Read an Excerpt
Excerpt from Chapter 1: Meet the Serial Killer
Serial killers are a lot different from regular murderers. Most people who commit murder do so out of passion and anger. When homicide cops investigate, they usually look at family members as suspects first. There are, of course, people who plan a murder for financial or other gain, but murder is most often a crime of passion. Serial killers are much different; they kill many people, almost all of whom are usually strangers, over a period of time, and usually with some sort of cooling-off period between killings.
According to the FBI, a serial killer is someone who has killed a minimum of three people. We agree that this generally is a true definition, but we would also put firmly into the serial killer category those killers who were stopped from murdering before they reached three victims because they were caught or otherwise incapacitated, but who, because of the way they committed their crimes, would have killed at least three - maybe many more.
The Canadian Paul Bernardo and his masochistic lover Karla Homolka are prime examples of this: They killed three people, but as one of the murders was legally categorized as manslaughter, they aren't "official" serial killers because only two of their killings are considered first degree murder. But a close look at the murderous drive inside the two - a drive that facilitated the rape and murder of young girls, including Karla's younger sister - reveals that there was no way they would have stopped killing had they not been caught. (More on Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka in Chapter 25.)
The Answer Is Found in Childhood
So, then, what creates a serial killer? Why this compulsion - and it is a compulsion - to kill multiple times?
Some people think that the compulsion to kill may be the result of trauma to the brain. This is what the Tampa, Florida, serial killer Bobby Joe Long thought drove him to rape and murder women; he claimed that, before a motorcycle accident that caused severe head trauma, he never thought about killing women.
Some psychiatrists think it's genetic, that an aberration of some sort occurs and puts people on a homicidal path. Another potential reason is that something dreadful happens to the human psyche when a child is shipped to an orphanage, or given up to a foster care system. Author John Bowlby says in his book The Making and Breaking of Affectional Bonds (1979), "In psychopaths the incidence of illegitimacy and the shunting of the child from one home to another is high. It is no accident that Ian Brady of the Moors murders was such a one."
Most psychiatrists are usually vague about exactly what compels someone to kill people, and it's true that there is no definitive answer. However, most doctors believe that serial killers are programmed in their childhoods to be killers - and it's not just doctors who feel that way. Most investigators who are close to these crimes and criminals agree, people like the FBI's John Douglas and Robert Ressler, premier profilers and investigators who have been investigating serial killers since the term was coined in the 1970s.
We believe that to understand the why of serial killers, one has to first accept the existence of the unconscious mind: that things are going on it constantly and that it is capable of controlling behavior. When a child is abused in one way or another by parents, the anger and terror he or she feels is hidden in the unconscious, which becomes like a seething cauldron, and the child starts looking for ways to deal with the terrifying feelings emerging from it. Someone in the family, usually the mother or father, has clearly shown the child that he or she has no value except perhaps as a sex object or someone to hurt. A terrible fear builds up in the child's unconscious that results from feeling constantly under threat, so the child starts to formulate fantasies of being all-powerful, controlling, and able to handle whatever comes his or her way. Then, the child creates symbolic scenarios in which he or she is dominant or acts out, first by showing mastery over animals by abusing them, and sometimes over structures while burning them down. This manifests in adulthood as a powerful sex drive and the abuse of the women or children in the person's life.
While all of us are subject to some stress in our childhoods from our parents, the stress we are talking about here is horrendous, and the reaction of the child is equally so. Indeed, this book is full of horrendous things that happened to children who went on to become serial murderers: Ken Bianchi's mother, a prostitute, held his hand over a stove flame to punish him. Edmund Kemper's parents made him kill his pet chicken and forced him to eat it, tears streaming down his face, for dinner.
At some point in serial killers' development - usually when they're in their twenties - the fantasies or the cruelty to animals is no longer enough to satisfy their murderous rages, and their compulsion is satisfied by nothing less than killing people. We believe that serial killers are unconsciously terrified of and furious with people because of their own childhoods, and that they kill to temporarily alleviate that terror.
As with all murderers, there are more male serial killers than female ones. While it may appear on the surface that some women kill for financial gain - those characterized as "black widows," who benefit from killing family or friends - it's likely that the real reasons they kill are the same as they are for men: to take control, to gain power, and to temporarily conquer the terror inside them. And "temporarily" is a key consideration. At the risk of redundancy, the act of dominance, of killing, must be done over and over again to support the serial killer's delusion that he or she is all-powerful, to reassert superiority.
And like all insecure people, serial killers are egotists. They want to be known and feted for their achievements as killing machines. And this, as some of the stories in this book will show, sometimes gets them caught.