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The Psychology of Serial Killers Research Paper

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Updated: Nov 22nd, 2019


Multiple murderers can be grouped into three: mass killer, who murder three or more persons at one time, spree killers, who murder in three or more places with no time difference, and serial killers. However, for this paper, we will focus on serial killers.

A serial killer is generally defined as a person who has killed three or more people over a period usually more than one month, with a space in between the murder, and whose reason for killing can be pegged to psychological factors (Singer and Hensley, 2004).

Other scholars define it as “a series of two or more murders, committed as separate events, usually, but not always, by one offender acting alone” (Morse, 2011). Frequently, a sexual aspect is linked to the murders, but the FBI asserts that reasons for multiple killings include anger, joy, financial motivation, and attention seeking.

Psychologists have for a long time researched the topic of multiple murders, or serial killers. The main questions that psychologists attempt to answer in these studies are: where does the drive to kill originate? Why is the urge to kill more powerful in some individuals than in others?

Can potential murderers be identified and halted before it happens? Do murderers have sympathy for their victims? These are just a fraction of questions that require answers in order to have a complete understanding of the psychology of serial killers. Unfortunately, no concrete answers have been found and research is ongoing (Castle & Hensley, 2002).

Demographics of Serial Killers in the US

The demographics of serial killers have always been a subject of debate, and largely depend on the source of information. In the US, the largest number of reported serial killers are always white males from a lower to middle class homes, typically in their twenties.

However, the FBI reports that there have also been African American, Asian, and Latino serial killers as well. Criminology experts have asserted that the proportion of African American serial killers reflects their overall percentage in the general population. However, one area of agreement is that whites are more likely to be serial killers than individuals from other races.

Lack of Sympathy

Several studies have indicated that due to their psychopathic nature, serial killers do not know have sympathy for their victims, their immediate families, or the general population. Instead, they train themselves to imitate ordinary human conduct by observing other individuals. It is all a controlling act aimed at luring people to their trap before they strike (Morse, 2011). Serial killers have been described as actors with a natural desire to act.

Henry Lee Lucas (1936-2001), a known serial killer who killed 11 individuals, once described being a serial killer as “being like a movie-star … you’re just playing the part” (Singer and Hensley, 2004). Another serial killer, John Wayne Gacy (1942-1984) always dressed up as a clown, and in court, Ted Bundy (1946-1989) told the judge, “I’m disguised as an attorney today” (Arrigo and Griffin, 2004). Bundy had in the past pretended to be a kindhearted rape crisis center counselor.

Roaming serial killers like to hold a position of influence. Gacy was an energetic, friendly and even became a member of the Jaycees, a leadership training and leadership forum. A number of serial killers also joined the military and became active members, such as David Berkowitz. Playing the role of police is, however, their favorite disguise. Carrying police identification and moving on a bike resembling that of police not only makes serial killers feel important, but also allows to reach their unsuspecting victims with ease.

Yet, when serial killers are caught, they take on a “mask of insanity”- pretending to have multiple personality disorder, schizophrenia, or are psychotic, anything that can exonerate them from their crimes. And when they finally reveal themselves, serial killers do not wholly drop the acting role. Bundy once said, “what’s one less person on the face of the earth anyway?” (Arrigo and Griffin, 2004), a statement that shows serial killer’ lack of sympathy for their victims, immediate families and the general population.

A Common Background

Serial killers have always held an attraction for many people regarding their actions. The thought that a person can become so twisted and psychotic, to the point of murdering not one, but three or more individuals, is a strange field of study. Many studies have investigated the factors that may make a person to become a serial killer, and many of these factors have been found to have a psychological aspect.

A majority of serial; killers have been found to have had a troubled childhood ranging from broken or abusive families, with little or no parental care and no positive social relations with the family members.

This unstable background makes them to develop anomalous ideas of what is normal for a person to do, for instance, sexually abusing other persons or exhibiting excessive violence, and in repeating the behaviors they underwent and lived through, they become more and more violent, eventually reaching the level of multiple murders. Other experiences such as neglect and abuse at childhood have been found to influence serial killers.

This troubled upbringing prevents these persons from developing a set of normal behaviors that judge how we should react in specific situations, and how we should socialize with others.

This makes them to be socially backward, however, outwardly, they seem to be normal, but secretly, they think that they are in some way above other people, and they are not fit to interact with normal people as they will be lowering their status. Therefore, they try as much as they can to avoid interacting with other people, but when they do, they act normally.

It has been observed although child abuse is only appears to be physical and mental, the act greatly affects the victims psychological make up (Castle & Hensley, 2002). It corrupts the thinking of such a person and can lead to the horror for which serial killers are known to exhibit. Abuse at childhood has been found to be common among renowned serial killers.

For instance, Charles Manson, was born to a negligent mother who placed him in a foster home and he lived on his own for a major part of his childhood. This background, coupled with the fact that he never knew who his biological father was, is likely to have affected him psychologically. Another serial killer, Ted Bundy, was born to a single mother, and later lived with stepfather.

What Motivates a Serial Killer?

Psychologists have for a long time researched into what makes a person become so violent that they kill several people with no indication of sympathy or remorse. Some serial killers view themselves as completing a task given to them by God, or some form of high authority.

The serial killers view their acts as a spiritual call to cleanse the society of a group the killer identifies as evil, a risk to the human race, or simply repugnant. Serial killers that fall in this category are especially dangerous, since they frequently view their actions a service to mankind, and compulsory.

Serial killers that had a troubled background usually kill in order to exercise power and authority over their victims. This often stems from feelings of helplessness and fright in their formative years. Serial killers who fall in this category are normally haunted by their experiences and in killing others, they aim to erase or revenge the horrifying abuse they encountered.

However, in attributing serial killing to upbringing, we must recognize that there are many people who had an abusive childhood, but did not grow up to become serial killers. Therefore, childhood abuse is not the sole reason for violent crime. Norris (1988) writes that parents that abuse their children infuse in them an almost instinctive reliance on violence as a solution to any challenge.

While some parents believe that by being strict disciplinarians, they would help prepare the child for the tough world, they are at times wrong. Having a close bond with the parents enables the child to trust others later in life, a lack of it can lead to isolation, and violence seems as the only way to achieve satisfaction (Castle & Hensley, 2002).

When the children become adults, all they know are their fantasies of wielding authority and power. They have not developed sympathy or love for other people, rather, they see human beings as objects of performing their violent fantasies.

Other serial killers murder others for the utter thrill or excitement of their acts. The main motive of such a killer is to rouse pain or create fear in their victims and this provides excitement to them. The thrill of the capture and the kill, and the thought of receiving wide attention through various media and police coverage are motivation enough to go on killing.

To them, killing provides the ‘high’ similar to that felt by persons that engage in high risk acts such as sky diving and motor bike stunts. Thrill serial killers mainly target strangers, although they may have followed them for quite some time (Norris, 1988).

For instance, Robert Hansen indicated in one his letters that, “[killing] gives me the most thrilling experience it is even better than getting your rocks off with a girl” (Perri and Lichtenwald, 2010). A surviving victim Coral Watts talked of him as “excited and hyper and clappin’ and just making noises like he was excited, that this was gonna be fun” (Perri and Lichtenwald, 2010) during a 1982 attack. Watts killed his victims by slashing, stabbing, hanging, drowning, suffocating, and strangulating.

Other motivations for serial killers include financial gains, anger, ideology (spread the beliefs of a certain group) and psychosis (Arrigo and Griffin, 2004). Even though these intentions are legitimate, it is very difficult to discover the actual incentive for a particular killer. This is because motive identification is always limited to the visible objects left behind by the killer, and by the correct identification of these objects. Additional information may be provided by the killer’s history and by the limited chance of a surviving victim.

Serial Killers and Psychopathic Personality Disorder

Most serial killers, while differing in their modes of killing their victims, display a similarity in some aspects. They exhibit a lack of remorse or regret, being impetuous, the desire to have control or exercise their authority, are in search of attention, and display conduct that is predatory in nature.

Basically, these are the characteristics of a psychopath, described as a person who shows a personality disorder characterized by aggression, violence, antisocial behavior, and shows no remorse or kindness. A psychopath can commit unimaginable activities with coolness, while displaying rationality. The scariest part of a serial killer’s life is that they lead a completely normal life (Levin and Fox, 2008).

An example Jeffrey Dahmer (1960-1994) who, while leading a perfectly normal public life, killed and ate young men. He was also able to exhibit calmness in the middle of confusion. For instance, when one of his 14-year old victims escaped into the streets, the police were called in but he was able to convince the police that the boy was his 19-year-old boyfriend who had drunk too much alcohol, the boy was handed over to him. Jeffrey killed the boy that night (Perri and Lichtenwald, 2010).

The relation between serial killing and psychopathy is strong because while not all psychopaths will, of course, not become serial killers, almost all serial killers display traits related to psychopathy. These persons do not value human life. Even though psychopathy alone does not explain serial killers, it provides a fascinating perspective into their character.

The concept of psychosis has also been used to explain serial killers. Described as the loss of contact with reality, psychosis is characterized by hallucinations, delusions, and irrationality. Even though widely disregarded, the concept of psychosis can be used to explain the behavior of some serial killers.

Foe example, Herbert Mullin confessed that he killed to save California from a cataclysmic earthquake. However, some serial killers have been used to use this claim, along with those of schizophrenia and multiple personality disorder to explain their behavior in order to exonerate themselves. Research into the mind of serial killers is ongoing and in the future, perhaps we will be able to identify serial killers before they strike on the first or subsequent victims.


Arrigo, B. and Griffin, A. (2004). Serial Murder and the Case of Aileen Wuornos: Attachment Theory, Psychopathy, and Predatory Aggression. Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 22 (3): 375–393.

Castle, T., & Hensley, C. (2002). Serial killers with military experience: Applying learning theory to serial murder. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 46 (4), 453-465.

Levin, J., and Fox, A. (2008). Normalcy in Behavioral Characteristics of the Sadistic Serial Killer. Serial Murder and the Psychology of Violent Crimes, Part I, 3-14

Morse, S. J. (2011). Psychopathy – What Is Psychopathy?. Law Library – American Law and Legal Information. Crime and Justice Vol 3.

Norris, J. (1988). Serial Killers. London: Doubleday.

Perri, F. S. and Lichtenwald, T. G. (2010). The Last Frontier: Myths & The Female Psychopathic Killer, Forensic Examiner, 19:2, 50-67.

Singer, S. D and Hensley, C (2004). Learning theory to childhood and adolescent firesetting: Can it lead to serial murder. International journal of offender therapy and comparative criminology, 48 (4): 48, 461–476.

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