The Psychology of a Serial Killer by Janice Gable Bashman and Jonathan Maberry
It’s often difficult for writers to get inside the head of a serial killer, to understand his or her motives, background, etc. After all, who wants to think like that? But in order to create three-dimensional characters, we must delve into that psychology and understand what drives killers to perform the acts they do. For our book WANTED UNDEAD OR ALIVE we asked the experts about the psychology of a serial killer. Here’s what we discovered:
JOHN DOUGLAS: Most [serial killers] have some type of dysfunction in their background in early childhood, a homicidal triangle that includes enuresis due to abuse, fire setting and animal cruelty. This is a big predictor of future problems for law enforcement… Most serial killers, no matter how they look or come across, have really low self-esteem and feelings of inadequacies… and what they can do to become a somebody is take control and go on the hunt and find victims who are susceptible—someone drunk, someone with a broken-down vehicle, etc… Many of the serial killers have backgrounds where they want to be in law enforcement, counseling, and ministry—in all three of those occupations someone is going to them for help and there is an element of power in that…Serial killers don’t look like one eyed monsters but look like your next door neighbor.
MARK E. SAFARIK: Most serial offenders seek the feeling they get by being in control, by being all powerful. There are few things that make you feel as powerful as controlling whether someone will live or die. Many of them gain this feeling of power and control through sexual assault. For many of them the killing and associated activity provides a sexual release sometimes though this is obtained through non-sexual activity (torture).
Most of these individuals would be diagnosed as psychopaths and as such, have no empathy or remorse for their victims. They have shallow affects. They are users and abusers of people and relationships so we would expect them to have poor interpersonal skills. They can often mimic emotions but they do not feel them so most relationships are superficial. Of course there will be some outliers but overall that statement is probably accurate.
There may be multiple motives during the course of the homicide. These motives are complex, layered, and there is usually more than one. They can rise and fall in importance depending on the current circumstances…People want men who are that dangerous and aberrant to be recognizable. The sad reality is that the reason most serial killers are successful is because they blend into society. They look and act much like everyone else except when they are satisfying their predatory appetite.
M. WILLIAM PHELPS: We all have demons to contend with. Some of us choose to get over them. Serial killers—especially the female—believe that what they are doing is what needs to be done; and because of that, they are unwilling to work through those demons. In turn, they need to act out on them. There is no other way.
Dr. CYNTHIA LEA CLARK: There are many reasons that serial killers evolve. One, they are created by circumstances such as humiliation, abuse, molestation, etc. Second, some are born that way. Third, chemical imbalances and certain medical conditions such as tumors, etc. can in some cases cause violence…. A potential serial killer may be cutting the grass next door and being seemingly human and then boom he snaps. Something has triggered him or her to start a series of murders. For the most part they are high stressors like the death of a parent, spouse, being fired for one’s job, etc.
GARY C. KING: In some respects, the serial killer is like the mythical vampire—neither can help themselves in the horrors they create toward mankind. Of course, the vampire feeds on human blood for sustenance, and in a way the serial killer is able to sustain himself or herself through the pleasure they gain from taking another human life, often after torturing the victim. The pleasure attained from killing or victimizing becomes addicting, and serial killers, much like the rapist, often get their kicks by the control they find they can exert over others. But the serial killer has a choice—it’s just difficult for such people to control their urges, and they often go through a psychosexual offense cycle similar to that of the pedophile and/or sex offender, perhaps a way for the killer to attain some type of pent up psychological release. Even with help, such beings will never be able to overcome their aberrant urges—the most they can hope for is to learn methods that can help them control their behavior when their unnatural urges to victimize other people strikes.
Meet the experts:
John Douglas is the former unit chief of the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crimes. He interviewed, hunted and confronted many serial killers and is the author of MINDHUNTER: INSIDE THE FBI’S ELITE SERIAL CRIME UNIT and THE ANATOMY OF MOTIVE. There are dozens of articles about serial killer and other resources on his website.
Mark E. Safarik retired from the FBI after 23 years serving the last 12 as a senior profiler in the FBI’s famed Behavioral Analysis Unit and is now the Executive Director of Forensic Behavioral Services International, a consulting firm based in Virginia.
M. William Phelps is a crime/serial killer expert, investigative journalist and the award-winning author of fourteen nonfiction books, including KILL FOR ME, the final book in a trilogy about couples who kill.
Dr. Cynthia Lea Clark had conducted more than 70 interviews with serial killers and mass murderers.
Gary C. King has published numerous true crime books (RAGE, AN ALMOST PERFECT MURDER) and more than 400 articles in true crime magazines.
To dig deeper on this topic and for more information from these experts and others, check out the book WANTED UNDEAD OR ALIVE (http://jonathanmaberry.com/wanted-undead-or-alive) by New York Times bestseller and multiple Bram Stoker award-winner Jonathan Maberry (http://www.jonathanmaberry.com) and Janice Gable Bashman (http://www.janicegablebashman.com). In bookstores everywhere.