Serial murderer

Serial killer

A serial killer is a person who murders usually three or more people with a "cooling off" period between each murder and whose motivation for killing is largely based on psychological gratification. One hypothesis is that all serial killers suffer from some form of Antisocial Personality Disorder. They are usually not psychotic, and thus may appear to be quite normal and often even charming, a state of adaptation that psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley named the "mask of sanity". There is sometimes a sexual element to the murders. The murders may have been completed/attempted in a similar fashion and the victims may have had something in common, for example occupation, race, or sex.

Coinage of the term serial killer is commonly attributed to former FBI Special Agent Robert Ressler in the 1970s. Serial killer entered the popular vernacular largely in part to the widely publicized crimes of Ted Bundy and David Berkowitz in the middle years of that decade.


Serial killers tend to share the following general characteristics:

  1. The majority are single, white males.
  2. They tend to be intelligent, with IQs in the "bright normal" range.
  3. Despite their high IQs, they do poorly in school, have trouble holding down jobs, and often work as unskilled laborers.
  4. They tend to come from unstable families; as children, they are typically abandoned by their fathers and raised by domineering mothers.
  5. Their families often have criminal, psychiatric and alcoholic histories.
  6. They hate their parents.
  7. As children, they are commonly abused—psychologically, physically and sexually—by a family member.
  8. Many spend time in institutions as children and have records of early psychiatric problems.
  9. They have high rates of suicide attempts.
  10. From an early age, many are intensely interested in voyeurism, fetishism, and sadomasochistic pornography.
  11. More than 60 percent wet their beds beyond the age of 12.
  12. Many are fascinated with fire starting.
  13. They are involved in sadistic activity or tormenting small creatures.

Types of serial killers

The FBI Crime Classification Manual places serial killers into three categories: "organized", "disorganized" and "mixed", offenders who exhibit organized and disorganized characteristics. 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 become careless and impulsive as their compulsion takes over their lives.

Organized/nonsocial offenders

Organized/nonsocial offenders are usually of high intelligence, have an above average IQ (>110 range), 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 something to his car, where he would beat them unconscious with a metal bar (e.g. a crowbar), and carry 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 solid knowledge of forensic science that enables them to cover their tracks, such as burying the body or weighing 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, has friends and lovers, and sometimes even a spouse and children. They are the type who, when captured, are most likely to be described by acquaintances as kind and unlikely to hurt anyone. 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 or natural deaths. David Berkowitz, Ted Bundy, and John Wayne Gacy are examples of organized serial killers.

Disorganized/asocial offenders

Disorganized/asocial offenders are often of low intelligence, have a below average IQ (<90), and commit their crimes impulsively. Whereas the organized killer will specifically set out to hunt a victim, the disorganized will murder someone when 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, cannibalism, 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". Usually they are very introverted people, too. They have little insight into their crimes and may even block out memories of committing the murders. Ed Gein is a prime example of this type of serial killer.

The medical profession seems to attract some people with a pathological interest in the power of life and death. One example is Harold Shipman, an English family doctor, who portrayed victims as having died of natural causes. Between 1975 and 1998, he killed at least 215 patients.


The motives of serial killers are generally placed into four categories: "visionary", "mission-oriented", "hedonistic" and "power/control"; however, there is often considerable overlap among these categories.


Visionary serial killers suffer from psychotic breaks with reality, sometimes believing they are another person or are compelled to murder by entities such as the devil or God. The two most common subgroups of mission-oriented killers are "demon mandated" and "God mandated".

Herbert Mullin believed the American casualties in the Vietnam War were preventing California from experiencing an earthquake. As the war wound down, Mullin claimed his father instructed him via telepathy to raise the amount of "human sacrifices to nature" in order to delay a catastrophic earthquake that would plunge California into the ocean.

David Berkowitz is an example of a demon-mandated visionary killer. He claimed a demon transmitted orders through his neighbor's dog instructing him to murder.


Mission-oriented killers justify their acts on the basis that they are getting rid of a certain type of person, such as homosexuals, prostitutes, blacks or Catholics, who they find undesirable; however, they are not psychotic.

Ted Kaczynski, the "Unabomber", targeted universities and the airline industry. He wrote a manifesto that he distributed to the media, in which he claimed he wanted society to return to a time when technology was not a threat to its future, asserting that "the Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race.


This type of serial killer seeks thrills and derives pleasure from killing, seeing people as objects for their enjoyment. Forensic psychologists have identified three subtypes of the hedonistic killer: "lust", "thrill" and "comfort".


Sex is the primary motive of lust killers, whether or not the victims are dead, and fantasy plays a large role in their killings. Their sexual gratification depends on the amount of torture and mutilation they perform on their victims. They usually use weapons that require close contact with the victims, such as knives or hands. As lust killers continue with their murders, the time between killings decreases or the required level of stimulation increases, sometimes both. Kenneth Bianchi, one of the "Hillside Stranglers", murdered women and girls of different ages, races and appearance because his sexual urges required different types of stimulation and increasing intensity. Jeffrey Dahmer searched for his perfect fantasy lover—beautiful and eternal. As his desire to find the perfect lover increased, he experimented with drugs, alcohol and exotic sex. His increasing need for stimulation was demonstrated by the dismemberment of victims, whose heads and genitals he preserved. He experimented with cannibalism to ensure his victims would always be a part of him.


The primary motive of a thrill killer is to induce pain or create terror in their victims, which provides stimulation and excitement for the killer. They seek the adrenalin rush provided by hunting and killing victims. Thrill killers murder only for the kill; usually the attack is not prolonged, and there is no sexual aspect. Usually the victims are strangers, although the killer may have followed them for a period of time. Thrill killers can abstain from killing for long periods of time and become more successful at killing as they refine their murder methods. Many attempt to commit the perfect crime and believe they will not be caught. Robert Hansen took his victims to a secluded area, where he would let them loose then hunt and kill them. Lee Boyd Malvo and John Allen Muhammad, the DC Snipers, killed random victims, often at gas stations, shooting them and leaving the scenes unnoticed.


Material gain and a comfortable lifestyle are the primary motives of comfort killers. Usually, the victims are family members and close acquaintances. After a murder, a comfort killer will usually wait for a period of time before killing again to allow any suspicions by family or authorities to subside. Poison, most notably arsenic, is often used to kill victims. Female serial killers are often comfort killers, although not all comfort killers are female. Dorothea Puente killed her tenants for their Social Security checks and buried them in the backyard of her home. H. H. Holmes killed for insurance and business profits.


Their main objective for killing is to gain and exert power over their victim. Such killers are sometimes abused as children, leaving them with feelings of powerlessness and inadequacy as adults. 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. Ted Bundy traveled around the United States seeking women to control.


Criminologists have long recognized that there are links between most serial killers and their chosen victims. Demographically, serial murderers tend to target more women than men, and kill strangers more often than family or acquaintances, as opposed to single-homicide offenders, who tend to kill men and women equally, while killing friends and family more often.

Serial murderers’ killings are often sexually motivated. The sexual motivation supports the idea that serial murderers tend to have specific criteria and specific sexual interests that motivate their selection of certain victims. This victim selection process sets serial murderers apart from other types of killers.

In the United States, serial killers prefer to target victims ages 18–50. The majority of victims are white, supporting researchers' claims that serial murder is intra-racial.

Female serial killers

Approximately one out of every six serial killers is a woman. Female serial killers tend to murder men and women, with a preference for elderly victims, and prefer to kill with poison. They generally need to have a relationship with a person before killing them. Females derive their excitement by killing intimately, such as poisoning a husband or smothering a child. Most commit killings in specific places, such as their home or a health-care facility, or at different locations within the same city or state.

Serial killers in history

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.

Liu Pengli of China, cousin of the Han Emperor Jing, was made king of Jidong in the sixth year of the middle period of Jing's reign (144 BC). According to the Chinese historian Sima Qian, he would "go out on marauding expeditions with 20 or 30 slaves or young men who were in hiding from the law, murdering people and seizing their belongings for sheer sport". Although many of his subjects knew about these murders, it was not until the 29th year of his reign that the son of one of his victims finally sent a report to the Emperor. Eventually, it was discovered that he had murdered at least 100 people. The officials of the court requested that Liu Pengli be executed; however, the emperor could not bear to have his own cousin killed, and Liu Pengli was made a commoner and banished.

In the 15th century, one of the wealthiest men in France, Gilles de Rais, is said to have abducted, sexually assaulted and killed at least 100 children, mainly boys, whom he had abducted from the surrounding villages and taken to his castle. The Hungarian aristocrat Elizabeth Báthory was arrested in 1610 and subsequently charged with torturing and butchering as many as 600 young girls. Like Liu Pengli, they were not brought to justice for a long time because they were rich, powerful and, more importantly, they were royalty. Therefore, although their crimes were known in their areas, their superiors refused to believe the rumors until it could no longer be denied. After his arrest, De Rais confessed to his crimes, which also included delusions of demon worship. Chronicles of the times dealt largely with the affairs of the powerful; moreover, there was a lack of established police forces, at least in Europe, during those centuries. Therefore, there may have been many other classical or medieval serial killers who were either not identified or not publicized as well. Many incidents that were probably the work of serial killers were blamed on werewolves and demonic spirits.

Thug Behram, a gang leader of the Indian Thuggee cult of assassins, has frequently been said to be the world's most prolific serial killer. According to numerous sources, he was believed to have murdered 931 victims by strangulation by means of a ceremonial cloth (or rumal, which in Hindi means handkerchief), used by his cult between 1790 and 1830, thus holding the record for the most murders directly committed by a single person in history.

Some individual executioners of the Nazi Einsatzgruppen and their collaborators in Eastern Europe approached similar tallies of victims. In total, the Thugs as a whole were responsible for approximately 2 million deaths, according to Guinness World Records. The notoriety of the Thugs eventually led to the word thug entering the English language as a term for ruffians, miscreants, and people who behave in an aggressive manner towards others. Recent scholarship has cast doubt on the Thuggee cult and suggested that the British in India were confused by the vernacular use of the term by Indians, and may also have used fear of such a cult to justify their colonial rule.

In his 1886 book Psychopathia Sexualis, psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing noted a case of a serial murderer in the 1870s, a Frenchman named Eusebius Pieydagnelle who had a sexual obsession with blood, and who confessed to murdering six people.

The unidentified killer Jack the Ripper killed prostitutes (the exact number of victims is not known) in London in 1888. Those crimes gained enormous press attention because London was the world's greatest centre of power 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. He has also been called the most famous serial killer of all time.

American serial killer H. H. Holmes was hanged in Philadelphia in 1896 after confessing to 27 murders. Joseph Vacher was executed in France in 1898 after confessing to killing and mutilating 11 women and children.

Serial killers in popular culture

Serial killers are featured as stock characters in many types of media, including books, films, television programs, songs and video games. Films featuring serial killers include The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal, Natural Born Killers, Psycho, Seven, Copycat, The Blair Witch Project, Halloween and Scream.

Examples of serial killer-related literature are Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song, Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho, Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me and Thomas Harris' Red Dragon.

Serial killer memorabilia, included in the broader category of murderabilia, and serial killer lore is a subculture revolving around the legacies of various infamous and notorious serial killers. While memorabilia is generally confined to the paintings, writings and poems of infamous killers, the market has expanded in recent years with serial killer encyclopedias, trading cards, and action figures. Perhaps the best-known articles of serial killer memorabilia are the clown paintings of John Wayne Gacy.

See also




  • Douglas, John and Olshaker, Mark. Journey into Darkness. Pocket Books, (1997). ISBN 0-671-00394-1
  • Douglas, John and Olshaker, Mark. Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit. Pocket Books, (1997). ISBN 0-671-01375-0
  • Elliott Leyton. Hunting Humans: The Rise of the Modern Multiple Murderer (1986) McClelland and Stewart ISBN 0-7710-5025-9
  • Lane, Brian and Gregg, Wilfred. The New Encyclopedia Of Serial Killers. Headline Book Publishing, (1996). ISBN 0-7472-5361-7
  • MacDonald, J. M. "The threat to kill." American Journal of Psychiatry 120 (1963).
  • Norris, Joel. Serial Killers: The Growing Menace. Arrow Books, (1990). ISBN 0-09-971750-6
  • Wilson, Colin. A Plague Of Murder. Robinson Publishing, Ltd., (1995). ISBN 1-85487-249-4

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