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Serial killers are people who, on multiple occasions spread over time, murder victims who are generally unknown to them beforehand.

Their crimes are committed as a result of a compulsion that, in many but not all cases, has roots in the killer's (often dysfunctional) youth, as opposed to those who are motivated by financial gain (e.g., contract killers) or ideological/political motivations (e.g., terrorism, democide). Many times this compulsion is linked to the individual's sexual drive.

Some research suggests that damage to certain regions of the brain (hypothalamus, the temporal lobe, and/or the limbic brain) or genetic traits passed down from abusive mothers can also play a part in the behavior of serial killers.

Defining serial murder

The term serial killer is widely believed to have been coined either by FBI agent Robert Ressler or by Dr. Robert D. Keppel in the 1970s (the credit for the term is still disputed). Serial killer entered the popular vernacular in large part due to the well-publicized crimes of Ted Bundy and David Berkowitz ("Son of Sam") in the middle years of that decade.

The term allows criminologists to distinguish those who kill several people over a long period of time from those who kill several people during a single event (mass murderers). A third type of multiple killer is a spree killer.

The following are brief definitions of these three types:

  • A serial killer is someone who commits three or more murders over an extended period of time with cooling-off periods in between. In between their crimes, they appear to be quite normal, a state which Hervey Cleckley and psychologist Robert Hare call the "mask of sanity." There is frequently — but not always — a sexual element to the murders.
  • A mass murderer, on the other hand, is an individual who kills three or more people in a single event and in one location. The perpetrators sometimes commit suicide, meaning knowledge of their state of mind and what triggers their actions is often left to more speculation than fact. Mass murderers who are caught sometimes claim they cannot clearly remember the event.
  • A spree killer commits multiple murders in different locations over a period of time that may vary from a few hours to several days. Unlike serial killers, however, they do not revert to their normal behavior in between slayings.

All of the above types of crimes are usually carried out by solitary individuals. There have been examples in all three categories in which two or more perpetrators have acted together. Author Michael Newton states that this happens in about a third of the cases. Lee Boyd Malvo and John Muhammad are prime examples. Both are known for the Beltway sniper attacks.

There are other types of multiple killings as well, although they often involve larger organizations than two or three perpetrators: genocide and terrorist attacks.

Serial killers are generally, but not always, male. Noted female exceptions include Aileen Wuornos, Myra Hindley and Erzsébet Báthory.

Serial killers are specifically motivated by a variety of psychological urges, primarily power and sexual compulsion. They often have feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness, sometimes owing to humiliation and abuse in childhood or the pressures of poverty and low socioeconomic status in adulthood, and their crimes compensate for this and provide a sense of potency and often social revenge, by giving them a feeling of power, both at the time of the actual killing and also afterwards for power-control killers. The knowledge that their actions terrify entire communities and often baffle police adds to this sense of power. This motivational aspect separates them from contract killers and other multiple murderers who are motivated by profit. For example, in Scotland during the 1820s, William Burke and William Hare murdered people in what became known as the "Case of the Body Snatchers." They would not count as serial killers by most criminologists' definitions, however, because their motive was economic. Of course, people do things for multiple motivations.

In some cases, a serial killer will plead not guilty by reason of insanity in a court of law. This defense is almost uniformly unsuccessful. In most US jurisidictions (i.e., the states), the legal definition of insanity is still generally based upon the classic common law "right or wrong" test delineated by an English court in the 1843 M'Naghten case. The M'Naghten rule, as it's generally known in the legal profession, hinges upon whether the defendant knows the difference between morality (right and wrong) at the time of the offense. With serial killers, extensive premeditation, combined with lack of any obvious delusions or hallucinations that would hinder the defendant's ability to elude detection after committing multiple murders, make this defense extremely difficult.

The United States Bureau of Justice Statistics defines a serial killing as: "involving the killing of several victims in three or more separate events." This definition is especially close to that of a spree killer, and perhaps the primary difference between the two is that a serial killer has a cooling-off period. They will commit a murder and temporarily feel sated until they feel their homicidal urges resurface. The time period between murders can vary between a few days to several years and will often decrease the longer the offender goes uncaught. For example, Jeffrey Dahmer murdered his second victim nine years after his first, but his last eight victims were murdered in a span of just seven months. Spree killers, on the other hand, do not have a cooling-off period and are in a state of constant hunting until they are caught or killed, even though their murder spree may sometimes extend to a period of several months.

Serial killers frequently have extreme sadistic urges. Ones who lack the ability to empathize with the suffering of others are frequently called psychopathic or sociopathic, terms which have been renamed among professional psychologists as antisocial personality disorder. Some serial killers engage in lust and torture murder, loosely defined terms involving, respectively, mutilation for sexual pleasure and killing victims slowly over a prolonged period of time.

Psychology and development

Most serial killers have dysfunctional backgrounds. Frequently they are physically, sexually or psychologically abused as children. There can be a close correlation between their childhood abuse and their crimes. It is often impossible to know exactly what happened in any individual's childhood, so some killers may deny having been abused, while others may falsely claim they were abused in an attempt to gain sympathy or tell psychologists what they want to hear.

The element of fantasy in serial killer's development cannot be overemphasized. They often begin fantasizing about murder during or even before adolescence. Their fantasy lives are very rich and they daydream compulsively about domination, submission and murder, usually with very specific elements to the fantasy that will eventually be apparent in their real crimes. Others enjoy reading stories of sadism, packed with rape, torture and murder.

Some serial killers display one or more of what are known as the "MacDonald Triad" of warning signs in childhood. These are:

  • Fire starting, invariably just for the thrill of destroying things.
  • Cruelty to animals (related to "zoosadism"). Most children can be cruel to animals, such as pulling the legs off of spiders, but future serial killers often kill larger animals, like dogs and cats, and frequently for their solitary enjoyment rather than to impress peers.
  • Bedwetting beyond the age when children normally grow out of such behavior.

Many experts have claimed that once serial killers start they cannot (or only rarely) stop. Recently this view has been called into question as new serial killers are caught through methods that were previously unavailable, such as DNA testing. Some argue that those who are unable to control their homicidal impulses are more easily caught and thus overrepresented in the statistics.


There have been conflicting reports as to the extent of serial murder. The FBI claimed in the 1980s that at any particular time there were roughly 35 active serial killers in the United States, meaning that the serial killers in question have committed their first murders but have not yet been apprehended or stopped by other means (e.g., suicide or a natural death).

This figure has often been exaggerated. In his 1990 book Serial Killers: The Growing Menace, Joel Norris claimed that there were five hundred serial killers active at any one time in the United States, claiming five thousand victims a year, which would be approximately a quarter of known homicides in the country. Some have argued that those who study or write about serial killers, be they employed in the judicial profession orjournalists, have a vested interest in exaggerating the threat of such offenders.

In terms of reported cases, there appear to be far more serial killers active in developed Western nations than elsewhere. Template:Citation neededThere are several reasons that may contribute to this:

  • Detection techniques in developed nations are better. Multiple victims of one offender are quickly identified as being linked, so the apprehension of the offender comes more quickly than in a nation where the police are generally more underfunded and have fewer resources.Template:Citation needed
  • Developed nations have a highly competitive news media, so cases are reported more quickly.
  • The United States and Western Europe have avoided the large-scale, state-sanctioned censorship that news outlets in certain nations have, in which stories related to serial murder have been suppressed. An example of this is the case in Ukraine of serial murderer Andrei Chikatilo, whose murder spree continued largely unreported and poorly investigated by police in the former Soviet Union due to the idea that only supposedly corrupt capitalistic Western countries bred such killers. After the collapse of the USSR, there were a number of reportsTemplate:Citation needed of prolific serial killers whose crimes had previously been hidden from the West behind the Iron Curtain.
  • Cultural differences could account for a larger number of serial killers, not just a larger number of reported cases.

Serial murder before 1900

Although the phenomenon of serial murder is generally regarded as a modern one, it can be traced back in history, albeit with a limited degree of accuracy.

In the 15th century, one of the wealthiest men in France, Gilles de Rais, is said to have abducted, raped and murdered at least a hundred young boys. The |Hungarian aristocrat Elizabeth Báthory was arrested in 1610 and subsequently charged with torturing and butchering as many as 600 young girls. Although both De Rais and Báthory were reportedly sadistic and addicted to murder, they differ from typical modern-day serial killers in that they were both rich and powerful. Based upon the lack of established police forces and active news media during those centuries, it may very well be that there were plenty of other serial killers at that time who were either not identified or not publicized as well.

Some historical criminologists have suggested that there may have been serial murders throughout history, but specific cases were not adequately recorded. Some sources suggest that legends such as werewolves and vampires were inspired by medieval serial killers.Template:Citation needed

In his famous 1886 book Psychopathica Sexualis, Richard von Krafft-Ebing notes a case of serial murder in the 1870s, that of an Italian man named Eusebius Pieydagnelle who had a sexual obsession with blood and confessed to murdering six people. The unidentified Jack the Ripper killer slaughtered prostitutes in London in 1888. Those crimes gained enormous press attention because London was the center of the world's greatest superpower at the time, so having such dramatic murders of financially destitute women in the midst of such wealth focused the news media's attention on the plight of the urban poor and gained coverage worldwide. Joseph Vacher was executed in France in 1898 after confessing to killing and mutilating 11 women and children, while American serial killer H. H. Holmes was hanged in Philadelphia in 1896 after confessing to 27 murders.

Types of serial killer

Organized and disorganized types

The FBI has roughly categorized serial killers into two different types: organized and disorganized.

  • Organized types are usually of high intelligence and plan their crimes quite methodically, usually abducting victims, killing them in one place and disposing of them in another. They will often lure the victims with ploys appealing to their sense of sympathy. For example, Ted Bundy would put his arm in a fake plaster cast and ask women to help him carry books to his car, where he would beat them unconscious with the cast and spirit them away. Others specifically target prostitutes, who are likely to voluntarily go with a serial killer posing as a customer. They maintain a high degree of control over the crime scene, and usually have a good knowledge of forensic science that enables them to cover their tracks, such as by burying the body or weighting it down and sinking it in a river. They follow their crimes in the media carefully and often take pride in their actions, as if it were a grand project. The organized killer is usually socially adequate and has friends and lovers, often even a spouse and children. They are the type who, when captured, are most likely to be described by acquaintances as "a really nice guy" who "wouldn't hurt a fly." Some serial killers go to lengths to make their crimes difficult to discover, such as falsifying suicide notes, setting up others to take the blame for their crimes, and faking gang warfare. The case of Harold Shipman, an English family doctor, is slightly unusual in that his social position and occupation was such that he was able to portray victims as having died of natural causes; between 1971 and 1998 he killed at least 250, and possibly well over 400, of his own mostly elderly patients – and until very near the end of his rampage it was not even suspected that any crimes had been committed.
  • Disorganized types are often of low intelligence and commit their crimes impulsively. Whereas the organized killer will specifically set out to hunt a victim, the disorganized will murder someone whenever the opportunity arises, rarely bothering to dispose of the body but instead just leaving it at the same place in which they found the victim. They usually carry out "blitz" attacks, leaping out and attacking their victims without warning, and will typically perform whatever rituals they feel compelled to carry out (e.g., necrophilia, mutilation, etc.) once the victim is dead. They rarely bother to cover their tracks but may still evade capture for some time because of a level of cunning that compels them to keep on the move. They are often socially inadequate with few friends, and they may have a history of mental problems and be regarded by acquaintances as eccentric or even "a bit creepy." They have little insight into their crimes and may even block out the memories of the killings.

A significant number of serial killers show certain aspects of both organized and disorganized types, although usually the characteristics of one type will dominate. Some killers descend from being organized into disorganized behavior as their killings continue. They will carry out careful and methodical murders at the start, but as their compulsion grows out of control and utterly dominates their lives, they will become careless and impulsive.

Motive types

The organized and disorganized model relates to the killer's methods. With regards to motives, they can be placed into five different categories:


Contrary to popular opinion, serial killers are rarely insane or motivated by hallucinations and/or voices in their heads. Many claim to be, usually as a way of trying to get acquitted by reason of insanity. There are, however, a few genuine cases of serial killers who were compelled by such delusions.

Herbert Mullin slaughtered 13 people after voices told him that murder was necessary to prevent California from suffering an earthquake. (Mullin went to great pains to point out that California did indeed avoid an earthquake during his murder spree.)

Ed Gein claimed that by eating the corpses of women who looked like his deceased mother, he could preserve his mother's soul inside his body. He killed two women who bore passing resemblances to his mother, eating one and being apprehended while in the process of preparing the second woman's body for consumption. He also used the flesh of exhumed corpses to fashion a "woman suit" for himself so that he could "become" his mother, and carried on conversations with himself in a falsetto voice. After his arrest he was placed in a mental facility for the remainder of his life.

Mission oriented

These serial killers believe that their acts are justified on the basis that they are getting rid of a certain type of people (often prostitutes or members of a certain ethnic group). They believe that they are doing society a big favor. Robert Pickton of Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, is accused of being this type of killer. He is currently charged with the murders of 27 prostitutes from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, and is suspected in the deaths of up to 30 more.


This type kills for the sheer pleasure of it, although what aspect they enjoy varies. Some may enjoy the actual "chase" of hunting down a victim more than anything, while others may be primarily motivated by the act of torturing and abusing the victim while they are alive. Yet others may kill the victim quickly, almost as if it were a chore, and then indulge in necrophilia or cannibalism with the body. Usually there is a strong sexual aspect to the crimes, even if it may not be immediately obvious, but some killers obtain a surge of excitement that is not necessarily sexual, such as David Berkowitz, who got a thrill out of shooting young couples in cars at random and then running away without ever physically touching the victims.

Gain motivated

Most criminals who commit multiple murders for material ends (such as mob hit men) are not classed as serial killers, because they are motivated by greed or economic gain rather than psychopathological compulsion. There is a fine line separating such killers, however. For example, Marcel Petiot, who operated in Nazi-occupied France, would classify as a serial killer. He posed as a member of the [rench Resistance and lured wealthy Jewish people to his home, claiming he could smuggle them out of the country. Instead he murdered them and stole their belongings, killing 63 people before he was finally caught. Although Petiot's primary motivation was materialistic, few would deny that a man willing to slaughter so many people simply to acquire a few dozen suitcases of clothes and jewelry was a compulsive killer and psychopath.


This is the most common serial killer. Their main objective for killing is to gain and exert power over their victim. Such killers are sometimes abused as children, which means they feel incredibly powerless and inadequate, and often they indulge in rituals that are linked, often very specifically, to forms of abuse they suffered themselves. One killer, for example, forced young girls to perform oral sex on him, after which he would spank the girl before finally strangling her. After capture, the killer claimed that when he was a child his older sister would force him to perform oral sex on her, then she would spank him in order to terrify him into not telling their parents.Template:Citation needed The ritual he performed with his victims would negate the humiliation he felt from his abuse as a child, although such relief would only be temporary, and like other such killers, he would soon feel compelled to repeat his actions until eventual capture. (The vast majority of child abuse victims do not become serial killers, of course, meaning that such abuse is not regarded as the sole trigger of such crimes in these cases.) Many power/control-motivated killers sexually abuse their victims, but they differ from hedonistic killers in that rape is not motivated by lust but as simply another form of dominating the victim.

Some serial killers may seem to have characteristics of more than one type. For example, British killer Peter Sutcliffe appeared to be both a visionary and a mission-oriented killer in that he claimed voices told him to clean up the streets of prostitutes.

Alternatively, another school of thought classifies motive as being either: need, greed or power. That said, all crime can be divided into one of these three categories.

Why are serial killers not caught more quickly?

It is possible that many would-be serial killers are apprehended before they kill the three or more victims required to qualify them as such in the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Similarly, it is certain that some are detained under mental health regulations and do not directly answer for their crimes. Others go on to kill many more people over years without being apprehended.

Serial killers, despite the media attention, commit only a tiny fraction of all murders in any time period. Murder is usually either a crime of personal relationships and short intense emotion, or an unintended consequence of other crimes. Because of this, most murders are comparatively simple to solve; in most familial deaths, the murderer makes little effective effort to conceal the crime and confesses easily; in other cases, the murderer is usually a local or is known to the police. These assumptions, with which any law enforcement officer naturally approaches a single murder, are barriers to catching a serial killer.

Another barrier to serial killers' early capture is their diverse backgrounds, choices of victim, and methods of killing. They almost never have any links to their victims—they pick by whim or impulse, seeking types or opportunity rather than any easily detectable link. As noted above, organized offenders can take steps to minimize the evidence they leave behind, and commit crimes away from their locale. It can take a number of murders before a serial killer is even suspected.

Even if a serial killer is known to be operating, it is difficult to catch the culprit. Potential victims can be identified only by broad type, and generic area warnings produce little more than fear and misdirected violence.

In addition, police departments are often reluctant to admit they have a serial killer on their hands due to the immediate public pressure on them to catch them that immediately ensues. Law enforcement departments are known to try and "wait it out" hoping the killer will move to another jurisdiction, rather than publicly admit they have a killer on their hands.

The commonality of habitual traits of serial killers allows the construction of a psychological profile. This allows targeted interviewing of suspects, although there are often a large number of entirely innocent individuals who have some match to the profile. Also, some serial killers are skilled at concealing their true selves behind a charming facade.

Unfortunately, profiles are built upon historical precedents of known serial killers that sometimes do not accurately model actual culprits. Such problems plagued the hunt for the D.C. sniper John Muhammad and [ [John Lee Malvo]], whose initial profile indicated a Caucasian male. A different problem plagued the hunt for Aileen Wuornos in Florida's "Highway Killer" case; police initially believed the killer to be male.

Serial killer investigations sometimes reveal an unsatisfactory side to law enforcement; inertia, incompetence, bureaucracy, mismanagement, agency "turf wars", missed opportunities, racial or gender bias, and other failures can slow down the investigation and, indirectly, allow further murders.

While there is a public misconception that serial killers generally want to be discovered, in most instances this is not the case, as serial killers will often go to great lengths to prevent capture or to push police and investigators towards the wrong subjects.

Serial killers in popular culture

Because of the horrific nature of their crimes, their highly varied personalities and profiles, and their ability to evade detection and kill many victims before finally being captured and imprisoned, serial killers have quickly become something of a cult favorite, and have been featured in many novels, movies, songs, comic books, true crime works, video games and other media.

The public's fascination with serial killers has led to many successful crime novels and films about fictional serial killers, including Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho; and especially Thomas Harris' The Silence of the Lambs and Academy Award-winning movie adaptation, whose main antagonist, the cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter, is a cultural icon. The character John Doe, from the movie Se7en, is another well-known fictional serial killer.


  • Douglas, John and Olshaker, Mark. Journey into Darkness. Pocket Books, 1997. ISBN 0671003941
  • Douglas, John and Olshaker, Mark. Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit. Pocket Books, 1997. ISBN 0671013750
  • Lane, Brian and Gregg, Wilfred. The New Encyclopedia Of Serial Killers. Headline Book Publishing, 1996. ISBN 0747253617
  • MacDonald, J. M. "The threat to kill." American Journal of Psychiatry 120 (1963): 125-130.
  • Norris, Joel. Serial Killers: The Growing Menace. Arrow Books, 1990. ISBN 0099717506
  • Ressler, Robert K. and Schachtman, Thomas. Whoever Fights Monsters. St. Martins Mass Market Paper, 1994. ISBN 0312950446
  • Schechter, Harold and Everitt, David. The A to Z Encyclopedia of Serial Killers. Pocket Books, 1996. ISBN 0671537911
  • Vronsky, Peter. Serial Killers: The Method and Madness of Monsters. The Berkley Publishing Group, Penguin Group, 2004. ISBN 0-425-19640-2
  • Wilson, Colin. A Plague Of Murder. Robinson Publishing, Ltd., 1995. ISBN 1854872494
  • Media Representations of Myra Hindley, Lesley McLaughlin, 1995.

See also

External links