The violence of murders committed by diagnosed psychopaths has never failed to shock both criminal enforcers and civilians alike. Psychologists, biologists and sociologists have all presented their ideas and theories as to the nature of a psychopath killer’s drive to do violence and kill including the methods by which they kill. There are some suggestions that such actions are the result of some wayward gene inherited through heredity. Some theorize that it is the personal history of psychopaths that is the source of their psychological problems. Do sociopaths and psychopaths do murder as a product of madness, selfishness or as in the psychopathic murderer’s case, a need and opportunity for them to assert their dominance? That said, are all psychopaths violent murderers?
Murderous and violent psychopaths…Who are they and what caused them to be as violent as they are? Biologists and geneticists believe it’s a “kink” in a person’s make-up -a chemical and genetic anomaly responsible for tendencies towards violence and murder. Psychologists say that it’s not so much a person’s physical make-up but more of the result of traumatic experiences combined with an already weak mental and emotional state.
Being diagnosed as “psychopathic” by itself does not necessarily make one a murderer. By definition. Psychopaths are simply people who have failed to develop any mechanisms of conscience, guilt and other mental and emotional controls necessary to understand laws, punishment and reprimands. (Lykken, 1995, p. 6) There are some however who go to extremes and become violent and murderous.
While genetic research has determined that predisposition to behaviors such as alcoholism and destructive behaviors may be carried in an individual’s DNA (Guldmann, 2006), there is a belief that these tendencies can certainly be over-ridden by other external factors such as education, moral beliefs and individual free will (Guldmann, 2006).
This belief has led many people to believe that people who are capable of the violence such as sociopaths and psychopaths are have simply got to be mad. Often, the validation of these people’s insanity is derived from the extreme violence, viciousness, and often, the bizarre methods employed in committing murder). Whether the persons concerned have been officially diagnosed as insane or the nature of such “madness” is determined doesn’t seem to matter very much (Egger, 1990, p. 73 )
Psychologists on the other hand say that there are many other external factors that cause antisocial personality disorder among adults that should be taken into consideration. It could be an issue of heredity that causes a biological pre-disposition to violence and murder. There are also issues of childhood abuse, trauma, early exposure to violence and other neurological abnormalities. (Giannangelo, 1996, p. 8)
Childhood trauma and abuse play a key role in influencing and causing behavioral disorders among individuals (Levy & Orlans, 2004). Aggression and destructive feelings towards one’s self and other people in addition to lack of emotional control are just a few things that maltreatment and neglect may cause (Lowenthal, 1999).
Behaviorists and psychologists classify serial killers and violent murderers under two categories: the sociopaths and the psychopaths. Both suffer from “adult anti-social personality disorder,” and can exhibit extreme narcissism, violence and disregard for human life” (Giannangelo, 1996, p. 7). While the two terms are often used interchangeably, there are a few things that differentiate the two particularly when it comes to how sociopaths and psychopaths deal with other people. It is here that psychopaths are shown to be significantly more dangerous, and violent than the sociopath.
Psychopaths, Sociopaths, Violence and Murder
Sociopaths are generally more outwardly “anti-social” in the sense that they do not bother to pretend to fit in with society. They may be rude, crass and vulgar. These social misfits are compulsive liars and treat social norms and other people’s rights with disdain. They are impulsive and often feel self-doubt and loneliness. Relationships can often be started but very rarely maintained. They cannot stand frustration and cannot be expected to learn from punishment or experience (Simon, 1996, p. 26).
Psychopaths on the other hand can be extremely narcissistic and violent. Their primary difference with sociopaths is that psychopaths are capable of projecting an image that is acceptable in society. They can be extremely charming and are glib storytellers. They are given to fits of rage and have a strong tendency towards promiscuity. More often than not, behind that veneer of charm is a capability for violence that is geared towards the assertion of their dominance over other people. (Giannangelo, 1996, p. 9)
Psychopathic killers are very methodical in the way they kill their victims. They are cold, remorseless and dissociated. It is common among psychopathic killers to have shown signs of mental problems in their childhood. Because of this psychopaths are more predatory and violent and are generally viewed as untreatable (p.10)
The Psychopathic Killer
While most psychopathic killers have experienced some form of parental neglect and maltreatment in their childhood like their sociopathic counterparts, there are some psychopaths who despite a good upbringing and all the opportunities in life available to them, develop a compulsion for violence and murder.
The eminent psychophysiology expert David T. Lykken agrees with dividing anti-social behavior into three groups: normal, psychopathic, and sociopathic. Lykken supposed that criminal behavior is heterogeneous and results from several continuous and complex life experiences the criminal is subjected to. In his 1957 study on psychopathy, Lykken came to the conclusion that as children, psychopaths were reared no differently from other children but only had an unusual level of fearlessness.
Critics however question Lykken’s “low fear hypothesis” since this virtually negates any difference between psychopaths and “ordinary”criminals. If Lykken’s basis for being a psychopath were to be followed, most criminals in prison are psychopaths. This in essence negates the very reason the term was coined to explain the unusual and often harsh characteristics that differentiate some criminals from others.
Public Psychopath Cases
Between the years 1974-1978, an estimated 36 women have either vanished or turned up murdered across the United States. Up to the present time, the numbers of victims credited to this particular killer cannot be fixed. This was the legacy left by the infamous serial killer Ted Bundy. Theodore “Ted” Bundy had charm, good looks and accomplishment. He had a pre-law degree from the University of Washington and was much admired by his colleagues both at the political headquarters of the Republican Party where he served as a trusted campaign aide, and at the Seattle Crisis Clinic where he worked as a telephone counselor. (Rule, 2005, pp.116-119)
Famous crime writer and Bundy’s former colleague at the crisis center Ann Rule tells of a letter she received from Bundy where he blamed his incarceration on his “compulsion and stupidity.”(p.120)
Pervin (1996) of the Journal in Psychological Inquiry also narrates how Bundy admitted that all he ever thought about during his commission of murder were associated with harming and dominating his victims. These gave him much excitement and potential sexual gratification (p.74)
There are also “typical” psychopaths whose crimes/murders were a result of what could be a combination of genetics, an already weak mental and emotional constitution, and a childhood peppered with abuse and maltreatment.
One psychopathic serial killer from England named John Halliday Christie took things to a whole new level as he confessed to also being a “necrophile” or one who gains sexual satisfaction by having intercourse with an unconscious or dead person. According to his confession, he would persuade women to come to his house for a drink. After they are drunk, Christie would then turn on the gas connected to a gas pipe to where his victim is reclining/sitting. Once the victim loses consciousness, he would then proceed to rape and strangle them after intercourse. (Wilson & Wilson, 2005, p.38-48) True to typical psychopath “profile,” Christie was a weakling as a child and was continually beaten by his father. He also suffered from sexual dysfunction that earned him taunts from boyhood friends.
Considered to be America’s most “dedicated” killer, Carl Panzram started life as the son of Prussian immigrants in Minnesota in 1891. His father soon deserted the family and left Carl’s mother to fend for the family of six. His childhood was spent working and being violently beaten in the fields as well as the reform school where he was sent after being convicted for burglary at the age of 12. In his stints in prison, Panzram was harshly treated with punishments bordering on torture. Such experience turned Panzram into the psychopathic killer he became infamous for that before his execution in 1930, Panzram proudly and cheerfully confessed to raping and sodomizing over 1,000 boys and men in addition to the murder of 21 people (Gado, 2004,p1).
Other examples of psychopathic killers include the American Henry Lee Lucas who confessed to 600 murders in 1938 (only 9 of which were verified); and the “Monster of the Andes” Pedro Alonzo Lopez who terrorized Colombia and Ecuador and confessed to raping and murdering 360 young girls, majority of which were under the age of 12. (Wilson&Wilson, 2005, p.49)
In all of the above celebrated cases of psychopathic killers, one thing is constant — the psychopath’s need to dominate their victims and their remorseless if not proud stance after they are caught.
What is a psychopathic serial killer like? Former special agent Robert Ressler of the Federal Bureau of Investigation believes that when it comes to psychopathic serial killers, it is foolhardy to make generalizations’. (Sunde, 2002)
But despite the differences in methods or choice of victims, it is undeniable that they share several common characteristics like the unremorsefulness of the psychopath and the cold, calculated and often grisly and violent to the point of bizarre way they go about their crimes.
Biologically, one cannot say whether gender or heredity are clear indicators of the capacity to kill. While men are commonly viewed as more capable of carrying out murder, there have been women murderers like Aileen Wuornos, and German poisoners Anna Zwanziger and Gesina Gottfried (Wilson&Wilson, 2005, p.3)
“Remorse is reported by some after commission of some crimes, but never to the point of their changing their behavior or seeking help (i.e., Dodd, Nilsen, Dahmer, Bundy, and others).”(Giannangelo, 1996, p. 8)
The exact psychology or causes of why a person becomes a psychopathic killer remains a subject that demands further study. While there may be similarities between childhood trauma, fearlessness, and feelings of confusion with regard to identity and self-worth, that can almost be said the same for a huge number of people who have been able to lead moral and law-abiding lives.
Rule, A. (2005, January) My Killer Encounters. Readers Digest Asia. 114-130
Sunde, S. (2002, January 18).EX-FBI PROFILER: No such thing as a ‘typical” serial
killer.(Seattle, USA) Seattle Post-Intelligencer Reporter. Retrieved November 20, 2007,
from Seattle PI database:
Wilson,C. &Wilson, D.(2005) World Famous Serial Killers. London: Magpie Books.