The Mind Of A Serial Killer: Biological And Psychosocial Factors

Serial killing is possibly the most sensationalized criminal phenomenon of our time due to its horrific nature and its rarity. The worldwide view of a serial killer is a Caucasian male, a wicked monster with a strange look, has dysfunctional associations, engages in torturing animals, or has been abused physically or sexually in childhood, thus kills to derive the missed satisfaction. However, these notions of a serial killer are not validated since every serial killer has a different reason for killing multiple victims and that depends on his/her experiences and history. The complex behavior of serial killers, whether organized, disorganized, or mixed, can understood by looking at their motivational factors, which can be biological, psychological, or cognitive.

While documented acts of serial killing date back to at least the early Roman Empire, societal awareness of serial homicides escalated steadily since the 1960s, with press coverage of notorious cases such as Charles Manson, Albert DeSalvo, and Edward Gein. Furthermore, songs like The Ripper by Judas Priest, movies like The Perfume, and television shows like The Fall indicate a pervasive enthrallment with serial killers.

Although few people are killers, the world has a general fascination with serial killing. The first ever-documented serial killer was reported in the first century CE. It involved someone from Rome known as Locusta, who gained popularity after poisoning Emperor Claudia, his son Britannicus, as well as the other six unspecified victims. Another notable case of serial killing is Gilles de Rais, a French army’s leader, Joan of Arc’s companion-in-arms, and serial killer, famous for murdering a large group of people in 14th and 15th centuries (about 100 children). In the United States, various cases of serial killings have been documented from the 1800s, with H. H. Holmes being one of the most popular and first in the US. It was confirmed that he murdered a minimum of twelve individuals in the 1990s comprising of children, women, and men, although he mentioned that he had killed over twenty-five people (Sharma 5). A more recent serial killing case in the US is that of William Devin Howell, an accused serial killer who confessed to having killed seven victims in 2003 in Connecticut.


Through the years, the serial killer definition has continued to evolve. In 1957, Reinhardt created the ‘chain killers’ phrase and defined them as individuals who would murder people living behind a ‘chain’ of fatalities. The first person to coin the ‘serial killer’ term was Robert Ressler from the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI). Serial killers are individuals who kill more than three individuals. It has also been defined as individuals who kill people serially (kill one person after another).

The FBI provided a serial killing definition in 1998 to include more than murders committed independently, and between them, there is a cooling-off period. In 2005, the US FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit-2 held the Serial Murder Symposium, whereby serial killing was described as the same offender slaying a minimum of two victims unlawfully, in separate events.

Serial killing is different from multiple homicide cases. Mass killing is whereby one or more offenders kill four or more individuals in a single event, which can go for a few minutes or even hours. For instance, George Hennard opened fire in October 1991 in Killen, Texas, at Luby’s cafeteria, which killed 23 victims before killing himself. This is classified as mass murder since the incidence happened in a single event, but numerous individuals were killed. Spree killing entails slaying a minimum of three targets within the same occasion but is separate scenes. This can be exemplified by Florida’s case where William Cruise killed six people at different locations and with no resting period between the killings in Palm Bay.

Five elements have been proposed to differentiate serial killing from other forms of multiple murders. They include the person’s act of killing victims in years or months while acting independently in most instances. The absence of a previously existing relationship between the victims and the offender characterizes it. Mostly, the killings are not founded on crimes of passion or victim precipitation, and their communication does not explicitly perpetuate the crime. Lastly, serial murder cases are not driven my any financial gain.

Some researchers have enabled the common stereotype of serial killers being 20 or 30- year-old white males. Significant literature on serial killing has concentrated on mostly White males disregarding the Asian, African American, Hispanic, and female serial murderers. However, when Aileen Carol Wuornos was arrested in 1991, the media broke into a frenzy which highlighted the notion of female serial killers. Statistics indicate that females represent approximately 12 to 15 percent of serial killers that have been caught. A study was done in 2005 also invalidated the stereotype that serial killers are white by showing that 22 percent were African Americans.

Typologies of Serial Killer

Researchers have established a myriad of etiological typologies and theories to define the features of a serial killer. Through the years, social scientists, mental health professionals, law enforcement officials, and criminologists have tried to include different measures for the serial killer’s underlying motivations. Categorizing serial killers into these typologies assists in gaining details to help the law enforcement agencies further to profile, investigate, and ultimately apprehend the ferocious serial killers. Some of the typologies of serial killers include:

Organized and Disorganized killers

At FBI Training Academy at Quantico, special agents created a system intended to classify serial slayers as either disorganized or organized using the evidence found at the crime scene. According to the proposed system, with the crime scene’s classification as organized or disorganized, the behavior and characteristics of the offender can be identified.

The Organized Killer

Based on this design, organized serial killers have a very systematic life that is also replicated in their method of committing crimes. Ideally, they can kill after going through some form of a trigger from an intimate relationship, employment, or financial challenges. As claimed in the model, these offenders would possibly have skilled employment, be socially proficient, and be between average to high intelligence levels.

Organized offenders premeditate offenses, bring weapons for committing murder, and clear the murder scene afterward. The crime scene for organized offenders is very controlled since they are socially skilled and demonstrated good interpersonal interactions. As such, they can communicate very well with their targets before the violence. Moreover, most of the organized offenders lead a normal life sometimes with a partner, not sexually starved, in a stable and controlled mood, and follow reports of their crimes.

The Disorganized Killer

Their crime scene is mostly chaotic and depicts that little to no premeditation was done before committing the crime. The disorganization may involve leaving behind murder weapon, fingerprints, blood, or semen at the crime scene. In most cases, disorganized offenders are socially incompetent, with intelligence below average. The disarrayed crime scene reflects the murderer’s incompetence to uphold social interactions and relationships. Since they lack healthy and intimate relationships, they are more like to engage in sadistic and sexual acts during the murders. Lastly, disorganized offenders stay alone, are incompetent sexually, are always in an anxious mood and do not follow their crimes in the media.

Mixed Killer

A mixed killer exhibits the characteristic of both a disorganized and organized killer. In most cases, mixed killings involve more than one offender, and even though they may have done some planning beforehand, some of the events remain unforeseen. For instance, the victim may resist, or the offender may employ a different form of violence. The crime may get messier with the offender getting more violent and might also leave the victim’s body uncovered or do it poorly.

Other typologies

Besides the organized/disorganized topology, serial killers are classified based on their intrinsic motivations for committing the crimes and their presumed psychological reinforcement. These classifications include:

Visionary Type: Believing in their psychotic symptoms, these offenders kill since they listen to their visual/auditory delusions and hallucinations.

Mission-oriented Type has formed the idea that their primary duty in the world is to eliminate certain populations like immigrants, prostitutes, and individuals of a particular gender, age group, or ethnicities.

Hedonistic Type includes lust killers and thrill killers. For lust killers, they get some form of sexual fulfillment from their killings. Nonetheless, their killings are not always centered on typical sexual acts; they can obtain satisfaction from committing the murder itself. On the other hand, thrill killers are inspired by the excitement that they experience during the killings. As such, their murders entail longer periods of sadism and torture.

Power/Control-oriented type: These killers obtain satisfaction from applying their dominance, control, and power over their targets. Their key drive in nonsexual, but they always want to make the victims feel helpless, hence, putting them in control of the situation.

Serial Killing’s Etiological Theories

Theories about serial killing etiology can be categorized into two sets: psychosocial perspective and biological perspectives. For psychosocial perspectives, they concentrate on mental disorders, social learning related influences, and childhood trauma. On the other hand, biological perspectives entail genetic predispositions, brain defects, and other issues.

Biological Perspectives

One biological perspective on serial killing concentrated on brain malfunctions whereby brain dysfunction degree in serious criminals is at an increased level when compared to non-criminals. Minimal Brain Dysfunction (MBD) is a condition whereby one suddenly but sporadically gets into maladaptive behaviors like volatile rage, but also between the episodes, neural and kind states are integrated. MBD may lead to cases involving aggressive behavior, abuse, suicide, and aimless homicide.

Some of the serial killers have some form of organic brain abnormalities or head injury. Serial killers act out due to these neurological dysfunctions that lead to seizures; they act out in the course of episodes of unmanageable brainwave action, further resulting in compulsive conduct. Further findings have indicated that substantial head injury during prenatal years or childhood may lead to the prefrontal cortex that is deformed or dysfunction in serotonin or dopamine levels, which predisposes them to serial killing.

A complex link has also been established between serial killing and predisposing neurodevelopmental problems (like a head injury), and traumatic and stressful environmental occurrences. Neurological problems do not cause serial killings singlehandedly. However, there is an association between neurodevelopment and environmental aspects like physical, psychological, and sexual abuse that leads to a person getting predisposed to growing into a serial killer.

A different biological perspective is a link between biochemical imbalances (non-neurochemical and neurological) and violence and criminality. For instance, a state like hypoglycemia that increases when sugar and blood levels reduce leading to unusual neurological functioning has been linked to violent and antisocial behavior. Hostile behavior has also been connected to uneven male hormone levels, like testosterone levels.

Unlike an average person, serial murderers may be born with a bigger requirement for superior stimulation. As such, they become vulnerable to compulsive and addictive gratification-seeking actions. Together with a dysfunctional prefrontal cortex, it may lead to an increase in the need and control of pleasure-seeking behaviors. The need for stimulation exhibited in a serial killer increases by a rise in the rate of her or his killing over time, which is reflective of an addictive and compulsory behavioral pattern.

Some theorists have also looked into the association between serial killing and the offender’s genetic components. A study established that male adopted children whose biological fathers were offenders but adoptive fathers were not, exhibited an increased rate of criminality when compared to those with both non-criminal adoptive and biological fathers. As such, it was determined that when environmental and genetic risk factors combine, they contribute towards an individual’s getting into criminal behavior.

Psychosocial Perspectives

Studies on how psychosocial factors cause serial killing to have a bearing in childhood experiences, especially, abandonment, loneliness, and abuse which predisposes individuals to serial killing. Studies have indicated that the existence of a father-figure in a child’s life reduces/prevents aggressive and violent behaviors in adulthood. Cummins, Foley, and King have also indicated that a significant percentage of serial killers have been rejected by a parent or another person that is very important in their lives.

Other psychosocial factors that have been associated with serial murder include humiliation, abandonment, early adoptions, and neglect in childhood. Unhealthy and unstable relationships may incapacitate one’s ability to form emotional attachment during childhood. Psychological and physical abuse also contributes to one’s development into a serial killer.

Parent-child attachments affect violent behavior. People who established a fearful and insecure attachment method are more likely to develop attachments that are not secure in the future. This process would possibly result in difficulty when establishing associations and the establishment of loneliness in both adulthood and childhood. For most serial killers, loneliness has been established as a motivating factor.

The abandonment and abuse pattern may result in one developing a mental illness. Besides, the lack of ability among people with schizophrenia to recognize facial expressions that show emotions, affects social functioning, hence increasing the possibility of criminal behavior. People with schizophrenia also experience delusions that can enable serial killing behavior. Other disorders linked to serial killing behavior include Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), Borderline Personality Disorder, and Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD).

Cognitive Rehearsal and the Role of Fantasies

Studies have also shown that unsettled stress emotions and perceiving the world through trauma lenses that one has experienced may make a child look for relief in fantasies centered on concepts of control and domination, resulting in sexual ferocity coming from aggressive and sexual imaginations. Individuals long to act on obsessive whims of murder, victim control, and torture since they act as a coping mechanism. Once the fantasies no longer serve their needs, serial killers will want to actualize them.


Several of the deeply rooted views about the serial murders mostly perpetrated by law enforcement and ‘pop psychology’ are flawed. The selective narrative of serial killers being sexually motivated, male, white, or motiveless peoples who target strangers randomly is invalidated since many factors have a role in the development of serial murderers, and these stereotypes cloud the reasoning. No sole factor leads to serial killing because it is a product of numerous elements predisposing an individual to act unhealthily. Each serial killer has had different factors that influence their behavior. Some of the factors are interdependent and overlap. For instance, low self-esteem, stress/trauma, power/control, loneliness, and belonging seem to be interconnected in a manner that predisposes one to serial killing. The combination of biological and psychosocial factors influences how serial killers behave.

10 October 2020
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