The Psychology of a Serial Killer

Ted Bundy -->            <--Jeffrey Dahmer 

            The term ‘serial killer’ strikes fear deep into the hearts of most.  However it is often thought that fear is what drives some curiosities, thus finding it appropriate to understand why serial killers commit horrific acts of violence repetitively.  It has been found that many serial killers encompass similar emotional development issues.  They also tend to be above-average intelligence wise, and in some ways it is as if killing acts as a drug for some of these men.  Many theories of crime and deviance correlate to the actions of serial killers.  Studies of known serial killers have unveiled similarities between them as early as infancy.  Infancy, childhood and relationships with one’s mother are often among the key parallels of serial killers (Vronsky 2004).

            Infancy is one of the most significant stages in the development of the human.  Emotionally, infancy is crucial to the proper development of the adult personality (Vronsky 2004).  The first twelve months are especially critical to the development of emotions such as remorse and affection.  If a child does not receive adequate attention and physical touch during this time period they may suffer substantial personality disorders in the future (Canter 2005).  In fact, there may be signs that the child has a psychopathic personality by the age of 2 (Vronsky 2004).   The infant develops a sense of only itself.   This is indicated by the absence of a range of emotions such as sympathy, remorse, and affection (Leyton 1987).  Keeping in mind the idea that infant bonding is imperative to personality development, it is no surprise that a common characteristic of serial killers is that they were adopted (Leyton 1987).  This may imply that as infants serial killers such as, David Berkowitz, Joel Rifkin, and Kenneth Bianchi did not receive proper attention as they were given up by their biological mothers for adoption during a vital period in their lives.

            As does infancy, early childhood is key to the formation of a serial killer.  Commonly, serial killers were isolated from their peers as children (Vronsky 2004).  Many serial killers suffered from weight problems, stutters and learning problems such as dyslexia (Moesch 1998).  Due to bullying, many of these serial killers began harboring “secret aggressive fantasies” (Vronsky 2004).  As stated by David Berkowitz also known as the Son of Sam, “It was a mysterious force working against me.  I felt bothered and tormented, ‘Die Schmutz’ [Yiddish for ‘the dirty one’].” (Vronsky 2004).  It is clear that aggression begins in early childhood.  Loneliness, as illustrated, may lead to the evolution of fantasies as these ‘serial killers in- the- making’ are frequently alone.  

            Another common characteristic among serial killers is their relationship with their mother.  The mothers of these ‘monsters’ tend to breed men that hate females (Moesch 1998).  The mothers may be over controlling, overprotective, physically abusive and emotionally abusive (Moesch 1998).  According to one psychologist, Sigmund Freud, males try to reach autonomy with their mother.  If the child is unsuccessful this will result in rage (Moesch 1998).  Many feminists disdain the idea of the mother assisting in the creation of a serial killer.  Feminists argue that it is just another way for men to blame women for their downfalls, somewhat of a ‘blame it on the mother” scenario (Moesch 1998).   This notion is empirically supported to an extent however as 66% of known serial killers were raised with the mother as the dominant figure (Moesch 1998).

            Childhood trauma has also been linked to serial killers.  Studies have revealed a number of significant statistics supporting the idea that mental and physical trauma may have long lasting effects upon an individual (Aynesworth 1999).  42% of convicted serial killers suffered from physical abuse as children 74% suffered from psychological abuse (Aynesworth 1999).  Sexual abuse also seemed to be a prominent characteristic among serial killers as 35% witnessed sexual abuse and 43% were sexually abused themselves (Aynesworth 1999).  Another form of physical trauma linked to serial killers is head trauma.  29% of serial killers were found to be ‘accident prone children’ (Aynesworth 1999).   The compilation of these factors leads many sociologists to view psychopathic behavior as the brain’s defense mechanism (Aynesworth 1999).

            The emphasis upon infancy and early childhood may align serial killers with the Biological Trait Theories.  These theories focus upon biological conditions that may control human behaviors.  Neurophysiology is the study of brain function. It has uncovered neurological and physical abnormalities that may begin as early as the prenatal stage in some humans.  There have been links between the impairment of executive brain function and aggression through such research (Aynesworth 1999).  Many of the serial killers discussed have been labeled with some sort of neurological disorder.  Thus, these repetitive serial killers may just be reacting to chemicals and hereditary factors in their brains rather than on pure evil.

            Another Criminological theory that may apply to serial killers is the Psychodynamic theory.  According to Sigmund Freud the development of the unconscious personality early in childhood will influence behavior for the rest of one’s life.  In short, negative experiences act as” residue” from early childhood.  Freud believes that the human develops, early in life, three aspects of their personality.   These include the id, the ego and the superego (Seltzer 1995).  The id is considered to be primitive, supplying unconscious drives for food and sex.  The ego is formed as sort of a guide to remain aligned with societies norms.  Finally the superego develops incorporating values and morals.  Thus, serial killers seem to be overwhelmed by their id.  This would explain why people such as David Berkowitz would become a serial killer.  He did not receive proper care as an infant and child, most likely due to his adoption, thus he was negatively affected into adulthood.   According to the psychodynamic theory crime occurs when a person displays a weak ego.  In short, serial killers seem to be manifesting their feelings of oppression from childhood in the form of brutal murders.

            There is another theory in regards to serial killers receiving much attention in the criminological world.  The Organized/Disorganized Typology of serial killers was developed by special agents of the FBI (Canter 2004).  This dichotomy was developed in somewhat of an academic version of the diffusion of benefits, as the agents were examining lust and sexual sadistic murders (Canter 2004).  The theory suggests that serial killers will fall into one of two subsets: organized or disorganized offenders.  Through the evaluation of the crime scene, victims and forensic evidence it is possible to conclude personality and behavioral characteristics (Canter 2004). 

            According to this theory the organized offender is thought of as leading an organized, average life.  He is also thought to have average to above average intelligence, skilled employment and he is socially competent.  These characteristics are deciphered from the crime scene left by an “organized offender”.  The crime scene of such an offender suggests that the killer planned his attack, bringing a weapon with him as well as bringing it with him when he leaves.  The organized serial killer is also careful not to leave blood and finger prints behind.  The organized serial killer is thought to be killing as some sort of reaction to a stressful event (Canter 2004). 

            In contrast to the organized serial killer there is the disorganized serial killer according to this theory.  The disorganized killer leaves the crime scene just as the name suggests; in disarray.    The disorganized offender is likely to leave blood, fingerprints and the murder weapon behind (Canter 2004).  The killing is thought to be opportunistic and often occurs close to where the offender lives (Canter 2004).   Characteristically, the disorganized killer is thought to be socially inadequate and have below-average intelligence.  They are believed to struggle with maintaining social relationships (Canter 2004).  This aspect of the organized/disorganized theory is somewhat similar to the idea of the social control theory.  This theory also states that limited stakes in conventional society may lead to criminal behavior. 

            The psychology of the serial killer is intriguing yet frightening.  The decay of these offenders’ personalities begins at infancy for many and continues through childhood and into adulthood.  The serial killer tends to be neglected during significant stages of infancy, where in which the development of the human personality begins.  As these offenders enter childhood they are still at a disadvantage socially, often as a result of abuse and parental issues.  Serial killers often lack self control, as well as other critical characteristics of a law abiding citizen.  It seems as if socialization plays a large roll in the formation of these monsters.  A number of other criminological theories can be applied to the serial killer in some form, however there are still anomalies.  The Biological Trait Theories, Psychodynamic theory, and the Organized/Disorganized theory all attempt to explain the inexplicable actions of serial killers.  The biological trait theories apply as there is great emphasis on infancy and childhood emotional growth.  The psychodynamic theory applies as well as these men display actions that seem to be driven by their id personality.   Lastly, the organized/disorganized theory attempts to conclude personality and behavioral characteristics from crime scene investigation. 

            There is no concrete theory to explain neither the psychology nor the actions of serial killers, however there are a great deal of criminologists researching the topic. These researchers are attempting to better understand and deter such crime.  The phenomenon of Serial killings date back to persons such as Jack the Ripper in 1887 and have continued into the present with such offenders as Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and David Berkowitz.  Through criminological and sociological research perhaps a better understanding of serial killers will develop, thus producing a way to deter such criminal actions. 

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