Who would have thought we would be living in a world in which we have grown rather fascinated with the workings of the criminal mind. With TV shows that delve into criminal profiling, movies and books exploring the depravity of a serial killer.
Criminology and Criminal Profiling is fast becoming a sought-out degree. Even the knowing the basics on Criminology can help a writer better understand why their antagonist and protagonist is doing what they are doing.
So, come with me and explore the sadistic minds of serial killers.
The Importance of a Childhood, and the Affect on the Brain.
As much as we might want to deny it, childhood can have a huge impact on the brain. The idea nature vs. nurture is something we struggle with explaining, especially when it comes to psychopathy.
After all, is it possible for a baby to be a psychopath? Or is there something absent in the brain, which is then triggered by trauma?
It is important to realize that a person’s interactions “shape the structural and organizational characteristics of our brain.” (Nancy Darling, Ph.D.)
Parenting affects the cortisol and alpha amylase levels in our brain. When children are in an environment that encourages positive responses and communications when feeling unresponsive to feelings, as opposed to encouraging negative responses through the exposure to violence, teaches the child that it is normal to react in a violent way in order to get what you want.
“He believed even his parents feared him, which he relished all the more. His sometimes-tender self would suddenly change like a storm blackening the sky. His fits of rage caused people to scurry, delighting him, their terror—his drug.” (Initiated to Kill)
Children learn from the experiences they are exposed to the most. In the early years of their life, their main exposure is from their parents.
However, there are some children with underdeveloped or stunted amygdala, resulting in the areas of their brain connected with empathy, pain and fear to not develop effectively.
Psychopathy may be able to be recognized as early as around two years old. The benefit of recognizing and admitting the potential of certain children lacking empathy, means that those that surround them can help the children experience interactions which help to educate the child on the different responses for the different situations they come across.
Who is capable of being a Serial Killer?
“He would make friends easily; they seemed to flock to his charming and energetic self. But he got bored easily, so when they no longer amused him, he would just vanish, pretending they never existed.” (Initiated to Kill)
Serial killers don’t necessarily walk around appearing as though they are about to commit murder. Instead, many of them may appear ‘normal’. However, there can be some indicators that could cause a person to be more likely to commit vicious acts, and with other triggers, could be a violent combination.
Extreme antisocial behavior, voyeurism (watching a person in private setting), enjoys setting fires, and torturing or killing animals may lead to more serious acts of violence.
Other factors may be less noticeable. Some study results have suggested that male serial killers may have extremely high levels of testosterone.
Another genetic factor could be that they have abnormal levels of the brain chemical dopamine – which is responsible for motivation and pleasure.
Those with lower levels of dopamine require greater stimulation to achieve pleasure.
Do You See Them Coming?
No. Although, there are some traits that could indicate criminal tendencies, many proclaim how shocked they are when they discover who is behind sadistic acts.
Ted Bundy was considered a charming man, volunteering for the suicide hotline, and a college graduate. However, underneath that superficial exterior hid a psychopath that killed at least 36 women
H.H Holmes was a well-known pharmacist that had a torture dungeon in his basement.
John Wayne Gacy was a shoe salesman, entertained children as a clown, and active in his community. However, was a serial killer of young men.
Richard Angelo, a volunteer fire fighter, respected nurse and an Eagle Scout. He was so obsessed with being a hero he would poison patients so he could revive them.
Philip Maroff, eventually known as the Craigslist Killer was a member of the National Honor Society, promising student, and part of the youth court in school.
The Taunting’s of a Serial Killer.
There is one part of the ‘murder game’ many killers cannot resist, and that is to taunt police or victims, show how clever they are, mock them, dare them to catch them if they can.
Zodiac killer would mock the police for not deciphering his code. In 2018, his mocking finally caught up to him, and Joseph DeAngelo, a former police officer was finally caught. It is believed he put in practice before the big events by breaking into people’s homes to steal a personal item, or leave something behind.
Of course, one of the most notorious killers to taunt police, and still to this day not yet be fully identified is Jack the Ripper. He would go into great detail of what he did to his victims, and send it personally to the Police Commissioner.
“‘So now they say I am a Yid when will they lern Dear old Boss! You an me know the truth don’t we. Lusk can look forever hell never find me but I am rite under his nose all the time. I watch them looking for me an it gives me fits ha ha I love my work an I shant stop until I get buckled and even then watch out for your old pal Jacky
Catch me if you can Jack the Ripper
Sorry about the blood still messy from the last one. What a pretty necklace I gave her.”’” (Initiated to Kill)
The Happy Face killer become unhappy with the lack of attention he was getting with his killings, so he started writing letters to local media detailing his crimes and signing them with a happy face.
Taking on Different Personas
Serial killers could be considered some of the best actors, having to put on a fake mask for society, while their inner depths are raging with violent emotions.
Juana Barraza was considered Mexico’s first female serial killer, and often thought to have been a man for her physical strength and build. She would favor disguises like a nurse’s uniform to allow herself to get into older people’s homes, or would wear a pink Power Ranger costume.
The Phantom Killer, known for the white mask with cutout holes for his eyes and mouth would target couples in Lovers Lanes after dusk.
It could be considered strategic for killers to wear costumes to reduce the risk of any eyewitnesses recognizing them, or it may play into their role to become a different person once they have that disguise on.
James Eagan Holmes become known for his murdering spree, but more for is so-called fascination with the Joker from the Batman movies. At a midnight screening of the Dark Knight Rises, James shot 12 people at a movie theatre dressed as the Joker, dying his hair to look like him.
Other killers have keepsakes to use after their crimes to relive it.
Although wearing actual costumes during crimes isn’t all that common, serial killers tend to play with numerous roles to hide who they are, or to get a victim’s guard down.
Which could be why so many people are creeped out by clowns…
There is a theory to why there were so many different suspects in Jack the Ripper killings. One theory is that he dressed up in different costumes to throw off the scent and purposefully implicate others in the killings.
He acted, he played, and he enjoyed fooling people.
“Visiting the Red Cross, asking for military uniforms. Walking along the streets dressed in something different every time. Wearing a moustache or hat to disguise the color of his hair. He enjoyed fooling people, and he did just that. No one suspected who he really was, what he was really doing.” (Initiated to Kill)
The Urge to Continue Despite the Risk
One could say that killing may be like a drug, the high is addictive, the adrenaline pumping through the veins, the intense need for more, exposing the person to engage in more risky behavior to feed their addiction.
Serial killers are intent on self-preservation. Just like those that engage in behaviors to relieve stress, so to do serial killers.
Ted Bundy claimed he ‘craved’ killings as it helped him concentrate.
Israel Keyes was addicted to the thrill of the hunt.
“Elizabeth Wettlaufer… described a pressure that would build up before each murder and stated she started killing people to relieve anxiety.” (Joni E Johnston Psy.D)
Perhaps it is the boost of dopamine that occurs, resulting in feelings of pleasure. The more they do, the more they crave, the harder it is to stop, the greater the risk, the greater the rush.
What Happens if they are Never Caught?
The brain is capable of desensitization. Whether it is from external triggers like abuse, or intentional desensitization by continually exposing oneself to what they fear, confidence in what they are capable of doing can grow. Especially when they keep getting away with it.
The BTK Strangler killed multiple people in the 70s. Thirty years later, supposedly, he contacted the Wichita police again. Sending photographs of a murder in 1986, which had never been solved.
Thankfully, it would seem that finally this deprived psychopath was finally caught in 2005. Dennis Rader terrorized Kansas’s neighborhoods, which sent a flurry of home security systems to be installed. What could not have been foreseen was that Dennis Rader was the one installing these cameras, enabling him to become familiar with his victims’ surroundings.
So, what are the motives behind serial murders?
It is believed that one major motivation for serial killers is to seek that ultimate thrill. Serial killers like the Zodiac killer are motivated through the adrenaline rush of stalking their prey.
While others love the control they can exert over their victims, like Jeffrey Dahmer and David Berkowitz ‘Son of Sam’.
Another factor to keep in mind is that even when sexual assault occurs, it does not mean they are doing it for sexual gratification, rather, it tends to be the use of acts to control and humiliate their victims.
Ted Bundy would fantasize about killing; however, initially found the first act so terrifying and nerve wracking that he thought he would never do it again.
Brenda Spencer was an interesting case of a problem sixteen year old obsessed over violent films, and had been involved with drugs and petty theft. Owning a BB gun she would kill birds and break windows. However, when her father gave her a real gun, her psychopathic tendencies came to the forefront.
Setting herself up at Cleveland Elementary School, she went on a 20 minute shooting spree, killing two adults, and wounding nine children.
Even though she seemed to love the spotlight, her claimed motive for what she did shocked all – “I just don’t like Mondays… I did it because it’s a way to cheer the day up. No body likes Mondays…” (Brenda Spencer)
How to Use Profiling in Writing.
So, why do we want to know all this? Well, for authors, especially for those that write mysteries or thrillers, to have some understanding of the psyche of the killer helps to bring the person to life.
A vivid picture is created, the person feels real, their actions feel real, and they slowly progress through the story.
The antagonist, in my opinion, is just as important as the protagonist. They are two opposing forces that eventually have to collide. And, I guess, what makes it even more interesting, is that for some antagonists, you can almost feel sorry for them, can almost understand how they became who they are. And perhaps that is why criminal profiling is so fascinating – to learn what we may be capable of.
To read more about Jack the Ripper and a present-day killer, you can find my historical/present day psychological thriller here: