How to Spot a Killer: Inside the Mind of a Killer

In 1998, a federal law was passed by the United States Congress, entitled The Protection of Children from Sexual Predator Act of 1998 which included a possible official definition of a serial killer as one who commits “a series of three or more killings, not less than one of which was committed within the United States, having common characteristics such as to suggest the reasonable possibility that the crimes were committed by the same actor or actors.” But in no way does that even come close to identifying the complex brain and thought patterns that define a serial killer.

According to research conducted by a criminologist at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, serial killers may be to blame for as many as 10 times the amount of murders in the United States that they are charged with. While some may be caught and linked to seven different deaths, for example, there may be dozens more that have occurred over time that have gone unnoticed or fallen into cold case files. Hoards of missing people may have fallen at the hands of serial killers. There is little way of knowing how many victims a serial killer has under their belt unless they admit to it or the evidence is unearthed. When missing people are factored into United States murder count statistics, the number of serial killer victims per year falls around 182 to 1,832 people, according to Kenna Quinet, associate professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI.

Raised to Kill

The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s website notes that serial killers are considered by most neurobiologists to be the outcome of many factors that occur throughout the killer’s lifetime. For example, in childhood, children are taught to “interact, negotiate, and compromise” with other children. If they fail to develop these abilities, they may begin to show signs of violence and lack of remorse even in their youth, both of which are strong indicators for criminal behavior. The cycle of violence grows over time. Serial killers may hate women because they didn’t have a good relationship with their mother. They may sexually abuse children as a result of being sexually abused as a child themselves. There are hundreds of psychological motives for serial killers to grapple onto.

Other indicators may include abusing animals. The American Humane Association has some shocking statistics on the link between animal abuse and domestic violence. According to their website, 71% of pet-owning women entering women’s shelters reported that their abuser had harmed, killed, or threatened family pets for revenge or to psychologically control victims with another 32% of the women reporting that their children had hurt or killed animals. A community policy dispatch newsletter drafted by the Community Oriented Policing Services relays the haunting words of a 16-year-old boy who was later convicted of killing his own mother, “I made my first kill today. It was a loved one. I’ll never forget the howl she made. It sounded almost human. I’ll never forget the sound of her bones breaking under my might. I hit her so hard I knocked the fur off her neck. It was true beauty.” Killing and abusing animals seems to be the training wheels serial killers need to later perfect killing a human.

Some postulate that children that turn into serial killers later in life have a higher prevalence for wetting the bed. They may be bullied as children, awkward and alienated from their peers. As a gateway to more serious crime, they may partake in vandalism, theft, or fraud. They may be described as highly intelligent, even if they are undereducated. As they mature, they may have trouble securing a job. Yet, there are also serial killers that bare none of these characteristics. For example, Ted Bundy was considered a well-adjusted and even likeable man. He grew up as a popular child to both his peers and elders, gained a degree in psychology and attended law school, had multiple normal relationships with women throughout his life, worked as a government-hired crime consultant, and was even considered by his friends to be a worthy candidate for a political figure. Yet, the same man who seemed so amicable brutally murdered and raped 20 women, showing us that serial killers don’t always fit the profile.

Types and Motives of Serial Killers

Holmes and DeBurger‘s Model of Serial Killers identifies four models of a serial killer. The visionary killer, mission killer, hedonistic killer, and power and control killer. The visionary killer is focused mainly on the act of killing itself, and moves quickly to the coinciding steps of getting rid of the body with little planning involved. Their impetus for killing may be spurred on by voices in their heads, which makes them strong candidates for schizophrenia. Mission-oriented killers feel as though it is their purpose in life to kill a specific subset of people, such as prostitutes, homosexuals, or in Hitler’s case, Jews. Hedonistic serial killers are the largest variety of serial killers, which enjoy the process, often drawing it out, because they find sexual gratification from killing. They often also rape or mutilate the victim. Power and control serial killers are similar, also enjoying the process, but take most joy in dominating the victim. Serial killers may fall into one or all of these categories throughout their killing sprees.

Holmes and DeBurger’s typologies can help one to understand a serial killer’s motives to some extent, but for the most part, the motives of serial killers remain elusive. Many serial killers simply state that they enjoy killing when asked why they partook in their crimes, while others explain that a voice or fantastical entity instructed them to do so. Some enjoy playing god with people’s lives, feeling a rush from the act of taking lives into their own hands. Still others admit to killing a specific type of person because a personal experience with that demographic caused them to feel hatred toward them. Most serial killers gain psychological satisfaction from killing, but some experience material gain. Over time, the need to kill can become an addiction, as the killer yearns to feel the same high from killing over and over again.

Marked Mental Disorders

There may be certain disorders that predispose someone toward killing. Disorders marked by emotional callousness seem to be linked with the serial killer’s mind. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) was developed by the American Psychiatric Association as an encyclopedia of sorts of mental disorders. It contains everything from trichotillomania, the compulsive need to pull your hair out, to arachnophobia, the fear of spiders. One of the most common mental disorders attributed to serial killers is antisocial personality disorder. The DSM-IV describes those with this disorder as someone who has no concern for others or the law, partaking in habitual lying or disregard for the truth, and tendencies toward aggression. They may be deceitful for personal gain. They are also referred to as “sociopaths.” A variation on this disorder is known as narcissistic personality disorder, in which sufferers have “a grandiose sense of self-importance and entitlement,” are “preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success,” are “exploitative, “lack empathy,” and require “excessive admiration.” The two disorders are sometimes lumped into the broader category of a psychopath, although not all patients that suffer antisocial or narcissistic personality disorder are psychopaths.

Paranoid-type schizophrenia is also sometimes linked to killer personas, but once again, the two are not synonymous. A paranoid schizophrenic individual may suffer from delusions or auditory hallucinations, such as voices telling them to do things. Although they may be angry, aggressive, or aloof, they have relatively normal cognitive functioning outside of their delusions, which helps them to blend in with society a bit better than some more degenerative forms of schizophrenia. It is a deteriorative, chronic disorder that requires treatment throughout the individual’s life. Given the relatively large number of serial killers that explain their motive for killing as taking the shape of a voice inside their head, some serial killers may unknowingly suffer from this psychosis and could otherwise be treated.

The PCL-R Test

While not all psychopaths are serial killers, many serial killers may also be identified as psychopaths. Thus, determining psychopathic behavior may be key in keeping killers at bay. NPR’s This American Life aired an episode called “The Psychopath Test,” which discussed a widely used test for determining psychosis developed by Canadian psychologist Robert Hare. In the 1960s, he began studying prison inmates for common traits to put together the “Psychopathy Checklist Revised,” or the PCL-R, a test that gauges whether a person is predisposed to psychotic behavior.

In the 1960s and prior, it was widely believed that criminals were made that way over time as opposed to born with psychopathic tendencies. Hare challenged this belief. He deduced that the inborn personality was more important and that certain people were born with distinct differences in impulsivity, the capacity for empathy, and for feeling guilt that essentially predicted whether or not they would become a psychopath. Initially, he conducted studies on 30 different prison inmates at the facility just down the road from his office where he conducted his practice at the University of British Columbia.

In one study, he informed the inmates that they would be given an electric shock and monitored their heart rate response. Most of the prisoners experienced an elevated heart rate and anxiety at the thought of being shocked, but a select few did not have any notable response. In another study, he showed the prisoners pictures of highly emotional and sometimes disturbing imagery, measuring their neural responses. Again, while most of the inmates were visibly and mentally distressed by some of the images, like those of rape or abuse, a handful of the inmates were unfazed. These studies formed the backbone of Hare’s ideology concerning psychopaths, helping him to structure the test. He reasoned that psychopaths were emotionally numb, finding scenarios that would otherwise be alarming to a normal person to be neutral to a psychopath.

While writing the actual test, Hare was tasked with creating questions that would be useful as a means of measuring how psychotic the person was. The questions sought out specific traits that he saw in some of the disturbed inmates, such as lack of empathy, lack of remorse, manipulation, egocentricity, impulsivity, superficial charm, and psychological lying. The test-taker was deducted points when they answered questions in a way that showed them to have empathy, compassion, and other emotions not typically present in psychopaths. The more points that were awarded, the more likely the test-taker was to be a psychopath. When the points were totaled, any score over 30 indicated a high likelihood of psychosis. By 1980, the test was complete, and psychopathy researchers worldwide began implementing it in their studies.

Several years later, the PCL-R’s predictive power was put to the test when one of Hare’s pupils, Randy Kropp, measured how many high-scoring criminals relapsed to a life of crime after they were granted parole. The findings were staggering. Nearly 80% of the high-scoring or proclaimed “psychopaths” of the group committed crimes within five years of being released and were re-convicted. As a result, parole boards everywhere were vying to get their hands on the test. The idea was that criminals would have to take the test and it would be noted in big, red letters on their file, so that it would always be considered if they came up for parole. Hare was hesitant to let the criminal justice system abuse his test, feeling that while it had proved itself scientifically reliable in a lot of scenarios, there were ethical questions concerned with using it as a predictor for potential criminal activity, given that it challenges the idea of “innocent until proven guilty.” Regardless, he published the test so it is now public domain. It is used widely within the United States’ criminal justice system as a red flag for upcoming parolees.

Every Human Mind is Different

There may be no way to fully understand the mind of a serial killer, given their mental stability, motives, and practices all vary. There is also no real way of scientifically predicting that a serial killer will make his first kill. Mental distress, antisocial behavior, and aggression may be common in known serial killers, but the two are not mutually exclusive. It’s important to remember that every individual chooses whether or not to act on specific behaviors, whether to seek help for their troubles, or whether to embrace their carnal desires.