Inside the Minds of Serial Killers: Experts Reveal Who They Really Are

serial killerLike so many others, I was a diehard fan of Dexter, a show about a serial killer who used his compulsion to wipe out criminals rather than "innocents." The plot was such that you empathized and rooted for this monster. This, say experts, is a major problem with TV and movie depictions of serial killers these days. They come off as quirky rather than the brutal, laser-focused fiends they really are. To set the record straight, The Stir reached out to Dr. John Mayer, a clinical psychologist who has evaluated numerous serial killers and consulted on several cases; Steve van Aperen, a 14-year police detective-turned-behavior analyst who consults police departments, intelligence agencies, and government; and M. William Phelps, an investigative journalist and crime expert who has written 26 books on murderers throughout history.

Together, they take us into the mind of the serial killer and answer the most important question: Can they be cured? What they have to say is chilling.

  1. How is a serial killer different than someone who kills someone during a robbery or during the commission of another crime?

    van Aperen: By definition a serial killer is a person who is involved in several murders -- typically three or more -- at different locations and times. Usually there is a period of time or a break between each killing. It is not uncommon for a serial killer to have dormant months or even years before they strike again. Characteristically there will often be similarities in serial killer investigations, which can help investigators connect similar fact evidence or circumstances linking the murders.

    Conversely a person who kills during a robbery or during the commission of another crime will often do so either by accident, during an escape, during a confrontation, or to avoid detection and apprehension. Essentially the main difference between the two is that a serial killer is intent on hunting/stalking their victims with the intention of killing them. They will often fantasize about the crime whilst having power, dominance, and control over their victims. They have a compulsion to kill whereas an armed robber has a different goal.

  2. Serial killers don't stand out by the way they look, but can you provide an emotional sketch of what they should look like?

    van Aperen: Statistically we know:

    • There is often sadistic behavior or activity directed toward animals and people in the early years.
    • Their families have high rates of criminal, psychiatric, and alcoholic histories.
    • In many instances they have a strong hatred of a dominating and controlling authoritative figure in their early developmental years being either a mother or father or a particular group -- prostitutes, teacher, females, etc.
    • From a young age, some serial killers display an interest in voyeurism, fetishism, and sado-masochistic pornography.
  3. How many active serial killers do you think are out there that we just don’t know about?

    van Aperen: This is a difficult question to quantify as often serial killers have active and dormant periods. Although estimates vary widely, the FBI believes that at any one time there are up to 50 serial killers operating throughout the US based on the size of the population. When you consider that the average serial killer has multiple victims, often across multiple state jurisdictions, the number of victims may be higher than we might suspect.

  4. Are there certain behaviors a child exhibits that are warning signs that he or she is a budding sociopath? 

    Dr. Mayer: The crossing of boundaries in violence and harm to living things is a commonly known one. That is where we come up with the well known ‘hurting animals’ common characteristic, but it starts well before the person gets to animals. The serial killer crosses boundaries in violence and harm to living things as they grow up. Look for small behaviors such as being able to cut someone else with a knife, cut themselves, purposely hurt peers while at ‘play,’ etc. I put ‘play’ in quotes because another thing we professionals see is that as children these individuals don’t seem to take pleasure out of the common things children do, BUT, when observed hurting someone or something, they are seen as finally able to derive great pleasure. It’s like they come alive at those moments. Often growing up they exhibit Anhedonia, which is the inability to experience pleasure, except when they are hurting something or witnessing violence. So, Anhedonia is a huge signal. 

  5. What are the kinds of things that happen in a person’s life that help turn them into a serial killer?

    Dr. Mayer: Ah, the $64,000 question. Quite frankly both the FBI and I would tell you that a common profile is elusive. Some have been abused, both sexually and physically, some have cold unemotional parents, some have angry primitive environments in which they grow up, and yet others have peaceful seemingly positive childhoods. I would say look for these elements in a person’s life:

    • Crossing boundaries.
    • Anhedonia.
    • Poor peer relationships. This follows the ‘sick flock formula’ that is the herd intuitively isolates the sick animal. Kids often do the same thing.
    • A parenting environment where parents allow or make it permissible for the child to get away with violence and hurting things and others in progressive stages.
    • Social anomie -- these individuals feel and act apart from the social rules that govern the rest of us. But more than being anti-social, they really have no understanding or incorporation of social rules. That’s why I use the word ‘anomie’ -- it is more intense and accurate than simply anti-social. This is a very important point in understanding the serial killer!!
    • Like anomie above, the person doesn’t exhibit guilt or a conscience about their actions. And, growing up, you can see this in small actions -- look for it in small actions. For example, they have no concept of saying ‘sorry.’
    • Early signs of sexual dysfunction. Growing up they don’t exhibit or act like others toward dating and sex. Remember the most pleasure they derive (Anhedonia) is from the hurting act or violence. So, in their sexual and mating paths in life, they will be different from others. But that doesn’t mean that sexual dysfunction is a ‘tell.’
  6. As an adult, will a serial killer exhibit certain behavior clues? 

    Phelps: Adulthood for a serial is generally spent obsessing about the chosen fantasy and/or the kill. They will exert a tremendous amount of time and energy into thinking about how and why and where—and the murder itself becomes like a release to all of that pressure built up from the obsession. Pornography is common. Sudden rage, too. Racism. Solitude. We see all of it.

  7. Why are some so good at hiding their behavior, like Ted Bundy or John Wayne Gacy?

    van Aperen: Several years ago I interviewed a 55-year-old male suspected of murdering up to three, possibly more, elderly women. This suspect could be placed at the scene of each disappearance. It was known that the offender killed his victims at an unknown location and then dumped their bodies in a forest in close proximity to each other. The positioning of the victim’s bodies were staged, and in my opinion, the offender spent time with his victims postmortem.

    When I eventually spoke with the suspect I was expecting to be confronted by an evil demonic creature devoid of empathy, emotion, feeling, or compassion. When sitting opposite this man I was struck at how this person didn’t fit my perception or expectation of the evil he perpetuated. He was somewhat charming, married with children, had a grandchild, and held what was considered a respectable job. The frustrating thing was that there wasn’t sufficient evidence available to arrest and charge him which showed me how meticulous he had been about destroying, cleaning, and removing biological trace evidence, fingerprints, DNA, blood, etc., that could connect him to the murders. Herein lies the problem. By all accounts Ted Bundy was regarded as handsome and charismatic by his young victims whilst hiding the fact that he was a brutal killer and sadistic sexual predator who executed 30 of his victims (possibly several more) in seven states between 1974 and 1978.

    In most homicide cases there is a connection between the victim and offender. In reality, most reported homicides are domestic related with investigations starting from the inside and working outwards. The difficulty when investigating serial killers is that this nexus is often non-existent because victims are chosen at random. Serial killers need to operate in isolation and secret to avoid apprehension so that they can continue to fulfill their depraved fantasies. Contrary to popular belief, most serial killers are not as intelligent as depicted by Dr. Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs. In fact 16 percent of the nearly 107 serial killers studied by Grover Godwin went to college, and of those, only 4 percent actually graduated.

  8. Do you believe some serial killers are born rather than made?

    Phelps: That is a complicated answer. A serial killer, in my view, is partly born and partly nurtured. The wiring has to be in place early on in life.

    There’s some interesting research out of England the proves serials are born without an empathy gene per se, which in turn makes them a psychopath by genetic design because they have no remorse and do not care for other as most people do. So being a sociopath/psychopath is from birth. I believe that you’re born that way. Doesn’t mean it’s passed down from family or environment. If you’re a sociopath, you might end up on Wall Street, or you might end up trolling the countryside at night for murder victims. The difference depends on other factors that take place throughout early life. Not all sociopaths go on to become serials, in other words. 

  9. Is substance abuse common among serial killers?

    van Aperen: According to FBI statistics, more than 70% of serial killers experienced problems related to substance abuse whilst growing up but few serial killers have been addicted to alcohol and drugs later in life. The exception being those killers who may be on drugs for schizophrenia or bipolar.

  10. Do they have dark or violent fantasies more so than the average person?

    Phelps: It is all about the dark, violent, and sexual fantasies for the serial killer. This is all they ever think about. For some it’s about sex, for all of them it’s about power and a thirst for blood and violence they cannot quench. Ever.

  11. How long does it take a potential serial killer to make the fantasy a reality?

    van Aperen: This question is difficult to answer but we do know that once a serial killer does embark on their murderous spree that their behavior is often reinforced and will continue to escalate until they are apprehended. Very few killers stop unless they either die or are incarcerated.

  12. Can a serial killer be “cured” of the need to kill?

    van Aperen: No. The problem is that a serial killer is often driven by either a rage or a deep seated desire to kill, which makes treatment approaches problematic.

    A problem with rehabilitation is that psychopaths are extremely good at manipulating their victims, prison staff, treatment providers, psychologists, and psychiatrists as well as other mental health professionals. Psychopaths by their very nature are experts at manipulation, deception, and control over their victims to satisfy their desires. Over time they can eventually be perceived as being 'cured,' but I don’t know of any research that is making any in-roads into the rehabilitation of serial killers. Incarceration seems to be the most effective means of keeping these remorseless killers from harming the rest of society.

Startling isn't it? Does anything the experts revealed surprise you?


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