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Serial Murder: Broad-based Public Fascination

The savage, sadistic impulses that underlie serial murder are undoubtedly as old as human kind. it would have to begin at least as far back as ancient Rome, when the Emperor Caligula was busily indulging his taste for torture and perversion. During the Middle Ages, depraved Aristocrats like Gilles de Rais (the original "Bluebeard") and Elizabeth Bathory (the "Blood Countess") fed their unholy lusts on the blood of hundreds of victims, while psychopathic peasants like Gilles Ganier and Peter Stubbe butchered their victims with such bestial ferocity that they were believed to be literal werewolves. Other homicidal monsters of the premodern era include the Scottish cannibal Sawney Beane and Vlad the Impaler, the real-life Dracula.

Serial murder is a relatively rare event, estimated to comprise less than one percent of all murders committed in any given year. However, there is a macabre interest in the topic that far exceeds its scope and has generated countless articles, books, and movies. This broad-based public fascination began in the late 1880s, after a series of unsolved prostitute murders occurred in the Whitechapel area of London. These murders were committed by an unknown individual who named himself Jack the Ripper. These murders and the nom de guerre "Jack the Ripper" have become synonymous with serial murder. This case spawned many legends concerning serial murder and the killers who commit it.

Jack the Ripper's American contemporary, H. H. Holmes, who confessed to twenty-seven murders in the late 1890s, is regarded as America's first documented serial killer. Two full decades would pass before another one appeared on the scene: the unknown maniac dubbed the "Axeman of New Orleans," who terrorized that city between 1918 and 1919.

Though it was a violent and lawless decade, the Roaring Twenties produced only two authentic serial killers: Earle Leonard Nelson - the serial strangler nicknamed the "Gorilla Murderer" - and the viciously depraved Carl Panzram. Serial killers were equally few and far between in the 1930s and 1940s. The cannibalistic pedophile Albert Fish, and the anonymous psycho known as the "Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run" (aka the "Cleveland Torso Killer") are the only known serial killers of Depression-era America. The roster of 1940s serial killers is also limited to a pair of names: Jake Bird, a homicidal burglar who confessed to a dozen axe murders, and William Heirens, famous for his desperate, lipstick-scrawled plea: "For heaven's sake catch me before I kill more. I cannot control myself."


  1. Serial killers are all white males.
    They span all racial groups: Charles Ng. a native of Hong Kong, killed numerous victims in California; Coral Eugene Watts, an African-American, killed five in Michigan and another 12 in Texas; and Rory Conde, a Colombia native, killed six prostitutes in the Miami area, just to name a few.
  2. Serial killers are all dysfunctional loners.
    They often have families and homes and are gainfully employed. For example, Robert Lee Yates Jr., who murdered 17 prostitutes in the Spokane, Washington area, was married with five kids, lived in a middle-class neighborhood, and was a decorated U.S. Army National Guard helicopter pilot.
  3. Serlal killers are motivated only by sex.
    In the D.C. Sniper serial murders, John Allen Muhammad, a former U.S. Army staff sergeant, and Lee Boyd Malvo were motivated primarily by anger and the thrill of the hunt. They attempted to extort money to stop the shootings before they were captured.
  4. Serial killers cannot stop killing.
    Some stop murdering for years before they are caught. The BTK killer, Dennis Rader. murdered l0 victims from 1974 to 1991, and then stopped, never killing again before he was captured in 2005. Rader told investigators that he engaged in autoerotic activities as a substitute for the murders.
  5. Serial killers want to get caught.
    As serial killers continue to get away with their crimes, they tend to become emboldened and feel untouchable. They take more and more chances, leading to an eventual misstep. According to the Behavioral Analysis Unit, it is not that serial killers want to get caught but that they feel they can't get caught.

It wasn't until the post-World War II period that serial murder became rampant in this country. Its shadow was already beginning to spread during the sunny days of the Eisenhower era. The 1950s witnessed the depredations of Wisconsin ghoul Ed Gein; the voyeuristic horrors of Californian Harvey Murray Glatman (who photographed his bound, terrorized victims before murdering them); the crimes of homicidal scam artists Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez (the "Lonely Hearts Killers"); and the bloody rampage of Charles Starkweather, who slaughtered a string of victims as he hot-rodded across the Nebraska badlands.

The situation became even grimmer during the 1960s, a period that produced such infamous figures as Melvin "Sex Beast" Rees, Albert "Boston Strangler" DeSalvo, and the still-unknown Zodiac. By the time the 1970s rolled around, the problem had become so dire that, for the first time, law enforcement officials felt the need to define this burgeoning phenomenon as a major category of crime. The 1970s was the decade of Berkowitz (Son of Sam) and Bundy, Kemper (The Co-ed Killer) and Gacy, Bianchi and Buono (the "Hillside Stranglers"), and more.

By the 1980s some criminologists were bandying words like plague and epidemic to characterize the problem. Though these terms smack of hysteria, it is nevertheless true that serial homicide has become so common in our country that most of its perpetrators stir up only local interest. Only the most ghastly of these killers, the ones who seem more like mythic monsters than criminals - Jeffrey Dahmer, for example - capture the attention of the entire nation and end up as creepy household names.

Much of the general public's knowledge concerning serial murder is a product of Hollywood productions. Story lines are created to heighten the interest of audiences, rather than to accurately portray serial murder. By focusing on the atrocities inflicted on victims by "deranged" offenders, the public is captivated by the criminals and their crimes.

In the past thirty years, multiple definitions of serial murder have been used by law enforcement, clinicians, academia, and researchers. While these definitions do share several common themes, they differ on specific requirements, such as the number of murders involved, the types of motivation, and the temporal aspects of the murders.

Previous definitions of serial murder specified a certain number of murders, varying from two to ten victims. This quantitative requirement distinguished a serial murder from other categories of murder (i.e. single, double, or triple murder). Most of the definitions also required a period of time between the murders. This break-in-time was necessary to distinguish between a mass murder and a serial murder. Serial murder required a temporal separation between the different murders, which was described as: separate occasions, cooling-off period, and emotional cooling-off period.

Following the arrest of a serial killer, the question is always asked: How did this person become a serial murderer? The answer lies in the development of the individual from birth to adulthood. Specifically, the behavior a person displays is influenced by life experiences, as well as certain biological factors. Serial murderers, like all human beings, are the product of their heredity, their upbringing, and the choices they make throughout development.

Individuals have the ability to choose to engage in certain behaviors. The collective outcome of all influences separates individual behavior from generic human behavior. Since it is not possible to identify all of the factors that influence normal human behavior, it similarly is not possible to identify all of the factors that influence an individual to become a serial murderer.

Human beings are in a constant state of development from the moment of conception until death. Behavior is affected by stimulation received and processed by the central nervous system. Neurobiologists believe that our nervous systems are environmentally sensitive, thereby allowing individual nervous systems to be shaped throughout a lifetime.

The development of social coping mechanisms begins early in life and continues to progress as children learn to interact, negotiate, and compromise with their peers. In some individuals the failure to develop adequate coping mechanisms results in violent behavior.

Neglect and abuse in childhood have been shown to contribute to an increased risk of future violence. Substance abuse can and does lead to increased aggression and violence. There are documented cases of people who suffered severe head injuries and ultimately become violent, even when there was no prior history of violence. There is no single identifiable cause or factor that leads to the development of a serial killer. Rather, there are a multitude of factors that contribute to their development. The most significant factor is the serial killer's personal decision in choosing to pursue their crimes.

There is no generic profile of a serial murderer. Serial killers differ in many ways, including their motivations for killing and their behavior at the crime scene. There are certain traits common to some serial murderers, including sensation seeking, a lack of remorse or guilt, impulsivity, the need for control, and predatory behavior. These traits and behaviors are consistent with the psychopathic personality disorder.

Psychopathy is a personality disorder manifested in people who use a mixture of charm, manipulation, intimidation, and occasionally violence to control others, in order to satisfy their own selfish needs. The interpersonal traits include glibness, superficial charm, a grandiose sense of self-worth, pathological lying, and the manipulation of others. The affective traits include a lack of remorse and/or guilt, shallow affect, a lack of empathy, and failure to accept responsibility. The lifestyle behaviors include stimulation-seeking behavior, impulsivity, irresponsibility, parasitic orientation, and a lack of realistic life goals. The anti-social behaviors include poor behavioral controls, early childhood behavior problems, juvenile delinquency, revocation of conditional release, and criminal versatility. The combination of these individual personality traits, interpersonal styles, and socially deviant lifestyles are the framework of psychopathy and can manifest themselves differently in individual psychopaths.

However, not all violent offenders are psychopaths and not all psychopaths are violent offenders. If violent offenders are psychopathic, they are able to assault, rape, and murder without concern for legal, moral, or social consequences. This allows them to do what they want, whenever they want. The relationship between psychopathy and serial killers is particularly interesting. All psychopaths do not become serial murderers. Rather, serial murderers may possess some or many of the traits consistent with psychopathy. Psychopaths who commit serial murder do not value human life and are extremely callous in their interactions with their victims. This is particularly evident in sexually motivated serial killers who repeatedly target, stalk, assault, and kill without a sense of remorse. However, psychopathy alone does not explain the motivations of a serial killer.

The crime scene behavior of psychopaths is likely to be distinct from other offenders. This distinct behavior can assist law enforcement in linking serial cases. Psychopaths are not sensitive to altruistic interview themes, such as sympathy for their victims or remorse/guilt over their crimes. They do possess certain personality traits that can be exploited, particularly their inherent narcissism, selfishness, and vanity. Specific themes in past successful interviews of psychopathic serial killers focused on praising their intelligence, cleverness, and skill in evading capture.

As most homicides are committed by someone known to the victim, police focus on the relationships closest to the victim. This is a successful strategy for most murder investigations. The majority of serial murderers, however, are not acquainted with or involved in a consensual relationship with their victims. For the most part, serial murder involves strangers with no visible relationship between the offender and the victim.

Serial murder crime scenes can have bizarre features that may cloud the identification of a motive. The behavior of a serial murderer at crime scenes may evolve throughout the series of crimes and manifest different interactions between an offender and a victim. It is also extremely difficult to identify a single motivation when there is more than one offender involved in the series. A serial murderer may have multiple motives for committing his crimes.

Ideology is a motivation to commit murders in order to further the goals and ideas of a specific individual or group. Examples of these include terrorist groups or an individual(s) who attacks a specific racial, gender, or ethnic group. An offender selects a victim based upon availability, vulnerability, and desirability. Availability is explained as the lifestyle of the victim or circumstances in which the victim is involved, that allow the offender access to the victim. Vulnerability is defined as the degree to which the victim is susceptible to attack by the offender. Desirability is described as the appeal of the victim to the offender. Desirability involves numerous factors based upon the motivation of the offender and may include factors dealing with the race, gender, ethnic background, age of the victim, or other specific preferences the offender determines.

The topic of serial murder occupies a unique niche within the criminal justice community. In addition to the significant investigative challenges they bring to law enforcement, serial murder cases attract an over-abundance of attention from the media, mental health experts, academia, and the general public. While there has been significant, independent work conducted by a variety of experts to identify and analyze the many issues related to serial murder, there have been few efforts to reach a consensus between law enforcement and other experts, regarding these matters.

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