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Encyclopedia > Serial murder

Serial killers are individuals who have a history of multiple slayings of victims who were usually unknown to them beforehand. Their crimes are committed as a result of a compulsion that often has roots in the killer's (often dysfunctional) youth, as opposed to those who are motivated by financial gain (e.g. contract killers) or ideological/political motivations (e.g. terrorists).


Defining serial murder

The term "serial killer" was coined by FBI agent Robert Ressler in the 1970s so that criminologists could distinguish those who claim victims over a long period of time from those who claim multiple victims at once (mass murderers). A third type of multiple killer is a spree killer.

The following are brief definitions of these three types:

  • A serial killer is someone who commits three or more murders over a long period of time. In between their crimes they appear to be quite normal and often very pleasant and law-abiding (the so-called 'mask of sanity'). There is frequently - but not always - a sexual element to the murders.
  • A mass murderer, on the other hand, is an individual who kills four or more people in a single event and in one location. The perpetrators very frequently commit suicide, meaning knowledge of their state of mind and what triggers their actions is down to more speculation than fact.
  • A spree killer commits multiple-murders in different locations over a period of time that may vary from a few hours to several days. Unlike serial-killers, however, they do not revert to their normal behaviour in between slayings.

All of the above types of crimes are usually carried out by solitary individuals. There have been examples in all three categories whereby two or more perpetrators have acted together, but these are the exception rather than the rule.

Serial killers are generally, but not always, male.

Serial killers are specifically motivated by a variety of psychological urges, primarily power. They feel inadequate and worthless, often owing to humiliation and abuse in childhood or the pressures of poverty and low socio-economic status in adulthood, and their crimes give them a feeling of incredible power, both at the time of the actual killing and also afterwards, and the knowledge that - at least until they are caught - their actions terrify entire communities and often baffle police forces. This motivational aspect separates them from contract-killers and other multiple murderers who are motivated by profit. For example, in Scotland during the 1820s, William Burke and William Hare murdered people in what became known as the case of the Body Snatchers. They would not count as serial killers by most criminologists' definitions, however, because - although both men were obviously brutal - their motive was financial.

In many cases, a serial killer will plead not guilty by reason of insanity in a court of law. The legal definition of insanity is based on whether the defendant knows the difference between right and wrong, and most serial killers evidently do in the way they go to great lengths to avoid detection. In the United States this defense is almost universally unsuccessful as, despite being obviously abnormal in terms of both mind and behaviour, they rarely suffer from a clearly diagnosed mental illness.

The United States Bureau of Justice Statistics defines a serial killing as: "[involving] the killing of several victims in three or more separate events." This definition is especially close to that of a spree killer, and perhaps the primary difference between the two is that a serial killer has a "cooling off" period. They will commit a murder and, temporarily, feel sated until they feel their homicidal urges increase again. The time period between murders can vary between a few days to several years, and often decreases with each victim. For example, Jeffrey Dahmer murdered his second victim nine years after his first, but his last eight victims were murdered in a space of just seven months. Spree killers, on the other hand, do not have a cooling off period and are in a state of constant hunting until they are caught or killed, even though their murder spree may even extend to a period of several months.

Serial killers are often acting on extreme sadistic urges and are often classified as sociopathic, lacking any ability to empathize with the suffering of others. Some serial killers also engage in torture murder, a loosely defined term involving killing victims slowly over a prolonged period of time.

Psychology and development

Most serial killers have dysfunctional backgrounds. Frequently they are physically, sexually or psychologically abused as children, sometimes by both parents or often by just one. There can be a close correlation between their childhood abuse and crimes. For example, John Wayne Gacy was often beaten by his father and derided as a 'sissy' and accused of being homosexual (which he was); in adulthood, Gacy would rape and torture boys and denounce them as being 'faggots' and 'sissies'. Carroll Cole, on the other hand, was abused by his mother, who would engage in extra-marital affairs and force Cole to watch, beating him in order to ensure he did not tell his father. In adulthood, Cole murdered any 'loose' woman who reminded him of his mother, in particular married women who were looking for sex behind their husband's back. Some serial killers are not subjected to any abuse in childhood, although they may have been illegitimate or put up for adoption, or just passed around from relative to relative, creating feelings of being unwanted and rootless.

The element of fantasy in serial killer's development cannot be over-emphasised. They often begin fantasising about murder during - or even before - adolescence. Their fantasy lives are very rich and they daydream compulsively about dominating and killing people, usually with very specific elements to the murderous fantasy that will eventually be apparent in their real crimes. Many killers are influenced by reading about the Holocaust and fantasise about being in charge of concentration camps. In most cases, however, it is not the political ideology of Nazism that they enjoy or are inspired by, but simply an attraction to the brutality and sadism of its application. Others enjoy reading the works of Marquis de Sade, who lends his name to the word sadism due to his stories, which were packed with rape, torture and murder. Many use pornography, frequently the violent type involving bondage, although they may also read 'detective magazines' that feature stories of real life homicide cases. Others may even be fascinated and aroused by less obviously disagreeable material. Jeffrey Dahmer was fascinated by the character of The Emperor in Return of the Jedi, and even bought himself some yellow contact lenses to make him resemble the evil character, whilst several killers say their fantasies have been influenced by The Bible, in particular the Book of Revelation.

Many serial killers display one or more of what are known as the "MacDonald Triad" of warning signs in childhood. These are:

  • Firestarting, invariably just for the thrill of destroying things
  • Cruelty to Animals. Most children can be cruel to animals, such as pulling the legs off of spiders, but future serial killers often kill larger animals, like dogs and cats, and frequently for their solitary enjoyment rather than to impress peers
  • Bedwetting beyond the age when children normally grow out of such behaviour

Most serial killers claim their first victim when they are in their 20s, although this can vary, with one killer claiming the first of his victims when he was 38, and another who was just 15 when he admitted to murdering four people in the past two years. On average, serial killers start murdering people when they are in their mid-twenties. When they start they can rarely stop.

The rate at which they claim victims can also vary a great deal. Juan Corona murdered 25 people in just six weeks, whilst Fred West and his wife Rosemary claimed 12 victims over a period of twenty years.

Serial murder before 1900

Although the phenomenon of serial-murder is generally regarded as a modern one, it can be traced back in history, albeit with a limited degree of accuracy.

In the 15th Century, one of the wealthiest men in France, Gille de Rais, abducted, raped and murdered at least a hundred young boys. The Hungarian aristocrat Elizabeth Bathory was arrested in 1610 and subsequently charged with torturing and butchering as many as 600 young girls. Although both De Rais and Bathory were sadistic and addicted to murder, they differ from modern day serial killers in that they were both incredibly rich and powerful (both had many underlings to procure victims). Modern day serial killers tend to be from working-class backgrounds and murder out of feelings of inadequacy, their crimes giving them an inflated feeling of power that they otherwise cannot attain. De Rais and Bathory, on the other hand, did not kill so that they would feel powerful, but because they were powerful, and they thought they had the right to prey on the children of peasants. As such they probably have more in common with sadistic Roman Emperors like Caligula than they do with 20th Century serial killers.

In his famous 1886 book, Psychopathia Sexualis, Krafft-Ebing notes one of the earliest cases of serial murder, that of an Italian man named Eusebius Pieydagnelle, who had a sexual obsession with blood and confessed to murdering six people in the 1870s. The unidentified Jack the Ripper killer slaughtered prostitutes in London in 1888. Those crimes gained enormous press attention at the time because, although there were plenty of murders in Victorian Britain motivated by robbery and theft, it was almost unheard of for someone to kill people simply for pleasure. London was also the center of the world's greatest superpower at the time, so having such dramatic murders of financially destitute women in the midst of such wealth focused the news media's attention on the plight of the urban poor and gained coverage world-wide. Joseph Vacher was executed in France in 1898 after confessing to killing and mutilating 11 women and children, whilst American serial killer Herman Mudgett was hanged in Philadelphia in 1896 after confessing to 28 murders.

Some historical criminologists have suggested that there may have been serial murders dating back to the Middle Ages but specific cases were not adequately recorded. It may even be the case that the mythological beasts of werewolves and vampires were inspired by Medieval serial killers. After all, a werewolf is said to be a normal person who is occasionally overtaken by an animalistic urge to savagely kill people, and such a myth may have made an adequate explanation for cases of serial murder when the concept of psychology was several centuries away from being defined and studied. The idea of historical serial killers motivating the concept of such myths, however, is little more than speculation, although perhaps significantly there are a number of killers who were obsessed with blood and often even drank that of their victims.

Types of serial killer

Organized and disorganized types

The FBI has roughly categorized serial killers into two different types, organized and disorganized.

  • Organized types are usually of high intelligence and plan their crimes quite methodically, usually abducting victims, killing them in one place and disposing of them in another. They will often lure the victims with cunning ploys. For example, Ted Bundy would put his arm in a fake plaster-cast and ask women to help him carry books to his car, where he would beat them unconscious with the cast and spirit them away. They maintain a high degree of control over the crime scene, and usually have a good knowledge of forensic science that enables them to cover their tracks, such as by burying the body or weighting it down and sinking it in a river. They follow their crimes in the media carefully and often take pride in their actions, as if it were a grand project. The organized killer is usually socially adequate and has friends and lovers, often even a spouse and children. They are the type who, when captured, are most likely to be described by acquaintances as 'a really nice guy, he couldn't hurt a fly'.
  • Disorganized types are often of low intelligence and commit their crimes impulsively. Whereas the organized killer will specifically set out to hunt a victim, the disorganized will murder someone whenever the opportunity arises, rarely bothering to dispose of the body but instead just leaving it at the same place the victim was killed. They usually carry out 'blitz' attacks, leaping out and attacking their victims without warning, and will typically perform whatever rituals they feel compelled to carry out (e.g. necrophilia, mutilation, etc.) once the victim is dead. They rarely bother to cover their tracks but may still evade capture for some time because of a level of cunning that compels them to keep on the move. They are often socially inadequate with few friends, and they may have a history of mental problems and be regarded by acquaintances as eccentric or even 'a bit creepy'. They have little insight into their crimes and may even block out the memories of the killings.

A significant number serial killers show certain aspects of both organized and disorganized types, although usually the characteristics of one type will dominate. Some killers descend from being organized into disorganized behavior as their killings continue. They will carry out careful and methodical murders at the start but, as their compulsion grows out of control and utterly dominates their lives, they will become careless and impulsive.

The organized and disorganized model relates to the killer's methods. With regards to motives, they can be placed into five different categories:

Motive types


Contrary to popular opinion, serial killers are rarely insane or motivated by hallucinations and/or voices in their head. Many claim to be, usually as a way of trying to get acquitted by reason of insanity. There are, however, a few genuine cases of serial killers who were compelled by such delusions, such as Herbert Mullin, who slaughtered 13 people after voices told him that murder was necessary to prevent California from suffering an earthquake (and Mullin went to great pains to point out that California did indeed avoid an earthquake during his murder spree!).


These serial killers believe that their acts are justified on the basis that they are getting rid of a certain type of people (often prostitutes or members of a certain ethnic group). They believe that they are doing society a favor. Robert Pickton of Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, is accused of being this type of killer. He is currently charged with the murders of at least a dozen and possibly more than 50 prostitutes from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.


This type kills for the sheer pleasure of it, although what aspect they enjoy varies. Some may enjoy the actual 'chase' of hunting down a victim more than anything, whilst others may be primarily motivated by the act of torturing and abusing the victim whilst they are alive. Yet others may kill the victim quickly, almost as if it were a chore, and then indulge in necrophilia or cannibalism with the body. Usually there is a strong sexual aspect to the crimes, even if it may not be immediately obvious, but some killers obtain a surge of excitement that is not necessarily sexual, such as David Berkowitz, who got a thrill out of shooting young couples in cars at random and then running away without ever physically touching the victims.


Most criminals who commit multiple murders for material ends (such as mob hitmen) are not classed as serial killers because they are motivated by greed rather than psychopathological compulsion. There is a fine line separating such killers however. For example, Marcel Petiot, who operated in Nazi occupied France, would classify as a serial killer. He posed as a member of the French Resistance and lured wealthy Jewish people to his home, claiming he could smuggle them out of the country. Instead he murdered them and stole their belongings, killing 63 people before he was finally caught. Although Petiot's primary motivation was materialistic, few could deny that a man willing to slaughter so many people simply to acquire a few dozen suitcases of clothes and jewellery was a compulsive killer and psychopath.


This is the most common type of serial killer. Their main objective for killing is to gain and exert power over their victim. Such killers were usually abused as children which means they feel incredibly powerless and inadequate, and often they indulge in rituals that are linked, often very specifically, to forms of abuse they suffered themselves. One killer, for example, forced young girls to perform oral sex on him, after which he would spank the girl before finally strangling them. After capture, the killer claimed that when he was a child his older sister would force him to perform oral sex on her, then spank him in order to terrify him into not telling their parents. The ritual he performed with his victims would negate the humiliation he felt from his abuse as a child, although such relief would only be temporary and, like other such killers, he would soon feel compelled to repeat his actions, until eventual capture. (The vast majority of child abuse victims do not become serial killers, of course, meaning that such abuse cannot be regarded as the sole trigger of such crimes in these cases.) Many Power/Control motivated killers sexually abuse their victims, but they differ from Hedonistic killers in that rape is not motivated by lust but as simply another form of dominating the victim.

Some serial killers may seem to have characteristics of more than one type. For example, British killer Peter Sutcliffe appeared to be both a Visionary and a Mission Oriented killer in that he claimed voices told him to clean up the streets of prostitutes.

Why are serial killers not caught more quickly?

It is probable that many would-be serial killers are apprehended before they reach the Bureau of Justice Statistics' three-count. Similarly, it is certain that some are detained under mental health regulations and do not directly answer for their crimes. Others go on to kill many more people over years without being apprehended.

Serial killers, despite the media attention, commit only a tiny fraction of all murders in any time period. Murder is usually either a crime of personal relationships and short intense emotion, or an unintended consequence of other crimes. Because of this most murders are comparatively simple to solve; in most familial deaths the murderer makes little effective effort to conceal the crime and confesses easily, in other cases the murderer is usually local or known to the police. These assumptions with which any law enforcement officer naturally approaches a single murder are barriers to catching a serial killer. Suspecting and searching for a serial killer in every murder case would be pointless and wastefully resource intensive.

The methods of serial killers are the main barrier to their early capture. They almost never have any links to their victims - they pick by whim or impulse, seeking types or opportunity rather than any easily detectable link. As noted above, organized offenders can take steps to minimize scene-of-crime evidence and commit crimes away from their locale. It can take a number of murders before a serial killer is even suspected.

Even if a serial killer is known to be operating it is difficult to catch the culprit. Potential victims can be identified only by broad type, and generic area warnings produce little more than fear and misdirected violence. Serial killers are usually caught through determination and methodical attention to detail. Forensic evidence built up over a number of murders shows the patterns of behaviour and the distinct character of the crimes, making for speedier identification of subsequent crimes -- hence the more rapid examination of new crime sites and the collection of evidence that would otherwise deteriorate due to time or less skilled handling. A commonality of habitual traits of serial killers, allows the construction of a psychological profile. This allows targeted interviewing of suspects, although there are often a large number of entirely innocent individuals who have some match to the profile. Also, some serial killers are skilled at concealing their psychological wounds. The inherent 'problem' of repeated murder is both the worst aspect and the one most likely to lead to eventual capture -- in an open-ended series of murders a mistake is unavoidable. Unfortunately, profiles are built upon historical precedents of known serial killers which sometimes do not accurately model actual culprits. Such problems plagued the hunt for the D.C. sniper, John Muhammad and John Lee Malvo, whose initial profile indicated a Caucasian male. A different problem plagued the hunt for Aileen Wuornos in Florida's Highway Killer case; police initially believed the killer to be male.

Regrettably serial killer investigations sometimes reveal an unsatisfactory side to law enforcement agencies -- inertia, incompetence, bureaucracy, mismanagement, agency 'turf wars', missed opportunities, racial or gender bias, and other failures which have extended the investigation time and, indirectly, allowed further murders.

Serial killers in popular culture

Because of the horrific nature of their crimes, their highly varied personalities and profiles, and their terrifying ability to evade detection and kill many victims before finally being captured and imprisoned, serial killers have quickly become something of a cult favorite. The public's fascination with serial killers led to some successful crime novels and films about fictional serial killers, including Helen Zahavi's novel Dirty Weekend, Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho, and the Academy Award-winning movie Silence of the Lambs.

See also

External links

  • Edward W. Mitchell. The Aetiology of Serial Murder: Towards an Integrated Model (http://users.ox.ac.uk/~zool0380/mitchell-serialhomicide.htm), M.Phil. thesis, 1996/97, University of Cambridge, UK
  • Serial Killer Encyclopedia (http://www.serialkiller.cc/index.htm)
  • Serial Killer 'Hit List' at Mayhem.net (http://www.mayhem.net/Crime/serial.html)
  • Crime Library's Serial Killer page (http://www.crimelibrary.com/serial_killers/index.html)


  • MacDonald, J. M. (1963). The threat to kill. American Journal of Psychiatry, 120, pp. 125-130.
  • John Douglas and Mark Olshaker; Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit; Pocket Books; ISBN 0671013750; 1997
  • John Douglas and Mark Olshaker; Journey into Darkness, Pocket Books; ISBN 0671003941; 1997
  • Robert K. Ressler and Thomas Schachtman; Whoever Fights Monsters; St Martins Mass Market Paper; ISBN 0312950446; 1994
  • Brian Lane and Wilfred Gregg; The New Encyclopedia Of Serial Killers; Headline Book Publishing; ISBN 0747253617; 1996
  • Colin Wilson: A Plague Of Murder; Robinson Publishing Ltd; ISBN 1854872494; 1995

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