Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

What Makes Serial Killers Tick?


Patrick Mackay
Patrick Mackay

Is serial murderer ultimately a quest for sex or power, or both? It depends on who you ask. Some believe that sexual domination is an expression of the need for power. "Sex is only an instrument used by the killer to obtain power and domination over his victim," writes Steven Egger. According to Bundy, sex was not the principal source of gratification. "I want to master life and death," he said. He wanted total control over his victims: "Possessing them physically as one would possess a potted plant, a painting, or a Porsche. Owning, as it were, this individual." Others believe that a deviant sexual drive is the cause, and power is the tool to achieve sexual satisfaction.

Some serial killers will identify with perceived sources of power, in an attempt to siphon off some of the feeling of control and omnipotence for themselves. Some will indulge in illusions of religious grandeur, be it Christ or Satan. Others look to the police, and will mimic them, as if their borrowed authority gives the killer the authority to kill others. One of the most chilling power role models, however, is Hitler.

As a teenager, British Patrick Mackay was grimly predicted to become a "cold, psychopathic killer" by one of his doctors. Mackay identified with Hitler, and would pose in his own handcrafted Nazi uniforms. After confessing to killing eleven people, including a Catholic priest with an axe, he declared, "I shan't shed a tear. Life is full of shocks of all descriptions and they have to be faced."

Sexual Deviance

"The demons wanted my penis," wrote David Berkowitz. For the "Son of Sam" murderer, sex was not something that involved a willing partner. Instead, his warped sexual fantasies, bred in social isolation, conjured up abstract forces of evil. We usually think of demons as pursuing loftier goals, such as wayward souls, not penises. But for the lust murderer, sexuality, power, and domination are intertwined so tightly they bleed into one another. It is difficult to tell where sexual lust leaves off, and lust for blood takes over.

Sexual Homicide

According to Ressler, Burgess, and Douglas in Sexual Homicide: Patterns and Motives, the number of "murders classified as 'unknown motives' has risen dramatically." They believe that there are two types of sexual homicide: "the rape or displaced anger murderer" and the "sadistic, or lust murderer."

How does a lust murderer differ from a rapist who kills his victims to keep from being caught? Rapists who kill, according to one study cited in Sexual Homicide (Ressler et al), "rarely find any sexual satisfaction from the murder nor do they perform postmortem sexual acts. In contrast, the sadistic murderer kills as part of a ritualized sadistic fantasy." Mutilation is "overkill," obsessively injuring the victim's body far beyond what it necessary to kill the victim. Because psychopaths have a low arousal rate, it takes more to stimulate them. Macabre mutilations excite the lust murderer. For them, killing triggers a bizarre sexual fantasy, which had developed in the dark recesses of their warped minds.

Ressler writes that "since his sexual history is that of solo sex, and he finds interpersonal relationships difficult, if not impossible, he reverts to masturbatory acts even when a real partner (his victim) is available. Masturbation generally occurs after death, when his fantasy is strongest." Because the fantasies do not involve an actual person but a symbolic, sacrificial victim, the violence can escalate after death. "Mutilations often occur when the victim is already dead, a time when killer has ultimate control over the victim," writes Ressler.

Many of the serial killers we have discussed admit to an abnormally strong sex drive. Ed Kemper, who would often behead his victims before raping them, said that he had a "very strong sensual drive, a weird sexual drive that started early, a lot earlier than normal." Yet he fantasized about dead women, not living ones. "If I killed them, you know, they couldn't reject me as a man. It was more or less making a doll out of a human being ... and carrying out my fantasies with a doll, a living human doll." The most disturbing thrill Kemper got from murder was the sexual excitement in decapitating his victims: "I remember there was actually a sexual thrill ... you hear that little pop and pull their heads off and hold their heads up by the hair. Whipping their heads off, their body sitting there. That'd get me off," he said.

Kemper went on to say, "With a girl, there's a lot left in the girl's body without a head. Of course, the personality is gone." Those pesky personalities that serial killers find so troublesome in their victims explains why they go to such extreme lengths to depersonalize the bodies of their victims with horrifying mutilations. What is it about a personality that these killers find so threatening, that they need to obliterate it?


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