Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

What Makes Serial Killers Tick?

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Are Serial Killers Truly the 20th Century Bogeymen?

Is it our modern times that creates them, or have they been in operation before we classified them as a phenomenon? Although the term "serial killer" was coined in 1971, early fables of human/monsters reveals that there has always been danger in straying too far, or in accepting the help of strangers. The carnivorous characters in Grimm's Fairy tales become vivid metaphors of human bloodlust. Gruesome stories of Bluebeards and their bloody chambers, big bad wolves, trolls under the bridge and witches in the forest, all of whom make meals out of unsuspecting innocents, remind us of our contemporary monsters. These cautionary tales may represent an early, pre-psychological way of understanding the sadistic side of human nature.


"Lycanthropy," a combination of the Greek words "wolf" and "man", was another early concept created to describe the horror of senseless sexual murder. In The A-Z Encyclopedia of Serial Killers Harold Schechter and David Everitt describe the lycanthropic madman as sexual predators who terrorized 16th century peasant villages, so much that the authorities "regarded it as one of the most pressing social problems of the day." Among the most notorious of these medieval "wolfmen" was Gilles Garnier of France, and the German Peter Stubbe, both of whom attacked children, ripping them apart and cannibalizing them. Stubbe even went so far as to savagely mutilate his own son, gnawing at his brain.

The wolfman myth is still popular today — we still hear how a full moon can bring out the crazies. Albert Fish, the notorious cannibal killer of children, was called the "Werewolf of Wisteria," and enjoyed dancing naked in the full moon. Other lunar lunatics include Ed Gein, who also frolicking in the moonlight, dressed in his mothersuit made from the skin of women. Unlike Gein,   Bobby Joe Long did not appreciate being adorned in female body parts — at puberty he had his abnormally enlarged breasts surgically removed. Even after the operation, Long claimed to be affected by the moon's cycles through his own bizarre "menstrual" cycle.

Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hydes

The 19th century gave rise to another chilling predecessor to the serial killer's persona — Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Robert Louis Stevenson created a literary man/monster who embodied the Divided Self — appearing civilized and rational on the outside, while inside a wretched brute struggled to break loose.

John Wayne Gacy
John Wayne Gacy

One of the most intriguing peculiarities of serial killers is their benign, "Dr. Jekyll" appearance. They look and behave like everyman or any man — "abnormally normal", as Mark Seltzer says. If they come across as potentially dangerous in any way, they will neutralize it in their behavior. The imposing 6'9'' Edmund Kemper cultivated a "gentle giant" routine, which helped him to lure female hitchhikers into his car. The charming Ted Bundy wore a cast, looking meekly pathetic, and asked for help. The young women who gave him a hand must have thought of it as a random act of kindness. What resulted was a senseless act of murder. The notorious Gacy entertained hospitalized children in his Pogo the Clown costume. "You know, clowns get away with murder," he once said. Gacy used rope tricks from his performance to strangle unsuspecting young men, who thought the worst they would have to endure would be some hokey entertainment. With many serial killers, the hidden Hyde comes out only after the victim is lulled into complacency.


As a man obsessed with recreating a human being from dead body parts, Mary Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein was seeking the same ultimate power of creation as God Himself. While Dr. Frankenstein attempted to compose a man, our modern day Dr. Frankensteins are more gifted in the decomposing arts. Jeffrey Dahmer and Dennis Nilsen both tried to create companionship in corpses. Dahmer operated on his victims, hoping for his own love-zombie who would never stray. In his own attempts to create the perfect companion, Nilsen said, "I think that in some cases I killed these men in order to create the best image of them. ... It was not really a bad but a perfect and peaceful state for them to be in" (As if he were doing them a favor!) "I remember being thrilled that I had full control and ownership of this beautiful body," he mused. Many believe that Ed Gein was attempting to reconstruct his mother by stealing body parts from a nearby cemetery.


And of course, one of the most popular monster monikers for serial killers is "vampire." In Gothic drama, vampires represented the repressed sexuality of straitlaced Victorian society, creatures of the night driven by beastly desires. The vampire motif is so frequent that we see localized vampires ("The Vampire of Dusseldorf" Peter Kurten; "The Vampire of Hanover" Fritz Haarmann; "The Vampire of Sacramento" Richard Chase.) Kurten claimed that his "chief satisfaction in killing was to catch the blood spurting from a victim's wounds in his mouth and swallow it." Another deeply demented vampire killer,John Haigh, claimed that disturbing dreams created his unquenchable thirst for human blood: "I saw before me a forest of crucifixes, which gradually turned into trees. ... Suddenly the whole forest began to writhe and the trees, stark and erect, to ooze blood. ... A man went to each tree catching the blood ... 'Drink,' he said.

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