Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

What Makes Serial Killers Tick?

Childhood Events


Adoption as a potential contribution to the serial killer's motivation is fascinating because it creates two questions. The first one is that the biological parents may have left their child with deviant genes. (We will look into the genetics of serial killers shortly.) Finding out that one was adopted may also undermine the sense of identity in a fragile youth, and make the child prone to fantasizing an identity of his "true" parents, either good or bad. Was the mother a prostitute? A nun? Was the father a gangster? A hero? And why did they "reject" their child? This sense of rejection can have profound consequences on an already unstable psyche. If the child actually meets his biological parent and is again rejected, the damage is worse. David Berkowitz was deeply hurt when his biological mom brushed him off. Some have speculated that Berkowitz's "Son of Sam" was an fantasy attempt to reclaim a parent/child identity that had been crushed in real life. According to Bundy biographers Michaud and Aynesworth, Ted's emotional growth was stopped in its tracks after he learned that he was illegitimate at age 13. "It was like I hit a brick wall," Bundy had said. Of course, he tried out every excuse he could rummage, so it's difficult to take his word on this when his family life appeared otherwise healthy.

David Berkowitz
David Berkowitz

It goes without saying that adoption does not create serial killers. At worst, it may dislodge a child's self-identity. But that does not mean that finding oneself in multiple murder is the only option available to adopted children.

Witnessing Violence

Some lust murderers claim that exposure to violent events ignited their thirst for blood. Ed Gein, among others, said that seeing farm animals slaughtered gave him perverted ideas. But wouldn't that make 4-H a breeding ground for serial killers? Both Albert Fish and Andrei Chikatilo blamed their sadistic bloodlust on frightening childhood stories. Does this mean we can expect Stephen King's children to top the murder charts? Even truly traumatic experiences don't automatically create a serial killer. "Acid Bath Murderer" John Haigh, as a child, ran outside after a WWII bombing at his London home. The bomb came with "a horrifying shriek, and as I staggered up, bruised and bewildered, a head rolled against my foot." Joel Peter Witkin, a well-known artist who's work is admittedly gruesome but fascinating, experienced the same event after witnessing a car accident. So what makes one person become a serial killer, and another a famous artist?

Juvenile Detention

Albert Fish
Albert Fish

Reform school in the early 20th century did anything but reform. The stories of sadistic guards and medieval punishments are almost paralleled by the violent behavior of the prisoners who went on to serial killing. Fortunately, this sort of extreme discipline is no longer openly tolerated.

Although 1920's killer Carl Panzram was an incorrigible juvenile delinquent, the brutal torture he received in reform school aggregated his violent rage. "From the treatment I received while there and the lessons I learned from it, I had fully desided when I left there just how I would live my life. I made up my mind that I would rob, burn, destroy and kill every where I went and everybody I could as long as I lived. Thats the way I was reformed ... " Henry Lee Lucas also claimed prison transformed him into a serial killer. Manson said that he was raped and beaten by other prisoners when he was 14, while a particularly sadistic guard would masturbate as he watched. The grandfatherly pervert Albert Fish blamed his sadomasochistic impulses on his experiences at a Washington, D.C. orphanage: " I saw so many boys whipped, it took root in my head."

Peer Rejection

For different reasons, many multiple murderers are isolated as children. Lucas, who was already a shy child, was ridiculed because of his artificial eye. He later said that this mass rejection caused him to hate everyone.

Kenneth Bianchi was also a child loner, with many problems. One clinical report said that "the boy drips urine in his pants, doesn't make friends very easily and has twitches. The other children make fun of him." Dahmer was antisocial as a kid, laughing when he saw a fellow classmate injured. He later became an alcoholic teenager, routinely ignored by his peers.

As the isolation grows more severe, the reliance on fantasies, especially destructive ones, can grow. These fantasies of violence often reveal themselves through two of the three "triads" of predicting criminal behavior, firestarting and animal cruelty.


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