Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

What Makes Serial Killers Tick?

Social Evils

Violent Contemporary Culture Many multiple murderers blame our violent culture for feeding their appetites. Days before he was executed, Bundy declared that hard-core pornography was responsible for his murderous rampage. In our entertainment, sex and violence seem to go hand in hand. Is there any validity to Bundy's claim?

Many serial killers adopt violent figures as their role models. Mild mannered Peter Kurten, who on the surface was a polished and polite gentleman, idolized Jack the Ripper while in jail (Weimar Germany as a culture seemed fascinated by the Ripper's nefarious deeds.) "I thought of what pleasure it would give me to do things of that kind once I got out again," he said. Both John Wayne Gacy and Ed Kemper worshipped John Wayne, who obviously had a broader fan base than only serial murderers, but his vigilante justice appeals to the killer who feels he has been wronged. To this day many homicidal acts are blamed on movies and music. Although there is no direct proof that violence in the media creates serial killers, it may activate the fantasy, and perhaps legitimizes it for some. As Ed Kemper said regarding violent pornography, "That didn't make me mean. It just fueled the fire."

According to Elliot Leyton, in his book Hunting Humans, serial killers are "not alien creatures with deranged minds, but alienated men with disinterest in continuing the dull lives in which they feel entrapped. Reared in a civilization which legitimizes violence as a response to frustration, provided by the mass media and violent pornography with both the advertising proclaiming the 'joy' of sadism and the instruction manual outlining correct procedures, they grasp the 'manly' identity of pirate and avenger."

Stranger Society

It is easier for us to see each other only as strangers, or stereotypes. The serial killer stalks stereotypes. "We are creating strangers of each other," says Steven Egger. "As we become strangers we begin to see others more as objects and less as human beings."

"Its the anonymity factor," said Bundy on the ease of killing. In the 20h century, the angst of the city continues to spawn both killers and victims. Serial killers can easily troll for victims among the "forgotten": runaways, prostitutes, drug addicts, and the poverty-stricken. Perhaps the anonymity itself is a factor that creates a serial killer. Feeling disenfranchised, forgotten, ignored in the looming crowd, the psychopath not only kills those who mirror back his own forgotten, anonymous identity, but even makes a name for himself, "becomes somebody" in the process.

Serial Killing as a Career?

David Berkowitz illustrates this possibility. "Hello from the cracks in the sidewalks of New York City, and from the ants that dwell in these cracks. ... " he wrote. Berkowitz had no stable identity no achievements, no friends, no attachments. Just isolation. The "Son of Sam" identity gave him great notoriety and power over others. "I believe they were rooting for me," he said of the general public. He was thrilled to hear co-workers at the post office chat about the Son of Sam, with no idea that the mild-mannered David was the same psycho-killer in the daily newspapers.

Notoriety as a possible incentive is indeed frightening. The serial killers who are initially motivated by a need for power love the media attention. Gacy treasured his scrapbook of all the press he received. Jeffrey Dahmer's trial had "the air of a movie premiere, complete with local celebrities, groupies who hounded for autographs, and a full-scale media onslaughtof which I was a part," wrote Dahmer biographer Anne Schwartz.

But Dr. Meloy, author of The Psychopathic Mind, warns us against celebrating serial killers: "If the murder attracts media attention and catalyzes both public fear and fascination, it will reinforce the psychopathic's concept of self as larger than life. ... In a real sense, the popular media may mythologize predators to the degree that they do become a legend in their own minds. This verification in reality of that which heretofore had only been experienced in fantasy leads the psychopath to consider predation as the sole means to achieve notoriety."


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