Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

What Makes Serial Killers Tick?

Deadly Fantasies

Dennis Nilsen
Dennis Nilsen

Strange and bizarre fantasies thrive in isolation and anger. For the fledgling serial killer, fantasies of violence prompt further isolation, which in turn creates a greater reliance on fantasy for pleasure, according to Robert Ressler (et al) in Sexual Homicide. "As I grew up I realized, though imperfectly, that I was different from other people, and that the way of life in my home was different from that in the homes of others. ... This stimulated me to introspection and strange mental questionings," said "Acid Bath Murderer" John Haigh.

Eventually, to sustain the fantasy, serial killers come to a point where they need to live it out. They will dwell on the murder act for years, and drift into almost trance-like states days before the murder, completely enraptured by their fantasy. Their victims are reduced to hapless pawns in their wicked reverie. Much of the strange, ritualized mutilations come from an inner drama that only the killer can understand. "I made another world, and real men would enter it and they would never really get hurt at all in the vivid unreal laws of the dream. I caused dreams which caused death. This is my crime," said Dennis Nilsen. Nilsen's American counterpart Jeffrey Dahmer had a similar insight: "I made my fantasy life more powerful than my real one."

Yet the brutal, messy reality of murder never completely fulfills the power of the fantasy. In fact, it is usually a letdown, but the fantasy won't go away it is too deeply ingrained in the killer's psyche. This accounts for the serial nature of lust murder. "The fantasy that accompanies and generates the anticipation that precedes the crime is always more stimulating than the immediate aftermath of the crime itself," observed Ted Bundy.

Many serial killers will keep "souvenirs" of their crime, which later refuels the fantasy. When Bundy was asked why he took Polaroids of his victims, he said, "when you work hard to do something right, you don't want to forget it."

Doctors B. R. Johnson and J. V. Becker at the University of Arizona are attempting to understand how deeply fantasy warps the serial killer's mind. They are studying nine cases of 14 - 18 year olds who have "clinically significant fantasies of becoming a serial killer." The research is attempting to see if we can spot potential killers based on the potency of the sadistic fantasies of teenage boys, and if there is any way to interrupt the link between fantasy and action.


We're Following
Slender Man stabbing, Waukesha, Wisconsin
Gilberto Valle 'Cannibal Cop'