One of the most irrational fears a person can have is being murdered by a serial killer. While the thought of being butchered in your bed by a real-life Hannibal Lecter is terrifying, the odds against it happening are overwhelmingly positive. With the chances of being murdered outright standing at under 4% and taking into account that serial murderers account for 0.01% of all homicides, then the odds of being slaughtered by a serial killer are around 2 million to one – you have more chance of being struck by lightning.
What makes the idea of serial killers so terrifying is that they are real-life bogeymen, the unstoppable monster whose only aim in life is to kill and destroy. They are also almost impossible to spot. Multiple murderers come from all walks of life and all races and religions, with no way of predicting who could turn out to be a merciless killer. The stereotype of an evil genius working and living away from the rest of society is hokum; Ted Bundy went to law school and Dennis Rader was a happily married church leader with children. While there is no common identikit that all serial killers share, there are a number of traits that are either common amongst them or can be applied to a significant proportion. The list is not a perfect science – if it were, it would be a lot easier to stop them before they began their murderous careers – but the entries do ring true in a lot of famous cases.
10. They Tend To Be Male
There are a number of famous cases of serial killers turning out to be female. Aileen Wuornos murdered seven men and British pediatric nurse Beverley Allit received 13 life sentences for murdering children in her care. However, the overwhelming number of serial killers are male, accounting for nearly 91% of cases in the past twelve decades.
There are no easy answers as to why the massive gender disproportion exists. Psychologists have hypothesised that innate male aggressiveness can be exacerbated by depression and feelings of isolation during puberty, leading to a maelstrom of rage that simply doesn’t develop in females, but the figures are largely inexplicable.
9. They’re Usually White
A study by Radford University in 2014 found that 52% of all serial killers between 1900 and 2014 were of a white ethnic background. While this study applies specifically to North American serial killers, the infamy of butchers such as John Wayne Gacy and Jeffery Dahmer tends to lead to many visualising serial killers as being white males.
There are, of course notable exceptions to this generalisation. African-Americans, such as Wayne Williams represent 20% of the total and Rafael Resendez-Ramirez was known as the ‘Railroad Killer’, a Mexican national who slaughtered fifteen people in the southern US states. It tends to be white males who become infamous icons, such as Bundy and David Berkowitz. This is less a reflection of the racial composition of serial killers and more about the media and ethnic make-up of Western cultures such as Britain and the US, where books and films about serial killers remain immensely popular.
8. They’re Most Commonly American
There are two statistics that should terrify citizens of the USA: not only have 76% of all recorded instances of serial murder been recorded in the States, but there are currently at least 300 serial killers at large within the country. The states with the highest concentration of multiple murderers are California and New York/New Jersey. Naturally, the remaining 24% of the world has a depressing abundance of the phenomenon, with Australia and the UK having disproportionately high numbers of cases compared to their population figures. Germany and South Africa also have a significant history of serial killing, discounting cases of genocide or mass murder such as Hitler or Apartheid terrorism, which falls under an entirely different classification from serial killing.
The right to bear arms and issues with gun control laws probably have little to do with the astonishingly high number of American cases – a serial killer’s compulsion to kill has little to do with the weapons readily available to them.
7. They Wet The Bed
Criminologists have developed a system of early warning signs in an attempt to improve profiling of serial killers and spot potential offenders earlier. Consisting of three childhood symptoms that occur in a high number of recognised cases, the system is called the triad.
The first sign is chronic bed-wetting, carrying on into early puberty. In over 60% of recorded cases, killers were still wetting the bed into early adolescence. While the problem can have medical causes and shouldn’t always be seen as a red flag, it is possibly a manifestation of psychological issues in serial killers such as a lack of self-control and emotional instability. Taken by itself, bed-wetting can be a surprisingly common problem but, combined with two other traits, can be regarded as a danger signal.
6. They Have A History Of Abusing Animals
There are many instances of serial killers beginning their macabre obsessions with death in childhood by torturing and killing animals. Such abuse of defenseless creatures is another trait regarded as a red flag by criminologists and forms the second of the triad.
The Boston Strangler used to trap puppies and kittens in crates as a child and then shoot them with a bow and arrow, while Earl Kenneth Shriner used to insert firecrackers into dogs’ rectums. He went on to murder and mutilate young boys. Dahmer impaled small animals on sticks. The psychology of such abuse isn’t hard for a layman to understand. The perpetrator exercises control and power over a smaller, defenceless victim and develops feelings of domination and self-respect. Unchecked, this can warp into delusions of grandeur and transmit to taking human victims. The children who never learn that strangling a kitten is wrong can grow into inhumane monsters with no sense of the value of human life.
5. They Like To Start Fires
The third key element of the triad is pyromania – the compulsion to start fires. George Adorno became a killer in his teens, but he set fire to his own sister when he was four. Carl Panzram burned down his own reformatory. The urge to start fires ties in with the compulsion to destroy. The killer is overwhelmed by the need to control and manipulate and arson provides a gateway into serial killing by providing an easy way to explore these needs. As the subject grows older, arson becomes less of a viable way to control and destroy and a higher buzz is sought out.
The Son of Sam killer, David Berkowitz, was a notorious pyromaniac in his childhood and early teens to the extent that he was nicknamed ‘Pyro’ by his peers. He is suspected of being responsible for 1,400 cases of arson in New York state.
4. They Have Normal-Bright To High IQ’s
The average person has an IQ of between 100-110. A genius level IQ is regarded as anything above 145, with sub-standard usually falling below 95. The vast majority of serial killers – though not all – have fallen in the 110-145+ range, placing them as being normal-bright to highly intelligent.
Serial killers usually fall into two types – organised and disorganised. The former plan their murders methodically and have an average IQ of 113. This type of killer usually has a set routine and distinctive ‘signature’. Their high intelligence helps them to work out more efficient ways of killing and evading capture. They are the more common type of serial killer; think law graduate Ted Bundy and Ed Kemper, who scored 136.
Disorganised serial killers are more likely to strike at random victims with a sloppy, rushed style and are captured quicker. Their average IQ is 93.
3. They Are Voyeurs
A high proportion of serial killers display signs of perversive behavior before and during their killing spree. Much of this has sexual overtones, such as indulging in auto-erotic asphyxiation, fetishism, sadomashichism and voyeurism.
Voyeurism ties in with the themes of control and manipulation that are prevalent in a serial killer’s behavior. It is a form of stalking and can be deemed a form of sexual abuse when it takes on the form of titillation. Bundy used to get drunk in law school and stalk the campus in search of women undressing or having sex, where he would then spy on them through their windows. While voyeurism in itself is not always dangerous behavior, it can often be a form of exerting power over unsuspecting and unwilling victims. It is another early sign of unhealthy behavior towards others.
2. They Were Sexually/Psychologically Abused In Childhood
There is a debate amongst the criminological community about nature versus nurture in regards to serial killers. Are they born psychologically damaged or are they a product of their environment? The psychology of killers is complex and there is no catch-all solution to this question – the answer is very open.
A huge amount of famous serial killers suffered horrific traumas during childhood. Aileen Wuornos was abandoned by her mother and taken into the care of her grandfather, who sexually abused her throughout her childhood. Joseph Kallinger tortured and murdered his own son along with several other young boys – he was routinely beaten and whipped by his own parents as a child. Dahmer’s father sold him to a friend as a slave when he was nine. Such traumatic abuse instills feelings of worthlessness and despair in the pre-adolescent, who then grows up to believe such feelings to be normal. They then take revenge against their victims as a way of dealing with their issues. Not every killer has a tumultuous upbringing, however: Paul Bernado grew up in a rich, middle-class (albeit dysfunctional) family.
1. They Have A Complete Lack Of Empathy
By far and away the key component that marries the psychology of the majority of serial killers is their complete lack of empathy. They are cataclysmically unable to view their behavior as abhorrent and view the suffering of another human being as totally irrelevant.
The inability to process empathy isn’t restricted solely to serial killers. It is a common sign of psychopathy and can be found amongst many high achievers, including businessmen, sports stars and even world leaders. The only thing preventing them from committing crimes is the inconvenience breaking the law would cause to their self-interests. When you add a complete disregard for laws and social conventions to an utter lack of empathy, the terrifying result may just be a serial killer.