The crime of murder has been known to be present in our society since the
early 1660s. Historians who have done extensive research on the topic of
murder have found evidence of murder occurring in Ancient Rome and moving on
through the centuries. One of the first known examples in modern times of,
what would be termed as a serial killer, was Jack the Ripper, who killed
and mutilated five prostitutes in the East End of London in 1888 (Wilson,
1990). The term serial killer came into general use in American society in
the 1980s as law enforcement officials began to classify different types of
Serial Killing seems to be something that we only see or hear about in the
movie theater or in some true crime book. Serial killing is something of the
past that happens in far away places like Jack the Ripper in London,
England. As an American society we ourselves into a false security believing
that serial murder is very rare and easily detected by law enforcement
A serial killer is typically a person who murders three or more
people, usually in service of abnormal psychological gratification, with the
murders taking place over more than a month and including a significant
period of time between them. Different authorities apply different criteria
when designating serial killers. For example, while most authorities set a
threshold of three murders, others extend it to four or lessen it to two.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) defines serial killing as:
"a series of two or more murders, committed as separate events, usually, but
not always, by one offender acting alone".
Although psychological gratification is the usual motive for serial killing,
and most serial killings involve sexual contact with the victim, the FBI
states that the motives of serial killers can include anger, thrill-seeking,
financial gain, and attention seeking. The murders may be attempted or
completed in a similar fashion. The victims may have something in common,
for example, demographic profile, appearance, gender or race.
A serial killer is neither a mass murderer, nor a spree killer, although
there may be conceptual overlaps between serial killers and spree
killers. Crime statistics and experts in the field of serial murder predict
that 35 to 50 percent serial killers may be active across the United States
at any given time because multiple homicides frequently occur in a manner
that doesnt clearly indicate they are part of a pattern. The profile above
is relatively broad and doesnt begin to examine what motivates an
individual to commit a series of murders. The research related to serial
killing has attempted to classify the motives of an individual that commit a
series of murders. Dr. Ronald Holmes in his book
Statement Of The Problem
Research has shown an increase in the amount of murders that have occurred
in the second half of the 20th century with a trend that is destined to
continue. The field of psychology and law continues to search for a pattern
of behavior that can help the mental health field in identifying
characteristics of serial murderers through interviews and evaluation.
Purpose Of The Study
The purpose of the study will be able to provide a review and critical
analysis of the research and literature related to the known patterns of
behavior of serial murderers and to examine aspects of the criminal mind
related to serial murderers and share the findings with professional in the
field of forensic psychology
Types of Murder
Serial killers fantasy
- Serial murder: A serial murder is defined as an event in which a
person kills two or more victims in incidents that are geographically
- Mass murder: A mass murder is defined as an event in which a person
kills for or more victims at one time and place.
- Spree killer: A spree murder is a single event with two or more
locations and no emotional cooling off period between murderers.
- Cannibalism: The consumption of human flesh.
- Cult: A pejorative label used to describe certain religious groups.
When the serial killer murders his first victim, he activates what is known
as cyclical mechanism
, entering a circular complex mental process,
like an addiction, which leads him to kill again(Bruno & Marrazzi). The
murder becomes the transposition of one or more mental images within a real
context and the dynamic process is bound to repeat itself with particular
features of rituals. The imagination is the fundamental elements of human
psyche through which he can change reality, replace something, review the
past and anticipate the future. This is most commonly used by adults, as
much as children to gain and maintain control over an imagined situations.
Through imagination any mood, such as anger, for example,begins to take
shape oriented towards a specific goal and specific direction(Carlisle).
During childhood children take refuge in fantasy and, according to the
family context in which they grow up, project what they have learned or
experienced as a way of relating to others.
They child will create a personal imaginary world and will project the
hostility and hatred that the child has experienced in the real world. In
fantasy any individual can imagine the self to be immense and without
limits. The main differences between a criminal and a normal subject is that
the former believes to have some sort of divine right to satisfy his
fantasies, without moral or legal restrictions (Norris, 1988).
The serial killers imagination plays a major role as he begins to fantasize
about acts to be performed in order to express dominance over another human
being. The decision making power of life and death infuses a feeling of
omnipotence. When his delusional fantasy reach a peak, its time to enjoy his
actions of the murder, until a new emotional necessity or compulsion leads
to kill again. For the serial murderer, the victim is like a checkers pawn
to be manipulated at will in order to win the game
These individuals compensate for their social loneliness by retreating to
their fantasy world, which is in fact dominated by their imagination. Any
serial killer, regardless of the reason behind the murders, always begins
his destructive path due to fantasies.
Thought Patterns and Actions
From the many studies carried out in this field, it was possible to identify
a serial killers thought pattern and actions, which is divided into five
phases that are repeated in a circular process(Ciappi, 1998)
- Distorted thinking phase: it is the psychological stage common to
all serial killers. The subject is unable to properly assess the impact
of a deviant act, as he fails to consider the consequences and is more
interested in the emotional gratification that can result from his
- Motivational phase: a single event or set of events, which are real
or imagined, because of the transition to this stage. The stimulus is
perceived as something personal and the distorted mentality of the
subject produces a disproportionate response to incidents.
- Inner negative answer phase: at this point the murderer has to deal
with feelings of inadequacy, especially when there are negative messages
from the society that surrounds him.
- External negative response phase: this element helps the subject to
confirm his superiority as a person. There is no kind of interest in the
possible consequences of his criminal actions.
- Restoration process: This phase restores the balance that the
subject had at the beginning of the process. The killer also thinks
about how to minimize personal risks in upcoming murders.
The subject, therefore, completes the cycle and returns to the distorted
Serial Killers: Biological Pedis positions
Ordinary people often wonder abut the nature of unconceivable and horrific
actions that are committed by serial killers. It is important to clarify the
origins of a serial killer(Giannangelo,1996). The interpretation of the
three phase model which was developed can answer these questions.
Some individuals show a biological predisposition to violence due to
deficits of the brain system which involve a low level of frustration
tolerance. In the volatile brain structure, stress events and environmental
traumas are added. The real world only remains for the serial killers
criminal activity, which he has previously fantasized about and that has led
him to commit his first murder.
He prefers to retreat into a private world of fantasies which satisfy him.
After having committed the murder, the killer is ready to start the
destructive cycle and become a serial killer. He chooses the victim and
after the murder spends a period of relative calm in which he elaborates and
relievs the murder he has just committed in his fantasy, until, once more,
imagination is not enough, and he will feel the need to kill again.
Childhood (which makes them serial killer)
Not all abused children become serial killers, and not all serial killers
are victims of childhood abuse. However, the connection between the two
cannot be dismissed as just coincidence. Personal traumas can affect
According to criminologist Dr Adrian Raine, both biologic and social factors
contribute to the making of a murderer. Reviews of more than 100 twin and
adoption analyses showed that approximately 50% of variance in antisocial
behavior is attributable to genetic influences.
In his book, The Anatomy of Violence, Dr Raine explains that Genetics and
environment work together to encourage violent behavior. For example, those
with a specific variant of the enzyme monoamine-oxidase-A gene are more
prone to displaying violent behavior if they have had an abusive upbringing.
A child susceptible to genetically driven violent conduct does not
necessarily become a criminal. However, genetics, in tandem with
environmental factors such as violent childhood experiences, work together
to shape a person.
- Case I: Richard The Night Stalker Ramirez from El Paso, Texas.
Found guilty of murdering 13 people in San Francisco and Los Angeles,
Ramirez had a disturbed childhood, enduring brutal beatings by his
father. Serial killer duo Ottis Toole and Henry Lee Lucas, who were
believed to have murdered hundreds of people, were both victims of
physical and psychological abuse. Specifically, they were made to dress
up as young girls and then beaten.
- Case II: Kenneth Binachi, 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
- Case III: Jeffrey Dahmer searched for his perfect fantasy
lover-beautiful, submissive and eternal. As his desire 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, and by his attempts to create a "living
zombie" under his control (by pouring acid into a hole drilled into the
victims skull). Dahmer once said, "Lust played a big part of it.
Control and lust. Once it happened the first time, it just seemed like
it had control of my life from there on in. The killing was just a means
to an end. That was the least satisfactory part. I didnt enjoy doing
that. Thats why I tried to create living zombies with … acid and the
drill." He further elaborated on this, also saying, "I wanted to see if
it was possible to make-again, it sounds really gross-uh, zombies,
people that would not have a will of their own, but would follow my
instructions without resistance. So after that, I started using the
drilling technique. He experimented with cannibalism to "ensure his
victims would always be a part of him"
- Case IV: On December 2006, a person Mohinder Singh Pandher aged 53
years, was arrested along with his servant Surendra Kohly aged 36 years
from Noida. The duo carried out serial killings for two years with 38
children done to death and the dead bodies of the unfortunate victims
were dismembered and dumped in drains in and around his Bungalow.
Investigating agencies collected skeleton from the drains and autopsy
was done on more than 40 bags of human remains there as per CBI sources.
- Case V: Robert Hansen took his victims to a secluded area, where he
would let them loose and then hunt and kill them.
- Case VI: Ted Bundy, the first televised murder trial, seemed the
unlikeliest of serial killers. Which made his decade-long, multi-state
killing spree all the more surprising-and to some, appealing. Born to an
unwed, teenaged mother, Bundy never learned his fathers identity and
was raised believing that his grandmother was actually his mother (and
his mother actually his sister).
Following a difficult adolescence,
Bundy graduated from the University of Washington-and soon embarked on
his murderous spree, killing his first victim in Seattle in 1966.
Focusing primarily on attractive college co-eds, Bundy committed a
series of murders across the Pacific Northwest. He continued on to Utah
and Colorado, killing several more women before being arrested. Despite
being convicted of kidnapping, he managed to escape police custody not
once, but twice, while awaiting trial in Colorado. He moved to Florida,
where he killed several members of a sorority and his final victim, a
12-year-old girl who he raped and murdered.
When Bundy was finally
apprehended while driving a stolen car a week after his last murder, his
trial quickly became a media sensation. It was the first murder trial to
be fully televised, and featured Bundy front-and-center acting as one of
his own defense attorneys. He became a media star, welcoming journalists
to his cell, receiving letters of admiration from lovelorn fans (and
even marrying one of them) and providing an endless list of clues about
additional murders he may have committed, in the hopes of delaying his
execution. It didnt work; he was executed in the electric chair in
1989, with the true number of his victims unknown.
- Case VII: Auto Shankar In 1988, nine girls from Chennais Thiruvanmiyur went missing in a span of six months. A schoolgirl named
Subalakshmi complained that an auto-rickshaw driver tried to abduct her
in front of a local wine shop. To crack this case of serial abduction,
the police went undercover and worked in the wine shop. It was found
that a man named Gowri Shankar was behind this. Shankar kidnapped girls,
killed them, cremated the bodies and dropped their ashes in the Bay of
Bengal. Shankar and two of his aides, Eldin and Shivaji, were hanged to
death on May 31, 1991.
- Case VIII: Cyanide Attack, In a span of 5 years, Mohan Kumar, a
primary school science teacher, killed 20 women. His targets were mostly
women from middle or lower-income backgrounds and bus stops were his favourite spot to befriend them. His plan of action included marriage,
elopement and running away with their money and jewellery after killing
them. Seeking no dowry, he lured women to elope with him to faraway
towns where he would have sex with them a night before the so-called
wedding and give them cyanide in the form of birth control pills. He was
sentenced to death in December 2013.
- Case IX: Indias first serial killer chose her victims from among
female devotees near temples where she acted like an extremely religious
person and befriended well-to-do women. After gaining their confidence,
she would advise them to visit a faraway temple with her. Mallika also
asked them to dress up in gold and everything fancy.
When the woman reached the temple, Mallika would pretend to perform a
prayer and then would ask the woman to drink the holy water or eat prasad
which would be laced with cyanide. She killed six women using this plan
and was given death penalty in 2010. Her death penalty was reduced to
life imprisonment in 2012.
A trigger is a short happening in the life of a serial killer, which
activates the underlying killer instinct and towards the first murder. A
person with a tendency to commit serial killing can sometimes abstain from
it, if he does not find the right trigger to push him over the edge.
Modus Operandi refers to the most common method adopted by a serial killer
for committing the murder. The Modus Operandi is what the offender must do
in order to commit the crime. For example, the killer must have a means to
control his victims at the crime scene such as tying them up. Significantly,
the Modus Operandi is a learned behaviour that is subject to change.
serial killer will alter and refine his Modus Operandi to accommodate new
circumstances or to incorporate new skills and information. For example,
instead of using rope to tie up a victim, the offender may learn that it is
easier and more effective to bring handcuffs to the crime scene. The Modus
Operandi of Jack the Ripper, for example, was that he attacked prostitutes
at night on the street with a knife.
In the book examines a profile of a serial murderer. By compiling and
assessing the behavioral and development traits, a profile emerges of a typical serial murderer. He found that most serial killers tend to come
from homes where they are physically or psychologically abused (Sears, 1991,
p.37). He concludes his brief overview of the profile of a serial killer by
stating the serial killer is obviously a distinctive and extremely
dangerous criminal. He possesses a superficial charm, where by he may
effectively mimic appropriate socially approved behavior in any given
The FBI completed an exhaustive study that found that most serial
killers spent their childhood in unhealthy, uncaring and abusive homes. The
study also found that family histories of serial murderers highlighted
multiple problems to include alcohol and drug abuse. The study found that
most of the murderers evaluated had a weak attachment to their family
members, and that there was present a parent whom suffered from problems of
substance abuse, criminality and aberrant sexual behavior. A common theme
among all murderers was a childhood with the absence of the development of
The connection between genetics, social environment, and criminal behavior
appears to be a reality, although in varying degrees across criminals. As
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) profiler Jim Clemente said, Genetics
loads the gun, their personality and psychology aim it, and their
experiences pull the trigger.
A landmark study of 50 serial killers found that childhood abuse was more
prevalent in lust serial killers. One of the authors of this study, Michael
G. Aamodt, explained, Our data showed that a much higher percentage of
serial killers were abused as children than the population in general. It
certainly makes sense that the type of abuse received as a child - physical,
sexual, or psychological - could influence a serial killers behavior and
choice of victim.
While it is safe to recognize abuse as a factor contributing to the making
of a serial killer, most people who face abuse do not become serial killers.
In this study, 32% of all serial killers had no history of abuse (Mitchell
H, Aamodt MG. The incidence of child abuse in serial killers)
In his book describes the cycles of violence as generational: Parents
who abuse their children, physically as well as psychologically, instill in
them an almost instinctive reliance upon violence as a first resort to any
challenge (Norris J. Serial Killers, New York) In another study, serial
killers were analyzed to understand the variables of childhood mistreatment
and sexual aggression toward victims.
The researchers found that serial killers treated badly during childhood
tended to sexually assault their victims before murdering them. On the other
hand, serial killers who did not experience childhood abuse did not display
sexually violent behaviour (Serial Killers: relation between childhood
maltreatment and sexual relations with the victim)
Childhood trauma does not come in one single package- Asa Don Brown
Female Serial Killers
Kelleher and Kelleher (1998) created several categories to describe female
serial killers. They used the classifications of black widow, angel of
death, sexual predator, revenge, profit or crime, team killer, question of
sanity, unexplained, and unsolved. In using these categories, they observed
that most women fell into the categories of black widow or team killer
Although motivations for female serial killers can include attention
seeking, addiction, or the result of psychopathological behavioral
factors. Female serial killers are commonly categorized as murdering men for
material gain, usually being emotionally close to their victims, and
generally needing to have a relationship with the victim, hence the
traditional cultural image of the "black widow."
In describing murderer Stacey Castor, forensic psychiatrist James Knoll
offered a psychological perspective on what defines a "black widow" type. In
simple terms, he described it as a woman who kills two or more husbands or
lovers for material gain. The methods that female serial killers use for
murder are frequently covert or low-profile, such as murder by poison (the
preferred choice for killing).
Other methods used by female serial killers include shootings (used by 20%),
suffocation (16%), stabbing (11%), and drowning (5%).They commit killings in
specific places, such as their home or a health-care facility, or at
different locations within the same city or state A notable exception to
the typical characteristics of female serial killers is Aileen
Wuornos who killed outdoors instead of at home, used a gun instead of
poison, killed strangers instead of friends or family, and killed for
Juvenile serial killers are rare. There are three main categories that
juvenile serial killers can fit into: primary, maturing, and secondary
killers. There have been studies done to compare and contrast these three
groups and to discover similarities and differences between them (Kirby
2009) Although these types of serial killers are less common, oftentimes
adult serial killers may make their debut at an early age and it can be an
opportunity for researchers to study what factors brought about the
behavior. Though it is rare, the youngest felon on death row is in fact, a
juvenile serial killer named Harvey Miguel Robinson.
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. The sexual serial murderer has a psychological need to
have absolute control, dominance, and power over their victims, and the
infliction of torture, pain, and ultimately death is used in an attempt to
fulfill their need.
The primary motive of a thrill killer is to induce pain or terror in their
victims, which provides stimulation and excitement for the killer. They seek
the adrenaline 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.
The motives of serial killers are generally placed into four categories:
visionary, mission-oriented, hedonistic, and power or control; however, the
motives of any given killer may display considerable overlap among these
categories. The World of Serial Killers
four types of serial killers. The first type is identified as a visionary
serial killer. The visionary serial killer is commanded to kill by voices
The second type of serial killer is identified as the mission serial
. The mission serial killer is interested in riding the community
from undesirable individuals. The third type of serial killer is a
hedonistic serial killer. Lust, thrill and comfort drive the hedonistic
serial killer. The last type of serial killer is the power/control serial
killer. The power/control serial killer is motivated by the need for power
Serial Killers may be more likely to engage and exhibit a varying degrees of
mental illness or psychopathy, which may contribute to their homicide
behavior. It has been analysed that FBIs crime classification manual places
serial killers into three categories: organized serial killer who often plan
their crimes methodically, usually abducting victims, killing them in one
place and disposing of them in another. They often lure the victims with
ploys appearing to their sense of sympathy They kill the victim efficiently
and quickly and have social and other interpersonal skills sufficient to
enable them to develop both personal and romantic relationship, friends and
lovers and unlikely to hurt anyone. Eg: Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy.
Disorganized serial killers who are usually more impulsive, often committing
their murders with a random weapon available at the time and usually do not
attempt to hide the body.They are likely to be unemployed, a loner, or both,
with a very few friends and turn out to be have a history of mental illness
and there is excessive violence.
To establish the relationship between the serial killer, the crime and the
possible cause or motive behind such heinous crimes, is a major challenge
for the investigating agency, the forensic and corrective experts. The
serial killers may have their own compulsions or reasons behind the crime.
Multi-disciplinary and approach can be the answer to the crime against
society. The isolation for these individuals can, according to Sears, lead
to intense frustration.
This build up of energy stemming from the presence
of an inadequate homelike which created an inability to cope with failure
produces an explosion of violent behavior. Sears found in his studies that
the absence of loving and nurturing relationship with parents which tend to
make them serial killers. Studies have shown that adults who were abused as
children tend to exhibit violent outbursts. He also found the presence of an
unnatural or unusual relationship between mothers and serial killers.
The environment of the home has found to have many correlations with the
development of a serial killer as well and the Federal Bureau of
Investigations studies found that most serial killers spent their childhood
in unhealthy, uncaring and abusive homes.
The crime of serial murder is not a new concept yet it continues to baffle
the field of psychology. Researchers have tried to look at biological,
psychological and sociological aspects that may have led to the development
of the criminal mind of a serial killer. Norris(1988) in his book Serial
lists a behaviour pattern he labels serial killer syndrome
serial killer syndrome includes 21 patterns or symptoms of episodic
aggressive behaviour, which provide a profile or predisposition. These
patterns of aggressive behaviour include ritualistic behaviour, masks of
insanity, compulsivity, search for help, severe memory disorders and chronic
inability to tell the truth, suicidal tendencies, history of serious
assault, deviate sexual behaviour and hyper sexuality, head injuries at
birth, history of chronic drugs and alcohol abuse, extraordinary cruelty to
This list provides an excellent summary related to criminal mind of a serial
killer. In their book Our Wish to Kill
Strean and Freeman
theorize that the instinct or murder can lurk in all of our psyches and that
some people can control those urges better than others.
An example of that would be a situation in which you get angry with your
spouse, partner or children and you blurt out the comment, and you make me so angry I could
just kill you
. Could you really kill that person? It is certainly startling
to think that you could actually commit the act of murder, but how many
times have we learned of the tragedy of murder and perhaps known directly or
indirectly the murderer and questioned how that person could have committed
the crime of number.
Research literature simply cant answer that question. Murder and especially
serial murder has been a crime that psychologists have been unable to
explain. There are various profiles of characteristics that have been found
to be common among serial murderers, but no one has been able to find the
key to unlock the criminal mind of a serial killer.
A major gap in the research related to the criminal mind of the serial
killers has been studies conducted on a representative sample of serial
killers. Most of the research available today has utilised samples of
various mass murderers and has been generalised to the very specific serial
Areas of research that need to be examined according to
Hickey(1991) include a list of eleven specific needs to include:
- Increased interaction and involvement between academicians and law
enforcement in the form of seminars and workshops.
- Increased cooperation between law enforcement agencies to better
establish increased flow of data regarding violent offenders.
- Increased training of local and state law enforcement personnel
regarding serial murder and profiling.
- To generate an acceptable operationalised definition of serial murder that
will inevitably reduce confusion among governmental and private agencies.
- To explore improving methodological issues in data collection and
analysis of multiple homicide offenders.
- To examine prevention strategies using a team of experts, including
law enforcement, social services, medical, psychiatric and academic
- To create public awareness program that filter information in a
rational and responsible manner.
- To establish projects funded by the federal government specifically
for the advancement of multiple homicide research.
The answers to the questions are not black and white. The criminal mind of
serial killers goes beyond a single biological, psychological or
sociological cause. Research must look at a more integrated approach and
realise that the serial killer remains a more complex human being with very
is merely a guide and can never be
used to generalise the characteristics of all serial killers. Each year our
society buries approximately 20,000 known victims of murder to include
serial murder. Statistics tell us that many more victims remain unknown to
us. This is a societal problem that is not going to just simply go away.
- HOLMES, R.M., & Holmes S.T.(2010) Serial murder(2nd ed.)Thousand
Oaks, CA:Sage publication and Serial murder(3rd ed.) Thousand Oaks,
- Raine A;The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime, New
- http://www.the development of serial killers
- Raine A:The biological crime: Implications for society and the
criminal justice system
- Merryweather C 15:Serial Killers Who had committed from the Hell
- Mitchell H, Aamodt M:The incidence of child abuse in serial killers
- Norris J. Serial Killers, New York
- De Santiago Herrero FJSerial Killers: relation between childhood
maltreatment and sexual relations with the victim
- The biological crime: Implications for society and the criminal
- The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime, New York
- Serial Killers Who had committed from the Hell
- To Kill Again The Motivational and Development of Serial Murder,
author Donald Sears
- Federal Bureau of Investigation, 1985
- Serial Killers, Joel Norris
- Frei et al. 2006,,pp. 167-176
- Wilson&Hilton 1998, pp. 495-498
- Vronsky 2007
- Schechter 2003, p.31
- Schmid 2005 p.231
- Youngest serial killer on Death Row, Psychology Today