Criminal Profiling 101: Misconceptions vs. Reality About Serial Killers
Criminal profiling, which is considered a scientific method, is still a relatively new field. There are multiple definitions and boundaries for the term; however, the goal of each current criminal profiling method is similar, and that is to develop a description of the perpetrator based on the examination of the given evidence. In some ways, it is still considered a technique that combines art and science, although there has been an effort in recent years to bring more science into it. This series of articles will describe some of the most used criminal profiling methods, their scientific base, and the different approaches from which they stem. The series begins with an introduction to criminal profiling, its brief history and development, its current state, and the used methods.
The Criminal Profiling 101 series is divided into six chapters:
Criminal Profiling 101: Misconceptions vs. Reality About Serial Killers
Criminal Profiling 101: Spree Killer
Criminal Profiling 101: Mass Murderer
Criminal Profiling 101: Misconceptions vs. Reality About Serial Killers
Serial killer is a term known to almost everyone. This term has been gaining popularity, especially in the last couple of decades. But why is this so when the phenomenon is becoming less and less prevalent in society? The main reason for its increasing popularity is the media, which presents the term as something new. While it is true that the term serial killer is relatively new since it originated in the 1970s, the elements that it represents have been around for much longer. A serial killer is someone who commits two or more different murders that involve a “cooling off” period between these murders ranging from hours to years (Morton et al., 2016). Despite the novelty of the term, if based purely on its definition, serial murders have been occurring throughout history. These serial murders have been documented since the 1st century in the Roman Empire and continued in medieval England, Italy, Germany, and Hungary (Jenkins, 2007). A drastic increase in serial murders occurred in the 19th century in Europe. However, it is not entirely clear whether this development can be attributed to advances in technology, law enforcement, or enhanced news coverage (Jenkins, 2007). Since the term is mainly known from the media and entertainment like television series or movies, it can lead to an inaccurate or shallow interpretation, resulting in misconceptions about who may actually be a serial killer. Outside of misdefinition, the frequent presentation of the term in the media can also induce fear. This article serves to dispel these misconceptions while simultaneously presenting the facts about serial killers, their motivations, and the prevalence of the phenomenon in today's society.
Figure 1: Locusta of Gaul: Rome's imperial poisoner and one of the first serial killers documented (Crimereads, 2021).
The term serial murder refers to a specific type of homicide involving two or more separate murders committed within a time interval by the same offender. This time interval may vary from hours, days, months, or years. Ronald M. Holmes, a coroner in the Jefferson county coroner's office, professor Emeritus of justice administration at the University of Louisville, and author of the book Serial Murder, and his co-author, James DeBurger identified the elements that distinguish serial murder (Pinto et al., 1990). The main element of serial murder, as previously mentioned, is its recurrence. A further element is that serial murders usually occur between two persons, the victim and the perpetrator, who typically have no prior relationship between one another. Another important element is motive. In serial murders, motives such as passion and personal or property gain are often not apparent as the perpetrator and the victim are strangers to each other. On the contrary, the motives are more likely to come from within the perpetrator and include uncontrollable urges, anger, excitement, or the need for attention. These intrinsic motives are the structure and drive for the offender's murderous behavior. A specific separate category that includes elements reminiscent of those of serial killers is the category of professional or "contract" killers. The perpetrators of these murders also repeat their murderous behavior towards several different individuals with no connection to them. However, the motive is different in these cases, because, for these killers, to kill is a job (Pinto et al., 1990).
Furthermore, serial murder is an event that occurs in society rather rarely. It accounts for less than one percent of the homicides committed year-round (Morton et al., 2016). However, interest in this area is immense. This attention increased dramatically in the late 1880s when a series of unsolved murders of prostitutes took place in London. This case was known as the Jack the Ripper case. The name was given by the unknown killer himself, who wrote letters to the police claiming to be the murderer (Morton et al., 2016). Interest from the public reemerged in the 1970s and 1980s when famous cases of serial killers such as Ted Bundy and the Green River Killer came to light. In the 1990s, the movie Silence of the Lambs was released, which spurred this interest in serial killers even more and unleashed a wave of other movies and TV series surrounding this topic that are being released even to this day (Morton et al., 2016). Erik Hickey, a serial killer researcher who has compiled the largest data set on serial killers to date, pointed out that between 1920 and 1989, a total of 67 films were produced addressing the subject; whereas, 117 were made between 1990 and 1999 (Borgeson & Kuehnle, 2010). Other major factors that played a role in this boom in interest included experts' overestimation in the late 1980s of the prevalence of serial killers, which claimed that there were over 5,000 serial killers on the loose in the USA (Borgeson & Kuehnle, 2010).
Figure 2: Ted Bundy, the infamous serial killer from the USA (Lamenteesmaravillosa, 2022).
In addition to fascination, this increased media coverage of serial murders has brought and continues to bring increased fear of criminality. George Gerbner, an American journalist known for his Cultural Indicators project, aimed to observe changes in television programming and examine how television influences society, and Larry Gross, an American screenwriter, producer, and director, have studied the violent effects of television programs on children and adults. The results of this study showed that individuals who watched five or more hours of television per day overestimated their chances of victimization, rated their community as more dangerous, and overestimated their community's overall crime rate (Borgeson and Kuehnle, 2010). The paradox of this situation, however, is that the fear of crime, and specifically the rate of serial murder, has increased at the very time when violent crime has actually decreased. Barry Glassner reports in his novel The Culture of Fear that while the number of homicides in the country has declined, the number of homicide reports on television has increased by 600% (Borgeson & Kuehnle, 2010). This phenomenon is explained by research psychologist and research methodologist, Paul J. Lavrakas as "vicarious victimization" (Borgeson & Kuehnle, 2010). This term means that fear of crime can be experienced even by a person who has never been a victim and has only come into contact with criminality as a spectator through media. The consequence of this phenomenon is an increased fear of crime and a sense that serial murder is at a critical level despite the statistics demonstrating otherwise.
As previously mentioned in this article, society's curiosity on the subject of serial killers has increased dramatically. The media fueling this interest often features so-called, self-proclaimed experts on the subject who do not have adequate training or information on the case or cases being discussed. The inappropriate comments from these individuals may be one of the causes of the emergence and spread of myths and misconceptions about serial killers. One of the more common and well-known myths is the claim that serial killers are generally dysfunctional loners and freaks. On the contrary, serial killers often have families and jobs, and appear to be normal members of the community (Morton et al., 2016). Robert Yates, the serial killer who killed 17 prostitutes and buried one of them in his backyard under his bedroom window, is an example of this. Yates was married, had five children, lived in a middle-class neighborhood, and was a National Guard helicopter pilot, which is a lifestyle not commonly associated with the terms loner or freak. Another typical myth associated with serial murders is that the motivation of a serial killer is purely sexual. Although some perpetrators have this motive, not all serial murderers are sexually motivated. The main motives behind these criminal acts include excitement, anger, financial enrichment, or the desire to attract attention (Morton et al., 2016). This is evidenced in the case of the three-week long DC sniper attacks, where the actions of John Allen Muhammad, a former U.S. Army sergeant, and Lee Boyd Malvo, an associate of Muhammad's, were primarily motivated by anger and excitement. In addition, the two snipers communicated with the police to stop the shootings in exchange for financial compensation. Another typical myth is that serial killers either have a mental disorder or are above-average intelligence. Although serial killers as a group suffer from certain personality disorders such as psychopathy and other traits, this group, like any other, also includes a variety of individuals whose intelligence ranges from below average to above average. Attendees at the Serial Murder Symposium organized by the FBI agreed that there is no specific profile of a serial killer because each killer differs in their motivations and behavior at the crime scene. Nevertheless, attendees identified certain traits that some of these serial killers share. These traits include thrill-seeking, lack of remorse, impulsivity or need for control, and predatory behavior. These traits are associated with a psychopathic personality disorder. Psychopaths who commit serial murders generally do not value human life and are particularly cruel to their victims. However, not all psychopaths will become serial killers, and psychopathy alone does not explain the motivation of a serial killer. (Morton et al., 2016).
Figure 3: Violent effects of television on a child (Chris Thomaidis/Stone/Getty Images, n.d.).
Another well-known myth is that serial killers operate on an interstate level, meaning perpetrators carry out their crimes throughout a country. However, the truth is that they more often have very precise geographical areas of operation. This geographic area is based on where they live, work, or pursue other interests (Morton et al., 2016). Thus, these are places that fall within their comfort zone and are where they are confident and unafraid. If the killer is successful in killing, they may gain confidence and choose to kill outside their comfort zone, but this is the exception rather than the rule. A further myth associated with serial murders is that a serial killer cannot stop killing. This, however, is not always the case. There may be changes in a serial killer's life such as increased participation in family activities or sexual substitution that halts their killing spree. Dennis Rader, also known as the BTK Killer, is a living example of this. Rader began killing in 1974 and continued until 1991 when he suddenly stopped. On the 30th anniversary of the Otero murders, a family killed by Rader in 1974, a newspaper called The Wichita Eagle ran an article about the murders and the ongoing efforts to catch the BTK Killer three decades later. That was what prompted Rader to begin communicating anonymously with the media and later, the police. His communication initially consisted of letters and messages, but later evolved into the use of a computer disk. With the help of new technologies, the police succeeded in accessing encrypted and deleted data from the disk, which led to Rader's exposure in 2005 (Smith, 2018). During interrogations, Rader admitted that he replaced killing with autoerotic activities.
Perhaps one of the most common questions regarding serial killers is whether an individual is born a serial killer or becomes one. The answer to this question, however, is not clear-cut, and expert opinions vary. Among these experts is Jim Fallon, a neuroscientist who has studied the brain scans of various serial killers. After years of research, Fallon has noticed a pattern in the scans of serial killers. To objectively test this pattern, he compiled a blind test. This test consisted of 70 random brain scans. To preserve objectivity, some of these brain scans were from people with a diagnosis of a mental disorder such as schizophrenia, some scans were from people without a diagnosis, and others were from convicted serial killers. Fallon did not know which scans belonged to which group. The results of the test were successful, and Fallon was able to correctly identify the brain of a serial killer. All of the serial killers in the study had a loss of function in the orbital cortex in common. This area of the brain above the eyes encodes ethics, morality, and conscience. If this circuit is lost, damaged, or undeveloped, one loses their sense of morality, and impulse control is diminished. Fallon went on to do further research and found that his own brain scans were the same as those of serial killers, but he was not, in fact, a serial killer. At the same time as this study, he was also involved in research on Alzheimer's disease, and as part of that research, his DNA was included. When he tested his DNA, he found that it had elevated markers that indicate a high risk for violence (Taylor, 2022). Given that Fallon had brain abnormalities and genes associated with aggression, he questioned why he was not a serial killer like Ted Bundy. This led Fallon to continue his research, looking for that missing piece of information that would provide the answer. For Fallon, this missing information was his childhood, which was fortunately safe and happy, unlike the reality for many serial killers. Based on that research, the answer to the question of whether a serial killer is born one or becomes one is, therefore, yes and no. One may be born with a genetic predisposition, but it also depends on external factors, for instance, childhood trauma, whether that predisposition comes to fulfillment (Taylor, 2022).
Figure 4: Picture of brain scans (Shutterstock/MriMan, 2019).
Serial murder is a phenomenon that has been part of society for centuries. Although this phenomenon has occurred for so long, it is currently attracting a great deal of interest. People come across this concept on a daily basis through media, movies, and television. Based on the information related to this topic obtained from these sources, people may then form misconceptions about what a serial killer looks like and the frequency at which these criminal acts take place. This can lead individuals to become concerned for their safety and to view serial killings as a common recurring problem in their community. However, the irony is that a phenomenon such as serial murder occurs only rarely in today's society. Information about serial killers originating in the media and presented mostly by self-proclaimed experts is also one of the most common causes of the emergence and spreading of myths and misconceptions pertaining to the motive, behavior, and overall personality of a serial killer. It is precisely for this reason that it is essential to pay attention and educate individuals on this subject to clarify for the general public the true meaning, the real consequences, and the direct impact this phenomenon has on society.
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Jenkins, J. P. (2007, April 6). Serial murder. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/serial-murder
Morton, J., R., Hilts, A., M. (2016, July 18). Serial Murder. Federal Bureau of Investigation. https://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/serial-murder
Pinto, S., Wilson, R., P. (1990). Serial murder (Case 25). Australian Institute of Criminology. https://www.aic.gov.au/sites/default/files/2020-05/tandi025.pdf
Smith, B. H. (2018, August 29). How A Floppy Disk Exposed Dennis Rader As The BTK Killer. Oxygen Official Site. https://www.oxygen.com/snapped/crime-time/floppy-disk-exposed-dennis-rader-btk-killer
Taylor, S. T. (2022, November). Are serial killers born or made? Psychology Today. Retrieved February 10, 2023, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/you-me-psychology/202011/are-serial-killers-born-or-made
Cover Image: Untitled illustration of a man standing in a mirrored hall [ Digital Illustration]. (n.d.) Retrieved from: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2022/04/11/the-unravelling-of-an-expert-on-serial-killers
Figure 1: CrimeReads. (2021). [Illustration of Locusta of Gaul: Rome's imperial poisoner and one of the first serial killers documented]. Retrieved from: https://crimereads.com/locusta-of-gaul-romes-imperial-poisoner-and-possibly-the-worlds-first-serial-killer/
Figure 2: La Mente es Maravillosa. (2022). [Photograph of Ted Bundy, the infamous serial killer from the USA]. Retrieved from: https://lamenteesmaravillosa.com/ted-bundy-el-psicopata-perfecto/
Figure 3: Chris Thomaidis/Stone/Getty Images. (n.d.). [Photograph demonstrating the violent effects of television programming on a child]. Retrieved from: https://people.howstuffworks.com/culture-traditions/tv-and-culture/10-ways-tv-changed-american-culture.htm
Figure 4: Shutterstock/MriMan. (2019). [Picture of brain scans]. Retrieved from: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-7250179/MRI-scans-reveal-key-differences-gray-matter-homicide-offenders-brains.html