Most of us have met someone who just made the hair on the backs of our neck stand on end, and you may have even wondered if that person would end up killing someone later on in life. Maybe it was just a weird look they gave you, or maybe it’s something that just inexplicably seemed “off” about them that made you think that something wasn’t right with them. If you’re like many people who’ve met loners who just give you a bad vibe, you might have even joked about them being a serial killer.
But, what if you were actually right?
Criminal psychologists have done a multitude of in-depth studies on serial killers that have been taken into custody. Many of the things they have found, ranging from upbringing to odd habits, have been statistically shown to be linked with their capacity to kill innocent people. This data has been used by FBI investigators and police to help apprehend killers in the past, and it’s also readily available for others to study online.
So, what about that eerie neighbor with the creepy glances? What about that one kid in your class who just doesn’t seem to sit right with you? What about that one man who just is too spooky to put into words? Since serial killers are few and far between, chances are you don’t have to worry. But, if you notice a lot of these signs, you might just want to keep an eye on them...just in case they really are serial killers in the making.
Note: Having a bad childhood or having a couple of these traits doesn’t mean you are going to be a serial killer.
15 They’re Psychopaths And Sociopaths
When we say sociopaths here, we don’t mean it in the “he’s a jerk” way some pop culture blogs talk about it. Same goes for psychopaths. Real serial killers suffer from psychopathy, which means that they have a dire lack of empathy for other people. Psychopaths tend to view people as victims to be hurt, and also do not show any guilt or remorse when they hurt innocent people.
Ted Bundy, who was a serial killer, a psychopath, and a sociopath, said it best when he explained himself in court: "I didn't know what made people want to be friends. I didn't know what made people attractive to one another. I didn't know what underlay social interactions."
Common signs of sociopathy you might notice include being manipulative, a lack of remorse, blunted emotions, and an inability to understand why people feel things the way they do. They also may have violent outbursts when they do not get their way.
The vast majority of serial killers are either psychopaths or sociopaths, or both. That being said, not all people who suffer from these two mental illnesses are serial killers, but having one or both diagnoses greatly increases your risk of becoming a killer.
14 Substance Abuse In Their Childhood Homes
Here’s an interesting discovery that the folks at the FBI have found out: around 70% of all serial killers grew up in a home where alcoholism or other forms of substance abuse were regularly present. More specifically, not many people who were serial killers had serious addiction issues when they were apprehended. Rather, what investigators found out was that the lion’s share of killers they interviewed had dealt with substance abuse in their homes while they were growing up.
There’s a couple reasons why this could be the case. Some killers may actually be turned off of substances after seeing the damage that they caused them during their childhood. Another theory could suggest that they associate substance abuse with memories that they may be suppressing.
That being said, there is some evidence that this study may not be that accurate. Another study also showed that almost all impulsive murders done by serial killers were done while the killers were drunk. So, maybe it’s a difference between impulse murders and planned ones?
Either way, there seems to be something here. Charles Manson claimed he was both abused and grew up in a home with an alcoholic mother. Aileen Wuronos also had similar claims.
13 Psychological Abuse And Neglect In Childhood
It doesn’t surprise anyone that most serial killers probably didn’t have the nicest childhoods when they were growing up. Around 50% of all serial killers interviewed by the FBI claimed that they had suffered extreme psychological abuse and neglect at the hands of their parents. The most common form of psychological abuse killers reported growing up included emotional neglect and humiliation. Verbal abuse came in third.
Multiple studies show that children who are neglected and abused often do not reach developmental milestones that most other children reach. The most striking finding is that children who aren’t held often typically have a harder time developing empathy for other people. It doesn’t take much to see how something like psychological abuse could further destroy a kid’s ability to feel for others.
Female serial killer Aileen Wuronos infamously claimed that she had suffered serious abuse at her grandfather’s hands growing up, and look how that turned out.
12 Growing Up Isolated
This sign actually goes hand in hand with the psychological abuse most serial killers have reportedly experienced at their parents’ hands. In interviews, killers regularly reported that their family lives were often at odds – or that they were estranged completely from family members.
Many of the people who went on to kill also tended to live nomadic lifestyles that made it hard for them to make friends, or had to bounce around from shelter to shelter when they were younger. This may have made some killers socially awkward as children.
This loneliness often makes future killers lash out in anti-social behavior. Dabbling in arson, getting an interest in deadly weapons, and getting openly hostile with other children are all regularly witnessed among future killers when they’re in school.
11 Poor Employment Or School Performance, Despite Obvious Intelligence
The problem with having a serial killer’s mind is that it makes you abnormal. You can’t deal with people the way that you should, and actually being around people may be very unpleasant for you. Serial killers also tend to not be very driven unless it’s in killing other people.
Though not all serial killers have above average intelligence, those who do often make people wonder why they can’t seem to excel in life. The fact is that their mentality makes it very hard to interact with people or work on a team. As a result, most serial killers end up doing menial jobs that are way below what they should be doing.
Ted Bundy was a good example of this, too. With his IQ of 136, you’d think he’d be working at a Fortune 500 company. However, prior to being arrested for multiple murders, Bundy was just out there, doing menial jobs not too far from a minimum wage salary.
10 Obsessive Sexual Behavior
Another study revealed that many serial killers tended to be motivated by something that they obsessed over – most commonly either sex, religion, or power. FBI officials noted that there were a very high number of serial killers who seemed to be sexually obsessed with committing sadistic, violent acts to their victims. A large amount of serial killers openly admitted to having sexual fantasies involving torture, rape, or necrophilia when they were interviewed.
Sometimes, the obsessive sexual behavior took a more physical turn than a psychological one. Some, such as Andrei Chikatilo, were compulsive masturbators.
Because they tend to have these obsessive fantasies, most serial killers have an extremely hard time having serious relationships with the opposite sex. Those who do have sexual relationships often end up being extremely abusive or controlling of their partners. A study showed 81% of serial killers did so because of a sexual motive.
Speaking of sexuality, criminologists also discovered something interesting about serial killers. Many of them had a thing for watching women or stalking them. The appeal of voyeurism to a serial killer is twofold. First, it makes them feel like there’s an emotional closeness to a person – even if there isn’t really anything remotely like that in real life. Second, it violates that person’s privacy, and serial killers really seem to enjoy that, too.
There are quite a few serial killers who were arrested for peeping local women before police approached them to cuff them for killings they committed. Serial killer Danny Rolling, for example, was caught spying on cheerleaders while they were dressing and bathing. In fact, he even had a reputation for being a Peeping Tom in town prior to his arrest for 8 sexually motivated murders.
8 The MacDonald Triad
Three symptoms have become world famous for being indicative of a serial killer in the making, and often show up before a child is 15 years old. The three symptoms in question are are arson, preteen bedwetting, and animal torture. All three will often show up in children who have the neuroses and mental illness that drive people to kill once they hit adulthood. Psychologists say that even having one or two of the three is often indicative that something is very, very wrong.
Out of all of three symptoms in the MacDonald Triad, one in particular should be cause for alarm above all others. Animal torture is one of the most telling signs that someone will eventually go on to kill a human being when they get older.
Examples of serial killers who had MacDonald Triad symptoms include Jeffrey Dahmer, Alton Coleman, Albert DeSalvo, David Berkowitz, and Ottis Toole.
7 Superficial Charm
On the other end of the spectrum are the serial killers who really know how to play their cards. Unlike the “traumatic, antisocial” serial killer set, these guys tend to be extremely charming and are capable of positioning themselves in a way that makes them pillars of society. They will often go into volunteer positions in order to get a better standing in society, which in turn gives them better leeway to get away with their terrible crimes.
It’s scary how many serial killers out there fit this bill. John Wayne Gacy was actually a very upstanding member in his community prior to his crimes being discovered. He even posed with First Lady Rosalyn Carter for publicity at one point in 1978. Harold Shipman used his position as a doctor to gain access to people who he eventually would go on to murder. Ted Bundy was also notoriously charming.
One study has proven that around 65% of all serial killer victims died because they had been manipulated or charmed by their murderers.
6 Serious Head Injuries
Who’d have thought that a serious brain injury could turn a normal person into a bloodthirsty serial killer? In one study done by researchers, around 21% of serial killers they interviewed had suffered from a very serious head injury before they went out for their first kill.
Your brain does control much, if not all, of the reactions that you have and the thoughts you think. If your brain is damaged, there is a good chance that you may lose a portion of your personality that keeps the need to kill in check. Considering what can happen with brain damage alone, the change one sees shouldn’t be too shocking. Many of the people who ended up killing may have only been one quick bop on the head away from doing it, anyway.
Richard Ramirez, pictured above, had a very serious head injury while he was playing at a park as a young child. Could this be the final thing that drove him to kill?
5 Being An American Male
76% of all serial killers in the world are American, and 90% of all serial killers also happen to be male. Contrary to what Hollywood movies might have us believe, not all serial killers are white. According to one survey done by criminologists, only 52% of serial killers are white. African American serial killers make another 20%, with the rest being a mix between Hispanic, Asian, and other nationalities.
Nobody really knows why there are so many more male serial killers than there are female serial killers. A common theory is that women are often socialized to be “nice” and to avoid violence, while male children are often taught that being angry or aggressive can be a good thing. Other criminologists suggest that it could be because women are sneakier at killing than men...and are therefore not caught as often.
4 Power Hunger
There have been a slew of different studies about what makes serial killers want to kill, and one of the leading reasons why may be due to the feeling of power it gives them. This is often first seen when they begin to abuse animals, and it may even be present when it comes to their career choices. Scarier still, they get a thrill from having the control when it comes to choosing who lives and dies by their hand.
One psychologist who had interviewed serial killer Harold Shipman said, “He saw no one as being superior to him. In his own mind, in his own eyes, he was some sort of medical god.”
Another couple of power-tripping killers included Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, who ended up killing five children. Brady, being the sick puppy he is, won’t tell the victims’ family where the last body was buried, just because he knows he has that power to make them suffer by keeping his mouth shut.
Along with the tendency to want to have an extreme hold of power over someone comes the desire to brag about it. Multiple serial killers have actually been caught as a direct result of them bragging about their kills to someone who had decided to call the police. One that was caught via 4chan actually bragged about killing a girl online, and offered to give directions to the body once someone’s post reached a certain number.
But, what’s interesting about many serial killers is that they don’t always tell the truth about their kills. Once in custody, serial killers have been known to lie about how many people they killed. Why? Because they want to be even more notorious than the last couple of people who gained fame that way.
A good example of a serial killer who did this was Joanna Dennehy, who had murdered eight people. When police caught her, she simply laughed and said, “Oops I did it again!”
2 Unusual IQ’s
IQ tests that were given to serial killers showed that there was a disproportionate number of them who had IQs which were either unusually above average or slightly below average. Serial killers who tended to be disorganized and impulsive in their kills had an average IQ of 83. Meanwhile, organized serial killers who made a point not to arouse suspicion had an above average IQ of 115.
Oddly enough, many of the most devastating and deadly serial killers of all time had IQs that highly exceeded those averages. Ed Kemper, for example, had an extraordinarily high IQ that measured 136. Rodney Alcala had an IQ of 170. British killer John Straffen, on the other hand, had a paltry IQ of only 64. Either way, it seems like most serial killers have an IQ that’s higher than average, or slightly below.
1 Self Harm
A less commonly cited sign that someone may become a serial killer is self-harm and suicide attempts. FBI studies have shown that people who are likely to become serial killers are way more likely to want to hurt themselves first. Self-mutilation has also been linked to trauma due to familial abuse, sexual abuse, or other unresolved trauma.
Suicide attempts, obviously, show that there’s serious mental instability going on. Serial killers who can feel guilt, such as the Weepy Voiced Killer, are much more likely to attempt suicide than those who have been diagnosed with sociopathy.
Albert Fish is a good example of a serial killer who fit this sign. When he was sent to the doctor after he was arrested, an X-ray showed that he had a habit of inserting massive needles into his pelvis. Some serial killers, once caught, may also attempt suicide in jail.
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