Serial murder is defined by criminologists as the killing of three or more people over an extended period of time, often months or years. There is disagreement, however, over what percentage of homicides in the United States should be classified as serial murders. The most commonly cited figure is 20% of murders annually in the United States, a figure which would be approximately 3,000–4,000 homicides, are serial murders, but some criminologists put the estimate as low as 2% (i.e., only 300–400 per year). Trend data indicate that the number of serial killers—that is, individuals who commit serial murder—has increased significantly since the turn of the 20th century. From 1900–1924, for example, there were only 13 serial killers known to police, whereas from 1990–2004 there were 163. Analysts caution, though, that these numbers are rough estimates and that the true number of serial killers in any given year is unknown. Moreover, the dramatic increase over the years may not represent a real increase in the number of serial killers, but instead may be the result of greatly improved technology and detection methods in law enforcement, such as the use of DNA evidence to establish that the same offender committed different murders at different locations and at different points in time.
Types of Serial Murder and Serial Killers
Not all serial killers are alike. Criminologists have identified various types of serial killers, distinguishing them on the basis of their motives, although researchers caution that some serial killers may be classified as more than one type or may change motives over time.
One type of serial killer is the visionary serial killer. Visionary serial killers maintain that they hear voices or see visions that command them to kill. For example, David Berkowitz, known as “Son of Sam,” killed six young women and their boyfriends as they were parked in “lovers’ lanes” in New York, claiming that a dog that he thought lived in a hole in the wall of his apartment told him to do it. Visionary serial killers typically suffer from severe mental illness.
A second type of serial killer is mission oriented. These serial killers are motivated to eliminate certain types of people. They do not hear voices or see visions commanding them to kill. Rather, they view their victims as “undesirable,” and killing them is fulfilling a “noble” mission. Victims of mission-oriented serial killers may be homosexuals, prostitutes, members of a particular religion, or members of a specific racial or ethnic group.
The third type of serial killer is the hedonistic serial killer. Hedonistic serial killers derive pleasure— frequently, sexual pleasure—from the act of killing. In fact, many hedonistic serial killers include some type of sexual torture or abuse of their victims, either before or after the murder. One example of a hedonistic serial killer was Edmund Kemper, who in the early 1970s killed at least six young women whom he picked up while they were hitchhiking, as well as his mother, whose head he cut off and used as a dart board. Hedonistic serial killers include sexual sadists, as well as mysopeds (i.e., sadistic child killers).
The fourth type of serial killer has been labeled the power/control serial killer, although in many cases there is significant crossover between this type of serial killer and the hedonistic type. The power/control serial killer derives satisfaction from completely controlling the victim. Thus, the power/control serial killer may keep the victim alive for some time before committing the murder, using the victim as a slave or torturing the powerless victim. Power/control serial killers also sometimes keep the bodies of their victims for periods of time, may keep souvenirs from the murders (e.g., the victim’s shoes, a lock of hair, the victim’s driver’s license), or may photograph their victims. Jeffrey Dahmer, who killed young men in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, took photos of his victims or parts of their bodies before he cannibalized them.
Apart from these broad types of serial killers, it is important to note that most serial killers are White males, whose victims are White males or females. With regard to race, however, African Americans are overrepresented among serial killers in light of their proportion of the general U.S. population. African Americans make up about 12% of the U.S. population, but are estimated to be about 22% of serial killers. Their representation among serial killers is thought to have increased since the mid-1990s, although criminologists are not certain why this has occurred.
Female serial killers are relatively rare. Researchers maintain that female serial killers usually victimize husbands, former husbands, or boyfriends and are motivated by monetary gain, such as insurance benefits. In addition, female serial killers usually use poison or drug overdoses to kill their victims. In contrast, male serial killers are significantly more likely to target strangers, especially those to whom they have easy access, are transient, or whose disappearance is not likely to be noticed or to cause alarm (e.g., the poor or homeless, prostitutes, runaways, isolated elderly people).
Causes of Serial Murder
Researchers studying serial killers and their motives typically use a psychological or psychiatric framework to try to understand the behavior. As previously noted, for example, visionary serial killers, as well as the other types, are often diagnosed with various mental illnesses even though many serial killers do not appear mentally ill and may function normally in their communities. John Wayne Gacey, for instance, was well respected in his Chicago community and often performed as a clown at children’s birthday parties. He was arrested in the 1970s for the murder of 30 boys and young men in the Chicago area. Most serial killers are diagnosed as psychopaths or sociopaths who are incapable of feeling shame, remorse, or guilt.
Researchers also point out that serial killers often have had troubled childhoods and dysfunctional relationships with parents or other caregivers. Some were neglected or abused as children, and others had pathologically overprotective or smothering parents. Childhood sexual abuse is not infrequent in the life histories of serial killers and may contribute to some serial killers’ sexual dysfunction and gratification from sexual sadism.
Other researchers have identified various biological characteristics common to serial killers, such as neurological damage or disorders. But despite all this research, the causes of serial killing are still not well understood, a problem which makes it more difficult to predict or control serial killing.
The apprehension of serial killers can be frustrating for law enforcement, particularly in cases in which the killer is transient and has little relationship to the victims. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has developed a system that profiles suspected serial killers in an effort to assist local law enforcement agencies. The U.S. Department of Justice has also developed a computerized information system, the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program, that captures data on violent crimes across the country, matching offense characteristics to help local law enforcement in different areas determine if separate crimes might actually be associated with a single offender.
- Fox, J., & Levin, J. (2005). Extreme killing: Understanding serial and mass murder. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Giannangelo, S. (1996). The psychopathology of serial murder: A theory of violence. Westport, CT: Praeger.
- Hickey, E. (1991). Serial killers and their victims. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.
- Holmes, R. M., & DeBurger, J. (1988). Serial murder. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
- Holmes, S. T., Hickey, E., & Holmes, R. M. (1991). Female serial murderesses: Constructing differentiating typologies. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 7, 245–256.
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