Serial Killers' Psychology

Since the times of Jack the Ripper, researchers and investigators have struggled to understand the mind of a serial killer. Abnormally high or low IQs have often been put forth as reasons behind the making of a serial killer, but of course, it is much more than that. Though research is on continually, there is very little that helps us understand the psyche of a serial killer...
PsycholoGenie Staff
Last Updated: Apr 9, 2018
A serial killer's psychology lies far beyond the grasp of normal human understanding. A serial killer is defined as a person who murders 3 or more people, in a particular fashion, usually in a month's gap or more. The pattern of killing or the modus operandi is what gives serial killers their name. There is always something in common in the murders - the use of a particular weapon, the race of the people killed, the age or gender, the profession, and at times, even the symbols on the body of the victim. The motive for killing nearly always consists of an element of hatred and fear, which may have its roots in the killer's childhood.
About Serial Killers
Power has always been the center of a serial killer's thinking. These people are obsessed with being in a position of power, sexually and in general life as well. They thrive on the feeling of being in charge and they will go to any extent to make sure they are. This may branch from a background of child abuse, neglect and low self-esteem. Children who grow up with a feeling of being unwanted and unloved, tend to become very violent and assertive in their adult life. This low self-esteem and rejection usually finds a vent in brutally murdering innocent people. Serial killers have a vivid imagination that tends to be on the violent side and when they can, they obsess with living out their imagination. As the murdering spree continues, it becomes like a 'fix' that drug addicts require, and they get restless and violent if they are unable to kill.
In most cases, the victims of serial killers are physically weaker than them. Serial killers usually target children and women. There have been a few serial killers who targeted old and middle-aged men, but for most part, they concentrate on young women.
There have been cases where a person lived with dead bodies and treated them as family. This shows a serious problem of low self-esteem caused due to rejection. This sense of rejection can be so profound that serial killers prefer to live with dead bodies to overcome the fear of being rejected. It has to be kept in mind that a serial killer has such a demented mind, that he actually finds pleasure in doing all this, and according to his rationale, he is doing nothing wrong. This unbalanced sense of knowing right from wrong is what makes serial killers so dangerous and unpredictable.
In almost all cases, there lies a common background of abuse - mental, physical, or sexual. In childhood this may lead to misplaced morals which makes them introverts and inculcates a deep loathing for the society around them. They grow up believing that the world is out to get them, and they need to 'cleanse' the world of 'bad' people, by doing whatever is necessary. Many times serial killers claim it was divine intervention that forced them to kill, and blame the murders on either God or the Devil, or voices in their head. Serial killers come from all walks of life. They are not killing for gain, they kill to satisfy the urge within, or because they believe that they are doing the right thing.
The Background
Are serial killers psychopaths? Yes most of them are. A psychopath is a person who doesn't believe in social norms, and ethical principles and is generally antisocial. These people seem to have a strange set of morals and logic in life. It has been ascertained that they are very shallow, charming, impulsive, have criminal ways of thinking, are violent and abusive and show these traits from a very early age. Serial killers are known to gain satisfaction through their behavior.
The records of hundreds of serial killers indicate child abuse. Most serial killers are known to have suffered both mental and sexual abuse in their childhood with their own parents being the perpetrators. Absence of family morals, and at times, a dysfunctional family, leads to severely low-esteemed children, who grow up to be mentally sick. Of all the abuses that a serial killer suffers from, rejection tops the chart.
All in all, serial killers have a background of abusive parents, ignored childhood on account of a dysfunctional family, totally displaced moral values, extremely low self-esteem, and a seriously wrong concept of life and the working of society. Many psychologists have observed that being part of a proper family would have saved these killers. Most serial killers have an IQ of a genius but lack direction and morality.
Adult Life of Serial Killers
The adult life of a serial killer is mostly filled with failures. A serial killer is always planning and plotting for his next victim, and as such has very little time for the niceties of life. They are so preoccupied with their killing that they fail to be a part of what surrounds them. The most successful serial killers usually have an alter life, with one life portraying a semblance of normalcy, in which they pretend to be like everyone else. The other life is where they are obsessed with killing and planning a kill. Due to this they suffer from failures at a personal level. The history of all known serial killers is filled with failed marriages and love affairs. They even fail at pursuing a career. Their minds are just not made to work hard and make a career. They can't work under someone because they want power, they are known to generally misbehave at their workplace, leading to being fired. Their short temper follows them everywhere, leading to general misbehavior and violence with coworkers. These people also get bored very easily. A monotonous 9-5 job can never satisfy them. They need thrill in their life, which they will go to any extent to find.
Categories of Serial Killers
Serial killers can be either prepared (organized), unprepared (disorganized) or a mix of both. Organized serial killers work out a crime in a methodical manner, like luring with ploys, abducting, killing and getting rid of the body (bodies) in a secluded place, all being a plot of a thought of plan. They also have sound knowledge of forensic science because of which they don't leave any evidence while leaving the crime scene. Such wrongdoers have an above average IQ and are the most dangerous serial killers, because it is the hardest to catch them.
On the other hand, unprepared serial killers are spontaneous or rather impulsive in their acts. Such killers are generally loners/unemployed/mentally sick. Compared to the organized group, their IQ levels are slightly low. They don't make any attempt to remove evidence left on the crime scene. Owing to this, they are easier to find. They also tend to make more mistakes more frequently.
The third category, i.e., the mixed type, are serial killers that show both organized and unorganized traits. It has also been seen that the offenders fall from organized to being disorganized as they go on a killing spree. Usually, most serial killers start of as being in the organized category, and as they go on killing they move in to the unorganized category. With each kill, the need for another kill increases, up to a point where the kill becomes more important than the precautions or the planning.
The work and research of many psychologists, over many decades, have given way to a few theories, that suggest some common traits of serial killers. One of the most famous is the MacDonald Triad. The MacDonald Triad defines a combination of three symptoms, that are mostly found in all serial killers. These symptoms consist of three behavioral characteristics that are straightaway associated with sociopathic behavior. These were coined by JM MacDonald, a forensic psychiatrist, in a 1963 paper in the American Journal of Psychiatry, called 'The Threat to Kill'. The characteristics described by him are:
  • Cruelty to animals
  • Obsession with fire
  • Bed wetting past the age of 5
According to statistics, the childhood history of these 3 characteristics has been found in most of the serial killers. These symptoms result from parental neglect and abuse, and lead to overly shy and reserved kids, who grow up to become violent adults with their own strange concepts of life.
A serial killer suffers from at least one psychological disorder. But a person can always suffer from more than one, which is mostly the case. A few observed serial killer psychological disorders are:
  • Schizophrenia
  • Multiple personality disorder
  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Anxiety disorder
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Childhood antisocial disorder
  • Delusional disorder
  • Depression
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Obsessive compulsive personality disorder (OCPD)
  • Physical abuse
  • Panic attack
  • Pedophilia
  • Personality disorder
  • Psychotic disorder
  • Sexual sadism
The list of disorders these people suffer from is endless. More or less, all the symptoms are related to each other and in most cases, one condition leads to the other.
The motives of serial killers are varied and include:
  • Sexual favors
  • Sexual sadism
  • Pedophilia
  • Financial gain
  • Racism
  • Fun
  • Pleasure
  • Thrill
The last three motives are what truly define the mental condition of a serial killer. For a normal person, it is hard to even think of death and fun together but for a serial killer it is easy to accomplish. Motive or no motive, killing a person for any reason other than self-defense, is a criminal offense and killing a number of people, is a crime and is punished severely, often with the death penalty or a series of life imprisonment terms.
The death penalty for any crime is already under a lot of scrutiny, and talking about that is just going to start another debate. But it is also a fact that hanging a criminal or murderer has never stopped the next one. The solution to this probably lies in providing a healthy childhood to every kid, no matter which family or society he/she is born in, as most of the problems have their roots in childhood. But providing a healthy childhood to everyone is easier said than done. All we can do is just hope that every grownup fulfills his/her responsibilities properly and brings up his/her children with a stable and healthy mind. So, can we say a serial killer is the result of a corrupt and immoral society? Do we have to start with cleaning and mending our own morals to curb the making of a serial killer in the future?
Detecting a serial killer and understanding a serial killer's psychology in a crowd of millions is impossible, but it is in our hands to build a society where people respect each other, irrespective of their color, a society where parents provide their children with a childhood full of love and care and where every person is aware that life is precious. After all, a serial killer as a child didn't understand love and how it felt to share it with others. And at some point or the other, it was and is the fault of society.