The Wooing Phase, where the killer lures his victim in; 4) The Capture Phase, where the victim is caught; 5) The Murder phase, which is the emotional and possibly sexual high for killers; 6) The Totem phase, when the excitement from the kill starts to fade and they wake from their fantasy; and finally, 7) The Depression Phase, which happens after the murder has occurred.
The killer-to-be starts with the Aura Phase, where they begin to lose reality and their senses heighten. This is when the killer distances himself (or herself) from social interactions. Nevertheless, anyone who encounters this person may not be able to notice his or her change in personality. The killer becomes antisocial and believes life no longer has meaning to them. This phase could last anywhere from a few moments to a few months and can originate as an extended fantasy that often include sadism, sex, and/or other violent acts, which most likely stem from early childhood experiences. These may have been active for a short time or for years. The killer might attempt to medicate themselves with alcohol or drugs, which usually leads to an intensification of the fantasies. But soon enough, they have the urge to be acted upon.
This leads us into the second stage, the Trolling Phase. Here, the killer tries to find a victim. Most serial killers will search for a victim in places he is comfortable in or where he knows the area (the “comfort zone” may be around where the killer lives). Their hunting ground usually tends to be in schoolyards, lovers lanes, or even red light districts. They will also look for a particularly discreet location to commit the murder, and a perfect place to dump the bodies. The hunting can go on for hours, days, and sometimes months before the “perfect” victim will be found. Also during this phase, the serial killer often follows a behavior pattern used to identify and stalk his victim. This explains why Ted Bundy strapped his arm in a sling and asked for help with books, packages, or even the hull of a sailboat to lure the victim into his car. Some victims escaped and said he never seemed out of control until the moment he actually attacked them. This goes along with how well a psychopath can cover up his true intentions. They aren’t dumb, but they also aren’t always careful.
In the Wooing Phase, the killer tries to win the confidence of a victim before luring them into a trap. This phase is only done by organized killers who are much more confident, much more daring, and have better social skills than disorganized killers. They try to socialize with the victim and – as stated before – try to gain the victim’s trust. This is a very important phase because it can be noted that organized killers often seem to only kill those who allow them to get in close. Once the trust is received, the killer will then lure the victim to a quiet, secluded area where they then uncover their mask and move on to the next part of their plan. The fourth stage is the Capture Phase. This is where the killer reveals what they are. The capture of the victim can be as swift as snapping a handcuff on the victim’s wrists, or a violent blow that leaves the victim helpless.
The killer may draw their victim into their car without a door handle one could use as an escape. They usually savor this moment, which is disturbingly fun for them and fuels their sadistic needs. The victim is usually transported to a new location, far out from people and help. Once the killer is sure that the victim has no way to escape, they move to the climax phase of the cycle, the actual murder. The Murder Phase is described as “the ritual reenactment of the disastrous experiences of the killer’s childhood”, but this time the roles are reversed. The killer may decide to kill their victim instantly or torture them, try to revive them on the brink of death and then continue with the torture. This gives them a strong sense of power over the helpless victim, putting them in a God like position, being the one who decides if they live or die (usually ending in the latter).
A disorganized killer is more likely to kill the victim instantly by a powerful attack or a quick strangulation. It is likely that the corpse is heavily “depersonalized” by mutilations of face and body. Any violent acts such as rape are often taken place after the victim is dead which is fueled by necrophilia, the attraction to the dead. It’s the organized killer who commits a much slower and more painful murder act. The victim is more likely to be tortured and raped before death. The act of killing is usually delayed because the murder itself is often not the motive of the crime; but rather, it’s the torturing that the killer enjoys most. This is especially true in sadistic killers, the most organized of all killers. This type will keep their victims alive as long as possible, sometimes reviving them from injuries, and keep them alive enough to feel the pain from the tortures.
The sexual sadistic killers will use different equipment or their “murder kit”, to inflict the most pain. Eventually, the killer will finish with the torture and finally proceed to kill. The second-to-last phase is the Totem Phase. After the kill, the excitement the killer feels suddenly declines as he wakes up from his fantasy. He is likely to become depressed, which is why some serial killers develop a ritual to preserve their murder. They may collect some of their victim’s possessions such as clothes, save news clippings about their crimes, take pictures or videotape the crime. Some even cut off their victim’s body parts to preserve and/or consume them. These are their trophies and are meant to give the murderer the same feelings of power they experienced at the time of the kill and to remind himself/herself that the fantasy is real, and he/she really did fulfill it.
We reach the end of the cycle at the Depression Phase. This can last for days, weeks, or even months. They may even become so depressed that they attempt suicide. A dead victim no longer represents what the killer thought he or she represented, and the memory of the individual that tortured the murderer in the past is still there. It can be said that the first kill is the only one where the killer feels at his best. They may try to get that feeling back with each subsequent kill, but the moment will forever be gone. In each subsequent murder, he attempts to make the scene of the crime equal to the fantasy. It’s noted that there is an absence of the killer’s sense of self and, during this phase, the killer may confess to the police before the fantasies start once more.
However, because victims are not seen as people, memories of the murders may be vague or viewed by the killer as having watched someone else. Eventually, the killer will fall back into their fantasies and proceed to restart the cycle. After each murder, the fantasy will become more real and the murder will become more brutal as the cycle continues on and on until the pattern gets interrupted. Interruption includes getting caught, or when the killer is “burnt out.” When the killer is “burnt out,” he/she withdraws from killing, and possibly commits suicide. This is one of the reasons why there are so many unsolved serial murder cases. However, the chances are that the killer will not stop killing on his/her own. Serial killing is an addiction, a sickness that cannot be cured. It can be studied, it can be stopped one-by-one, but human nature dictates that killers will exist as long as our minds cannot be contained, and so;
Serial Killers Will Never Go Extinct.
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Egger, Steven. Killers Among Us
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Meloy, J. Reid. Psychopathic Mind; Origins, Dynamics, and Treatment Norris, Joel. Serial Killers: The Growing Menace
Seltzer, Mark. Serial Killers
Richard Tithecott Of Men and Monsters: Jeffrey Dahmer and the Construction of