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Into The Mindset Of Serial Killers

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Serial killers or multiple murderers are differentiated from single murderers in the fact that they have multiple victims. They are defined as people who have murdered more than three times. In more recent times, multiple killings are not as common as they may have been in the 1970s and 1980s. Much more advanced technologies and methodology allow law enforcement to pick apart the motivations and techniques that relate to each killer and apprehend them before their crimes can continue. The root of what actually makes someone a sociopath or psychopath is still unknown, though information can be gained through an investigation into their family history, the violence in their methods, their DNA and other mental disorders such as schizophrenia. Some of the most well known serial killers originate from the United States, such as Gary Ridgway, Ted Bundy, Jeffery Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy, all of whom terrorised the citizens of the United States. This paper will discuss the correlations between a number of historical serial killers and the factors that may have influenced them to commit their crimes. It will also draw conclusions based on a number of psychological theories.

Psychological theories are those presented by psychiatrists or people of similar qualifications in attempt to explain the actions of people who act in a different way psychologically to others. Developed by FBI agents in the 1970s, the ‘disorganised-organised’ approach to categorising and profiling serial killers can effectively analyse and in most cases, predict a killer’s movements and personality. The theory classifies killers as either organised (characteristics may include: average intelligence, employed, socially competent, planned attack, removed evidence) or disorganised (random acts of violence, likely to leave evidence, socially inadequate, low intelligence). A different examination, formulated by Sigmund Freud, suggest there was three elements that make up a persona: ID, ego and superego. This is known as the Psychodynamic Theory. The ID is primitive and supplies the drive for things such as food and sex. The ego is a sense of what is acceptable in society. The superego develops morals and values resulting to the prior two elements. In serial killers, Freud concluded that the ID is overwhelmed, the ego is low or non-existent and the superego is warped due to the ID and ego. Where a weak ego exists, serial killers are often found, as they manifest their feelings of oppression and anger from childhood in the form of murder and inflicting pain. Further theories involve genetics and the likelihood of violence being hereditary. These are known as Biological Trait Theories and focus on the biological conditions that control human behaviours such as neurophysiology. Links between impairment of brain function and aggression have been uncovered as a result of this theory.

John Wayne Gacy was responsible for the murders of as many as 33 young boys in Chicago in the 1970s. His family life was difficult from a young age, during which he struggled with his relationship with his abusive, alcoholic father, John Stanley Gacy. John Jr. and his sisters were beat ruthlessly by their father whom rendered Gacy unconscious in one event. John was also a witness to his parents’ arguments and domestic abuse. His father viewed him as a ‘beta male’, due to his heart condition which caused him to be overweight and unhealthy as he was unable to exercise. Gacy’s masculinity did not conform with that of his father, presumably the reason for John Snr’s violence toward him. Gacy also had the realisation that he was gay, which in the 1960s and 1970s was entirely inappropriate and labelled a disorder. A number of neighbourhood bullies were known for mocking him, though he was the subject of his mother and sister’s doting. He eventually dropped out of school due to his poor grades and lack of interest. Following this, he left his family and cut contact in 1962, moving to Vegas to work in a morgue. It was reported that he would often open their coffins and speak to, caress, hug and occasionally attempt to have sex with them, and upon the director’s revelation to his actions, Gacy moved back to Chicago and enrolled in business school.

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Over this time, Gacy worked as a clown at children’s and charity events as ‘Pogo the Clown’. By 1968, he was convicted of sexual assault against two boys, spending 18 months in prison. Upon release, he rebuilt his life and was well liked in his new community who knew nothing of his past. Despite this, he assaulted numerous young boys with the prospect of work. Gacy was positively viewed by his community with his own business, being active politically and married for a second time. This however deteriorated as he openly confessed to being bisexual, leading to his second divorce in 1978. Prior to this however, Gacy killed for the first time in 1972. His victim was a young boy named Timothy McCoy. Afterwards, various young boys began to go missing though police rarely investigated it. He would often intoxicate, then torture his victims in various ways such as drowning in the bathtub, dripping hot wax on them, placing them on a rack and urinating on them. It was reported that he would rape them before and after they were killed. A report against Gacy was made in 1977, though again, police refrained from investigation. After Gacy’s divorce, Robert Piest went missing and was reported to police by his mother. The investigation uncovered the belongings of the other missing boys and upon a second search found the bodies in a crawlspace of Gacy’s house. He was put on trial on February 6th, 1980, where he pled guilty by reason of insanity. Psychologists concluded this was not the case and Gacy was found guilty, sentenced to 12 death sentences and 21 natural life sentences.

The psychology behind Gacy’s crimes relies on an analysis of his family life and mental development. Many theories of psychology can be applied to his situation. A breakdown of Gacy’s circumstances allows a detailed understanding. Gacy had an extremely negative father figure, particularly as a ‘beta male’ which caused his own fixation on young boys. He acted in such a way that his brain saw it as a defence to his treatment by his father. As to why he chose young boys and not girls comes down to perhaps purely what was accessible. Gacy claimed to be bisexual, though according to _____, individuals are who chose children over adults may be attracted to children regardless of gender. They may not be classified as homosexual, heterosexual or bisexual. Other reasons for choosing children may include that they are easier to obtain and subdue, the attractivity of their innocence or parallels seen between the perpetrator and the victim. In Gacy’s case, it can be assumed that he chose young boys of colour because of two reasons. The first being that their age represented his own when he was exposed to his father’s own harsh treatment, and the second being that they were of colour, thus making their disappearances less noticed or important to authorities. The majority of the murders occurred in 1976 and 1977, during which time people of colour in America were not of priority to the police and disappearances were often disregarded. Gacy’s exposure to corporal punishment can also be correlated with his own methods of torture and killing of his victims. He was known to keep the bodies accessible even after killing them, in order to have an easy source of sexual gratification. His random acts of necrophilia suggest a need for intimacy and an unresisting partner. Gacy was also quite uncouth, making it difficult for him to form relationships with people. A relationship with a dead person does not require any form of social connection.

Further, necrophilia is much more common in a serial killer that is classified as ‘organised’ as they fit into the background of society and do not attract attention. The ‘organised-disorganised’ theory afore mentioned concludes that Gacy was very obviously an organised killer as he was able to fit into to society, put in planning and effort to luring his victims and removing most elements of the crime scene). Referring to the psychodynamic theory formulated by Freud, this could also be applied to Gacy wherein his ID was overwhelming, his ego was threatened due to his sexuality and his superego incredibly warped and inappropriate. Finally, the theories behind genetics and head trauma impacting functioning of the mind can be related. Gacy suffered head trauma at a young age in which a blood clot formed on his brain. It was removed though his family claimed that he ‘wasn’t the same afterwards’. It can be concluded that Gacy’s traumatic childhood greatly contributed to his forming as a violent serial killer as well as a number of other outside factors.

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Into The Mindset Of Serial Killers. (2022, Jun 09). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 11, 2023, from
“Into The Mindset Of Serial Killers.” Edubirdie, 09 Jun. 2022,
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Into The Mindset Of Serial Killers [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 09 [cited 2023 Dec 11]. Available from:
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