Serial murder is a rare but real act in today’s world. While there are many factors that go into forming a serial killer, the main focus of this paper will be on childhood and antisocial personality disorder (ASPD). Serial killing is often deeply rooted and thoroughly thought out. And although it is important to understand what the killer is doing, it is also necessary to understand why he is doing it. This way, it will be possible to recognize these characteristics in other potential serial killers and stop them before they have time to act on this urge. Normally, the actions of a serial killer are not just about the kills. They often go deeper into the killer’s childhood and in most cases, the killer has a severe case of antisocial personality disorder.
Defining serial murder can be a hard thing to do. The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Behavioral Analysis Unit defines it as “the unlawful killing of two or more victims by the same offender(s), in separate events” (Serial Murder). Going further into this definition, it is necessary to understand that “serial” implies multiple victims and these people must have been killed by the same person. “Separate events” can be defined as a killer having a “temporal separation between the different murders, which was described as separate occasions, cooling-off period, and emotional cooling-off period” (Serial Murder). This differs from mass murder, which is multiple killings at the same time, such as a mass shooting. However, serial murder is very rare, accounting “for less than 1% of all homicides” (Keatley). Multiple murders committed by the same person on multiple occasions is a scary thing to fathom. Although it may be comforting to know that only 1% of all homicides are serial homicides, it is still important to dive further into the serial murders and determine what makes them happen.
Serial killers are strongly associated with antisocial personality disorder. Although antisocial personality disorder does not automatically mean serial killer, serial killers often have it. This disorder can be characterized by “sense of entitlement, lack of remorse, apathetic to others, unconscionable, blameful of others, manipulative and conning, affectively cold, disparate understanding of socially acceptable behavior, disregardful of social obligations, nonconforming to social norms, and irresponsible” (LaBrode). Someone with antisocial personality disorder struggles to feel what people without the disorder feel. They lack to feeling of remorse along with the ability to feel with others or for others. The disorder comes with a lack of guilt and people who struggle with it “tend toward irritability and aggressivity, and often become involved in physical fights and assaults, including spouse and child beating” (Geberth). Although most of the people who struggle with this disorder are properly treated for it and it does not become a major problem in society, the few who do struggle without getting treatment for it can become a threat to their community. It is crucial when trying to prevent antisocial personality disorder to avoid loneliness in children’s lives; as “extreme loneliness may lead to internal rigidity, social-emotional and moral numbing, indifference, hostility, and anger” (Martens). Martens also brings up what goes along with this loneliness to cause antisocial behavior, much of which has been discussed earlier in the paragraph. In terms of proper treatment for antisocial personality disorder, it should look to combat disorders such as “substance abuse [and] depression;” other techniques could include “a combination of neurofeedback, psychotherapeutic and psychopharmacological treatment, and psychosocial guidance” (Martens). Although good at hiding it, many serial murderers do struggle with this disorder, and the failure to properly treat it causes them to become the monsters they are.
Along with the environmental factors of antisocial personality disorder, there are biological factors and brain anatomy that also cause the development of it. Through research, it has been found that “certain physiological responses… may occur more frequently in people with antisocial personality disorder” (Antisocial Personality Disorder). And along with these physiological issues, the brain anatomy of someone with ASPD is normally off. For instance, the frontal lobe, which is in charge of judgment and planning, is different compared to someone without this disorder. Some research has shown differences in the volume of brain structures that cause violent behavior, such as killing. These two brain issues cause people to have more trouble controlling their impulses and although it cannot be proven that these issues within the brain are a direct cause of antisocial personality disorder, they are highly correlated.
It is important to look at how childhood impacts the adulthood of serial killers. Most serial killers were raised in an abusive households, whether that be mentally or physically. Sometimes this abuse was deemed okay because it was seen as “part of a disciplinarian, strict, or religious household” (Keatley). This abuse during childhood would often lead to crimes including sexual assault. While this childhood abuse does not show up in all cases of serial murderers, it does occur in most. There is also the influence of the mothers during childhood to take into account. As Jeffrey Dahmer’s mother stated, “we’re still blaming the mothers” (LaBrode 154). It is thought that many serial killers developed insecure attachments to their mothers throughout their childhood and “suffered from physical or emotional loss or abandonment as well as instability in their childhoods” (LaBrode 155). These insecure attachments led to inappropriate relationships with the mother often including “sexual and sadistic elements” (LaBrode 155). Along with abuse and the insecure attachments to their mothers, a study found “frequent moving in one-third of serial killers,” showing that an unstable home life and the absence of a steady home could play a factor in the adulthood of serial killers (Keatley). Their actions in childhood might have included “set[ting] fires, tortur[ing] animals, and wet[ting] their beds” and most of these killers were described as “a little ‘off’” by people who knew them during their childhood (LaBrode 154). There are many factors that lead to regular people becoming monsters through the maltreatment of antisocial personality disorder, such as childhood abuse, insecure attachments to the mother figure, and sadistic actions.
Relating serial killers, antisocial personality disorder, and childhood is crucial to determining who might become a serial killer and how to prevent the upbringing of more serial murderers. Antisocial personality disorder does not in turn mean serial killer; however, serial killer might entail antisocial personality disorder. And although a serial killer might not have diagnosed ASPD, there is a strong chance they show similar characteristics of it. Growing up with antisocial personality disorder combines the two experiences into one, creating a higher chance of a murderer. Childhood impacts a person much more than one might realize. The scarring memories of abuse and insecure attachments to mothers can cause not only one to develop ASPD but to become a serial murderer in turn.
In most cases, serial killers often have a criminal history with crimes such as theft or sexual assault. It is believed that the killing is an escalation of their previous crimes. While have a criminal background does not guarantee one to become a serial killer, it makes them more of a suspect when a case presents itself. It has been shown that almost fifty percent of serial killers were arrested as minors and seventy-nine percent had had convictions before this. This past combined with an abusive childhood lead one to become more susceptible to become a killer or at least become a suspect of a case involving serial murder.
There are many cases in which infamous serial killers have shown to have antisocial personality disorder, abusive childhoods, or both. For instance, Jeffrey Dahmer grew up sharing the already lacking attention from his parents with his younger brother David. His family was moved three times within two years of his childhood, giving him an unstable home life. Dahmer did not have close relationships with anyone going up and was often isolated socially. To continue with how his childhood affected who he became, Dahmer took interest in biology and dissecting animals. He soon began looking for dead animals in his neighborhood and take the skulls of them, putting them on a stick, and placing them around his neighborhood. As he grew older, Dahmer became lonelier and ended up stealing a manikin to lay with while his parents were away. During this phase, necrophilic fantasies entered his mind along with homosexual desires. While Jeffrey was driving home, he offered a young man a ride and invited him into his house. But when Dahmer made sexual advances toward the boy and he declined, Dahmer “strangled him and sexually abused him” (Martens 301). This fear of loneliness took over and he could not image being abandoned and neglected again. The childhood memory of loneliness and neglect led Dahmer to kill and save body parts of sixteen more young men.
Along with Dahmer, Dennis Nilsen is another infamous serial killer; he was specifically diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder. Although Nilsen’s father did not leave him during childhood, he did serve in the army and was rarely home. His father’s absence led Nilsen to feel abandoned by family, especially after his only true companion, his grandfather, died when he was six. This led him to become “more and more irritable and melancholic” (Martens 302). At the age of seven, Nilsen’s parents got divorced; his mother remarried and had four more children, taking her attention away from Dennis. Because of this, he committed minor criminal behaviors such as theft. While in the army for six years, Nilsen discovered his homosexuality, which he had to hide as it was not accepted among his fellow soldiers. This caused him to feel even lonelier and separated from the world around him. Once out of the army, he had many one-night stands, which he found depressing. A couple of years later, he met a man whom he created a permanent relationship with, but that only lasted about a year. Feeling lonely again, Nilsen turned back to drinking and went out to pubs. After another one-night stand, Nilsen was afraid of the person he slept with leaving him and therefore strangled him. Before he was caught, Dennis Nilsen had strangled no less than fifteen young men. All of these murders seemed to have stemmed from the loneliness he felt as a child and continued to feel throughout his adulthood.
Both Dahmer and Nilsen can be said to have had antisocial personality disorder, and a severe case at that. They both felt rejected and alone during their childhood and their inability to form strong bonds with others led them to continue to feel that way throughout their lives. Social isolation led them both to feel even stronger feelings of “love, sexuality, and the warmth proper of a normal relationship” (Martens 304). Because of their disorder, Dahmer and Nilsen both developed ideals of what their lives should be like; but the feelings of being unwanted and hopeless led them to the need to overcome these emotions, which both saw could be fixed with the ability to control others. Both these cases show the importance of raising children “who are at risk of developing antisocial personality disorder” in a manner where they do not feel alone and are positively encouraged regularly (Martens 305).
As described by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, serial murder is caused by “the development of the individual from birth to adulthood” (Serial Murder). More specifically, “causality can be defined as a complex process based on biological, social, and environmental factors” (Serial Murder). Because they are human, serial killers are always developing and their childhood strongly contributes to their becoming an adult. Neglect and loneliness stem from childhood, yet they are feelings that are commonly carried on throughout life if someone grew up feeling that way. A major cause of antisocial personality disorder is problems in early childhood, along with “poor behavioral controls,… juvenile delinquency, revocation of conditional release, and criminal versatility” (Serial Murder). Developing antisocial personality disorder can lead to the diagnosis of being a psychopath. Psychopaths do not all commit murder, yet those who do place no value on human life are ruthless when it comes to their victims.
Most of the time in serial murder, the victims are surrogates that represent someone else in the killer’s life. Victimology is crucial when trying to catch a killer. By noticing who the victims are, it becomes easier to link the kills together and therefore catch the one responsible for the kills. Going back to the previous example, Dahmer tricked young men into coming to his house to be photographed for money. This detail allows most killings of young men in need of money to be linked to Dahmer. Victimology often offers an insight into the serial killer’s childhood; for example, if someone had a mother who was sleeping around and acted inappropriately towards him, that person would most likely kill prostitutes or women that remind him of his mother, who he held in low regard. By examining victims, it becomes easier to tell who the police should be looking for by relating the victimology to a real-life event related to the killer.
Serial murder often stems from the development from childhood to adulthood and a lot of the time the development of antisocial personality disorder. It is important to note that serial murder has a very specific definition: there must be multiple kills by the same offender with a cooling-off period in between each kill. Along with defining serial murder, antisocial personality disorder can be characterized by feelings of loneliness, hopelessness, entitlement, apathy, blame, etc. This is often developed during a period of adolescence in which the child is abused in his home or neglected, cannot make strong connections to others, and struggles to feel much emotion. Childhood and antisocial personality disorder are closely linked to serial murder. Killers often times draw on their past experience to find the anger to kill. For many killers, such as Jeffrey Dahmer and Dennis Nilsen, loneliness is the driving force. While it is important to understand each of these individually, putting serial killing, ASPD, and childhood together can lead to catching serial killers in the early stages and sometimes even predict one before they have the opportunity to kill.