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One answer to the question is that serial killers are compelled to commit their crimes because they have such low self-esteem that committing murder is the only way that they can prove their existence to the world. Despite the fact that most serial killers possess self-assertive personalities, they find themselves, throughout the course of their lives, in situations that make them feel useless, worthless, and passive. They kill their victims in order to erase their feelings of inadequacy and to leave an everlasting mark on the society that they believe has failed them and left them to suffer alone.
Serial killers have an immense desire to inflict pain and humiliation on their victims in retaliation for the wrongs that they perceive have been inflicted upon them by society. These killers have either witnessed similar acts of violent degradation at some point in their lives, or they have experienced it firsthand. These violent acts have occurred during the early stages in the killer's childhood developmentat the hands of abusive parents, older siblings, or close friends of the family. These experiences have led to the feelings of neglect, abandonment, and emotional deprivation that the serial killer harbors inside of himself as he matures into adulthood.
If the serial killer has not been subjected to these forms of abuse, they have, nonetheless, developed a distorted picture of the relationship between sex and violence. This has occurred as a result of direct experience, again at the hands of an abusive and domineering family member, or through engaging in deviant sexual behaviors themselves as a result of voyeurism, auto-eroticism, or by reading violent pornography.
In either case, serial killers, though apparently normal in appearance, are incapable of feeling anything for anyone outside of themselves. It is only when they are engaged in some form of violent sexual activity that they are capable of any semblance of normal feeling and emotion. Sexual activity brings these individuals to life. The object of their crimes is a non-thing who is unimportant and whose humanity is unimportant to the serial offender. Personal satisfaction is the serial killer's main and only objective.
To the general public, serial murders appear to be both absurd and motiveless. To the serial killer, however, the motive for violently and brutally torturing and murdering an innocent person is quite clear. Serial murders are not the random, motiveless crimes they appear to be. The motive for these crimes is the sheer desire to raise the level of self-esteem in the serial killer, which is so low it is almost non-existent to some level short of what would be considered normal.
To explain further, let us examine the concept of self-actualization that resides at the pinnacle of psychologist Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Maslow concluded that those individuals existing on the fringe of society, those who struggle to survive from day to day, have the desire to simply sustain themselves. Once they achieve this, the next level arises. Here, the individual seeks to obtain some measure of security. If he can meet this need, the third level, the sexual level, takes center stage as the object now requiring satisfaction. By achieving love, this level is sated and such satisfaction then gives rise to the need for self-esteem. The final stage in Maslow's hierarchy is the need for self-actualization. This means that the individual does something, anything, one thing, very well simply for the sake of doing it. The torturing and murdering of innocent people is self-actualization for the serial killer. It is the one and only thing that he does well. It is the one thing that he does better than anyone else. It is the only thing he does which makes him a somebody.
Self-actualization is the motive of all serial murderers and, for this reason, serial murder can be seen as telos-oriented, which is part of the reason why the serial killer does not believe that he has done anything wrong when confronted with his crimes. He has been conditioned to believe that the world or some other large, dynamic, central force is responsible for his actions.
Serial killers are sexual criminals, but sex is not the motive for the crimes. The sexual aspect of the crimes is embedded in the need to elevate the serial killer's self-esteem to a higher level.
The hierarchy that Maslow has outlined deals with the evolution of humanity. It explains, to some extent, why the serial killer is capable of the level of violence we see in his crimes and at his crime scenes. This violence is a result of the need to dominate, control, and be superior to others.
This need is also linked to one of the most basic problems we discover within humanity itself, the need to discover ourselves, to find out who we are and to locate a place for ourselves in the world. Serial killers did not have any clear role models during their adolescent periods to demonstrate and exhibit what it means to be a normal human being. Therefore, they do not form an identity of their own. They do not know or learn who they are or what they should be.
For the majority of normal adolescent males, the admiration of a female is an immense desire that they foster and aspire to achieve. This desire is constantly requiring satisfaction. The female is a reflection of the man himself, and as such, calls for the male to reveal who he is to her. When a female counterpart is discovered, it becomes immediately necessary for the male to act, to prove that he is indeed worthy of her attention. This usually calls for some sort of definitive act that demonstrates to the female who exactly he is.
The serial killer is incapable of exhibiting an appropriate response to this demand for action and feels threatened by it. He feels inadequate. His self-esteem level plunges even lower. He knows that he must act or lose his chance at obtaining the respect, devotion, and affection of the female. Panicked, and incapable of producing the appropriate reaction, the male lashes out violently against her, as if this assertion of his ability to dominate and control her should impress her in some way. When he is rejected because of this outburst, he is further damaged both emotionally and psychologically. He turns to the act of murder as the ultimate assertion of his superiority over others and his belief that he is somebody and he is going to prove it any way he can.
Furthermore, the desire for sex becomes so great that it is possible for a man to build up such a need for it that when he finds a woman who meets his mental list of qualifications or his fantasies, he begins to harbor the thought of possessing her totally. As a direct consequence of his low self-esteem, which leads to his feelings of inadequacy, he is led to believe that he would not be able to attract the female's attention based solely on his own merits and personality. He then begins to lay out a plan and to set up a trap for her because he is convinced that the only way to meet his need for sexual gratification is through the utilization of extreme aggression and violence.
The Marquis de Sade, the father of sadism, argued that human beings were basically selfish individuals who are incapable of loving anyone but themselves. Self-actualization brings with it the feeling that the individual is totally in control and does not need the company or assistance of anyone else in order to achieve satisfaction. This further alienates us from one another and leads the serial killer, who has already failed to develop the boundaries between self and world, to further believe that they are the one whom the world revolves around. It also reinforces the erroneous belief that there are no limits to their behavior because they have proven that they are the ones in control.
The serial killer makes a conscious choice that, in order for them to evolve, to achieve self-actualization, and to be in control, they have to abandon the path of normalcy and indulge themselves in the things which society has deemed as forbidden and contrary to the law. They also believe that their own personal growth is the most and only important thing in the world. As a result of this, they are therefore entitled to do whatever it takes to whoever gets in their way of achieving this growth, no matter what the outcome or consequences of their actions are.
What the serial killer fails to realize is that their violent actions are counter-productive to his growth and to achieving his goal of self-actualization. His violence is, in reality, violence against himself and his goals. It is self-destructive.
Most serial killers are lazy, inadequate personalities who are entrenched in self-pity and self-destructive activities. They regard women with feelings of hostility and suspicion because they don't feel worthy of their attention. On the other hand, their contorted self-image leads them to believe that they are irresistible to women at the same time. If the serial killer does marry or have a long-term relationship with a woman, it is usually with a woman who is passive. The serial killer is also an unfaithful spouse or lover because he continues to attempt extra-marital relationships that are used to reinforce his belief that he is God's gift to women. At the same time, he must ensure that his spouse or girlfriend remains faithful to him. Otherwise his self-image would be destroyed. If the spouse or girlfriend turns out to be unfaithful at some stage of the relationship, the serial killer will react violently against them. He does not murder them, though, because of the association between them, which would violate one of the commandments of serial murder--Thou Shalt Not Kill Anyone You Know.
The serial killer who achieves some degree of self-esteem will do whatever he can to maintain it. This explains why he reacts with such exaggerated and disproportionate levels of violence when challenged and feels that his self-esteem is endangered. His immense ego compensates for his feelings of inadequacy and explains why he makes every attempt to hide behind a mask of normalcy and why he attempts to convince everyone who comes in contact with him that he is someone that he is not.
There is no aspect of sex that occurs on a personal level for the serial killer. This leads to the victims being regarded as sexual objects who can be disposed of. There is no personal relationship between killer and victim. The victims become objects to use for sexual stimulation and then discard. Through this process, the serial killer asserts his masculinity and achieves a form of freedom, which liberates him from his own negative self-image and creates him as a somebody. This sense of freedom creates, in the serial killer, a god-complex. With each successful crime, the killer's ego expands and the god-complex is reinforced and heightened until he becomes completely isolated from the rest of the world because of it.
This god-complex leads the serial killer to desire to be superior to everyone he comes into contact with. It is natural to want to be considered different from your neighbor, but in the serial killer's mind, this need is intensified to the level that his difference has to be confirmed by other people as well. He achieves this by committing murder.
The two main weapons which a serial killer utilizes and which make him so difficult to both detect and apprehend are his ability to hide his behavior from those who are close to him behind a façade of normality and his mobility. These two factors, coupled with the sheer enormity of the number of murders committed within any given time frame, make it nearly impossible to catch a serial killer until he wants to be caught.
The media coverage that a serial murder case garnishes is also quite sizeable. With television, radio, and print media all taking a different angle on the case and exploiting any information they do obtain, the serial killer has a powerful ally. By broadcasting the information provided to them by authorities, the serial killer is informed of actions which will be taken by police to expedite his capture as well as their angle on the crime and what, if any, clues they have gathered against him. He utilizes this information to switch his modus operandi in subtle, yet significant ways that turn police in other directions except onto him.
After several kills in one particular area, the serial killer, knowing that police are occupied with solving those crimes, will move to a nearby area and continue his rampage, thereby adding greater confusion to an already muddied and chaotic picture. Since serial killers lack the ability to experience normal emotions, it is not uncommon to discover that he lives or works in the same area in which the crimes are committed.
The serial killer feels no guilt or remorse for his actions. He feels no sadness for the terror he causes his neighbors or co-workers. He has no emotional ties to the community and has learned how to mask his behavior and mimic socially acceptable behavior so adeptly that he can easily fool those around him into believing that he, too, is concerned about and afraid of the crimes without ever tipping his hand.
The serial killer is a nomad, never living nor collecting nor killing his victims in one set location for very long. A perfect example of this is Theodore Robert Bundy who claimed victims in at least six different states. Even when the killer is rooted from one particular area through his home, such as John Wayne Gacy who lived in Chicago and buried his victims in the crawl space of his house, he still trolls for his victims in different locations. If a serial killer is crafty enough to alter the modus operandi of his crimes and resourceful enough to shift locations, it is highly probable that his crimes will not be linked to one another and will go unsolved for quite some time.
Serial killers are unlike any other type of criminal. They are dedicated and devoted to the art of murder. It is their passion, the one area in life where they not only succeed, but where they are truly happy and alive. Unlike other criminals who may forget minor details of their crimes as time passes, these minor details fuel the passion of the serial killer. Rather than forget, the serial killer replays each crime, each and every detail, over and over again in his mind as if he had them videotaped. It has been noted by several experts and true crime writers, who have had face-to-face interviews with known serial killers, that they remember each detail of the crime. They can describe the crime, the victim, and the crime scene so precisely even years after the crimes were committed that it is as if they were actually there, at the scene, while they are talking about the crimes.
Just as concert violinists practice the same note repeatedly and are so confident and polished that they know exactly how to caress each string on their instrument so that it exudes the perfect melody, the serial killer practices his crimes repeatedly in his head. He knows the art of killing so intimately that he knows the precise locations on the body and the exact amount of pressure required to make the victims squeal with pain and terror and to cause a slow and painfully tortuous death.
The object of his crimes, the victim, never leaves the serial killer's mind. Even after the death has occurred, the serial killer remains obsessed with them. He visits the spot where he disposed of the body. He relives the crime through any souvenirs or photos he may have taken of it. He reads about his crimes in the paper and watches reports of them on the nightly news.
Once he crosses the line between reality and fantasy and commits his first murder, there is no turning back. The serial killer is like a person addicted to drugs or alcohol. If he does not feed his urge for murder he will fold up and die. He cannot stop killing on his own and most serial killers, when they are finally apprehended, express feelings of deep gratitude and relief to their captors that, finally, it can all come to an end.
Serial killers are the most dangerous criminals ever known to man because they are human predators. They are constantly on the prowl hunting for victims and it is impossible to tell him apart from your neighbor, your co-worker, your husband.
He is a patient criminal who plans out his crimes and rarely deviates from that plan. There is no telling how many times we have encountered these individuals when we crossed a street, sat down at a bar, or left for work. There is no way of knowing when we have been followed by them, fantasized about by them, and then did something to alter their fantasy and turn their attention away from us and onto someone else. We will never know on how many occasions we came close enough for a serial killer to look into our eyes or to breathe down our neck. We can only know that they are out there, that they are dangerous, and that they will stop at nothing to satisfy their primal urge to murder. This is their story.