When I was ten years old, I had broken my ankle from a baseball game. Filled with boredom, I had no other choice than to stay home and wait for my ankle to recover. While I sat at home being a couch potato, I had the company of my mom who had been taking time off from her job. So, being a child, I had to watch what she wanted to on the tv, which was her favorite show: Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Watching the show, I had no idea what was going on, I never understood why my mom was so fascinated with the show, but after watching it for months, It began to grow on me. While the show is mainly about rape victims and how they cope with the situation, there are series of episodes that include other types of crime such as human trafficking, selling of drugs, and murders. Being a show, I knew most of the plot was scripted, but some of the scenarios in the show can often be potential crimes committed by serial killers. I would often think, what possibly goes through a person’s head to commit such a crime? What makes someone just want to murder somebody and be known for it? That is when my obsession began. I wanted to research a topic that I had always found an interest in, but never really knew too much about it. The psychology that is used to uncover evidence within a serial killers brain has always been an interest. It allows society to understand any individual without passing judgement. There is this misconception that serial killers are just crazy and only commit their crimes because they want too. I never believed that this was true because there is always two sides to every story. In this case, one side is what society likes to believe about these killers, and the other side is the science of psychology proving that there is more than just being crazy in the brain of a serial killer.
Psychology is the science of behavior and mental processes. Behavior is anything an organism does and any action we can observe and record. Yelling, smiling, blinking, and talking are all observable behaviors. Mental processes are the internal, subjective experiences we infer from behavior- sensations, perceptions, dreams, thoughts, beliefs, and feelings(Hamren). The key word in the psychology definition is science. It can help evaluate the mind of a criminal, it is not used as an excuse for the serial killers, but it simply helps us understand the mental process and decisions made from their perspective. The causes of psychopathy in serial killers often remains unknown to this day, there is no definite answer that we can point to and say, “That’s the reason”. There are so many factors that play into each situation that it is impossible to draw conclusions to one definite answer.
Most serial killers tend to have a common occurrence with their childhood upbringing: Abuse. Trauma from abuse explains how early childhood abuse can set a child up for deviant behavior in adulthood. The environment that surrounds the child can be a factor that determines whether or not their behavior escalates to homicidal activity(Vronsky). A serial killer is no different from anyone else who seeks attention from people who are close to them, such as family. The need for approval or attention is what drives individuals to attempt to create relationships with their family or peers, but if rejected, they’re unable to create those relationships. “This can result in lowering of self-esteem and creates a fantasy world in the head of the individual, a world in which they’re in control”(Anderson). Another common trait that occurs among serial killers is social abnormality. Criminals like serial killers often have a hard time fitting in when growing up. This causes them to be excluded from social gatherings and often results in built up frustration or even depression. Those who don’t grow out of this stage, tend to use those emotions as motivation to commit the actions that they become famous for in society.
Some of the most famous serial killers I came to find and research were Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy. Both criminals had one thing in common, and that was they were successful for so many years before they were caught by police. Each though, were completely different in certain aspects of their cases. Dahmer was famous for his 14 year murder rate in which he would drug, murder, and then eat the remains of his victims. Bundy had murdered countless victims for 23 continuous years and the true numbers of his victims are still unknown.
Like many people, we often reflect on our childhood and sometimes wonder if a situation would have been different, maybe the outcome would have too. In serial killers, it is common for them to blame their childhood as the reason for their actions. Abuse being the most common, causes trauma to the mind of any individual and causes them to act out or change their personality or view on life differently. Anger and frustration builds up in the victim and is either lashed out in a moment of time, or is bottled up for years and then taken out on innocent people in a much worse way. For example, a boy who is abused as a child will often take the frustration and experience from his childhood, and use it on his own children because in his head, it’s the only way he comprehends or remembers how he was treated as a child. For a serial killer, the abuse they encounter as a child is commonly bottled up and then once they hit a breaking point, they use that anger to their advantage(Vronsky). Being abused can have an emotional effect on victims, they will often think “why?” or “it’s my fault” which shows a low self esteem and low value in the meaning of life. This can then explain my earlier question of “why do serial killers want to kill people?” which the answer is because they often have no value of life. Throughout their own life they have had a terrible experience with multiple situations and think they have no purpose. Which is why when they murder another individual, they do not feel bad or guilty about their crime.
Psychology of the Brain
It is evident that serial killers have an aspect that is wrong within their head. Damage within the brain influences serial killers to commit crimes such as murder. The most common section of the brain that is damaged or underdeveloped in serial killers is the frontal lobe. “The frontal lobe of the brain is responsible for association with reasoning, planning, problem solving, and aggression”(Borchert). Damage to this part of the brain can manipulate and result in actions that are often uncontrollable. It can result in an increase in irritability, which may include a change in mood and an inability to regulate behavior. Showing that any individual who receives damage to their frontal lobe will tend to have a harder time controlling their behavior, for serial killers this is much more relevant. One can compare it to having a boost of adrenaline, the excitement of an event or situation can often be blinding to the actions of any individual. The act of murdering a victim can be a boost of adrenaline for a serial killer, and while their murdering their victim, they don’t realize what has happened until the moment is over. This does not mean this situation can be used as an excuse, rather it helps psychologists and society better understand how the actions from the killer may not have been consciously acted upon.
The Amygdala, which is located in the Limbic system of the brain is associated with emotions. This part of the brain controls how emotions interact with one another in the brain and sends signals to one’s body on the type of emotion they’re feeling in the moment. This section of the brain does not physically become damaged, but is damaged through experience at an early age with serial killers. It is common that serial killers were rejected among society as an adolescent which causes them to form hatred or no emotion at all towards other individuals. “When an individual is rejected and excluded from society, they begin to be very intuitive with themselves and begin to fantasize”(Anderson). These fantasies give a serial killer control over their own life, a chance for them to understand what is going on and nobody else. Since they didn’t have control over being accepted early on in life with interactions, these fantasies give them a chance to create their own world where everything is in the hands of their own. When it comes to the emotions of the amygdala, this explains that serial killers lack emotion and tend to have no empathy for anything, even themselves. They know that something is wrong but continue killing others in hopes that the damage will go away, but it only feeds off their actions and continues to grow. “That is why it is typical for a serial killer to not feel bad about their crimes because they don’t have empathy. The murders are solely for the purpose of having power and control over someone, since they don’t have it over themselves”(Raymond).
Common Traits Among Serial Killers
When studying serial killers, it is often that researchers try to connect cases to others from past events. This helps gains knowledge of how to understand killers because one may be able to know the next move or explain why they killed a victim a certain way. It also can detect copycat serial killers, which helps in finding victims that are missing, can help track down a killer if their on the loose, or even using it as a way to manipulate the serial killer and trying to get answers out of them.
What has been found is that serial killers are manipulative, but they’re also very good at making sure you don’t know you’re being manipulated. “We all live under a sense of believing that evil is something that doesn’t exist. The person we just met or the person who lives next door to us isn’t evil, mostly because we like to believe that horror is something that happens in movies and to other people. Even those of us who are not emotionally invested in a relationship with a dangerous person can be manipulated”(Trasner). Generally speaking, if someone is being flattered or distracted with gifts, and if those actions are trying to cover up a flaw like in a story, an individual needs to keep their guard up. “Psychopaths look for vulnerabilities and try to use them against people, so you need to know what your vulnerabilities are”(Trasner).
One of the FBI’s favorite techniques when interviewing serial killers is flattery. Psychopathic killers in particular tend to have a huge sense of their own self-worth, so investigators will use praise to get them talking. “In an FBI document about serial murder, behaviorists say psychopathic serial killers don’t respond to “altruistic interview themes” in other words, trying to make them experience feelings or guilt and sympathy for their victims is a waste of time”(Smith). Instead, interviewers might admire them for their intelligence or for their skill at outsmarting investigators. Serial killers often feed off being applauded for their crimes, its an excitement factor that motivates them to keep pursuing their murders. It is exactly what they’re looking for as a result of their murder, being known and talked about among society for their crimes.
Another common trait that most serial killer share with one another is their intelligence. Serial killers in their earlier years were often very successful in the classroom, which is weird to think since one wouldn’t expect a good student to turn into a serial killer.