The Serial Killer Files by Harold Schechter
-01- FBI Definition of “Serial Killer”: Three or more separate events in three or more separate locations with an emotional cooling-off period between homicides. FBI Crime Classification Manual (1992)
-02- National Institutes of Justice Definition of “Serial Killer”: A series of two or more murders, committed as separate events, by one offender acting alone. The crimes may occur over a period of time ranging from hours to years. Quite often the motive is psychological, and the offender’s behaviour and the physical evidence observed at the crime scenes will reflect sadistic, sexual overtones.
-03- Psychopath: Not legally insane. They know the difference between right and wrong. They are rational, often highly intelligent people. Some are capable of great charm.
The most striking feature of the psychopathic personality is his utter lack of empathy. He is incapable of love, incapable of caring, incapable of feeling sorry for anyone but himself. Other people are simply objects to be exploited and manipulated for his own profit and pleasure.
-04- Moral Insanity: [The nineteenth century version of psychopath.] These patients have agood memory and understanding, ability to reason and contrive, much cleverness and cunning, and a general appearance of rationality, coexistent with very deficient control, absence of moral sense and human sentiments and feelings, perverted and brutal instincts, and propensities for criminal acts of various kids which may by perpetuated deliberately and cleverly planned, yet committed with little or no motive and regardless of the consequences to themselves and others.
Psychotics: ‘psychosis’ is defined as a severe mental disorder characterized by some degree of personality disintegrations. Psychotics live in a nightmarish world of their own. They suffer from hallucinations and delusions—hear voices, see visions, are possessed by bizarre beliefs. They have lost touch with reality. Unlike psychopaths—who appear to be normal, rational people even while leading grotesque secret lives—psychotics match the common conception of insanity. The main forms of psychosis are schizophrenia and paranoia.
-05- Michael Welner of the NYU School of Medicine defined evil as “an intent to cause emotional trauma, to terrorize or target the helpless, to prolong suffering and to derive satisfaction from it all.” That pretty much sums up the behavior of serial killers.
-06- Ten Traits of Serial Killers. At the tenth triennial meeting of the International Association of Forensic Sciences held at Oxford, England, in September 1984, Robert Ressler and John Douglas of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, along with Professors Ann W. Burgess and Ralph D’Agostino, delivered a seminal paper on serial murder, based on a study of thirty-six jailed offenders, including Edmund Kemper and Herbert Mullin. In their presentation, they listed the following traits as the “general characteristics” of these killers.
1. Most are single white males.
2. They tend to be smart, with a mean IQ of ‘bright normal’.
3. Despite their intelligence, they do poorly in school, have spotty employment records, and generally end up as unskilled workers.
4. They come from deeply troubled families. Typically, they have been abandoned at an early age by their fathers and grow up in broken homes dominated by their mothers.
5. There is a long history of psychiatric problems, criminal behaviour, and alcoholism in their families.
6. As children, they suffer significant abuse—sometimes psychological, sometimes physical, often sexual. Such brutal mistreatment instills them with profound feelings of humiliation and helplessness.
7. Because of their resentment toward their distant, absent, or abusive fathers, they have a great deal of trouble with male authority figures. Because they were dominated by their mothers, they have a powerful hostility toward women.
8. They manifest psychiatric problems at an early age and often spend time in institutions as children.
9. Because of their extreme social isolation and a general hatred of the world and everyone in it (including themselves), they often feel suicidal as teenagers.
10. They display a precocious and abiding interest in deviant sexuality and are obsessed with fetishism, voyeurism, and violent pornography.
It is important to remember, however, that three traits were extrapolated from a small sample of thirty-six sadistic lust-murderers, all men and most of them white. There are many other serial killers who possess different characteristics.
-07- In attempting to locate the root causes of serial murder, researchers have identified three major warnings signs that are often found in the backgrounds of these criminals. These three behavioral red flags—often referred to as the psychological triad—are enuresis (bed-wetting), pyromania (fire-starting), and precocious sadism (generally in the form of animal torture).
1. Bed-Wetting. There’s nothing unusual or alarming abut bed-wetting in itself; it’s a common phenomenon among little children. When the problem persists into puberty, however, it may well be a sign of significant and even dangerous emotional disturbance. According to the findings of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, fully 60 percent of sex-murderers were still suffering from this condition as adolescents—like the African-American serial killer Alton Coleman, who wet his pants so often that he was saddled with the taunting nickname “Pissy”.
2. Fire-Starting. Given their lust for destruction, it’s no surprise that, among their other twisted pleasures, many serial killers love to set fires, a practice they often begin at an early age. Some of the most notorious serial killers of modern times were juvenile arsonists. Ottis Toole, for example—Henry Lee Lucas’s loathsome accomplice—began torching vacant houses when he was six years old. Carl Panzram—arguably the most unrepentant killer in the annals of American crime—took positive pride in the havoc he could wreak with a matchstick, boasting in his jailhouse memoirs that, at the tender age of twelve, he caused $100,000 worth of damage by burning down a building at reform school. Carlton Gary firebombed a grocery store while still in his teens. And David Berkowitz—who ultimately confessed to more than fourteen hundred acts of arson—was so obsessed with fires as a little boy that his schoolmates nicknamed him “Pyro.”
Firebombing stores and incinerating buildings is, of course, an intensely pathlogical expression of anger and aggression. But it’s more than sheer malice that underlies the incendiary crimes of serial killers. According to specialists in the psychology of perversion, there is always an erotic motive at the root of pyromania. “There is but one instinct which generates the impulse to incendiarism,” writes Wilhelm Stekel in his classic work on aberrant behaviour. “That is the sexual instinct, and arson clearly shows its connecting points with sex.”
True, there are often “secondary motives” behind a pyromaniac’s acts-revenge, for example, like Panzram’s desire to get back at his tormentors. But above all as Stekel writes), “the incendiary is sexually excited by the flames; he likes to watch them burn.” Anyone who doubts this has only to read Flora Schreiber’s writings about the New Jersey serial killer Joseph Kallinger, who was thrown into orgasmic raptures by the mere thought of the fires he had caused.
In short, serial murderers who enjoy starting fires do so for the same reason that they love to torture and kill. It turns them on.
3. Animal Torture. Juvenile sadism directed at lower life-forms is nothing new. There have always been children and adolescents (usually male) who enjoy hurting small creatures. Certainly Shakespeare knew about such things. In King Lear, he writes about “wanton boys” who pull the wings off of flies for “sport.” And in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the hero finds himself in a one-horse town where a bunch of young loafers are amusing themselves by tying a tin pan to the tail of a stray dog and watching him “run himself to death.”
As disturbing as such behaviour is, however, it pales beside the kinds of cruelties perpetrated by budding serial killers. As an adolescent, Peter Kurten took pleasure from performing intercourse with various animals while simultaneously stabbing them of slitting their throats. At ten, Edmund Kemper buried his family cat alive in the backyard. Afterward, he dug up the carcass, brought it back to his bedroom, cut off the head, and stuck it on a spindle. Three years later, after his mother brought a new cat into the house. Kemper sliced off the top of its skull with a machete, then held its foreleg while it showered him with blood.
Besides collecting roadkill, little Jeffery Dahmer liked to nail live frogs to tree, cut open goldfish to see how their innards worked, and perform impromptu surgery on stray dogs and cats. Dennis Nilsen—the so-called British Jeffrey Dahmer—once hanged a cat just to see how long it would take to die. Albert DeSalvo enjoyed trapping house pets in wooden crates and shooting them with a bow and arrow, while Carroll Cole (aka the “Barfly Strangler”) got a kick out of choking the family dog unconscious.
Other violent psychopaths have disemboweled their pets, burned them alive, fed them ground glass, and cut off their paws.
According to ASPCA therapist Dr Stephanie LaFarge, “anyone who hurts animals has the potential to move on to people.” Of course, most boys who commit minor acts of childhood sadism outgrow such behaviour and look back with shame at the time they blew up and anthill with a cherry bomb or dismembered a daddy longlegs. By contrast, the cruelties perpetrated by incipient serial killers grow more extreme over time, until they are targeting not stray animals and house pets but other human beings.
For them animal torture isn’t a stage. It’s a rehearsal.
-08- When police discover a corpse with its throat slit, its torso cut open, its viscera removed, and its genitals excised, they are justified in making one basic assumption: the perpetrator was a man.
That doesn’t mean that there’s no such thing as a female serial killer. It means men and women commit serial murder in different ways.
Traits of Male Serial Killers: rape, mutilation, dismemberment. There are unmistakable parallels between this kind of violence—phallic-aggressive, penetrative, rapacious, and (insofar as it commonly gratifies itself upon the bodies of strangers), undiscriminating—and the typical pattern of male sexual behaviour. For this reason, it is possible to see sadistic mutilation-murder as a grotesque distortion (or “pathological intensification,” in the words of Dr Richard von Krafft-Ebing) normal male sexuality.
This intensely savage type of serial murder is exclusive to men—a monstrous expression of male sexuality. What is the equivalent female form? It must reflect female sexuality. Generally, female serial killers differ from their male counterparts in roughly the same way that the sexual responses and behaviour of women typically differ from those of men.
A useful analogy here is pornography. It is a truth universally acknowledged that—while men are aroused by extremely raw depictions of abrupt, anonymous, anatomically explicit sex—women in general prefer their pornography to involve at least a suggestion of emotional intimacy and leisurely romance. Whether these differences in taste are a function of biology or culture is an open question. The indisputable fact is that the differences are real.
An analogous distinction holds true for serial killers. Female psychopaths are no less depraved than their male counterparts. As a rule, however, brutal penetration is not what turns them on. Their excitement comes—not from violating the bodies of strangers with phallic objects—but from a grotesque, sadistic travesty of intimacy and love: from spooning poisoned medicine into the mouth of a trusting patient, for example, or smothering a sleeping child in its bed. In short, from tenderly turning a friend, family member, or dependent into a corpse—from a nurturing them to death. (What made Aileen Wuornos unusual was that she was a rare, though by no means unique, example of a woman who killed her victims in the assaultive, phallic style of male serial stalkers like David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz.)
The majority of female serial killers throughout history have relied on poison to dispatch their victims. [Most people seem to think] disposing of a few people by feeding them arsenic-laced oatmeal were a rather genteel form of murder. The truth is that, compared to the lingering agonies suffered by the average poisoning victim, the deaths meted out by male serial killers like Jack the Ripper, “Son of Sam,” or the Boston Strangler—the swift executions by knife blade, bullet or garrote—seem positively humane. Female poisoners, in other words, differ from the popular stereotype of the dotty old maid getting rid of a burdensome houseguest with a little nip of lethal hot cocoa. Many are terrifying sadists who derive intense perverted pleasure from the sufferings of their victims.
There is no doubt that male serial sex-murder tends to be more lurid—more spectacularly violent—than the female variety. Whether it is more evil is another matter. After all, which is worse: to dismember a streetwalker after slitting her throat, or to cuddle in bed with a close friend you’ve just poisoned, and to climax repeatedly as you feel the body beside you subside into death?
-09- Black Widows: Since serial killers seem almost supernaturally evil, they are often given the kinds of lurid nicknames accorded to comic book supervillians. Just as homicidal nurses are known as “Angels of Death,” another common type of female psycho-killer is known as the ‘Black Widow.’
Named after the poisonous female spider that devours its own mate, this criminological category refers to women who murder a whole string of husbands—along with anyone else they perceive as an obstacle to their own happiness, such as burdensome children, interfering in-laws, inconvenient acquaintances, and the like. In their book, Murder Most Rare, Michael and C.L. Kelleher indentify the essential traits that make this kind of serial killer particularly deadly:
The Black Widow is typically intelligent, manipulative, highly organized, and patient; she plans her activities with great care. Her crimes are usually carried out over a relatively long period of time, and she is rarely suspected of murder until the victim count has become significant or the number of deaths among her relatives and acquaintances can no longer be considered coincidental. In many cases, the black Widow begins to murder relatively late in life (often after the age of thirty) and therefore brings a good deal of maturity and patience to the planning and commission of her crimes. She relies on her ability to win the confidence and trust of her victims as a precursor to any attack. For this reason, she is seldom viewed as a suspect, even after she has committed several murders…The average Black Widow will claim between six and thirteen victims during her active period, which generally ranges from ten to fifteen years.
-10- The desire to work with the police was another interesting revelation, which was to come up over and over again in our serial killer studies. The three most common motives of serial rapists and murderers turn out to be domination, manipulation, and control. When you consider that most of these guys are angry, ineffectual losers who feel they’ve been given the shaft by life, and that most of them have experienced some sort of physical or emotional abuse…it isn’t surprising that one of their main fantasy occupations is police officer.
A policeman represents power and public respect. When called upon to do so, he is authorized to hurt bad people for the common good. In out research, we discovered that, while few police officers go bad and commit violent crimes, frequently serial offenders had failed in their efforts to join police departments and had taken jobs in related fields, such as security guard or night watchman.
-11- The FBI estimates that there are between thirty and fifty serial killers at large in the U.S. at any given time.
England has a population is less than a fifth of the U.S.
In a study of serial murder between 1962 and 1982, the crime expert Colin Wilson lists eighteen cases in the US and eleven in GB. According to that finding, the incidence of serial murderers for that twenty-year period out to be significantly higher in Britain—18 per 100,000, compared to 8.3 for the US. Recent British serial killers, moreover, include not only some of the most depraved murderers of modern times—like Fred and Rosemary West—but also the single most prolific: Dr Harold Shipman.
Still, there are definite cultural factors in the US that are conducive to serial murder. The fragmented, highly dysfunctional families that are a fertile breeding ground for criminal psychopaths. The rootlessness and anonymity of American life, which make it possible for serial killers to keep on the move or live in a community without attracting notice. The large number of ‘targets of opportunity’–teenage runaways, inner-city prostitutes, etc. And, of course, the unusually high level of violence in general, which has always been a feature of our society.
-12- The technical term for a sexual perversion is ‘paraphilia,’ which literally means ‘abnormal love.’
-13- [Regarding vampires] Happily, such creatures do not exits outside of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the novels of Anne Rice, and about a zillion grade-Z horror movies, many of them starring Christopher Lee.
-14- [After the German cannibal found one victim online and was looking for others.] One German pundit immediately put the blame on Hollywood for glamorizing cannibalism in movies like The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal. “One thinks such a case would only happen in the movies, in America, but not in Germany” this commentator declared—a remarkable statement in light of his country’s rich heritage of horror, psychopathology, and lust-murder. [PN: a bit rich when Milgram though Yanks wouldn’t be as violent as Germans]
-15- …the FBI’s BSU concluded that all serial killers come from dysfunctional backgrounds: ‘unstable, abusive, or deprived family situations.’
-16- Brain scans performed on severely abused children have found that specific areas of the cortex—related not just to the intelligence but to the emotions—never develop properly, leaving them incapable of feeling empathy for other human beings.
-17- …psychological abuse can be every bit as devastating to the emotional development of a child as physical maltreatment.
|by V. L. Craven|
The Serial Killer Files by Harold Schechter