Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

What Makes Serial Killers Tick?

The Last Straws

It's one thing to fantasize about killing someone, but it's another thing to do it. What prompts serial killers to cross the line, again and again? Drugs are often involved, especially alcohol, as we see in the case of Gacy (who also had Valium, amphetamines, and pot in his arsenal) Ramirez, Nilsen and Dahmer.


According to Ressler et al, "stressors" are events that trigger the killer into action. They can be "conflict with females, parental conflict, financial stress, marital problems, conflict with males, birth of a child, physical injury, legal problems, and stress from a death." As the killer grapples with frustration, anger, and resentment, the fantasies of killing can eclipse reality. "Many triggering factors center around some aspect of control," says Ressler. Gein's mother's death sent him over the edge, while Kemper's fight with his mom made him crazed ("I remember one roof-raiser was over whether I should have my teeth cleaned.") Christopher Wilder, who traveled across the country, raping, torturing, and murdering eight women, claims his murderous rampage began after his marriage proposal was rejected.

After the Murder

According to Joel Norris, there are 6 phases of the serial killer's cycle: 1) The Aura Phase, where the killer begins losing grip on reality; 2) The Trolling Phase, when the killer searches for a victim; 3) The Wooing Phase, where the killer lures his victim in; 4) The Capture Phase, where the victim is entrapped; 5) The Murder or Totem phase, which is the emotional high for killers; and finally, 6) The Depression Phase, which occurs after the killing.

Norris writes that when depression sets in, it triggers the phases into beginning again. Bundy said he never really got what he had hoped for out of the murders, and always felt emptiness and hopelessness after. Joel Norris aptly describes the "post-homicidal depression" the serial killer experiences: "The killer is simply acting out a ritualistic fantasy ... but, once sacrificed, the victims identity within the murderer's own fantasy is lost. The victim no longer represents what the killer thought he or she represented. The image of a fiancee who rejected the killer, the echo of the voice of the hated mother, or the taunting of the distant father; all remain vividly in the killer's mind after the crime. Murder has not erased or changed the past because the killer hates himself even more than he did before the climax of emotion ... it is only his own past that is acted out. He has failed again. ... Instead of reversing the roles of his childhood, the killer has just reinforced them, and by torturing and killing a defenseless victim, the killer has restated his most intimate tragedies."


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