The definition of a serial killer is traditionally noted as a person who has a particular psychological motivation for killing. The murders are usually performed uniquely and the killer has a signature that they are often known for. Serial killers are often compared to mass murderers; however, serial killers do not typically follow the mass murderer format where there are no breaks in between the murders. Serial killers tend to have characteristics that highlight the fact that they are murderers.
Theories have been proposed as to what starts someone into being a serial killer.
One particular theory that has been stressed was the diathesis-stress model, which is stated to be that all serial killers have a propensity to act and think a certain way due to environmental stressors. Through a combination of other factors such as self-esteem and self-control coupled with social skill issues, the person retreats into the serial killer mode.
The killer, at that point, believes that they can correct their problems through killing.
Holmes and DeBurger (1998) specified the typology of serial killers and expressed this typology into four distinct categories:
Law enforcement and social scientists have often tried to assess serial killers who have been caught in order to better understand their reasons for acting violently. Since serial killers have a definitive personality profile, reasoning and logic have found common behaviors associated with all of them such as animal abuse, bedwetting, and the desire to set fires. While these reasons are not associated with all serial killers, there has been a tendency for these traits to be present in the majority of serial killers that have been studied.
Social science has discovered that about 90% of all serial killers are Caucasian males between the ages of 25-35, although there are also female serial killers as well. These individuals tend to be extremely smart and often tend to have trouble holding secure employment. Serial killers usually come from dysfunctional families or have had one parent abandon them at an early age. Psychological analysis has reasoned that this dysfunction or abandonment has caused many individuals to commit these heinous criminal acts.
A study performed by R. Ressler, A. Burgess, and J. Douglas studied 36 serial killers and found that each of them had a similar childhood (Guillen). The frequency of common characteristics provided the realm of psychology and sociology with a significant assessment of how to best understand serial killers.
Female serial killers have been found based upon significant data to killer for money or pure excitement as opposed to their male counterparts who have other reasons for killing. Poison is usually seen to be the common technique used by female serial killers. Female serial killers also have been shown to have longer careers as murderers than their male counterparts and they typically carefully plan their crimes through a methodical process.
Kelleher and Kelleher (1998) in a study on serial killers selected seven different categories for women who kill:
The sexual predator is defined as women who commit based upon sexual motivation. This particular form of a female serial killer is quite rare. With serial killers in general, [as previously noted] there are several levels of anxiety present in the individual. Serial killers are emotionally callous and often are reactively psychopaths (Myers et.al). Science has tried to understand the link between personality disorders and serial killers.
It should be stated that there are weaknesses in the typology of serial killers’ approach. The assessment has often been muddled by many different experiences that occur at crime scenes. This is what makes serial killers difficult to catch by law enforcement. The weaknesses include:
The typology presumes the ability to diagnose mental illness without the benefit of clinical interviews (“Profiling Serial Killers”).
As a result of these characteristics that in effect modify what was presented by Holmes and DeBurger (1998) create a thin line between the psychological and sociological fields. This is why both fields have studied the serial killer and the characteristics behind their mental state among other factors. One of the most common questions asked in the psychology of crime is why serial killers are so disturbed. This sample research paper explores some of the theories that seek to answer that question and the different approaches taken by sociology.
The field of psychology has delved into the state of mind of the serial killer in their examination. In the United States in particular, the question of the state of mind of the serial killer has been a prominent study since the middle of the 19th century. Understanding the human mind has often been based on what is known as the M’Naghten rule, which is based on a case in 1843 involving the rules of insanity.
Psychologists and psychiatrists have often acknowledged this case when serial killers opt to use it when they are caught. Insanity has been widely used among serial killers in the legal framework when they are in the justice system (Apsche). It takes a psychiatrist however to verify the validity of whether a serial killer is indeed insane as they are claiming or if they are creating a ruse in order to get a lenient sentence.
Differing from accepted belief, serial killers are not theoretically insane. Many serial killers have been clinically diagnosed in the widely used Diagnostic and Statistical Manual as suffering from Personality Disorder. The precise class of personality disorder is cluster type B, which is sociopathic or psychopathic. People diagnosed with this type of disorder are found to be emotionally unstable, self-centered and prone to be manipulative.
Some psychology researchers have reasoned that there is a frequent amount of serial killers that tend to suffer from other psychoses such as schizophrenia and multiple personality disorder. The origins of the serial killer are widely misunderstood because of the complexity of different frameworks that have been presented (Warf and Waddell) Thus, it makes it difficult to understand the serial killer and the label of insanity is used to generalize the representation.
It is important to recognize that in spite of the insanity posture that has been taken by many serial killers, research studies have illuminated further that individuals who are serial killers often slip through the cracks in the justice system. Serial killer observations have yielded startling information to this assertion. The field of psychology is not helped, then as most serial killers are put to death when caught and further research into the insanity definition is not found.
As serial killer characteristics encompass one’s mental state, psychologists have tried to also assess reasons for the insatiable obsessions and drives that push these killers to the brink. In many cases, most research has unearthed that the insatiability is the result of filling some type of void that the killer has within him/herself. Additional research has found that the serial killer is devoted to violent fantasies that provoke their feelings to harm and hurt others.
This is common for all serial killers within the typology model (Apsche). Other studies have supported these findings and conclusive evidence presented has offered distinct patterns in reinforcing the behavioral context that serial killers have.
Sociology examines the serial killer through the lens of criminology rather than from a psychological standpoint. The American public is commonly fascinated by cruelty and horror as noted by characters such as Hannibal Lecter and Michael Myers of Silence of the Lambs and Halloween respectively. Eric W. Hickey, author of Serial Murders and Their Victims, finds that serial killers kill over a period of time.
Experts in the field of sociology have marked this definition as needing to be a bit more descriptive in context because it is rather open-ended in trying to explain serial killers. However, the consensus in the field of sociology has found the premise useful. Criminology then associates statistical data when discussing serial killers. Serial killers are assessed through quantitative and qualitative data to ascertain the frequency of committing, and why the crimes occur. Educated guesses have been proposed on the biological explanation of why serial killings occur and criminologists have found that fear is the greatest motivator for serial killers.
In fact, individuals understand that fear is a powerful emotion and thus violence makes each and every one of us fearful. In spite of sociological research, little is still known about serial killers and their reasons. One prominent form of thought in the area of sociology is the McDonald Triad. Through this framework, an understanding of serial killers is ascertained through comprehending the early warning signs.
Sociologists contend that there are certain requirements that must be met in order for an individual to be deemed a serial killer (“Schemata”). This they say allows for law enforcement and other arenas of protection of society to have preventative measures in place.
One theory on preventative measures is Gottfredson and Hirschi’s Self-Control Theory. The theory suggests that “crimes are committed due to a lack of self-control, which is a result of poor parenting during childhood”. Gottfredson and Hirschi even go as far as to say that “self-control is fully formed by the fifth grade. Those who develop poor self-control will fail throughout life in adapting to social norms.”
They also state that people with low self-control are impulsive, insensitive, risk-taking, non-verbal, and short-sighted” (“Schemata”). The theory in effect seeks to link self-control to childhood. Almost all research on the subject of serial killer states that childhood is the undercurrent of why serial killers act the way they do and Gottfredson and Hirschi’s theory confirms that.
With the self-control theory, the thought is that the relationship between one’s parents is what builds the life of the man or woman. Donald. J. Sears in his book, To Kill Again, reasons that a lack of nurturing and proper love is the reasons for abuse in the serial killer. From a sociological standpoint, knowledge is not gained by the young child as to how individuals should act in society. Kids that grow up in this type of environment do not establish meaningful relationships and do not connect on any type of level (i.e. physical, emotional or spiritual). Sexual connection is removed as well. Gottfredson and Hirschi do not address the improper raising of children and this has often been noted by sociologists in profiling serial killers. The variable of self-control only explains the serial killer to a certain extent but does not prove the compatibility with other types of serial killers who did not have a negative childhood (“Schemata”).
What about them? This is why the world of criminology has opted to shine the light on reasons why serial killers commit crimes but have not been able to definitively express one specific reason. Self-control theory is deficient then for many reasons as it does not form a variation in the improper socialization between sexes. Serial killers are simply difficult to understand. This is understood when researchers are proposing certain theories in their predictions as to why individuals perform the acts that they do. It is important to note that the theory is more compatible with the understanding of serial killers than it is not. Literature has exhibited that characteristics associated with the theory are more in line with the development of the personality of the serial killer potentially guiding the light toward more sociological comprehension of what makes the serial killer tick. The theory is very accurate in seeking to establish some form of the preamble for the formation of a killer (“Schemata”) but it does not establish a sole reason in that structure.
Sociologists have also studied the social positions of serial killers. An exploration of this topic has to yield enlightening perceptions about deviance and identity in the serial killer. A specific theory here is the communication theory of identity which provides a thorough understanding of the identities of serial killers within the framework of society. It draws attention to how serial killers manage their identities.
When examining deviance and the communication theory of identity, sociologists are able to state that deviance is often related to serial killers. Deviance is a major representation of the identity and the interpretation of that identity. Qualitative research regarding serial killings does not tend to address serial killers but more so is a presentation of the types of identities of serial killers.
It more so seeks to investigate the identity of the serial killer in society. A growing body of literature has explored the topic of serial killers and sought to further try and identify how that individual manages themselves in society. Lagrange and Milburn (2003) denote that one’s identity is developed over the course of one’s life. Social roles and memberships to certain groups are also highlighted as giving meaning and prominence to one’s identity.
The complex nature of identity is what connects the world of sociology and psychology. The communication theory of identity then identifies that identity is the byproduct of communication (Henson and Olsen). In other words, through communicating with people in society; individual identities are formed and created.
Serial killers have frequently been categorized by law enforcement as being either organized or disorganized. Organized killers typically plan their kills in advance, while disorganized killers lack the strategic impulses to plan their kills and are less choosy about their victims and the characteristics that they should embody. The distinction between the organized and disorganized killer is noted as one of geography as organized killers are harder to catch.
The line between the two categories becomes “blurred if an organized killer is not caught quickly, in which case his psychosis may lead him to become increasingly disorganized and the need to kill mounts. Their spatial behavior changes accordingly: organized killers tend to travel far and wide, while disorganized ones strike relatively close to home” (Warf and Waddell). Law enforcement has tried to develop certain techniques to catch organized killers using sociological research.
It is essential that serial killers be understood within the larger framework of societal relations. Society in essence manufactures, enables and constrains their mental state as research has suggested. This is why psychology and sociology have been able to tap into trying to provide depth and reasoning for why the serial killer does what he/she does.
Although there are a variety of theories that exist on the subject and even larger generalizations that have been made to better apprehend the mind of the serial killer, it is demonstrably evident that they live and kill within varying sets of social conditions. Criminology has emphasized that serial killers are the outliers of society and their strategies are born out of this. Serial killers are the distant natives of the society that they are a part of.