By the very definition, a serial killer is defined as a person who typically murders three or more persons, usually in service of abnormal psychological gratification. Collectively, we’re pretty obsessed with (and terrified of) serial killers, getting our fix by way of books, podcasts, and documentaries. While historians argue about how far back serial killers date, Jack the Ripper, anonymous as he may be, is given most of the credit as our “first” serial killer, but as to be expected, our knowledge regarding the mind of a killer has come a long way since the late 1880s. You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to know where we’re going with this, let’s take a look at just a few things modern psychology and neuroscience can tell us about the mind behind the madness.
Serial killers lack empathy, and not only do they lack empathy but they don’t experience guilt when it comes to their actions. A prime example of this is that most serial killers admit that they started acting out their fantasies on small animals before they moved to humans, but they fully understood at the moment that animal torture gave them a great source of pleasure.
We know that there are six phases of the serial killer’s cycle starting with the Aura phase where the killer starts to lose their grip on reality, next is the Trolling phase where the killer seeks out a victim, the Wooling phase where the killer lures his victim, the Capture phase where the victim is entrapped, the Murder or Totem phase which is the emotion high for the killer, and lastly the Depression phase which takes place after the killing.
The FBI has a Crime Classification Manual and in this manual, they place serial killers into three categories: they are either organized, disorganized, and mixed, or that exhibit both organized and disorganized traits. Organized serial killers are those that appear seemingly “normal” maybe having a spouse and children, and their crimes are planned. Disorganized killers are more impulsive and cut off from society, and more than likely have no friends.
A shocking statistic is that roughly 70% of serial killers received extensive head injuries at some point in their youth. Research suggests there could be a link between these injuries and the types of murder they commit, citing that the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain responsible for planning and judgment) does not function properly in psychopaths.
When we talk about motives, those also fall under a number of categories, four to be exact. Visionary refers to those who feel compelled by a higher being to commit murder, Mission-Oriented refers to someone who kills to rid the world of a certain group or type of person, Hedonistic refers to someone who feels pleasure from killing, and lastly, simply power-hungry.