There’s no doubt that the actions of serial killers throughout history have, for better (or worse), captured our attention and imaginations.
As much as has been written about them, the inner workings of their minds remain largely a mystery. One thing must be true, though. Regular human behavior and that of the serial killer can not be one and the same. Or can it?
It’s within this question that there lies an uncomfortable truth. No two serial killers are the same, although some may share psychological personality traits. But there is so much unknown about them that discovering some of the known psychological facts about serial killers is exciting and frightening.
Keep reading to find the good, the bad, and the astonishing.
25 Psychological Facts About Serial Killers
Many have asked what makes a man. And although the answers are broad and defined, what makes a serial killer is a far more elusive subject. From the why to the where, here’s a deep dive into the psychology behind serial killers.
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1. Serial Killers Can Be Made
While the argument of nature versus nurture rages on throughout many fields, this is mostly not true with serial killers. Psychologically, most serial killers seem more influenced by developmental experiences and mental disturbances.
This might be the obvious answer if you want to understand why serial killers do what they do. Criminologists hold that, in most cases, serial killers have experienced traumatizing events in their lives.
These include childhood abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence, extreme poverty, and sometimes, early separation from their mothers. Some evaluations even point to sexual and romantic past failures as triggering events.
And while most of these instances focus on childhood events, according to the FBI, they can also extend into adulthood. This is especially true when looking at problems related to substance abuse. Records show that most serial killers encountered some form of substance abuse during their childhood and adulthood.
2. What Motivates a Serial Killer?
When looking at the motives behind a serial killer’s actions, things can get tricky. Psychologically, there can be a thousand motives behind one action, or there could be only one. After all, what is motivation enough for a person to commit such an inconceivable act?
Well, it turns out there is a generally assumed proving ground for what motivates serial killers and their killings. Although there are exceptions where the killing is made out of sexual compulsion or simple recreation, psychologists have identified a core number of main motives.
These include, based on commonalities, feelings of power, enjoyment, financial gain, and criminal activity. However, many other identified motives have come forward from these four, such as anger, arrest avoidance, cult activity, convenience killing, hallucinations, and attention seeking.
Interestingly enough, motives often include a combination of the above and only exist as tangible motivation. Psychologists have concluded that, in most cases, serial killers are motivated purely by the act of killing and mask this primal behavior with one (or multiple) of the above.
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3. Sociopathy VS Psychopathy
So, what causes the initial psychological development of serial killer tendencies? For a long time, the debate raged between sociopathy and psychopathy. Disclaimer: These are not the same thing and have very different aspects.
First up, sociopathy comes down to a form or occurrence of anti-social personality disorder. When a person suffers from this mental health issue or shows signs of sociopathy, they struggle to relate to others or form mental and emotional bonds with others. This does not mean that they are incapable of feeling emotions such as empathy and guilt.
On the other hand, psychopathy displays the complete inability to feel these emotions, or, as some studies have shown, the ability to override them completely. Psychopaths may be able to fake emotions very well, but they cannot identify with others, especially regarding suffering.
That being said, most recorded serial killers have been proven psychopaths and not sociopaths.
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4. Serial Killers Are Often Delusional
If you’ve ever wondered whether or not serial killers suffer from a permanent delusion, the answer is, somewhat. While they have set motivation for their killings or opt to create the illusion of motive, most commonly, serial killers are driven by some delusion.
This is the case when serial killers take on some sort of imagined mission from a supreme being like God or encounter some force that compels them. This can range from alien contact to substance abuse-related hallucinations.
Many serial murderers attribute their killings to some form of delusional instruction. This delusion can take the shape of voices or visions, such as in the acts of David Berkowitz, commonly known as the “Son of Sam.” Under the impression that a demon had possessed the body of his neighbor’s dog, he was given “instruction” to kill.
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5. Serial Killers Might Not Be As Smart as People Think
Ever heard the myth that serial killers present high IQs? Although widely believed because of misrepresentation that they have above-normal intelligence levels, they mostly show average to slightly below-average IQs.
What comes into play here, psychologically, is that most people categorize serial killers as either insane or super intelligent because of the nature of their deeds. Some individuals, such as Ed Kemper, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Ted Bundy, did have slightly elevated IQs, but they are the exception. The truth, however, is that most showcase increased levels of psychopathy.
Interestingly enough, research results have shown that serial killers who predominantly use bombs do present above-average IQs. The same applies to killers who occupy a specific career, especially in medicine. Harold Shipman (Doctor Death) had an estimated IQ between 140 and 150.
During his lifetime, he won multiple awards for his work in clinical surgery and was a respected figure in the community. He, however, also took the lives of an estimated 250 victims and is one of history’s most prolific killers.
6. They’re Very Charismatic
Seeing as the vast majority of recorded serial killers display a detachment from most, if not all, human emotions, how do they manage to be charismatic? Ted Bundy, for example, was renowned for his charisma. News outlets frequently reported his charm and wit, even during his trial.
Behind the charisma of most serial killers is the ability to learn or fake a particular emotion or trait to such an extent that it becomes natural. Thus, with many male serial killers, charisma is a learned behavior. Because of their inability to connect emotionally, their psychological development focuses on superficial connections.
Another factor here is that their ability to be charismatic is how they ultimately lure in their victims. Instead of being a natural human trait, their charisma is based on the potential to attract their victim successfully.
Surprisingly enough, this aspect seems to be very gender-specific. In all cases, male serial killers always present a visible and enticing charm, whereas female serial killers do not.
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7. There Is No Set Recipe for Serial Killers
Research has shown that certain events and experiences can contribute to a serial killer’s development. There is, however, no set recipe for what makes a serial killer. It would be easy to know that in the equation A + B = C. With serial killers, that seems never to be the case.
This means that there is no generic psychological profile of a serial killer. The same is true for a general profile as well, seeing as there is no limitation on who can and can’t be one. Although a lot of research has been done to find ways to identify a serial killer, the truth is that anyone, regardless of sex, age, race, or religion, can become one.
For evidence of this, look no further than the literal definition of “serial killer”, which was only coined in the 1970s by FBI investigator Robert Ressler. And this definition isn’t even based on any psychological similarity or reference but is simply due to the repeated occurrence of a murder in a similar fashion more than four times.
8. Serial Killers Are Quite Normal
Another whimsical idea is that serial killers are always the odd ones out. The preconception is that they are usually out of the ordinary in a social sense. Conversely, the truth is that, more often than not, serial killers are more normal than anyone would like to admit.
It is commonly accepted that serial killers usually have a severe mental illness, making them abnormal and, to the rest of society, capable of their crimes. Most researchers have tried to both prove and disprove this, and the results are inconclusive. Beyond a tendency towards psychopathy, they’re about as normal as you get.
Evidence of this is in the cases of Joseph James DeAngelo and Josef Mengele. DeAngelo was a respected police officer dedicated to apprehending and bringing criminals to justice. Mengele, on the other hand, was a physician during World War Two, famous for rescuing wounded soldiers on the battlefield.
This makes it clear that serial killers are not the social recluses movies depict them as, nor are they obviously evil. They hide in plain sight. Due to their innocuous appearances or mundane daily lives, they go unnoticed and seem to be your average Joe.
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9. They Tend to Stick to One Area
Contrary to what popular Hollywood blockbusters would have you believe, serial killers do not roam around the country or world, finding and killing victims. While their tendency to travel for other reasons, perhaps career-wise, is up for debate, they generally stick to one designated area for their killing.
Why? Psychologists believe that within the minds of most serial killers, they create a “killing comfort zone.” Basically, this comes down to a defined geographic area of operation where they feel most at ease committing their crimes. It boils down to a psychological familiarity with where they can successfully stalk and kill their prey.
One of the most famous serial killers of all time, Jack the Ripper, committed all of his murders in the very small district of Whitechapel in London. What is fascinating to psychologists is that usually, this comfort zone revolves around an anchor point, such as a place of employment or residence.
Once again, being the exception to this, Ted Bundy traveled to seven different states to find and kill his victims. He committed a recorded 30 homicides throughout these seven states.
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10. Feeling Empowered Drives Them
If it’s almost impossible to pinpoint the exact motivation behind serial killers, can it be defined what exactly drives them to continue after they begin killing? A feeling of empowerment is at the core of the driving force behind a continuous killing spree.
Remember, though, that some serial killers have a motive in their need to feel power or control over another person. In the act of killing, they derive some form of power that thrills and excites them to keep doing it. As one of the significant possible motivations behind serial killer psychology, this is not the same as empowerment.
A serial killer’s empowerment comes from not being caught and, to some extent, from being glorified for their actions by the media. Firstly, most serial killers reported that they never felt they would be caught, which in turn convinced them they could continue. Ironically enough, because of this arrogance, many serial killers have made small mistakes that led to their eventual capture.
Then there’s media glorification, whether in the form of notoriety or fear. Serial killers seem to enjoy the attention their actions garner them. For example, many serial killers voluntarily involve the media by sending them cryptic clues or taunting riddles that lead to front-page headlines.
11. Sometimes They Stop, Sometimes They Don’t
Often, people believe that once a serial killer begins his/her murderous spree, they are unable to stop. Unfortunately, there is no basis for this in psychology, as it mainly differs from one case to the next. There doesn’t seem to be a psychological concept that enough is enough for serial killers.
The opposite is also true, as there is no conceivable idea of the end goals of most serial killers. In some cases, serial killers stop for a long period, extending into years, and then resume killing. In contrast, some killers start and do not stop until they are caught.
The vital thing to remember here is that when a serial killer stops before being caught, they do so because they want to, not because they feel they have to. One of the most famous examples of this is the Zodiac Killer, who caused chaos in the 1960s and then seemingly vanished.
Of course, there are some sporadic cases where a serial killer stops killing and then turns themselves in. The most famous was Ed Kemper, who called the police, confessed, and even waited at a phone booth to be arrested.
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12. There’s a Reason We Are Fascinated by Serial Killers
If it’s not apparent by now, the world is and has for many years been fascinated by serial killers, from novels to the big screen. Dating back to Hollywood blockbusters such as Zodiac to the more recent Netflix series documenting Jeffrey Dahmer, clearly, there must be a reason for this fascination.
According to psychology, this comes down to two things. The first is a morbid curiosity that is inherent in human psychology. Society at large and individually, there is an intrigue behind knowing more about serial killers and why they do what they do. It’s quite normal to have a sense of fascination with them and their actions.
That fascination is also not psychologically bad either. Some experts believe this need to know as much as possible stems from the desire to understand the unknown. It also comes from creating a perceived sense of safety in our own lives.
On the other hand, psychologists also believe this fascination is a safe outlet for people to express their darker thoughts metaphysically. Even people who would never physically act out on these impulses, expressing a fascination with serial killers and their deeds, is a safe way to do so without fear of (obvious) judgment.
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13. Serial Killers and Their Mothers
If you haven’t heard of the Alfred Hitchcock classic “Psycho”, it basically introduced the world to the idea that serial killers had very intense relationships with their mothers. While much of the plot came from Hitchcock’s mind, apparently, there is some psychological backbone to the idea.
Predominantly, research results indicate that, more often than not, serial killers have very dysfunctional relationships with and attitudes toward their mothers. In his book, Murder Among Us, Steven Egger notes explicitly that this ranges from unnaturally close mother-child relationships to childhood abandonment and everything in between.
Shocking revelations have shown that Charles Manson’s mother once attempted to sell him in exchange for a pitcher of beer. Other examples include Ed Gein, whose mother raised him as a girl, and Aileen Wuornos’s mother abandoned her in an abusive household as a child.
14. Serial Killers Have a Weird Relationship With Fear
While there is a moderately accurate idea of how individuals react to fear and stimuli that induce fear, it seems that serial killers defy this model. A report published in Crime Times stated that psychopaths (and those with higher levels of psychopathy) tend to have a higher fear threshold.
In some sense, this might make them appear immune to fear as an emotion altogether. Delving further, this report stated that, in addition to this, the startle response exhibited within a majority of psychopathic individuals is significantly low. This means they need a generally higher thrill level to experience intense fear.
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15. There Are Six Psychological Phases of a Serial Killer
Now, while creating a serial killer profile that fits, in general, is still being researched, psychologists have managed to put together six phases they go through. Commonly, this is known as the six phases of the serial killer cycle.
Beginning in the Aura Phase, the serial killer begins to lose grip on reality, which is then followed by the Trolling Phase, where they start to search for a victim. After finding one, the Wooing Phase begins, where the killer lures their victim in. Next is the Capture Phase, where the victim is entrapped.
Second to last is the Totem Phase, during which the killer experiences their desired thrill and intense surge of emotion. Finally, the serial killer enters the Depression Phase that happens after the killing. This is so valuable because if criminologists can identify a serial killer in the first or second phase, they have a much better chance of stopping them entirely.
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16. Serial Killers and Their Categories
Okay, so if a majority of serial killers are delusional, is that the only category they definitively can be placed in? No, in fact, modern psychology has developed a more comprehensive spectrum of classes to help relate one serial killer to the next more easily.
Distinguishments made based on several factors have allowed the classification of serial killers into the following types. First up are visionary killers who operate to serve or fulfill personal visions fueled by religious or occult beliefs. Then you have mission-oriented killers who aim to accomplish a specific mission by killing a particular group of people based on race etc.
Coming in third, are hedonistic killers who thrive on hedonism and who usually kill for fun or to meet one of three needs; lust, thrill, or comfort. Finally, killers who do act in order to gain power and control, which are often those who keep trophies.
17. Children and the Triad
While most serial killers (with some exceptions) only begin their murderous actions later in life, they are already believed to exhibit certain traits as children. But how exactly can you tell if a child has, for lack of a better word, the potential to be a serial killer?
In 1963, psychiatrist J.M. Macdonald formulated what would become known as the Macdonald Triad. According to this method, three early childhood signs could point toward possible sociopathy or psychopathy. During the years, the triad has seen a variety of expansions, but at its core are three signs to watch out for.
These are arson, or the setting of fires; a repeated cruel act or attitude towards animals; and enuresis, or unintentional bed-wetting during sleep. Based on the triad, today, there are quite a few extras added today that range from egocentrism, lack of responsibility, and extreme risk-taking behavior.
18. Serial Killers & Organisation
Back to adulthood— well, for serial killers as adults, there was for many years no go-to for classifying a serial killer, as mentioned earlier. While it is easy to think of them as inhumane or unable to relate to ordinary people, a valuable part of their natural human behavior became one of the first classification fields.
Using recognizable “human” behavior, criminologists and psychologists created two major classes. This, of course, later led to a far more in-depth class group, but its humble beginnings originated within either organized or disorganized.
The first class, organized killers, were found to be meticulous in the planning and execution of their killings. For the most part, they would plot every detail of their crime far in advance and take extreme caution not to leave any evidence behind. They also handpick their victims and are more likely to keep trophies.
In the second class, unorganized killers, in contrast, do not plan out their crimes ahead of time and haphazardly approach their execution. Surprisingly, disorganized killers often showcase severe, documented mental health issues instead of organized killers. They also randomly select places and victims, making catching them more challenging.
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19. Sex and Serial Killers
This is a two-fold aspect of the psychological development of serial killers, beginning in adolescence and moving into adulthood. Before diving in, it is essential to note that most serial killers start their acts predominantly during their 20s, with 44% of research subjects in one study reporting this.
This, in turn, led psychologists to discover a high correlation between those who started killing in their 20s and increased levels of interest in fetishism, voyeurism, and paraphernalia. Even more interestingly, in interviews, it was discovered that these interests mostly started with acting as a peeping Tom.
20. They Have a Fascination With Authority
Contrary to what most would believe, instead of fear or avoidance of authority figures, serial killers seem to be attracted to them. This goes for both the authoritative career potential and the physical embodiment of authority.
Reports have revealed that some of the most prolific killers in history have pursued or attempted to become either security guards or police officers. Alternatively, some have even gone as far as to disguise themselves as law enforcement to access victims, most notably John Wayne Gacy and Ted Bundy.
This could be for several reasons, as some psychologists believe that when a killer learns more about the people tasked with catching them, they become more empowered. This leads to a more intense drive to continue killing and, as a vicious cycle, more empowerment through not being caught.
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21. They Are Exceptionally Unique
Although the widespread fascination with serial killers might make it seem like there are countless of them roaming around, actual serial killers are unique. With crime statistics revealing that there are about 2,000 active in the US alone, this begs the question, Why are they still considered unique?
Well, when you take the larger picture into view, only about 1% of all committed murders in the US are serial killings. This means that of the roughly 15,000 annual recorded murders in the country, only 150 of those are related to serial killers.
Why? Looking back at the definition, a serial killer has to have committed at least two to four separate murders similarly. Although this number was higher during the 70s and 80s, there’s a valid psychological reason for this. The same goes for earlier decades.
Psychologists believe that when economically tough times or challenging political times arise, the number of serial killings also does. Periods of civil unrest often see higher levels of serial killers, thanks to social disruption, giving the killer a sense of chaos in which to thrive. In a generally calm social setting, serial killings seem to become less and, thus, more unique.
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22. Serial Killers Are Creative
When you think of general crime, such as theft, the criminal follows an assumed natural pattern to achieve their intended goal. The same cannot be said for serial killers, as their creativity is often what perplexes psychologists most.
Beyond the frightening aspect that there is no surefire way to tell who is and who isn’t a potential serial killer, the ways they commit their crimes also make things challenging. While research suggests that there is no notable difference in the creative capabilities of serial killers in a general sense, when it comes to killing, this changes.
Take, for example, America’s first serial killer. Famously known as the “Beast of Chicago”, Herman Webster Mudgett (H.H. Holmes) constructed an entire house built solely for use as a torture and killing chamber. The media dubbed it “Murder Castle”, and it was equipped with trapdoors, secret hallways, doors that locked themselves, and even remote-operated gas jets.
23. Serial Killing & Brain Structure
Although to the world around them, most serial killers appear to be ordinary and unassuming (in most cases), recent studies using brain SPECT imaging have revealed a few discoveries. In a nutshell, this brain scan looks at areas where blood flow in the brain increases or decreases.
These scans focus on three areas of the brain: healthy activity areas, those with too much activity, and areas with too little activity. Kip Kinkel, responsible for the killings at Thurston High, was exposed to this method of brain activity scanning.
Results showed that, compared to the scans of a person of the same age, his brain had very little to no activity in the prefrontal cortex. This area is responsible for emotional regulation, especially empathy, judgment, and forethought.
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24. There Is No Psychological Cure for Serial Killers
The unfortunate and uncomfortable truth is that psychiatrists across the board maintain no successful method of treating and curing a serial killer. However, this is solely aimed at those evaluated and recognized as being psychopathic. This means that traditional mental healthcare does not apply to treatment.
Based on results from work done at Amen Clinics, no basic treatment premise that works on serial killers exists. While most convicted killers showcase signs of mental health issues, even the most basic treatments, such as SSRIs, are ineffective. In fact, findings from a 2017 BMJ study showed these treatments could increase violent tendencies.
25. Myths About Serial Killers Make Them Harder to Classify
As it turns out, the global fascination with serial killers, sprouting from either fact or fiction, is making it harder to identify and classify them. While their deeds are gruesome and almost unimaginable to most people, the media is doing a fantastic job of creating “celebrity monsters”.
The phrase “If it bleeds, it leads”, coined in the 1890s, is a stunning example of how, psychologically, the general public could be fueling the creation of serial killers. Considering that there is an ongoing obsession with previous serial killers, new ones emerge to chase the thrill of being the next media icon.
From copycat killers to increasingly violent killers, researchers believe that publicizing the actions of serial killers, especially myths or fabrications, is doing more harm than good. Interestingly, there is a growing movement of thought that our modern-day legends of vampires and werewolves have their origins in serial killers and their deeds.