In the mind of a serial killer 4 gas planets

This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were

The movie "Natural Born Killers" did not simply explore the subject of serial killers. It also dealt with the mentality and personal background that influences many of the real life serial killers of society. The release of such movies and documentaries dealing with this topic shows that there is a fascination with serial killers. But why? Ted Bundy, Charles Manson, David Berkowitz, John Wayne Gacy Jr., Jeffrey Dahmer, and Jack the Ripper are all infamous serial killers of the twentieth century whose behavior and personal background has been ‘studied’ by the media and psychiatrists. In many cases of serial killings, the behavior is influenced by either the past experiences/ backgrounds or the psychological processes of the serial killers. However, there is a difficulty in understanding the psyche of a serial killer, which means that only interpretations can be made regarding this topic.

The way in which the term "serial killer" came into existence is interesting. During the mid-1970s, the FBI agent Robert K. Ressler coined this phrase after serial movies. As Lippit argues, "Like each episode of a serial movie, the completion of each serial murder lays the foundation for the next act which in turn precipitates future acts, leaving the serial subject always wanting more, always hungry, addicted." (1) Serial killers ‘addiction’ to killing does not cease after the first time but instead increases. In fact the FBI estimated that at any given time between 200 and 500 serial killers are at large, and that they kill 3,500 people a year. (2) This high average among the serial killers shows that killing becomes a pattern that is difficult to break.

The inability to break such a pattern can be attributed to the brain function of the person. Since the frontal lobe deals with the decision-making, this could possibly be an explanation as to what is going on in the mind of a serial killer. If there is frontal lobe damage or abnormal activity in this region of the brain, there is an inability to make rational decisions. This is in no way serves as a justification for such behavior. Instead, it serves as a possible distinction between the mind of a serial killer and the mind of a ‘normal’ brain.

The interviews of the serial killer John Wayne Gacy address some important issues that are useful to understanding the relationship between his brain and behavior. During Gacy’s childhood and adolescence, his father expressed contempt for his illness, psychomotor epilepsy, and the pampering by Gacy’s mother. (2) This particular epilepsy can cause a clouding of consciousness and amnesia of an event, because it is in the temporal lobe that deals with visual output. Along with this, the behavior of a person can be altered and a burst of anger, emotional outbursts, and fear is displayed. (3) Symptoms such as these could have possibly been a factor in Gacy’s behavior in his adulthood. Also, Gacy’s father continuously said that John was going to be a queer and called him a "he-she". (2) Gacy internalized this verbal abuse from his father and applied it to his victims. He referred to his victims as worthless little queers and punks. (2) Due to his father’s verbal abuse, did it lead Gacy developing a homophobia and thus raping, sodomizing, torturing, and strangling to death thirty-three young men over the course of more than a decade. This is a strong possibility. However, it could also be a mixture of his psychological mind with his childhood experiences and background. As Simon says, "Although character has a genetic component, much of it is shaped by the nature and quality of our early relationships and experiences." (2) Therefore both good and bad experiences become embedded in the child’s developing personality and also have an influence on adult character, as in the case of many serial killers.

Even though the brain could be instrumental in determining the mind of a serial killer, it is important to point out that most serial killers have not lost their grip on reality and thus have some control over their decisions. For example, when the police interrogate serial killers, many of them are not willing to talk. Instead, they tell you what they want you to know and to some of them it is a mind game. (4) The serial killers realize that the police want the information and the answers can only come from them. Therefore, many of serial killers play games, which increases their ‘appetite’ to kill more people. These mind games leaves the police even more puzzled.

The strategy the serial killer develops can be equated with the idea of being labeled as a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. This is an interesting concept to explore. Dr. Jekyll represents the ‘normal’ lives of serial killers that include working, having a family, and paying taxes. (2) On the other hand, there is the extreme, Mr. Hyde, who represents the dark side of humanity that tortures and kills victims. The ability to make the ‘normal’ and ‘sinister’ life two separate entities shows that the serial killers have control of their decisions to a certain extend. In fact, this ability furthers the yearning to kill more people until the authorities catch them. Simon argues, "Suspension of empathy is necessary for someone to intentionally harm other people, and it is usually accompanied by the psychological mechanism of devaluation and projection." (2) In order to carry out such an act serial killers not only have to disregard the feelings of the victims but also project their insecurities on their victims to have control. For example, Ted Bundy referred to his victims as "cargo" and "damaged goods." (2) Often times, serial killers have to place their victims in sub-human categories to execute the act with little or no remorse.

The pattern of killing is not the same for all serial killers. Believe it or not, they have specific targets. For example, Ted Bundy stalked young women with dark hair. There is no exact explanation for the specificity of victims. However, the history and experiences of the serial killer can provide some insight for such profiling. In the Jeffrey Dahmer case, African-Americans were the majority of the victims. Many psychiatrists have attributed this to Dahmer’s job as a chocolate mixer. (1) This may sound a little far-fetched, but studies have been done to draw a connection. Since he worked at a chocolate factory, Dahmer combined his hatred of blacks with consuming dark food. (1) Another example of profiling occurs with the female serial killer, Aileen Wuornos, who killed truck drivers. Due to her experiences and background, Aileen targeted the truck drivers. It was not necessarily a psychological process in her case.

It is difficult to pinpoint what exactly causes serial killers to become serial killers. There are numerous factors that can influence such behavior. This leaves us with the questions: What makes a serial killer? Could anyone become a serial killer? According to Simon, everyone has trial evils that have same failures in empathy and devaluation of others. (2) Since these are characteristics of serial killer, does that mean everyone is a potential serial killer? If this is the case, are the serial killers just translating these feelings and emotions by killing people?