The criminal homicide rate for the United States is currently at its lowest rate during the last forty years (6.3 per 100,000 people in 1998: Bureau of Justice Statistics); yet according to the media and entertainment fields, homicide is reaching epidemic proportions.Unfortunately these fields tend to exploit the concept of homicide in American society, rather than attempting to understand and control it. No where is this more prevalent than in the study of a small subset of criminal homicide referred to as serial murder. This area of serial homicide specifically refers to the murder of several victims by a single person, generally unknown to the victim, over a designated period of time. Serial murder and those who commit it have always been around but have only really come to national attention in the last thirty years. Since the 1970s people have been fascinated with and horrified by serial murderers. Despite the enormous amount of coverage of serial killers by video and print media, television, and movies, relatively few sources of information about them exist and even less is known. The details of ones crimes tend to be sensationalized, making rationalization very difficult, but what is lost among the horror and gore are the motives and reasons that lead a person to do this. What causes a person to kill again and again?
An attempt to explain, rationalize and predict has plagued law enforcement and medical personnel for a considerable amount of time. If law enforcement is to create proactive, rather than reactive, strategies to this type of criminal behavior then they must be able to understand why it happens. Unfortunately we still do not have a clear understanding for the motives of murder, thus making understanding serial murder that much more difficult. Coming to any definite conclusions or making any definitive statements is not currently possible, the best that experts can do is make broad generalizations and educated guesses. Current literature on the subject comes to a number of fairly educated (and a few non-educated) conclusions that help to explain serial murder. Only a relatively few studies have been done that include in-depth first hand interviews with the perpetrators of the crimes themselves. This analysis of past offenders has elicited several key behavioral and childhood similarities among this sub-group of homicide perpetrators including: physical and psychological abuse, neglect, and violent fantasy creations. These conclusions tend to dominate the study of serial murder and its creation, often neglecting other possible contributions. This data brings up the question then of why only a handful of the many abused children become serial murderers. This and other theories of childhood socialization, including a critical analysis of current ideas and theories regarding the construction of serial murderers, are the focus of the following work.
Due to the inability of professionals to reach a uniform consensus on the definition of serial murder, those murderers in whose homicides involve trolling, or roaming and lust (those who murder for the sheer desire of it)(Keeney & Heide, 1995) will be the focus of this work. For the purposes of this paper, nurses who murder patients, contract killers and babysitters or parents who murder children, as well as other similar such types of multiple murder, will be eliminated because they are currently not considered within the field of serial murder.
First-degree homicide, or murder, is defined as intending or knowing that the persons conduct will cause death, such person causes the death of another with premeditation (ARS 13-1105). The key points being intending and premeditation. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the FBIs Uniform Crime Report (FBI UCR), the two federal record keepers of criminal reported activity, just under 17,000 people were victims of homicide in 1998. Of those, only twenty two percent (3,800) were women murdered by men. The most likely victim of homicide is a young male (18-24 years old); three times more likely than a female of the same age bracket (U.S. Department of Justice, 1999). Mental illness or abnormality has been examined as a possible corollary to violent criminal acts, though research currently shows that there exists no pattern matching any psychiatric diagnosis category withcriminal violent behavior (Steadman, 1987).It must be emphasized that there exists no general or specific relationship between violent crime and mental disorders. In most issues involving the prediction of criminal violence, mental illness remains rather irrelevant.
Child socialization, or the way in which a child is raised (including home environment, parental interaction, and parent-child interaction), influences and shapes the individuals behavior (Akers, 1998), and has been used as a corollary to violent activity. If violence is used or exhibited in the home, whether among the parents (domestic abuse and violent arguments) or directed at the child (physical punishment or physically manifested child abuse), then the child will become violent when they get older, as the current ideology states. Current findings have shown that a number of violent criminals were raised in violent or abusive homes (Steadman, 1987), but what has not been found is that child abuse is directly linked to or is a cause of future violent behavior. This analysis, from a retrospective viewpoint, provides a false sense of hope for the prediction of violent criminal behavior. Unfortunately, current research can offer no better than one accurate prediction in three (Miller, 1987).
Applying the term serial to murder raises further problems and questions. Serial implies that several murders have taken place at different times (Lester, 1995). Currently there is no universal definition as to what defines one as a serial murderer, though the general consensus is a killer who methodically slays three or more people over a period of thirty days (Lester, 1995). The three key factors are the time period, number of victims, and the fact that it is methodical and systematic. Each of these three parts is important because without any one of them, a different label would be attached to the perpetrator. Without the methodical premeditation, simply slaying three or more over a period of time is considered a spree killer because there is no cool-down process for the planning to occur. Without the timeframe component, the assailant who kills three or more methodically is labeled a mass murderer due to the relatively large number of victims over a short period of time. Without the specific number accounted for, the crime is labeled simply as homicide. Serial murder, as a phenomenon, encompasses an extremely small portion of the criminal category of murder. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that only four percent of all homicides committed in 1998 involved multiple victims, with the percentage of crimes falling rapidly for three or more victims: 0.5% involved 3 victims, 0.1% involved 4 victims and 0.05% involved 5 or more victims (U.S. Department of Justice). These numbers illustrate the true rarity of the crime, the victimization and number of offenders, in contrast to what the media presents. Viewers are led to believe that serial killing is a common type of homicide due to the increased number of media presentations (Fox and Levin, 1999) The media puts forth and perpetuates the notion of the need to be in constant fear because any stranger could cause harm, where as in reality strangers were identified as offenders in only thirteen percent of murders in 1998 (FBI- Department of Justice).
Although argued by many scholars, serial murder is nowhere near epidemic proportions. Regrettably, it is virtually impossible to measure with any degree of certainty the scope of the problem simply because many crimes committed by serial murderers are unknown to authorities. Many victims are simply reported as missing persons due to the fact that many serial murderers target those in marginal groups (runaways, prostitutes, and drug users), whose disappearance may not be noticed or fretted over (Fox and Levin, 1999).
Past studies have often looked at childhood and home environment to establish a corollary to their current behavior. Ressler, Burgess, Douglas, (1988) in a study of serial murderers for the FBI, found a number of similarities among the family environment of their target group. Factors involving the home and family environments as well as relationships among and between family members were examined. Nearly seventy percent of the families had histories of alcohol abuse. Seventy-four percent endured some form of psychological abuse in the home at the hands of their parents and almost were exposed to physical abuse. These numbers found by the FBI study would appear to bolster the common social (mis)conception of bad home environments creating or at least contributing to future behavior. Though evidence of family structure was startling: over sixty percent of families remained intact with both original parents present. True, a large portion of serial killers did suffer some form of abuse in the home, little comparison between them and abused subjects in the general public have been conducted. Abuse, both physical and psychological, can be found in the biographies of normal people as well; again emphasizing the rarity of the individual and event. This type of analysis has the same problems, though, that looking at traditional violent criminals does. Discovering patterns between individuals behavior now with the way they were raised is really only case specific. Researchers can look at one individual and then at their youth and make connections, but they still only work for that individual. These patterns that are discovered are not enough to be able to predict or even assume future violent acts by a child; although most scholars see these connections and jump to, as they see it, natural conclusions and predictions about these murderers.
The types of abuse, psychological (maltreatment, neglect, verbal degradation, even adoption) and physical (hitting, slapping, kicking), suffered by many of these offenders begin at a young age to separate them from others. It creates a sense of powerlessness, of low self-esteem and a desire to have that control (which they feel they have lost) over people. They begin to realize that they have had no control or power over their own actions or lives. Often, like many children, they will withdraw themselves and enter a fantasy world to escape; however, in their fantasies they have all of the power and control that they do not have in their lives. The development of these fantasies revolve around extreme dominance, ultimate power and perverse love: all the emotions and feelings they have not achieved in their own lives. The more they retreat into fantasy and the greater their home environment reinforces it, the worse it becomes. Eventually, the possibility of combining the fantasy world with the real world may occur, bringing with it terrible results. Fantasies build and grow until the need to act it out, in order to feel the power, becomes overwhelming. Current studies have found such fantasies to play an important part among serial murderers (Ressler, et al; Prentky. et al.). The need to realize and experience all of the dominance and control that they have fantasized about culminates in the abduction and probable murder of a human being.
Motivations for this type of serious violent crime are as abundant and varied as in any other field of crime. The drive for the crime, the type of victim chosen and the type of killing are very often directly linked to the concept of power and domination (Ressler, et al, 1988). Often resulting from, though not always, the culmination and extension of those built up childhood fantasies. After a while the fantasies alone are not stimulating enough for the individual and more is needed to culminate ones excitement. One attempts to actually dominate another human being in real life; essentially bringing the fantasy world into reality. The long time imaginings of possessing and having complete power over someone, as their parents or guardians did them, can now be realized and acted upon.
For heterosexual men, young and elderly women become their targets at first because of the ease with which to dominate, as are younger boys for homosexual men. The age difference allows them to use little physical force and more psychological impairment (fear and aggression) over the victim. The power play boosts their confidence and increases their desire to continue. Though rape is not always involved, this type of crime is considered sexual homicide; due to the fact that the offender, as a culmination of their fantasy, will often receive extreme sexual gratification, in the form of either actual orgasms or simply a feeling of extreme pleasure. Sexual homicide is a crime that demonstrates an obvious and dominating orientation as a primary motivating factor (Kelleher, 1997).
Taking a victims life, to murderer, is the ultimate act of control and ultimately provides the impetus for continued action. The most common method of murder is strangulation or asphyxiation, due to its ability to show the victim their own lack of control. Strangulation is a very personal crime permitting the victim and the killer to be at a very close range and allowing the offender to observe the emotions that the victim is experiencing while struggling for life. By being able to look into the victims eyes while they are killing them and see the fear and horror of the obvious provides the needed conclusion to their power struggle. Because these fantasies were played out in the killers mind for so long and envisioned so well the reality of the action is often a let down, this drives the killer to act again and again with the idea of doing it better and actually succeeding in fulfilling the craving. The desire of power and control often extends beyond simply the victim. Many killers even interact with law enforcement, prodding them with questions about the cases. This is part of their fantasy-driven criminal strategy to prove their ability to control and dominate the situation (Kelleher, 1997).
Even though serial murder is an extended form of homicide, there are many differences between the serial and traditional murder. Motives for the crime, commission of the crime and the type of victim are the biggest separation between the two. The motive for traditional murder is usually quite evident, even if the offender is unknown. Common reasons include jealousy, revenge, monetary, and even just pure anger (bar brawls). Homicide of this nature is usually an explosion of emotion directed at the victim that ends with the taking of their life. It is generally a quick, decisive action involving a knife or a gun, aiming for a quick and easy resolution to the problem. If premeditated, it will still often take on these same characteristics, except that the timeframe of action is simply extended. The offender also usually knows the victim in cases of traditional homicide: a family member, friend, acquaintance or co-worker.With serial murder both time and circumstances are very different; motive beginning with a fantasy of power, un-acted upon until a potential victim is presented. Once an offender decides that he will take a life, they will begin trolling (or roaming) for a possible victim to cross their path. Once someone who happens to fit the correct profile (of an easy victim) for that offender stalking and/or planning begins. Planning can be spontaneous or (more likely) take a long amount of time. The attack, often involving a kidnapping, occurs in order to take the victim to an isolated place. A remote location is needed to allow the killer to have time with the victim undisturbed (can be a house, a vehicle, or the mountains--any private area). Once out of sight of others, the killers fantasy is lived out and the body dumped or buried to get rid of the evidence, (see Kelleher, 1997; Douglas, 1997; Douglas, 1995; Lester, 1995; Norris, 1988;). The victim is almost always a stranger to the offender, which allows the killer to depersonalization the victim and makes the act that much easier for him. It is also often someone who fits a particular profile, wrong place at the wrong time victimology. One killer targeted college aged women with long brown hair, parted in the middle; a young, white, male homosexual killer looked for gay, black men at local gay bars; a middle-aged homosexual killer trolled the bus stations looking for young boys who were alone.
Child abuse and neglect have been demonstrated as corollaries to violent behavior (including serial murder) in adulthood, but it has not been shown to be the cause of violent criminal behavior or serial murderer development. When the case of a serial murderer is uncovered, journalists and behavioral scientists tend to search the offenders childhood for clues. Child abuse and neglect are unfortunately much more prevalent problems in society and if they were as strong a contributor (Fox and Levin, 1999) to serial murder as some suggest, then we would have many times more serial killers than we actually do. Among those serial killers studied for research purposes, child neglect was found to be the most common (Ressler, et al., 1988). The National Exchange Club Foundation (1999), a private clearinghouse for child abuse information and prevention techniques, defines neglect as a type of maltreatment that refers to the failure to provide age-appropriate care. The NEC Foundation compiles its information from state Child Protective Services (CPS) agencies across the country. This includes those necessities needed for the development of physical, intellectual and emotional capabilities; particularly the needs for shelter, food, clothing, education, supervision, and medical care. Of the several types of child neglect (physical, educational, emotional and medical) emotional neglect leaves the worst hidden scars (NEC Foundation, 1999).These scars manifest in the form of insecurity, poor self-esteem, destructive behavior, withdrawal, poor development of social skills, (NEC Foundation, 1999, Porter, 1999), as well as distorted perceptions of interpersonal relationships with peers (Ammerman, 1986). These being the most common results from neglectful behavior as a child, violent tendencies should not be considered a surprise: what is surprising is the very limited number of victims of child abuse who become perpetrators of murder. A compilation of statewide CPS statistics for 1999 report that over one million children were confirmed to have been the victim of child abuse and neglect, with another three million cases (involving four million children) which were reported to CPS agencies (NEC Foundation, 1999).It is impossible to know how many other cases, possibly millions more, which never reach the system and are never found out about. Of all those children suffering abuse at the hands of a parent or guardian, only a very small handful of them become involved in violent crime and an even smaller number become serial murderers. Very little research is currently available pertaining to these circumstances, even though this is the important question when looking at the link between child abuse and violent criminal behavior.
Unfortunately determining the precise extent of any type of abuse on children is very difficult. There are several factors within the field of abuse alone that will determine future outcomes: age of abuse, length of abuse, time frame (in life) and extent (Porter, 1999). These aspects, along with any other external ones, create too many possibilities to be able to say with any certainty that simple abuse during childhood will lead to violence or social maladjustment.This complex interaction between abuse and other factors which may play a causative role (Ammerman et al., 1986) in the development of serial killer creation is often overlooked. A focused type approach is generally used, narrowing in on just social factors or just biological factors, rarely ever is one of mixed factors used. The narrow approach currently used may be the biggest problem with the study of serial murder.
Several main theoretical approaches are used (though not outwardly stated as sociological) in an attempt to rationalize, explain and predict this type of behavior. Although these approaches work well for understanding individuals, they do not work on the wide scale of attempting to predict future events. They are better suited for a case-by-case analysis rather than for broad generalizations of the entire group. There are too many different factors that sociological explanations alone cannot capture within the whole realm of activities that contribute to the making of serial killers and the perpetuation of serial murder. Socialization theories, including social learning theory, are widely used to explain the existence of serial killers. They are the most commonly used rationalization for why it is some people can kill repeatedly. These theories take into consideration numerous social factors that may have a direct or indirect impact on a young childs social and cognitive development. They are: child abuse (physical and psychological), parental treatment of the child, parental interaction (domestic violence) and the use of violence as solution in the home.The main focus for those scholars, which take this approach, is the development and reinforcement of violence as acceptable in the mind of a child, such as: were their thoughts, speech and behavior are influenced and shaped by parental interaction. A reciprocal model of behavior begins to form when the child internalizes the behavior of a parent, and then turns around and acts accordingly (Akers, 1998). In a normal parent-child relationship, these actions of internalization and reinforcement, allow the child to learn what is considered proper behavior and what is not. The probability that an act will be committed or repeated is increased directly by rewarding outcomes or reactions to it (Akers, 1998). This learning by action and consequence (either negative or positive) is important for a child to determine right from wrong. After a while, one begins to learn how to control their own behavior without directly or consistently applied social sanctions (Akers, 1998). If this type of learning is skewed, where all actions are wrong or prohibited, then the aforementioned loss of power can occur. If a child is always told or made to believe that everything they say or do is wrong, group interaction may cease all together. A child in this situation may tend to turn their actions inward in order to avoid negative confrontations regarding their behavior. They tend to play only by themselves, develop imaginary friends instead of playing with real ones and talk to themselves more. By controlling their actions in this way, messages of power loss and a negative self-image are reinforced rather than more healthy messages for a child.Unfortunately this theoretical perspective only works at the individual level for the study of serial murderers. We are neglecting several key factors if we attempt to use this analysis with all abused children. There are some serial murderers that were never abused or socialized in this way as a child.We also have millions of children who may be treated and socialized this way who are able to develop normally and lead very productive lives. What is it that allow some children to develop normally under abusive conditions and others not to? Mental and emotional abuse can account for the ability to depersonalize a victim in the killers mind and a distancing of oneself from the crime, but it cannot account for the taking of a life multiple times. Simply linking violence and a loss of personal control in the home to homicide and serial homicide is a long stretch, full of holes that need to be filled with more data. We are still looking at a case-by-case analysis instead of a broad overall explanation model.
Another popular approach to the explanation of such behavior is a model similar to control theory, though, not directly stated as such. Control theory assumes that delinquent acts result when an individuals bond with society is weak or broken. Travis Hirschi (1969) accounts for deviance through control theory by stating, if a person does not care about the wishes and expectations of other peoplethen he is to that extent not bound by the norms. He or she is, for all intensive purposes within the context of this theoretical perspective, free to deviate from the norm if he or she does not agree with them. The contents of this theory are often used to interpret the step that serial killers make to move the fantasy world into reality. This triggering-effect that breaks them free of simply fantasizing about the crime and actually committing it is interpreted by social scientists as happening due to their lack of attachments to others (Travis Hirschi, 1969). The ability to depersonalize the victim and distance oneself from the crime enough, during the killers first murder, which allows one to overcome any moral dilemma, can be understood through the framework of this theory. Though it can help to understand how one gets over any moral obstacles in order to commit their first homicide, it cannot help us with how they reached the point of murder. Control theory still does not explain how the mind set revolving around murder is created; nor can it help us with the understanding of why serial murderers continue to kill after the first time. What motivates them to continually act in such a devastating way, killing again and again? Like many other theories of explanation, control theory falls short of being able to account for everyone within the group. A number of successful serial killers were able to live what appeared to be normal lives as well as hold down good jobs while committing their special crimes. One middle-aged killer owned and operated a $300,000 a year contracting business and conformed to all known social and political obligations, including donning a clown suit to entertain sick children at a local hospital and organizing a parade for some twenty thousand people (Ressler, 1997); all the while, kidnapping and murdering over thirty young boys. A second very famous and successful killer was enrolled in and succeeded in law school during the commission of his crimes (Douglas, 1995). If a true break with society was needed to commit these crimes, then being able to put up and maintain all of these extra acts of normalcy would have been nearly impossible. Similar to the previous theoretical discussion of socialization, control theory only provides answers to a small part of the puzzle and even then on a case-by-case basis.
Through the extensive research done by this author (nearly one hundred books and journal articles over the last eighteen months) numerous observations have been made and a few key conclusions have been reached. Though the amount of literature is copious, both in journal articles and books on the subject, the actual amount of research available is limited, making what appears to be an infinite amount of potential for research, in reality, very scarce. Much of the literature presented on the topic of serial homicide, similar to other social science research available, is simply reinterpretations and a recycling of previous theories and ideas. Studies that claim to use first hand information for interpretation are usually taken from biographical information written by a second party, and not the individual. It has come to the attention of this author, as noticed in the progression of several books through time, that statistical information is reported incorrectly over and over again. This large amount of regurgitated information, often faulty the first time around, makes the actual in-depth study and conclusion formation exceedingly difficult. Actually being able to determine what information and data is correct and accurate is tedious and time consuming: to saying nothing of the ability to eliminate the information that is not useful. These observations may not have been noticed or were simply disregarded by previous authors in their attempt at publishing articles and books on the topic. This particular finding brings up more questions than answers, both between the original topic of serial homicide and the processes by which we study them; leaving this author bewildered and wondering if finding a solution is truly the desired end result, even if that means admitting failure. Nearly all of the literature researched for this paper attempted to come to a definitive conclusion as to the reason behind the creation of these killers. These observations lead this author to disturbing conclusions with regards to whether we will ever know the true explanation behind these people; or if we even really want to know how such horrible and deadly people are created.
It is the personal opinion of this author that truly understanding the social phenomenon known as serial homicide cannot be done through simple generalizations and interpretations of childhood, adolescent or adult behavior. Numerous authors have attempted to say that the presence of a triad of childhood action (bed-wetting, fire starting and animal cruelty) will predict future violent behaviors, most importantly serial murder (Douglas, 1995, Ressler 1997, Norris, 1988). This evidence, cited by social scientists and other scholars, simply reinforces the notion that each case can only be understood within the context of their individual circumstances. Previous researchers have had the right idea about looking at a killers childhood but the error comes in the application of facts found therein to the group as a whole. Looking at the situations in which a child was raised, parental influences (negative and positive) at childhood and puberty, social opportunities, possible neurological factors, and a family history of mental disorders can, in this authors view, help to understand the circumstances of that individual. Those observations, however, are still only good for interpreting the actions of that one person. The variation that makes these crimes (from a law enforcement point of view) exceedingly difficult to solve, also makes it virtually impossible to predict. We, as social scientists, can comprehend the activities at an individual level only, and as much as this author would love to find a common thread that runs through the entire phenomenon, one just does not exist. The closest we, as a society, can come to controlling this problem is to change the way we interact with and socialize our children, hoping for change. This is assuming that the entire occurrence is based solely on social factors, discounting biology, psychology, a combination of these and many other possible influences. I, as a researcher of this topic, currently discount nothing, nor do I accept any explanation given in a definitive form. Serial murder, in various forms, has existed in the world for hundreds of years, originally being accredited to witches, ghost and ghouls. There is so much more research to be done in this field that it would be nave for us to think we can solve it so easily and quickly.
Presented here was a tremendous amount of information regarding the social event known as serial murder. The attempt of this author was to educate the reader to what current research has to say, where it came from and the direction that it is currently taking. As we have seen, most research on the topic takes on various manifestations of the same theme; a large section of which takes a socialization viewpoint as to how serial killers were created. Some social researchers added various questions to this theme: including issues of biology, neurology and mental illness. There exist simply too many variables to contend with in the study of serial homicide. Still, these scholars are simply posing the same questions that have always been asked and are not necessarily answering any of them. The reason for this, as is the belief of this author, is that questions are all we will ever have. Answers are not available regarding why, how and when in serial murder. As upsetting as it is to this researcher, actually admitting, especially to ourselves, that not being able to find an answer has to be the first step. Possibly moving the focus of a proactive strategy to the identification of victims and perpetrators, from troubled children, is our best bet for success. Focusing on identification rather than prediction should be looked at as the nest possible step. Being able to stop these killers very early instead of wasting money researching childhood behavior, which is obviously not currently working, needs to occur. The ultimate conclusion of this author is that we will never be able to fight this problem to extinction. As sad and unfortunate as it is, as long as there are people who desire to ultimately control others, this problem will persist. The more we understand about this, the more it becomes a reflection of society and the direction it is taking.