Table of Contents
The mind of a serial killer is something that has fascinated psychologists and medical professionals alike for many decades. The mystery behind what causes these individuals to carry out the crimes is what psychologists seek to discover because if there was a way to predict early on if a child would go on to attempt to murder, we could potentially find a method of psychological therapy or medications to push that child away from that path. Through the process of this paper, I will analyze the upbringing and the careers of some of the world’s most infamous serial killers such as Jack the Ripper, the BTK killer, Ted Bundy, and others in order to try to further my knowledge as to what factors, interior and exterior, can cause a person to commit one of the worst crimes humanly possible.
The Psychology of a Serial Murderer
Starting off this report I’d like to cover the mystery that is the English murderer Jack the Ripper. This serial murderer is known to have killed at least five people in the London area in the later months of 1888. The Ripper typically chose prostitutes as his victims, and after murdering them by stabbing them with a sharp object, would mutilate the bodies of these women, leading some to believe that he was a physician or had had some medical training. Nevertheless, there is not much known about the infamous Jack the Ripper as he had supposedly never been caught.
All that is known about the Ripper is based off what he had left behind at the crime scene. What can be discovered from that is that he most likely was a sexual sadist, or deriving sexual pleasure from the pain of others, as well as the fact that due to his choice of victims, he was most likely a disorganized killer, acting on pure impulse instead of carefully planning each murder. This psychological profile has led many people to believe The Ripper’s identity to be David Cohen, a polish man admitted to the Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum for homicidal tendencies.
The Bogeyman, werewolves, and vampires were all creatures of myth until May 19th, 1870, when notorious serial killer Albert Fish was born. Even before he was born, Fish was exposed to mental illness, with his uncle, brother, and sister all being diagnosed with various mental illnesses. However, Fish was barely exposed to this as he was abandoned by his parents at a very young age and placed into an orphanage. It was in this orphanage that his sadomasochistic traits began to form, with regular beatings and whippings that Fish discovered he quite enjoyed. Sadomasochism is the psychological disorder where one derives sexual pleasure from pain and humiliation, a characteristic that drove Fish’s behavior.
Fish began his reign of terror in 1890, when he began to work as a prostitute and would utilize that job to molest young boys. He began by torturing them, usually with his tool of choice, a wooden paddle with metal nails pierced through it, and would then rape them. Fish would continue to act out his fantasies until he was driven to murder and cannibalize the children. A clearly troubled individual, a baseline for his actions could be derived from his family’s susceptibility to mental illness, and the more than traumatic upbringing that he went through. His life and mental stability continued to deteriorate even after he left the orphanage to reconnect with his mother, where he started an intimate relationship with a boy who encouraged him to drink and eat human waste.
Fish stopped his murder spree in 1898 when he eventually married and fathered six children. He had a relatively normal life for about 19 years until his wife left him for another man, and he reverted back to his sadist ways. His children reported that he would routinely ask them to play “games” with him, these games would include them beating him with his paddle until he would bleed. Fish’s method of murder of kidnapping children and raping them before dismembering and eating their body is unique, created in the unique set of events that brought him to murder. His sadistic tendencies could stem from the regular abuse he received as a child, since he was brutally beaten at the crucial developmental age, forever changing how he perceives pain and the values of human life.
Perhaps he misunderstood the sexual pleasure he received through pain as commonplace for all people, giving a sort of understanding to his sadistic methods of torturing his victims. The failure of his marriage would have also contributed to his behavior as he had reportedly shown traits of schizophrenia following his wife leaving him, causing him to revert back to his animalistic behavior. Fish was eventually caught by the police in 1935 following a six year investigation on the disappearance of Grace Budd, Fish’s final victim. Fish attempted to plead insanity, but ultimately was tried as sane and was executed on January 16, 1936 by electrocution.
Due to the incidents in 2014 with the “Killer Clowns” as well as the remake of Stephen King’s “It”, many children have an irrational fear of clowns. However, in the late 1970s, this fear was anything but, as “The Killer Clown” John Wayne Gacy was at large, murdering more than 30 people in and around the Chicago area. Gacy was born in 1942 to an abusive family, possibly contributing to his future career as a serial killer.
Adding onto the fact that his father would regularly beat the members of his family, Gacy struggled with his sexuality all his life, having to repress his homosexual urges for fear of his father finding out, leading Gacy to sexually assault two young boys in 1968. Gacy’s preferred method of murder was to lure boys in with the promise of work at the construction company he founded, only to sexually assault them and strangle them with rope. To the public eye, Gacy was a friendly man who would throw parties in his backyard that many people would frequent. Gacy also enjoyed dressing up as a clown for children’s entertainment, an unbeknownst to the rest of the world, Gacy would often wear his clown outfit to commit the murders, hence the nickname “The Killer Clown”.
The use of the costume could signify Gacy’s lost childhood, or the creation of another persona who would commit the murders instead of him himself. Interestingly enough, when he ultimately was caught, Gacy attempted the insanity plea by stating that these murders were committed by a separate personality. This plea did not succeed, however, and Gacy was executed on May 10th, 1994. What we can deduce from the reign of terror left by Gacy, was that his abusive childhood and repressed homosexual tendencies were the main factors in defining his M.O. or method of operation. The strangulation indicates that Gacy felt a personal connection to his victims, as that is widely regarded as a much more intimate signature than, for example, using a firearm.
A common theme with some of the most prolific serial killers is that they had a troubled upbringing, with abusive parents leading them to see their victims as manifestations of those parents and methods to take their anger out. The same could not be said for Dennis Rader, more commonly known as the BTK killer. Rader was born 1945 to a very normal family, making him an enigma for his future career as a serial murderer. Despite the reported accounts that he hung stray animals, there were absolutely no indications that he would turn into a killer.
Rader’s first murders took place in 1974, where he murdered 4 members of one family, hanging their 11 year old daughter by a pipe in the basement, and then strangling both parents and their 9 year old son in their respective rooms. Rader then went on to taunt the police by writing a letter and sending it to the police via a public library book. In the letter he wrote that he had no idea where his compulsion to kill had come from, only that it is impossible to stop. It was also in this letter that he first coined his alter ego of the BTK killer, or Bind, Torture, Kill. Rader’s letter was filled with grammatical errors and spelling issues.
Rader was eventually caught due to a sample of his DNA found at the crime scene of his first murders matching with a DNA sample taken from his daughter. Analyzing Rader’s method of operation and his obvious obsession with taunting the police, it can be understood that Rader was a sexual sadist, or he derived sexual pleasure from the pain of others, as well as being extremely narcissistic, obsessing over his abilities to avoid capture and reliving his crimes. Although there is no clear indicator as to what caused his descent into murder, it seems understood that Dennis Rader was a seriously damaged individual with enough power to hide that side of him to the rest of the world.
David Berkowitz, also known as Son of Sam, is a very cut and dry type serial killer, killing a total of six people and injuring seven more throughout his spree. Born in 1953, Berkowitz was born to two parents who separated shortly after his birth and put him up for adoption, and although his adoptive family were not abusive, he did not have the best upbringing and was quick to move to criminal behavior such as pyromania and petty larceny. His misfortune did not end there, as his adoptive mother died when Berkowitz was 14, and he lost the relationship with his adoptive father.
Perhaps the stressor for Berkowitz was when he found his true mother and she informed him of his father’s death. Berkowitz’s method of operation involved shooting his victims with a .44 caliber Bulldog. All of Berkowitz’s victims were seemingly random, allowing us to consider him a disorganized killer, especially considering the fact that as soon as he would fire shots, Berkowitz would flee the crime scene without making sure that his victims were dead. It seems reasonable to assume that due to his extremely unstable childhood, he manifested into a spree killer, shooting his victims out of anger, with no real motive other than to cause pain.
Deviating a bit off of the path of American serial killers, I will introduce Andrei Chikatilo, or “The Red Ripper,” “The Rostov Ripper,” or the “Butcher of Rostov.” Chikatilo’s reign of horror started in 1978 and ended with his conviction in 1992. Chikatilo has claimed to have murdered around 56 people, however there is only evidence of 52 killings. Chikatilo was born in Yabluchnyk, a small village in the Sumy Oblast of the Ukrainian SSR, in 1936, with a less than ideal childhood.
One of the most notable parts of his childhood is the fact that his mother told him repeatedly throughout his childhood that, prior to his birth, he had had an older brother who had been kidnapped and cannibalized by some of his neighbors, traumatizing the child and most likely contributing to his cannibalistic tendencies in his later murders. Chikatilo’s mother may in fact be the main factor in what caused him to be driven towards murder, reportedly beating him, committing adultery, possibly in front of him, and perhaps stealing. This would most certainly interfere with a developing child’s moral compass and definitely did in Chikatilo’s case. Through the multitude of people that fell victim to Chikatilo, he maintained his signature of mutilating his victims’ eyes after he used a knife to murder them.
The extensive damage that Chikatilo caused to the eyes was due to a self proclaimed belief that his victims would always maintain the image of his face after death. From a psychoanalytical point of view, it would seem apparent that Chikatilo’s homicidal behavior could be derived from his mother’s terrible influence on her children in mental development, forever damaging their perception of human life. While Chikatilo was not sexually confused in the same manner as was John Wayne Gacy, he was diagnosed with chronic impotence as an adolescent, destroying his confidence and only further wrecking havoc on his already damaged mind.
A quick analysis of Chikatilo’s behavior would determine him to be a necro-sadist, as defined by esteemed Soviet psychiatrist Alexandr Bukhanovsky. A necro-sadist is interpreted as someone who gains sexual release from the death and suffering of others, a definition confirmed by Chikatilo himself in captivity. Chikatilo was captured on November 20, 1990, after multiple witnesses caught him attempting to lure a boy into his car in a public park. After a public trial where Chikatilo exhibited all sorts of manic behavior, he was eventually executed via gunshot to the head on February 14, 1994.
With the sheer multitude of movies and documentaries airing about him, it is hard to not know the serial killer known as Ted Bundy. What makes Bundy so fascinating to so many people is the fact that if you thought of a serial killer, he would be the last person you would suspect, as he was very charismatic and quite attractive, he was so charming in fact, that he managed to conceive a child with one of his fans while he was on death row. Those factors all aided him however, into becoming one of America’s most prolific serial killers.
Bundy’s childhood was nothing remarkable, despite the fact that it was built upon untruths, with him believing that his mother was his older sister, and his grandparents his parents. Despite that, Bundy had a very seemingly normal childhood. Things turned for the worse for Bundy after he and his devoted girlfriend, Stephanie Brooks, ended their relationship. For Stephanie it was an amicable breakup, but for Bundy it tore him apart. It would make sense for people to consider this his stressor as Bundy’s preferred victim choice were dark haired women around his age, all looking quite similar to his scorned lover, which could be seen as him mirroring his hatred for Stephanie onto these women.
Bundy’s M.O. was to subdue the women he attacked with a blunt object, where he would then sexually assault them before he would kill them with blunt force trauma, and in several cases, he would continue to brutalize the bodies postmortem. Despite the similarity in his victims, the level of brutality and carelessness of the attacks prove that Bundy was a disorganized killer, as he was unable to keep himself from harming those that looked like the woman he loved. What is unique about Bundy is the fact that he was so collected throughout his capture, despite the overwhelming evidence, that there are those to this day that still believe his innocence. He even worked as his own attorney at one of his trials, depicting his narcissism and antisocial personality.
Jeffrey Dahmer is perhaps one of the most infamous serial killers that the United States has, with a body count of 17 men and boys. Dahmer did things to these people more monstrous than anyone before him, as he was found in his apartment filled with collected skulls, genitalia, and dismembered limbs and innards of his 17 victims. Dahmer was born in 1960 and while he had a fairly normal childhood, he began to show signs of antisocial personality disorder very early on.
Dahmer told police in questioning that his compulsion to kill began at age 14, when he began capturing small animals and dismembering them. Throughout high school, Dahmer developed a heavy drinking problem, which caused him to drop out of college and be discharged from the U.S. Army. Dahmer first killed in 1978, just as he graduated high school. His preferred method was to take men home with him, where he would drug them or get them drunk, then strangle them and sexually assault the body before dismembering it and keeping the skull as a souvenir.
Dahmer was given the plea of insanity, as he was clearly a very disturbed individual. “’I carried it too far, that’s for sure”, Dahmer told police in explaining his frustrated search for a totally compliant, zombie type sex slave who would always be there for him. In 60-plus hours of confessing, Dahmer had also explained that his motives were not about the torture, or racism or homosexuality, it was just a compulsion. Dahmer was plagued by so many different mental issues that his mind will be studied by forensic psychologists for many years to come.
Due to that fact that many people have a morbid fascination with the exploits of serial killers, it is not uncommon for them to become deified in modern media, and notorious serial killer Edmund Kemper has appeared in numerous on screen representations. The inspiration behind the “Silence of the Lambs” villain Buffalo Bill was born on December 18, 1948, in Burbank, California. As is commonplace with many serial killers, Kemper had a very abusive childhood, with his alcoholic mother beating him mercilessly and emotionally abusing him to no end, most notably locking Kemper in the pitch black basement alone at night.
Due to this abuse, Kemper ran away from home at age 14 and ended up living with his paternal grandparents. Unfortunately for him, his grandmother was apparently just as abusive as his mother, and due to this, combined with the hatred of his mother, he murdered his grandmother and subsequently his grandfather as well, just to see what it would feel like. After five years at the Atascadero State Hospital for the criminally insane, he was placed back into his mothers care.
It was then that Kemper was driven by only one thought, to murder his mother to get back at her for the torture he had endured at her hand, however, Kemper did not want to kill her until he had formulated the perfect method of murder. He then went on to murder six other women and would perform necrophilic acts upon their corpses. Necrophiliacs are those that gain sexual pleasure by performing sexual acts on dead people, and Kemper is no exception. After he had had his way with the bodies of the women he murdered, Kemper would decapitate them and take their heads to his apartment where he would later perform sexual actions on them as well.
It was after these murders that Kemper killed his mother and her best friend and performed the same sexual acts on his mother’s decapitated head. Kemper then nonchalantly turned himself in to the police, his mission completed, and was charged with eight counts of murder was given a life sentence and is alive today. What has fascinated so many people about Kemper was how story-like his history was. Kemper, gaining inspiration from people like the BTK killer, wanted to receive recognition for his murders, and to aid with that, he regularly socialized with the police who were hunting him, befriending them and making his confession to them all the more chilling. Kemper is known as the “Co-ed Killer” due to most of his victims being female students.
It can be inferred that his victim choice was based off of the women who had tortured him as a child. Perhaps keeping his mother alive against his sociopathic tendencies was too overwhelming for him and it would cause him to act out against anyone who reminded him of her, or, taking a more literal approach, he would be using these women as practice, as they would have similar body types and would require a similar method of murder, so he would use them in order to perfect his “craft” for the real target, his mother. Whatever the reasons, Edmund Kemper is an incredibly complicated and incredibly dangerous individual who is fortunately behind bars and isolated from the general public for the rest of his life.
After evaluating each of these serial killers, it is apparent that there are a few connections between them. Poor family life, like in the cases of “Killer Clown” John Wayne Gacy, “Son of Sam” David Berkowitz, and Ted Bundy, contributed to misunderstood values of human compassion, whether it comes from Bundy’s deep attachment issues, or Berkowitz’s deep rooted hatred towards humanity, it resulted in creating a murderer in all of them. What should be noticed after analyzing each of these prolific killers is that not one of them looked like a killer.
Dennis Rader was a very well liked family man, John Wayne Gacy threw many large block parties that everyone would go to, Ted Bundy had no issue picking up women even when he was on death row, even Jeffrey Dahmer, as mentally disturbed as he was, was able to take men home with him in order to murder them. Despite what some people may think, the mind of every killer is an anomaly, and whether it is obvious conditions like in the case of Dahmer, or very subtle issues, in the case of Bundy, psychologists need to further review and study the criminal mind in order to discover the reason behind their actions and find methods to prevent it from ever happening again.
Citations and References
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- ‘I Carried it Too Far, That’s for Sure’. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/ us/articles/199205/i-carried-it-too-far-thats-sure
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- Dennis Rader. (2019, April 16). Retrieved from https://www.biography.com/crime-figure/dennis- rader
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