Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

What Makes Serial Killers Tick?

Inside the Psychopathic Mind

Most psychopaths end up in prison, instead of psychiatric hospitals.

According to Dr. J. Reid Meloy, author of The Psychopathic Mind: Origins, Dynamics, and Treatment, the psychopath is only capable of sadomasochistic relationships based on power, not attachment. Psychopaths identify with the aggressive role model, such as an abusive parent, and attack the weaker, more vulnerable self by projecting it onto others. As multiple murderer Dennis Nilsen put it, "I was killing myself only but it was always the bystander who died."

Dr. Meloy writes that in early childhood development, there is a split in the infant psychopath: the "soft me" which is the vulnerable inside, and the "hard not-me" which is the intrusive, punishing outside (neglectful or painful experiences.) The infant comes to expect that all outside experiences will be painful, and so he turns inward. In an attempt to protect himself from a harsh environment, the infant develops a "character armor," distrusting everything outside, and refusing to allow anything in. The child refuses to identify with parents, and instead sees the parent as a malevolent stranger.

Soon, the child has no empathy for anyone. The wall has been built to last. "Human nature is a nuisance, and fills me with disgust. Every so often one must let off steam, as it were," said "Acid Bath Murderer" John Haigh.

In normal development, the child bonds with the mother for nurturing and love. But for the psychopath, the mother is experienced as an "aggressive predator, or passive stranger." In the case of violent psychopaths, including serial killers, the child bonds through sadomasochism or aggression. According to Meloy, "This individual perversely and aggressively does to others as a predator what may, at any time, be done to him."

The Victim Through the Psychopath's Eyes

When they are stalking a victim, psychopaths don't consciously feel anger, "but the violence shows the dissociated effect." Many killers seem to go into a trance during their predatory and killing phases. The psychopath seeks idealized victims in order to shame, humiliate, and destroy them."'I must have' ends with 'It was not worth having,'" says Meloy. By degrading the victim, the psychopath is attempting to destroy the hostile enemy within his own mind. At Gacy's trial, forensic psychiatrist Richard Rappaport said that "he is so convinced that these qualities exist in this other person, he is completely out of touch with reality ... and he has to get rid of them and save himself ... he has to kill them."

Richard Ramirez
Richard Ramirez

The victim is seen as a symbolic object. Bundy described it by using the third person: "Since this girl in front of him represented not a person, but again the image, or something desirable, the last thing we would expect him to want to do would be to personalize this person. ... Chattering and flattering and entertaining, as if seen through a motion picture screen." And later, "They wouldn't be stereotypes necessarily. But they would be reasonable facsimiles to women as a class. A class not of women, per se, but a class that has almost been created through the mythology of women and how they are used as objects." If Bundy got to know anything too personal about the victim, it ruined the illusion.

Deluded Warriors

In a manic state, the psychopath is fearless and thinks he is omnipotent, sometimes evil incarnate, as we have seen in Richard Ramirez's "Night Stalker" run. They are completely out of touch with reality. One psychopath, while in custody, would dress himself as an Indian warrior using his own feces as warpaint. Many serial killers identify with the myth of the warrior. Calavaras County torturer Leonard Lake was fascinated by medieval knights, and on a more modern cinematic note, many serial killers, including Gacy and Kemper, worshipped John Wayne, the American archetype of the lone warrior.

Smooth Talkers

Psychopaths know society's rights and wrongs, and will behave as if they sincerely believe in these values. "There are individuals who are so psychopathically disturbed that, in my opinion, no attempts should be made to treat them," says Meloy. Many psychopaths will read psychology books, and become skilled at imitating other more "sympathetic" mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia. They will use any means possible to manipulate their evaluators. Do psychopaths ever legitimately hear voices in their heads? According to Meloy, "most functionally psychotic individuals do not experience command hallucinations, and those who do generally successfully resist them."

John Gacy was "a smooth talker and an obscurer who was trying to white-wash himself of any wrongdoing. He has a high degree of social intelligence or awareness of the proper way to behave in order to influence people," said Eugene Gauron, who evaluated Gacy before the killings began. Still, he was released. Perhaps the most dramatic duping of the doctors was Ed Kemper's evaluation. Two psychiatrists interviewed him and agreed that he was now "safe." All the while, Kemper had the head of one of his victims sitting in the trunk of his car, parked outside the doctors' office. Bundy charmed his way into the good graces of his jailers, only to escape when they became more lax in their watch of him.

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