Are Serial Killers Born or Made?

In this essay, I will attempt to understand the complex psychological and social-cultural factors that contribute to the making of some of the worst criminals history has seen. My aim is to assess the contributing factors to the twisted psyche of serial killers and discover what drives them to kill, weather their genetics can lead to predetermined violence, or the environment they were brought up in has the ability to create a killer out of anyone. Not all abused children become serial killers; equally not all serial killers are abused as children however the relationship between the two is prominent and therefore cannot be ignored.

In his book ‘The anatomy of violence’ criminologist Dr Adrian Raine says “Genetics and environment work together to encourage violent behaviour.” For example, people with a specific type of the enzyme monoamine oxidase, which is a gene making the person more prone to display violent behaviour. If they then have an abusive upbringing the child becomes more likely to become a violent offender therefore showing that genetics when paired with innate biological differences can create the correct conditions for a killer to develop.

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On the side of nature, Raine et al 1998 looked at the differences between brain scans of predatory murderers (low emotional and physiological arousal e.g. stalking) and affective murderers (high states of emotional and physiological arousal, usual crimes over status/money) and 41 nonviolent controls. The results show that both affective and predatory murderers show a higher level of activity in the subcortical limbic structures because of impaired frontal lobe regulation.

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Showing that predatory murderers keep their frontal lobe ability to direct, control, and moderate their activity, but they do so in order to control their need for control and dominance. This demonstrates the differences in brain chemistry even between different types of killers; the use of brain scans also proves that some killers so have differences in their brain structures and chemistry to that of a healthy person.

In terms of the neurochemistry of violence, there have been reports of evidence showing that people with naturally lower levels of natual serotonin and Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which both hinder aggression and produce a calming effect and generally less aggressive; and because they have low levels of both chemicals they are chemically more aggressive. There have been arguments for the idea that when the babies are developing inside the mother they are bathed in serotonin which means that they become used to high levels of serotonin so when they are born they lack the same levels of serotonin so they kill because that is the only way they can get the same level of serotonin as they became accustomed too while in the womb.

And then those chemicals which enhance aggression; dopamine which improves motivation, productivity and focuses people who have a low level of dopamine or have a low number of dopamine receptor need greater levels of excitement to really ‘feel it’ and it is this need for the ultimate thrill that drives most killers to keep on killing (for example the zodiac killer describes this drive in his letters;) and finally high testosterone levels all contribute to higher levels of aggression especially when paired with low levels of serotonin. Studies have shown that most male serial killers have extremely high levels of testosterone compared with the average non-killer male Scott (2000)

The under arousal theory of psychopathy says that psychopaths seek excessive stimulation through antisocial behaviour to make up for their innate low levels of physiological arousal this makes them ‘sensation seekers’ as suggested by Raine et al 1990, 1993, 1995, 2013 and Zuckerman 1979, 1990,1991. In addition to this psychopathic participants have had lower resting heart rates and reduced skin conductivity activity which point towards the under arousal theory; however, they did also show enhances P300 amplitudes (responsible for decision making.) If serial killers are a more extreme version of psychopaths this would explain their insistent stalking as well as the pleasure they get from the killing/torture of their victims because their sensation craving brains cannot get that pleasure in any other way

Studies by Miller in, 1987, 1988, 1994, and 1998 as well as Volavka 1995 and 1999 show that the frontal lobes of the brain are used for behavioural self-awareness and self-control; the temporal lobes control emotional and motivational states such as sexuality can aggression due to the presence of the limbic structures within the temporal lobes.

In a study by Volkrow and Tancredi 1987 found that frontal lobe dysfunction in violent individuals who had no remorse, a prominent personality trait of psychopaths. This study is supported by a similar study done completed by Mills and Raine 1994 where they reviewed 20 brain imaging studies of violent and sexual offenders using CT, MRI, Rcbf and PET technologies they found that frontal lobe dysfunction was associated with violent, non-sexual offending for example murder. Temporal lobe dysfunction on the other hand was associated with sexual but relatively non-violent offending e.g. paedophilia and incest. They concluded that dysfunction in both areas was associated with crimes that included both sexual and violent aspects such as rape and sexual sadism.

Some psychologists argue that the reason serial killers kill is down to their psychodynamics rather than genetic factors. Simon (1996) says that the underlying psychology of the killer is down to a core of self-loathing, from which the killer briefly lifts themselves from during the acts of controlling, torturing and killing a victim. Therefore only the most violent, sexually sadistic exploitation of his victims enables the killer to be relieved from their emotional numbness to life, the acts of killing actually enable the killer to feel relaxed and calm. Malmquist (1966) would agree as they say the intense depression and despair that is reported by most serial killers right before their next murder is the psychological reason that they kill. The degradation and defeat of the helpless victim act almost like a mood-elevating drug for the killers. However, some killers don’t have these depressed feelings and state that they kill because they love the control and power they can have over another human. As Edmund Kemper was quoted saying in the book ‘Mindhunter by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker ‘Alive they were distant, not sharing with me. I was trying to establish a relationship. When they were being killed, there wasn’t anything going on in my mind except that they were going to be mine’

Others think that it is the killers’ cognitive style and cognitive distortions which are the dive behind why they kill. Palermo and Kocsis (2005) describe serial killers as having their own ‘cognitive map.’ Where they view the world as hostile and therefore are unable/ unwilling to interact with other people in the same way the average person does; their thinking is trapped in a narcissistic, isolative and self-referencing loop which revolves around themselves and their need for murderous stimulation. The act of committing the crimes reinforces their god complex and their sense of entitlement to use others for whatever they want after each crime inner homeostasis is maintained until they commit their next crime.

A lot of the time children who develop ADHD as a child and are not treated for it due to neglect by their parents, progress into much wore mental illnesses such as depression (Pincus, 145) other common mental disordered that a murderer might have include schizophrenia and multiple personality disorder. Although these illnesses aren’t enough to make a person kill they do form as a trigger when someone has suffered a terrible childhood alongside mental illness (Ramsland, inside the mind of serial killers, 58)

The nurture side of the debate also has some strong research evidence to back it up such as Hickey’s (1997) trauma model which considers the biological, developmental, demographic, and familiar factors, including childhood trauma, that all contribute to criminality in general focusing specifically on serial homicide, the model says that the potential for a sexual sadistic compulsion to become serial homicidal acts must be encouraged and activated by sociocultural factors which fit within the specific norms and values of the society, for example, aggressive and sexual urges can be encouraged and masked by a career in the military, police or sports. In values orientated culture, the same urges could be sadistically inflamed and enabled in a society which glorifies violence and objectifies women through sexual videogames and widely available pornography; the individuals use these media as permission to commit their acts as they view it as acceptable.

This research is supported by a study done by Beech and Mitchel (2005) who conducted a systemic study of the cognitive styles of rapists and sexual murderers they found several different categories of ‘implicit theories’ which are the specific patterns and biases when forming an opinion. The offender, therefore, uses their implicit theories as reasoning for why they saw it as acceptable for them to commit their crimes, these categories where: It’s a dangerous world – this was the most common implicit theory found in sexual murderers, basically saying that ‘she deserved it.’ The offenders in this category viewed their victims as unreliable, unfair and abusive. The act of killing her, therefore, reinforces their feelings of anger and resentment against the woman that they perceived has wronged them in the past that often resemble their new victim usually in terms of hair/eye colour, height and career path.

Another category was Women are sex objects – the offenders in this category viewed women as existing primarily to be at the sexual disposal of men. They did not view women as humans with choices and priorities of their own. It is reported that this kind of schema for women develops as a result of the environment the offenders were brought up in, they might have, for example, have had a father who abused their mother resulting in the child believing that’s how all men are meant to treat women. The next category was Women are unknowable – this was the rarest of all the categories where the women were viewed as objects of mystery and therefore suspicion, this exaggerated the feelings of insecurity and inadequacy in these men, resulting in them viewing them as deceptive and manipulative. It is this frustration and confusion is what leads the offenders to use aggression to reaffirm their dominance and control over the women.

Holmes et al (1999) said that the role of trauma in serial killer development doesn’t have to happen in childhood, but can happen in adolescence and even adulthood. Breslau and Davis (1992) and Breslau et al (1991) found that a high proportion of young adults from economically depressed and crime-ridden areas show symptoms of PTSD from incidents in their everyday life such as rape, injuries, assaults and receiving the news of the death of a close friend/ relative, these kinds of events can cause explosions of violence for someone who has an innate tendency to externalise traumatic events into aggressive actions. This points to the belief that the situation that an individual finds themselves in can cause an innate biological response, which often is violence.

Wolfgang and Ferracuti’s subcultural theory (1967) argued that exposure to violent influences in the surrounding subculture may enable the transition from violent/ sexual urges to elaborate fantasies and then eventually to violent/sexual behaviour, therefore the killer-to-be would be able to nurture their torture fantasies and study other killers in a culture which shows humans and women especially as sexual objects, providing the technological means to spend hours watching/reading about their violent fantasies created by others making it seem normal to have these fantasies, this eventually drives them to act out their fantasies in real life.

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Are Serial Killers Born or Made?. (2020, Oct 01). Retrieved from

Are Serial Killers Born or Made?

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