So, You've Got Yourself A Serial Killer: But Do You Really Know Him?
edited: Monday, July 30, 2001
By TL Gray
Posted: Tuesday, February 13, 2001
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Article covers characteristics, tendencies, and pattern behavior of serial killers.
This article appeared in the March/April 2001 issue of THE KISS OF DEATH Newsletter by the Mystery/Suspense Chapter of RWA.
First, let’s address some myths associated with Serial Killers.
1. Serial killers are born that way—There is no proof of this. No extra chromosome. No defect. They develop these tendencies over time. Most start in their 20’s. If someone hasn’t started being a serial killer by his 30’s, he probably isn’t going to.
2. All serial killers are male—Not so, but it is a historical fact that most serial killers are white males.
3. All serial killers are insane—False. While many will claim insanity as a defense, most know the difference between right and wrong.
4. All serial killers kill for the same reason—False.
Serial Killers are not to be confused with Mass Murderers or Spree Killers. You need to know the difference. Mass Murderers kill 4 or more victims a one location, (think Postal). Spree Killers--kill at 2 or more locations with no cooling off period between murders. A single event can last a long or short period of time. There are 4 types of serial killers:
1. The Visionary Motive Type—Often psychotic. Compelled to murder because they often hear voices or see visions ordering them to kill certain types of people.
2. Mission-Oriented—Kills a specific group of people because he believes they are unworthy to live. He is not psychotic. Often described as a fine citizen.
3. Hedonistic or Thrill-Oriented—kills for the thrill. Enjoys the act of killing. Sexual arousal is common.
4. Power-Oriented or The Lust Killer— a sexual predator. The more heinous the crime, the more aroused he becomes. Not psychotic—but obsessed with capturing his victim and forcing them to obey his every command.
Among each of these 4 categories are 2 groups—organized killers and disorganized killers. But this is whole other article, .
With the serial killer, there is a minimum of 3-4 victims, with a cooling off period in between. They can go weeks, months, or years before killing again. Their victims are usually strangers, therefore the murder appears unconnected or random. The murders are rarely for profit—the motive is psychological, not material. The victim may have symbolic meaning or value to the killer, which is often revealed through a ritual or signature (something he must do to fulfill himself). They tend to choose victims who are vulnerable—that is to say high risk, such as runaways, prostitutes, etc. They rarely hunt outside their own race.
If you delve into a serial killer’s past, you’re more than likely to find these general characteristics:
1. Childhood traumas—this can be anything from physical/emotional/sexual abuse to having a prostitute for a mother. Other contributors include peer rejection, witnessing violence, juvenile detention, daydreaming, compulsive masturbation, isolation, rebelliousness, cruelty to children, poor body image, and phobias.
2. The Homicidal Triangle—bedwetting past an appropriate age/cruelty to animals/fire starting
3. Fantasy—of who they’d like to be and how they’d like to act out that scenario. Pornography has been found to contribute to the fantasies in approximately 80%+ of the killers. It takes a while to build up a fantasy strong enough to motivate serial murder.
4. Issues with significant female figures or a deadly father (sadistically disciplinarian).
What makes them decide to kill?
Events that trigger the killer into action are called “Stressors.” This can be a conflict with females, parental conflict, financial stress, marital problems, conflict with other males, birth of a child, stress from a death, divorce, basically any factor that is centered around some aspect of control. This isn’t to say one event will trigger the urge to kill. It’s that one event, compounded by previous stressful events, that becomes the straw to break the camel’s back.
MO or Signature—how to tell the difference.
The MO is a person’s modus operandi. In other words, how he approaches and kills his victims. This can change, become refined over time as the serial killer becomes more organized, more adept at killing.
His Signature is a ritual or action he must perform to fulfill himself. Perhaps he must place his victim in a circle and light candles around her. Or he collects souvenirs. But, unlike the MO, his signature will not change, it will remain the same.
Serial killers choose victims who are weaker than themselves. Often times the victim is a stranger, who has done them no wrong, but fits a certain stereotype, which has symbolic meaning to the killer. A man who kills prostitutes may have hated his mother for being one, and so resents any woman who symbolizes one. The pattern is not so much what the women have in common, but what they represent as a collective group.
Some feel the need to depersonalize their victims. If the killer sees the victim as a person, it may destroy the fantasy.
Still others, the sadists, choose to humiliate and torture their victims.
After the murder:
The killer will follow the media coverage for several reasons. First, it affords him the opportunity to relive the thrill. Second, it allows him to feel important, gives him a sense of control over law enforcement. He may even try to insert himself into the investigation by volunteering for searches or manning a task force—which gives him the opportunity to talk about the murders openly.
Killers often revisit the scene of the murder, or the gravesite, going so far at times to actually attend the funeral of the victim. But once the thrill abates, the fantasy is gone, and he is left empty again, which leads to depression.
When do they stop?
There are only two reasons a serial killer stops killing.
1. He’s been caught.
2. He’s dead.
Many times killings will stop suddenly, for no apparent reason. Then, just as suddenly begin again, perhaps years later. Many times this is because the UNSUB, (Unidentified Subject) has been picked up and is serving time for another, totally unrelated offense.
What do serial killers look like?
The guy next door. Literally. They blend into the community—churches, malls—dress as ordinarily as your average person. They know how to gain trust in order to stalk their victims. Posing as a policeman seems to be a favorite. A position of authority. They will carry badges, drive cop-like vehicles, which allows them to access victims who would otherwise go with the instinct not to talk to strangers. They are smooth talkers, consummate liars, and, more often than not, above average in intelligence.
© T. L. Gray 2001