As a society, we are fascinated by serial killers. Their thoughts and actions are so far removed from what we consider to be normal and, try as we might, we cannot understand them. They disgust and terrify us, but somehow we can’t get enough of them. In modern society, serial killers attract a lot of "admirers", much like celebrities.
Serial killers are classified by their organizational and social skills. Their crime scenes usually reveal whether they are organized (these types of killers will often dismember their victims and leave a controlled crime scene or notes for the police or media) or disorganized. If they purposefully exclude themselves from society they are considered non-social and if they're rejected by society they are classed as asocial. In terms of intelligence organized serial killers fall in the normal to slightly above normal range.
The majority of identified serial killers are organized and non-social. About 80% of them are white males between the age of 20 and 30. But no one serial killer is exactly like another. Their methods, timing, appearances and motivation all vary. But there are a few traits and characteristics that most of them seem to share. Here are a few traits that serial killers have in common.
15 They Abuse And Kill Animals
Almost all serial killers admit that they began their path of violence and death by hurting animals. For an emerging killer, small animals are good practice because they are trusting and defenseless. They feel pleasure and elation when acting out violently and they kill animals as a way to perfect their techniques before moving on to human victims.
Killing or abusing animals for fun is one of the first manifestations of serious emotional disturbance in childhood. Unfortunately, because most serial killers come from dysfunctional homes, this behavior is often not noticed or simply ignored.
Jeffrey Dahmer, David Berkowitz (AKA Son of Sam Killer), and Ted Bundy, all said that small animals were their first kill. And we all know how those stories ended, don’t we?
14 They Have A Cooling Off Period Between Killings
A serial killer is defined as a person who kills three or more people over a period of time with a cooling off period in-between each murder. This is what sets them apart from spree killers. Spree killers or mass murderers usually kill a large number of people in a single event.
The cooling off period varies from killer to killer. For some, it may be a few weeks while others commit their crimes over years, sometimes even decades. Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer, murdered ten victims over a 17-year period. Lonnie Franklin (pictured above) was dubbed The Grim Sleeper because he appeared to have taken a 14-year break from his crimes which spanned from 1985 to 2007. John Wayne Gacy’s cycle of murder was more intense; he killed 34 people in a six-year period – that’s roughly 6 murders a year, or one every two months.
13 They See People As Objects
Because serial killers are often highly narcissistic they have a hard time relating to other people. Instead of viewing a person as someone to have a possible relationship with, they want to possess that person; in the same way that you would possess an object. This also means that they are more likely to engage in paraphilias such as fetishism or necrophilia. Because they feel no empathy and view others as objects they are far more capable of brutal acts.
Jeffrey Dahmer is a good example. Jeffrey was extremely lonely and wanted companionship, however, he was unable to form close relationships. He killed men because he wanted to keep them close to him and felt that eating parts of his victims would bind them together permanently.
12 They Keep Souvenirs
Many serial killers take souvenirs to help them remember their crimes. They do this to enable them to relive their murders in their heads, over and over again. They derive great satisfaction from killing so it makes sense that they would want to recreate those feelings, as normal people would do with holiday photos for example.
Not all of them take souvenirs, but those who do might take personal possessions of the victims (Jerry Brudos took his victim's shoes), photos (Police uncovered a stash of Polaroid photos from Ted Bundy’s home), jewelry, or, possibly the worst, body parts. It’s a well-known fact that Ed Gein used his victim’s skin to make masks and lampshades while Texas serial killer Charles Albright removed the eyeballs of his victims.
11 They Follow The Same Killing Pattern Over And Over
Serial killers often follow a distinct pattern when it comes to murder. This starts with finding a victim. Often their victims will work or visit a specific location and this is where the killer finds them. Some choose victims impulsively while others, like Dennis Rader AKA The BTK (Bind, Torture, Kill) Killer, stalk their victims for weeks to familiarize themselves with their prey. Rader (pictured above) worked for a security company and did house calls where he came into contact with many of his victims.
The murder itself also usually follows a pattern. Serial killers will often use the same method to kill each of their victims. The three most common are shooting, stabbing, and strangulation. After each murder, they use a similar method to dispose of the bodies.
10 They Crave Power
For those serial killers who come from troubled childhoods it’s hardly surprising that they crave power above all else; especially if they were abused or dominated by adults.
When Jerry Brudos was born his mother was very upset because she already had a boy child and was hoping for a girl. This led her to treat Jerry very poorly; constantly belittling him, neglecting him, and beating him for the smallest infraction of her strict rules. Jerry grew up to become the serial killer known as The Shoe Fetish Slayer and killed at least four women before he was caught.
Serial killers have a difficult time dealing with uncertainty and they lack the proper coping mechanisms to deal with life’s ups and downs. But when they kill they feel in complete control of the situation.
9 Warped Motivations Drive Them To Kill
Serial killers are driven to kill by violent and powerful motivations. These motivations can be broken up into four main categories. First is visionary; in these cases, the killers often suffer from a type of psychosis in which they believe that either God or the Devil is instructing them to kill. Killers who claim to be possessed by demons also fall in this category. Secondly, you get those who are mission driven. They feel compelled to “rid the world” of certain types of people that they feel are undesirable e.g. prostitutes.
Third are the hedonistic killers; they kill for pleasure. And the final motivation is power, for these types of killers, the thrill comes from being in complete control and dominating their victims. These motivations can overlap each other and often do.
8 They Choose The Same Type Of Victim Each Time
There are only a few serial killers who murdered indiscriminately. Most have what is called a victim profile based on age, gender, ethnicity, occupation, and physical features. The majority of victims are usually women and since serial killers usually kill people who are the same race as they are, the victims are more often than not Caucasian.
They look for people in vulnerable situations, such as sex workers, runaways, hitchhikers, or drug addicts. These women are easy to access and will often trust a person with a kind face and seemingly good intentions. The serial killer chooses women like this because they are less likely to be reported missing and that means he can continue to kill without fear of quick detection.
Of course, there are serial killers who kill men as well, but the victims often have similarities. Both John Wayne Gacy and Jeffrey Dahmer preyed on young men.
7 They Wear A Mask Of Sanity
The reason serial killers are extremely dangerous predators is because outwardly they are indistinguishable from other people. They appear “normal” to the outside world. They might have families, work regular jobs, and most of the time they come across as friendly and charming. But beneath the surface, everything they do is cold and calculated.
This false persona they wear was first described as a “mask of sanity” by Dr. Hervey M. Cleckley in his book The Mask Of Sanity. The book was published in 1941 but still remains extremely accurate today. In it, he describes how a psychopath can mimic a functional person, therefore, masking the chaos within their mind that drives them to violence over and over again. Even though they seem sincere and caring they are completely unable to experience genuine emotion.
6 They Like A Slow Kill And Torture Their Victims
Not all serial killers like to murder their victims quickly. For them killing is pleasurable and they enjoy the feeling of power they have over their victim so they want the experience to last as long as possible. When these types of monsters inflict psychical or psychological pain on their victims for an extended length of time they are known as torture-murderers. In these cases the killer's primary motive is torture.
Forensic psychiatrist Michael Stone developed his own scale of evil for rating murderers. This scale was used as a basis for an Investigation Discovery series called “Most Evil”. The highest rating on the scale is level 22; reserved for psychopathic torture-murderers.
Serial killers who weigh in at this level are John Wayne Gacy, David Parker Ray (AKA The Toy Box Killer), Robert Ben Rhoades, and Fred West.
5 They Break The Mould
It’s easy to stereotype serial killers and imagine them all as young white males but we really shouldn’t. Multiple murderers break the mould – all the time.
Let’s use Aileen Wuornos as an example. In many ways, she fits the profile of a serial killer. She had a terrible childhood rife with poverty and abuse and she met all her victims in the same way (men who were soliciting her for sex). But of course, Aileen was female. Female serial killers who act alone are very rare. Only about 15% of all serial killers are women.
Children or teens can also be serial killers, although it is uncommon. One notable case was that of Ed Kemper. Ed murdered his parental grandparents when he was just 15 years old and after he was released from the mental hospital where he was sent to after the trial, he went on to kill eight more people, including his own mother.
4 They Have Violent Fantasies
Because most serial murderers are socially isolated, they have vivid fantasy lives. While the rest of us fantasize about finding love and being successful their fantasies are dark, consisting of thoughts about control and violation.
These fantasies often start in childhood. As loners, they are often the subject of bullies in school and may come from abusive homes. They begin to imagine situations where they are the aggressor and are in control.
As time progresses they begin to dream of killing people rather than just hurting or humiliating them. They will rarely discuss these urges with other people, but disorganized killers are likely to consider self-help options. After their first kill, they fixate on the next murder, plotting on ways to do it more efficiently and successfully.
3 They Feel Nothing
A vast majority of serial killers are classed as sociopaths. But what exactly does it mean to be a sociopath and how are they made?
It’s estimated that 1% of the global population show signs of sociopathy. Of course, not all sociopaths turn into killers. Experts believe that sociopathy (or psychopathy) results from the person's environment. That is to say that people are not born like this, but rather become this way because of childhood trauma and abuse – although some serial killers do come from healthy childhoods.
A sociopath is defined as a personality disorder where the person exhibits antisocial behavior, lacks the ability to feel empathy, lack of affect, lack of inhibition and remorse (hence why they can commit such violent crimes), and egotistical traits.
2 They Manipulate Those Around Them
Although serial killers may not be able to feel emotions in a normal way they do know how to use emotions to manipulate those around them. Because they lack empathy they feel no remorse for taking advantage of people. They are often narcissistic, which means that they are destructively obsessed with their own desires and image.
Displaying signs of psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism (strong self-interest manifested as unemotional and deceptive) is referred to as the dark triad. They often share characteristics such as a callous-manipulative personal style. People with these signs are more likely to cause distress to others and commit crimes.
There are many examples of serial killers who were master manipulators. One of the most famous is Ted Bundy, who came across as well-spoken, groomed, and charming. He even acted as his own lawyer at his trial, a clear sign of his severe narcissism. This was the mask he put on for the world.
1 They Have Problems Related To Substance Abuse
A study of serial killers by the FBI revealed that 70% of them experienced problems related to substance abuse. Now to be clear, there are very few serial killers who are full blown addicts, but most of them have had problems connected to substance abuse. The problems we’re talking about usually start in their childhood and include poverty and abuse.
Children in situations like this learn that the way to solve problems (or relieve) them is by using substances or violence. This destructive way of thinking often follows them into adulthood.
Again Jeffrey Dahmer is a prime example. His mother and father both left the family home just after Jeffrey left high school. He used alcohol to numb his violent thoughts and loneliness and his drinking escalated as he started killing and eating his victims.