When people think about serial killers, and psychopaths, they tend to idealize them, and also have no idea what they are talking about. The idea that the psychopath is of above-average intelligence and cunning is perpetuated by the fact that unintelligent psychopaths quickly land themselves in jail.
Psychopathy can be scored using a 40 point checklist developed by Robert Hare, and is often lumped together with the DSM and ICD’s anti-social personality disorder. This measures only the behavioral and cognitive psychopathy, and tends to ignore the neurobiological aspects.
Many people have a hard time understanding exactly why individuals commit crimes like killing people in order to have sex with their dead bodies or to have sex with their severed heads, but the reasoning behind it is actually the same as for those who commit serial rape and arson, or even those who excessively go clubbing: escaping present stressors through experiencing something so intense, which feeds into their fantasy, as to block out their real problems.
Of course, not all psychopaths are killers and not all killers are psychopaths. It is important the mention that not even every psychopath is a criminal, that most criminals are not psychopaths, and that the bizarre and violent behavior of serial killers often has more to do with their life/philosophy than with their psychopathy.
The most famous of all psychopaths are serial killers, and one of the most infamous serial killers, Theodore (Ted) Bundy, killed over 30 college age women in several states, and once compared serial killing to stamp collecting. Although I think that this metaphor hints at what goes on behind the scenes, I think a more fitting comparison is to picking up singles at the club.
During the week many people avoid confronting their real stress by feeding a “party-hard” fantasy. Unfortunately, when they finally act to fulfill it, the experience is disappointing compared to the fantasy they’d been entertaining, which leaves them yearning, and determined, to do it again but this time to get it “right.” Serial crimes almost always follow a similar pattern: a never ending attempt to achieve an increasingly unreachable fantasy. The biggest difference is that while normal people are able to empathize with and recognize others as real, the psychopath is “stunted” in this respect and has a limited capacity to recognize the feelings of others as being real.
The biggest difference between this and serial killing is, whereas getting drunk and finding sex with a stranger fulfills a primary sexual need, the serial killer is also (and sometimes only) expressing a secondary sexual need: mainly for total control over their victim. Both mostly do it to, as Ted Bundy so eloquently put it, “get your rocks off.” Both primarily lack a respect for people as individuals.
You cannot assume that all serial killers find the same things exciting, and the core of what creates the sexual thrill for them is called the “signature” (Keppel), which despite potentially changing modus operandi (or the exactly methodology of the crime), will remain relatively constant. Although constant is the wrong word, since particular types of signatures tend to develop in particular directions, although there is always room for human variable. For instance overkill will likely intensify and may evolve into dismemberment and evisceration, whereas manual strangulation (with the hands) will likely evolve into ligature strangulation.
This evolution of the signature, incorporating new fantasies and details from prior kills, explains why a John Jay University study found the vast majority (81%) of sexual homicides were admittedly linked with the killer’ masturbatory fantasies (although the real number is likely higher), and of 162 sexual homicides studied: 90.7% involved ritualistic acts. Although the NIH’s analysis of this study concluded that this evolving signature did not fit the criteria of being the “same ritual or unique calling card” at every scene”, the study itself says: “83% engaged in rituals that were behaviorally similar.”
The part of the problem of the serial killer is what Robert D. Keppel describes as a “clinical anger“: they hold onto anger, frequently, and even if they hide it well, it interferes with their normal life and potentially their health. At the root, their anger likely stems from dysfunctional attachment taking the form of “avoidant attachment,” and a lack of meaningful or positive relationships. This gives us the hint that not every serial killer is a neurobiological psychopath.
Both neurobiological psychopaths and those “turned” through dysfunctional attachment don’t cry as infants when the caregiver leaves ,and also don’t want to play with the person giving the experiment: they don’t look for “proximity, interaction, or contact by reunion” when the caregiver returns. Much in the same way circumcision may lower a male’s sensitivity to pain, early and frequent experiences of abandonment or emotional neglect, feelings of being an “outsider” in the own family, makes them prone to not voicing or perceiving their emotions since they are used to no one caring anyways.
One theory states that psychopathy develops as a survival mechanism to regularly experiencing such situations, do not really develop internal emotional intelligence. They do not consciously notice how stressed they are: they create a diphasic personality to cope with it. This does not mean they have multiple personalities, it means they create a fantasy world for themselves , and mirror something else for everyone on the outside. With serial killers, this fantasy world is just far darker than with other subgroups to whom that description applies. These people “didn’t mature, because choosing to live in his fantasy world allowed him to say a child with no respect or consequences” (Keppel, p.325).
Of course, we also cannot deny a genetic component to psychopathy (which again, does not frequently turn into serial murder), with a more recent Minnesota twins study finding a 60% likelihood of twins raised apart both sharing psychopathic tendencies (if one of them did). This finding also has a secondary potential explanation: both twins shared the same experience in the mother and originate from sperm of the same father: opening the door to epigenetic changes independant of the genetic code. It is likely that the development of psychopathy is rooted both in experience and genetics, with development into serial killing requiring a more pronounced lack of even superficial attachments.
We should also avoid lumping “psychopaths” into a single box, because many neurobiological psychopaths are in fact largely immune to stress and affective empathy (they can understand, but don’t “feel with” others). The emotionally avoidant and the psychopath, in as much as they don’t overlap, would both be able to kill with impunity, but for different reasons and with different internal states.
Serial killers transferred their emotional reactions into anger, and using different forms of acting out and extreme emotional experiences -like torturing animals or committing arson, which are both regularly seen in the lives of serial killers- to give it some form of real-world release. David Burkowitz (Son of Sam), for instance, started over 2000 fires (Douglas, 1999). Murder may not even be the core of their signature, it may focus more on torture or necrophilia. But, it is with every one of them an expression of control and anger, and is almost always “triggered” by something going on in their real life (for which I propose the murderous act is an effort to distract themselves from).
These people are not all geniuses, and they are not inherently particularly effective at anything other than being ruthless. Their high levels of stress tolerance, or inability to feel their stress and process it, let them fool lie detectors, as well as most of us. To them, lying is such a small occurrence that it wouldn’t necessarily cause a real spike in their heart rate or pulse. But, as Ted Bundy said: “if it’s properly administered…if you have a good person, they should be able to figure that out… if your man is good enough, I don’t think the person who’s killed all these people will pass.”(Keppel, 1995) A polygraph and associated technology only looks for signs of physiological stress (or even excitation) , which can be potentially elicited with questions into the killer’s signature, as opposed to alibi.
These individuals are able to technically feel empathy, but have to use conscious effort to turn/keep it “on”. They are also frequently so deeply involved in their violent fantasy life, avoiding their real life stressors, that they often never really process the consequences of their actions, or understand the patterns in their behavior. The repeated replaying of fantasies (either just in their head or with help from porn), often paired with masturbation, helps cement these fantasies and fuse them with the individual’s understanding of sexuality and/or stress release.
We also have to address that there are many toxic myths about men and emotion that leads many people to see anger as a more acceptable means of expressing social isolation than sadness: from childhood onwards. Not everyone is taught how to deal with emotional stress in healthy ways, and this can entwine itself with sexuality.
How many individuals have this kind of anger, this sense of separation, these violent fantasies? We’ll never know. In every case though, these individuals do not live in what famous psychologist Carl Rogers called “congruence,” or that that their experiences fit their self-image. Many of these people have a negative self-image, which allows them to do heinous things without creating dissonance. Anyone who believes themselves a psychopath is doing themselves, as a human, a great disservice by giving themselves such a negative label.
So, if you are a “psychopath”, or if you just have what could be called clinical anger, or just a tendency to hold onto anger like hot coals, burning yourself with the ambition of throwing them at someone else. How can you change your path? What should you do if you find the idea of choking someone to death sexually pleasant, what do you then?
The answer is to not force yourself into a negative self-image because of any strangeness you may have in how you experience the world. You do not have to be who you have seen yourself as, or make yourself a secret slave to any dark fantasies you may have. You can decide which thoughts you indulge in: you don’t have to hold onto anger. Practicing mediation is adviseable, as is taking responsibility for everything you do.
As Ed Kemper “co-ed killer” said: “I was emotionally impotent…(killing) a little wasn’t enough: it is like drugs or alcohol…“. These people do not trust the world to fulfill their needs, and build a fantasy word, transferrable to reality, which isn’t dependant on the will of others, which grants them total control. In some cases, it is actually at least partially dependent on them not wanting it. Their extremely narcissistic escapism literally throws other people to their death, and puts them through great suffering, in order for the perpetrator to misguidedly seek to relieve their real life stress and/or obsessive fantasies.
Your personality is not set, but it also doesn’t change drastically unless the circumstances change. What makes the biggest difference, what allows people to “change”, is compensatory strategies. There are ways to deal with emotional stress, other than blocking it out or turning it into anger: one can meditate, talk to others, and inhibit yourself from pursuing maladaptive ways of dealing with it. And although it is easy to blame psychopaths for the world’s problems: things really aren’t that simple.
Any serial killer could have changed their path and started to take responsibility for how far they had come already, the same is true for any rapist or arsonist. Many would never gone so far if they had trusted themselves to deal with their issues directly, had found better coping strategies, or if they had opened up to someone they could trust and let out some of the anger they are storing up inside. Whether psychopath or not: we could all do with holding more onto happiness, practicing the active art of love, showing empathy to other life, building meaningful social connections, and meditating. The only way to change your path, or that of others, is to be the change yourself.
– Keppel D, Robert (Ph.D). 1997. Signature Killers.
– Douglas, John. 1999. Anatomy of Motive
– Keppel D, Robert. 1995. The Riverman: Ted Bundy and I Hunt for The Green River Killer.
– Douglas, John. Burgess, Ann & Allen. Ressler, Robert. 1997. Crime Classification Manual.
– Ressler, Robert. Burgess, Ann. Douglas, John. 1988. Sexual Homicide: Patterns and Motives.