Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

What Makes Serial Killers Tick?

Who They Kill

Getting Away with Murder

We think we can spot lunacy, that a maniac with uncontrollable urges to kill will be unable to contain himself. On the bus, in the street, it is the mentally ill we avoid, sidestepping the disheveled, unshaven man who rants on over some private outrage. Yet if you intend to avoid the path of a serial killer, your best strategy is to sidestep the charming, the impeccably dressed, polite individuals. They blend in, camouflaged in contemporary anonymity. They lurk in churches and malls, and prowl the freeways and streets. "Dress him in a suit and he looks like ten other men," said one attorney in describing Dahmer. Like all evolved predators, they know how to stalk their victims by gaining their trust. Serial killers don't wear their hearts on their sleeves. Instead, they hide behind a carefully constructed facade of normalcy.

Mask of Sanity

Because of their psychopathic nature, serial killers do not know how to feel sympathy for others, or even how to have relationships. Instead, they learn to simulate normal behavior by observing others. It is all a manipulative act, designed to entice people into their trap. Serial killers are actors with a natural penchant for performance. Henry Lee Lucas described being a serial killer as "being like a movie-star ... you're just playing the part." The macabre Gacy loved to dress up as a clown, while the Zodiac suited up in a bizarre executioner's costume that looked like something out of Alice in Wonderland. In court, Bundy told the judge, "I'm disguised as an attorney today." Bundy had previously "disguised" himself as a compassionate rape crisis center counselor.

The Faces of Ted Bundy
The Faces of Ted Bundy

The most coveted role of roaming psychopaths is a position of authority. Gacy was an active, outgoing figure in business and society; he even became a member of the Jaycees. Many joined the military, including Berkowitz, who was intensely patriotic for a time. Playing police officer, however, is the most predictable. Carrying badges and driving coplike vehicles not only feeds their need to feel important, but also allows them access to victims who would otherwise trust their instincts and not talk to strangers.

Yet, when they are caught, serial killer wills suddenly assume a "mask of insanity" — pretending to be a multiple personality, schizophrenic, or prone to black-outs — anything to evade responsibility. Even when they pretend to truly reveal themselves, they are still locked into playing a role. What nameless dread lies behind the psychopath's mask?

"What's one less person on the face of the earth anyway?" Ted Bundy's chilling rationalization demonstrates the how serial killers truly think. "Bundy could never understand why people couldn't accept the fact that he killed because he wanted to kill," said one FBI investigator.

What Makes a Serial Killer Tick?

Edmund Kemper
Edmund Kemper
Just as these killers rip open their victims to "see how they run" (as Ed Kemper put it), forensic psychiatrists and FBI agents have tried to get inside the killer's mind. Traditional explanations include childhood abuse, genetics, chemical imbalances, brain injuries, exposure to traumatic events, and perceived societal injustices. The frightening implication is that a huge population has been exposed to one or more of these traumas. Is there some sort of lethal concoction that sets serial killers apart from the rest of the population?

We believe that we have control over our impulses — no matter how angry we get, there is something that stops us from taking our aggressions out on others. Do serial killers lack a moral safety latch? Or are they being controlled by something unfathomable? "I wished I could stop but I could not. I had no other thrill or happiness," said Dennis Nilsen, who wondered if he was truly evil. Serial killers are undeniably sick, and their numbers seem to be growing. Are we in the midst of a serial killer "epidemic," as Joel Norris describes it? If this is a disease, what is the cure?

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