Serial killers are amongst the most complicated and intriguing individuals that continue to receive attention from both the public and the media to this day. At any given time, there are anywhere between 25-50 active serial killers in the United States alone. (FBI) Makes you wonder who they are and where they could be. Could it be a co-worker, a friend, a family member, or someone that you cross paths with at the store? “A serial killer is someone who kills at least three victims one by one in a series of sequential murders, with a form of psychological gratification as the primary motive.
” (Smith, 2003) There is also a cooling-off period before another murder occurs, but as the crimes become increasingly closer together, it becomes apparent that the killer is hitting their peak and will need more to fuel their psychological wants and needs. Not all people who murder are serial killers, but all serial killers are murderers. The debate between Nature versus Nurture in serial killers is an ongoing one.
Why does a person choose to become a serial killer? Is it genetics they are born with, or is it an environmental and/or developmental influence? “Are serial killers born or made?”
The debate between Nature versus Nurture and whether or not a man or woman is predestined to commit any crime let alone become a serial killer has been ongoing for decades. Are serial killers born with a propensity to become a killer? Did a traumatic event that occurred in their childhood cause them to snap? Many people believe that with the correct upbringing, a child can develop into a good human being.
The debate between Nature versus Nurture is a very difficult one to argue. One side argues that when a child is born they are born inherently good and the situations they are exposed to during childhood are the reason they become killers because this is the most crucial time for the development of behavior and personality. The other side argues that genetics is the reason a person becomes a serial killer. Which one is it or is it a combination of both?
Some say that criminal behavior is more complicated than it had been thought to be, and they say that a person’s genetic makeup creates criminal behavior. This is called nature. Raine (2013), the author of the book, The Anatomy of Violence, explains that family genetics is indeed a factor in the nature part of a serial killer’s make-up. The gene Monoamine Oxidase A (MAO-A) is the greatest common denominator in a criminals’ mind. (Highsmith, Mercado, Hernandez, and Madrigal) The MAO-A gene is found in everyone. The difference between men and women though, lies within our X chromosomes. You see, women have two X chromosomes, so when the MAO-A gene defects on one of the X chromosomes, the other X chromosome cancels out the defective one and the normal one will then be used. In males, they have only one X chromosome. When this chromosome has the MAO-A gene, and the gene is defective, it may lead to violence and aggression because there is not another chromosome to compensate for this defect. This is also why we have many more male serial killers than we do female ones. This gene controls the breakdown of the key neurotransmitters, dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. Each of these neurotransmitters are responsible for controlling mood, arousal, aggression, sleep, appetite, reward and motivation, and even your fight or flight reactions. When we see lower levels of dopamine we find that these individuals need more excitement to feel motivated. There are other factors within the brain that many researchers have connected to serial killers as well.
A study completed in 2000, published by Dr. Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, studied the brain scans of more than 500 people who had violent tendencies to those that were considered to be normal. This study revealed that the images of those people who had been incarcerated for murder, who were also diagnosed with aggressive and antisocial behavior, showed a significant amount brain activity compared to those who were considered to be normal. This brain activity was shown to be in communication with other parts of the brain as well. These parts of the brain that showed a lot of activity are the orbital frontal cortex, the anterior cingulated cortex, and the amygdale. These portions of the brain play an extremely important role in the control of outbursts and negative and violent emotions. (Ramsland 35) If these scans are true, then that could only mean that these people were born with a different gene make up then the rest of us who are considered to be normal.
Neuroscientist, James Fallon of the University of California-Irvine has been studying the brain scans of psychopaths for nearly 20 years. He studies the biology of these scans behavior and wants to determine what exactly is the difference between your brain and mine.
As Fallon worked on this research, which also included scans of schizophrenics, depressive individuals, and other normal brain scans, as well as his scans and scans from every one one of his family members, he reached family members scan, and couldn’t believe what he saw. The brain scan showed all the signs of a pathological criminal. This brain scan was his own. So how could Fallon explain this? How is it that his brain scan is exactly like those of many criminals, but he has lived a crime-free life, is a successful scientist and is happily married? He began to think his PET (Positron Emission Tomography) machine was broken, but to his dismay, he discovered it was working just fine. (The PET machine was used to do scans of the brains of murderers to find a chemical change within their brains, so the murderer could try and claim insanity in hopes of getting their charges dismissed.) This is when Fallon underwent genetic testing and found out, he too had the MAO-A gene which is linked to aggression, violence, and low-empathy. With all of this information, Fallon, determined, that he is a psychopath too, but a “Pro-Social Psychopath”. This is someone who has difficulty feeling true empathy for others but can still keep his/her behavior within socially acceptable bounds. (Stromberg 2013)
Fallon realized, within the frontal cortex, that a normal brain scan of this area would appear to have patches of yellow and red. When Fallon looked at the brain scan of a criminal, he saw almost no yellow or red patches. This would indicate that people with low activity in the orbital frontal cortex, are either just free-spirited individuals or sociopaths. Fallon could just be generalizing his results by saying this, for his own sanity, but with further research, he could now say that the frontal orbital cortex helps to contain these behaviors with the assistance of the amygdala. He came to this conclusion based on the fact that his scans matched scans of criminals but he, himself, is considered to be normal.
Fallon states in his TED Talk, that it really wasn’t a surprise to him that he too had the markers of a person that it is motivated by power and manipulation. He admitted that his family line includes Lizzie Borden as well as seven alleged murderers. Fallon then goes on to state that he found out people who are pro-social psychopaths, like himself, find other ways to be aggressive. He states that he is fiercely competitive and doesn’t let his grandchildren win anything. He can control his aggression and turn it into something other than rape, murder, or other criminal activity. He says, “I’m obnoxiously competitive. I won’t let my grandchildren win games. I’m kind of an asshole, and I do jerky things that piss people off. But while I’m aggressive, but my aggression is sublimated. I’d rather beat someone in an argument than beat them up.” (Stromberg 2013)
There are many psychological reasons as to why a person becomes a serial killer. Of these many reasons one of them is something that is referred to as the impulse theory. This theory asks whether a human being has an instinctual or innate quality that leads us to commit violent and aggressive behavior. Another theory is the attachment theory. This theory says our early life experiences and the bond between mother and child has a huge effect on the way a child turns out. This theory states that if the mother/child bond is broken, that the child will ultimately to turn a life crime. (Myers et al., 2008) The final psychological reason as to why a person turns to crime and delinquent behavior is the social learning theory. This theory states that aggressive behavior and violent outbursts can be an influence through the media, television, and movies. (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2000) Even though these psychological theories can be said to be linked directly to the individual criminal, him/herself, we can say with 100% certainty that the disagreement about whether or not violence is natural to us or if it is a taught/learned ability, will always be the question. The one question that may not ever be truly answered.
The academic discipline, Sociology, is an approach that is used to help to define the human behavior of a criminal. This behavior is usually closely related to the rules and processes that help to separate us all into different groups that are either acceptable or shunned by others. Sociology is all about the behavior that is exhibited by any one individual with others that they may know or are complete strangers to. Our interactions with others as well as our reactions to others helps to understand the social disorganization of a serial murderer. Within the sociological field, we can assume that the obsession with serial killers can be linked to three theories. The first theory being the labeling theory. The labeling theory says that if a person is labeled a criminal or a deviant, and then this label is reinforced, the individual will eventually accept that label and their self-concept will lead them to begin to see themselves as the label they were given and begin to act out that specific behavior. (Holmes, 1998) The control theory is the next theory that is closely related to serial killers. The control theory says that if a person has a lack of control they will be more likely to commit crimes because their lack of being able to say no is not there. (Holmes & Holmes, 1998) This theory was used largely to explain the actions of Aileen Wuornos. Anomie and strain theory is the last theory that is used to help others to understand the psychology of a serial killer. The anomie and strain theories say, that all of the stress and strain that is placed upon us within our society to be successful and better than everyone else, as well as all of the outside pressures that we endure on a daily basis, causes us to feel overwhelmed and underappreciated, and this, in turn, causes us to become deviant. (Whitman & Akutagawa, 2004)
Joanna Dennehy is a unique case for many reasons. First of all, she is a female serial killer. Another reason is that she did not kill for money or even for pleasure. It was even said by one surviving victim of hers, while she was stabbing him, “Dennehy, did not appear to be enjoying herself”. (Peachy 2014)
Dennehy grew up in a loving family in Harpenden, England. She was liked by everyone who met her. Joanna maintained good grades in school and her teachers always said she was a nice girl. Joanna was sensitive, caring and loved everyone and everything. She would even become upset if she accidentally stepped on a bug and it died. As Joanna grew older and reached her teen years, she began to change. She changed almost everything about herself. She started skipping school, drinking, using drugs, and dating. She left home at 16 and ended up pregnant and having two children. After her break up with the father of her two children, where he subsequently took them away from her, Joanna spiraled. This is what is considered to be a traumatic event in Criminology and is usually the stressor as well as the reason why people snap and commit crimes.
The loss Joanna Dennehy suffered when her children were consequently removed from her custody, was the traumatic event that caused her to kill thirteen men and nearly kill two others over a 14-day period. Dennehy is unlike any other serial killer because she grew up in a loving home. She was not sexually, physically, or mentally abused. She never showed the typical signs of a serial killer like bed wetting, arson or killing animals.
On the other hand, Arthur Shawcross, The Genesee River Killer, was raised in an unstable, volatile and unloving home. Shawcross was punished with belts and a broom handle that sometimes drew blood. He craved attention from his mother so badly that he began to run away from home at age 6 in hopes that she would come searching for him. She did not. He was a frequent bed-wetter. (Wikipedia) Shawcross claims his first sexual encounter was when he was just 9 years old and it was with an Aunt. One time when he was caught masturbating, his mother stuck the handle of a broomstick into his rectum as his punishment. He began having sex with many different animals at the age of 14. Dropped out of high school at 17 and at this time he began his criminal career.
Shawcross began his serial killing spree in May of 1972 when he raped and killed 10-year old Jack Owen Blake in Watertown, NY and then just four months later he raped and killed 8-year old Karen Ann Hill. He was given a 25-year sentence, but because of inexperienced prison staff and social workers, Shawcross was released and was said to not be dangerous to the public anymore. Not even 2-years after his release he began killing again.
Shawcross then murdered 11 prostitutes between March 15th, 1989 and December 26th, 1989. Jo Ann Van Nostrand was his sole survivor. She was armed and pulled a knife on him when she believed he was about to strangle her. He let her go.
During Shawcross’s trial information about his biology, psychology and sociology were much debated. It was shared that his parents had no criminal history, he was born prematurely, he had a healed frontal lobe fracture, from being hit on the head repeatedly throughout his childhood and adolescence. His defense tried to use this to get Shawcross a lighter sentence by saying that he was an abused child and which in turn caused him to become an emotionally disturbed and unstable adult who was slightly retarded and had a lack of emotional disturbance with a slight case of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). This did not work. He was found to be mentally capable to withstand trial and was found guilty of these murders and sentenced to 250 years in the Sullivan Correctional Facility. Arthur Shawcross died on November 10th, 2008 of a cardiac arrest.
Both biological and social factors contribute to the making of a murderer. (Raines 1998) Raine explains that our genes and the environment we were brought up in, both contribute to and encourage violent behavior. A child can be guided or driven toward violent behavior if they have abusive parents. However, this does not mean that all children who are raised by abusive parents are going to become serial killers. This is just to say that a person who was around this abuse as an adolescent, is more likely to become a violent criminal.
The question therein still lies, “Is it nature or nurture that causes a person to become a serial killer?”. There is no true answer to this question. There is not a way to determine why a person becomes a cold-blooded monster. (Examination of the Psychology of Serial Killers) We know that every person is born “normal” and with different genes. That is what makes us all individuals and unique. Still, there are those that believe our genes do not automatically produce killers. (Serial Killers: Nature vs. Nurture, 2012) Yet, there are others who believe this and only this to be the reason serial killers are made. Others believe it is the environment that a person is raised around. The influences around us growing up have a huge impact on how we react to situations. Some of us choose to remain calm and find answers without committing crimes. While others cannot control their reactions and resort to extreme measures to express our outrage and disappointment.
Nature and nurture both play a significant role in how and why a person becomes a serial killer. It has been proven time and time again that a traumatic event is always the reason a person turns to extraordinary measures to release their anger and frustration. Biology and the MAO-A gene have also been explored extensively and have been proven to be the most common factor amongst serial killers. Whether you side with nature or nurture on this topic, you have to agree that even though not all serial killers or criminals have difficult childhoods, each of them desires power and control in their lives that they feel has been missing. When it is all said and done, we can all agree that we are born with the MAO-A gene. Yes, these traits are predetermined but, they cannot choose who we are going to be throughout our lifetime. Only we can make that choice.
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