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Psychoanalytic Theory Analysis Of The Criminal Behaviour Of The Serial Killer Edmund Kemper III

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Throughout history, many theorists have attempted to explain the mental and physical behaviour of humans, specifically, when trying to analyse criminal behaviour. Psychologists are absorbed in; learning, personality, aggressive behaviour, intelligence, developmental and cognitive theories (Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services, 2016). Within this essay, the psychoanalytic theory will be used to explain the criminal behaviour of of a famous serial killer from America, Edmund Kemper III. This theory will be applied to Edmund Kemper’s criminal behaviour, by explaining that Kemper was engrossed in the phallic stage of psychosexual development. Arguments will primarily focus on his underdevelopment of his superego, and immature use of defence mechanisms to supress his emotions and feelings towards the crimes committed. Relevant Psychoanalytic theories will be outlined, then applied to clarify Edmund Kempers necrophilia and homicidal behaviour. Additionally, supporting empirical research will be provided alongside the arguments, and provide understanding behind Kemper’s behaviour from a psychoanalytic perspective. Finally, the limitations of these arguments will be displayed to offer understanding in future research.

Psychoanalytic theory, asserts both that there are divisions of the human personality that are in constant conflict with each other, and that there are a number of stages of development an individual must pass through to establish normal behavior. The Psychoanalytic theory, originally created by Sigmund Freud, asserts that there are divisions of the human personality that are in constant conflict with each other, and that there are a number of stages of development an individual must pass through to establish normal behavior (Santrock, 2017; Shoham, 1993). One of Freud’s famous analogies is that of the iceberg, relating to the consciousness only being the tip of the iceberg. Freud explained that there are three levels of the mind, which are outlined as the “Id, Ego and Superego”. These three parts of the mind function unconsciously and have independent roles but work alongside one another to add to an individual’s behaviour (Greene, 2011). The three components coincide with the levels of consciousness, with the conscious, preconscious and unconscious, being outside of the conscious thoughts and feeling processes. Id, ego, and superego mechanisms make up the personality and with that, the development of personality can be distorted by experiences that occur in childhood. (Greene, 2011). The development of personality surrounds sexual pleasure on the individual psyche (Stevenson, 1996). Psychosexual development encompasses a child growing through five stages that are linked with different erogenous zones. These five stages include oral, anal, phallic, latency and genital. With each of the stages having separate internal conflict relating to them, that individual children must figure out and pass through in order to reach the full maturity and growth. Although, if a child’s demands and needs are not met, frustration and overindulgence can occur, causing the child to become fixated and not pass through that specific phase, therefore, that specific stage may dominate the individual’s personality throughout adulthood (Stevenson, 1996). Lastly, another variable that determines behaviour from the psychoanalytic view is the divisions of the mind.

Freud explained the divisions of the mind in the shape of the Ego, Super Ego and Id. The three structures, each conflicting with each other, function in different levels of consciousness, that interact coherently to help guide an individual’s behaviour (Stevenson, 1996; Greene 2011). The id, operating unconsciously, is psychical province, instinctually driving energies which are motivated primitively (Lapsley & Stey, 2011). This compels the individual to participate in essential life sustaining, “tension-reducing activities” which are which are felt as pleasure (Lapsley & Stey, 2011). The Ego works alongside the reality principle, which gratifies the desires of the id, however, these gratifications are determined by the superego (Shoham & Seis, 1993). The superego functions under a long socialization process, influenced mostly parental authorities. The values, morals and norms of the society are taught by the parents, and the superego internalizes these (Shoham & Seis, 1993). However, the ego has defense mechanisms that are portrayed when the id and superegos requests are too overpowering, causing the ego to become unstable (Stevenson, 1996).

The Egos defence mechanism is used to protect itself against strains from the id. Its responsible for the perception of danger, which allows the individual to avoid conscious awareness with these “anxiety-arousing ideas” (Colman, 2015). These defence mechanisms can include displacement and denial, and can be used in relation to the individual’s situation and personality. Finally, the three of these components work together to offer understanding into the criminal behaviour preformed by Kemper, through elements of his personality that have been disturbed in his childhood.

Edmund Emil II and Clarnell Kemper were the parents of Edmund Kemper, who was born in 1948 (Riley 1998). When Kemper was young, his father left the family, (which also included an older and younger sister) leaving alcohol abusing Clarnell Kemper to preform extreme violence against Edmund, abusing him mentally and physically ( Editors. 2019). For eight months his mother punished Edmund by making him sleep in the basement (as she feared he would in some way harm his sisters). Kempers Mothers isolation and lack of true love towards kempers from a young age, caused him to go into a murderous spiral. Killing his cats first, and eventually killing his grandparents after feeling abandoned by both of his parents, because he just wondered how it would feel to shoot Grandma” (Cheney, 1976, as sighted by Riley 1998). He then was placed into the Atascadero State Hospital, at the age of 15, where he explained to one of the doctors that ‘I really killed my grandmother because I wanted to kill my mother’ (Cheney, 1976, as sighted by Riley 1998). Kemper was deemed to have “a very high IQ, but also suffered from paranoid schizophrenia” ( Editors. 2019). Kemper was finally released at the age of 21, but contrary to his doctor’s beliefs, Edmund was far from “cured”, in fact he went on to act out his fantasies by picking up hitchhikers at the University of California, murdering them and preforming cannibalism. His debut murderous act was on his mother and her best friend, for then he fled his town but finally called the police and turned himself in. Kemper is now imprisoned in California medical facility, where he will live out the rest of his sentence ( Editors. 2019). Altogether, the examination of Kemper’s behaviour can be connected to the key concepts of the psychoanalytic theory, due to the development of his personality being interrupted, due to his childhood by his abuse from his mother and desertion father.

The first characteristic of the psychoanalytic theory that is qualified to explain some of Kemper’s criminal actions, is the fixation he adopted within the phallic stage of psychosexual development. Freud explained this theory by describing it as, being centred around the effects of the sexual pleasure drive on someone’s psyche (Stevenson, 1996). The five stages include; the oral stage, which primitively focusses on the libidal energy, and around the child’s mouth from birth to one and a half years old. Next is the anal stage, where the child find pleasure in the expulsion of faeces (Stevenson, 1996). The next stage Is the Phallic Stage which is the most crucial stage, where the child will become more interested in their genitals, it also involves the oedipal complex. In the next stage, sexual curiosity lies dormant, therefore this stage is called the Latency period, making friendships and focussing on school (Stevenson, 1996). Lastly is the genital stage, which starts in puberty and progresses into adulthood. Where the child libido is focussed on heterosexual relationships and one’s genitals.

The major part relating the Kempers behaviour, is due to his fixation on the phallic stage. “child’s unconscious desire to possess the opposite-sexed parent and to eliminate the same-sexed one” (Stevenson, 1996).

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When putting the crimes preformed by Kemper into context, it can be seen that the phallic stage is unique to his specific behaviour. Kemper experienced fixation on the phallic stage, with the most important part of it being the oedipal complex, which, “involves a child’s unconscious desire to possess the opposite-sexed parent and to eliminate the same-sexed one,” A child cannot act on the desires of incest towards his mother, or impulses of murder for his father, due to the fear of castration (Stevenson, 1996). Therefore, to avoid conflict, the child would adopt his father characteristics to identify with his (Shoham & Seis, 1993).

However, Kemper case is controversial to this, due to his development process lacking a real father figure. As a result of Kemper’s sever abandonment, where he could not adopt male characteristics or identify, was the primary reason behind his fixation. The loss of a Father has proven seen to have a greater negative effect toward a child throughout the developmental process (Wallerstein (2000) as cited in Jones, 2007). Wallerstein (2000) as cited in Jones, (2007) discovered that a divorce can impact children most severely “as they go in search of love, sexual intimacy, and commitment” therefore anxiety is conveyed in adulthood, concerning intimacy and relationship issues as well as having anger toward parents. Kemper proved the research to be correct, due to the loss of his father and high anxiety surrounding relationship development. In an interview surrounding Kempers acts of murder towards the girls, he answered that he was scared to death of failing at a male or female relationship (Riley, 1988). Confessions from Kemper also outlined that his deeds of necrophilia, instead of rape was due to them being alive, where they were distant, not sharing with him. Kemper wanted to form a relationship where there was not one (Leyton, 2003) as cited in (Healey, 2005). The statements from Kemper display a strong indication that his anxiety was extremely high, surrounding the formation of sexual relationships with a female, therefore, causing him to have intense anger towards his parents for not adapting these qualities as a child. Essentially, Kemper killed women in order to subdue his anxiety and decrease the risk of being abandoned or mocked like his parents caused him to experience. Due to Kempers abandonment from his father, he could not adopt the necessary moral values or male characteristics which would’ve helped him resolve the oedipal complex, causing him to overcome his sexual desires through necrophilia and murder in consequence.

Furthermore, Kemper’s fixation resulted in the non development of the superego division of the mind, which can be another reason for the criminal acts he undertook.

The super ego being the unconscious part of the mind (Greene, 2011) inhibiting “the id in pursuit of morally acceptable, not pleasurable or even realistic, goals.” (Stevenson, 1996). However, if the superego remains underdeveloped there can be negative consequences in personality formation and behaviour. According to Aichhorn (1955) cited in Shoham & Seis (1993) when the superego remains underdeveloped, delinquent behvaiours will form, thus also leaving the id unregulated. Lack of love and parental guidance provided to meet the child’s psychological needs is one cause of the underdevelopment of the superego (Shoham & Seis, 1993).with the lack of physical and emotional support from his mother as a child As a result of his mother not providing the support and the theoretical knowledge of what is deemed right and wrong, this resulted in Kemper’s id being unregulated and the unacceptable urges and impulses of death were not suppressed, illustrating Kemper’s criminal behaviour. “A strong superego allows one to renounce id impulses and urges and provides the basis of civilised behaviour” (Shoham & Seis, 1993). As a result of his mother not being emotionally present to meet the needs of his developing superego, it remained underdeveloped and Kemper was not able to suppress the murderous urges he felt towards women. This caused him to satisfy these impulses by brutally murdering and performing acts of necrophilia on the women he picked up. If Kemper’s mother had development Kemper’s theoretical knowledge of morality and provided the love and support he needed as a child he may have developed a strong superego and these crimes may not have occurred. Additionally, Kemper’s superego dysfunction also caused an imbalance in the ego division of the mind hence Kemper was not able to mediate internal and external conflict effectively.

Ego defence mechanisms are psychological strategies that are used to protect a person from excessive anxiety arising thoughts or feelings (Cramer, 2006). Whilst every individual has defence mechanisms, the operation of them are reliant on the individual and the situation they are placed in. The effective operation of an ego involves the guidance of the superego which embodies the moral standards and values of the person’s actions (Sammons & Putwain, 2018). However, as previously discussed, Kemper had an underdeveloped superego as a result of his mother’s maltreatment. This overall resulted in criminal behaviour as there were few inhibitions against acting out the aggressive urges he felt. Furthermore, the dysfunction of the superego created an imbalance within the ego’s functioning which resulted in the use of immature defence mechanisms. Immature defences are psychological processes that play an important role in supressing emotional awareness (Costa & Brody, 2013). However, the use of them prevent the conscious processing that is necessary for resolution of anxiety (Mullen, Blanco, Vaughan SC, Vaughan R, Roose, 1999). Finzi-Dottan and Karu (2006) found that adults who suffered emotional abuse in childhood used immature defence mechanisms which were produced by the detrimental effect of abuse on their personality. Additionally, Perry and Cooper (1989) as cited in (Cordess & Cox, 1995) revealed immature mechanisms are associated with psychological symptoms of personal distress, poor social functioning, and delinquent behaviour. Kemper experienced all of these psychological symptoms as a result of his mother’s abuse thus resulting in his criminal and delinquent behaviour. The first defence mechanism that was associated with these feelings and behaviour was displacement, which involves “the transfer of feelings from one target to another that is considered less threatening or neutral” (Townsend, 2014). Kemper effectively used this defence mechanism to displace his anger, aggression, and hatred he felt towards his mother upon other victims that were deemed less threatening. Kemper discussed during an interview that he was involved in killing co-eds because his mother was associated with college work, college co-eds, women, and had had a very strong and violently outspoken position on men for much of his upbringing (Riley, 1988). He also identified that the purpose of his crimes was to destroy “not what my mother was, but what she liked, what she coveted, what was important to her” (Riley, 1988). The use of this defence mechanism was used in an immature way as it was not effectively used to suppress his own anxiety and internal conflict but to create destruction in his mothers’ life.

Kemper also used denial as a defence mechanism which involves “refusing to acknowledge the existence of a real situation or the feelings associated with it” (Townsend, 2014). Kemper used denial to place blame upon his mother for the crimes he had committed. He quoted in an interview “six young women dead because of the way she raises her son, the way her son was raised, and where he grew up” (Vander Hayden, 2018). He disputed the external reality that he had committed those heinous crimes due to his hatred towards his mother, thus placing all of the blame onto her as a way to suppress the guilt and anxiety of taking human lives. This was an immature use of defence mechanism as it is only a short-term solution to the crimes he was accountable for.

Overall, the psychoanalytic theory is a useful method to identify potential correlations between the theory and how it could explain the behaviour of Edmund Kemper III. However, there are some weaknesses with the arguments made that need to be outlined in order to progress future research of this topic. The first weakness that was identified when applying Kemper’s behaviour to the theory is the primary focus around the unobservable processes rather than external. Thus, making it a weakness as there is no scientific validity that fixation in the psychosexual development stages can occur or whether Kemper even had an underdeveloped superego. Due to the scientific validity not having a strong effect when applying the theory to criminal behaviour it views the arguments being made as assumptions rather than having a strong argument about what is occurring in Kemper’s mind. Another key weakness that was experienced was that IQ was often deemed as an irrelevant factor. Due to empirical research and information of the theory being based around delinquent behaviour it causes a weakness in the arguments made towards Kemper has he had an IQ of 145, placing him in the genius category. Overall, it is clear that Kemper carried out delinquent behaviour through his crimes he committed, however, the theory itself does not provide any extended evidence on how a person can be classified a genius in intelligence but has a delinquent personality. Consequently, in the future to avoid such weaknesses, multiple theories may be applied in correspondence with one another to enhance the validity and allow more integrated explanations for criminal behaviour.

During this essay the psychoanalytic theory was effectively used to explain and analyse the criminal behaviour of Edmund Kemper III. The key concepts of the psychoanalytic theory identified Kemper’s fixation in the phallic stage of psychosexual development, his underdeveloped superego, and how he used immature ego defence mechanisms to avoid the anxiety and guilt that he may have experienced from murdering ten people. Whilst aspects of this theory were able to explain his criminal behaviour there were also weaknesses that were addressed and can be applied for future research.

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Psychoanalytic Theory Analysis Of The Criminal Behaviour Of The Serial Killer Edmund Kemper III. (2021, October 05). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 2, 2022, from
“Psychoanalytic Theory Analysis Of The Criminal Behaviour Of The Serial Killer Edmund Kemper III.” Edubirdie, 05 Oct. 2021,
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