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Serial Killers: Definition, Demographics, Motivations, And Typologies

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Today, I feel everyone is fascinated by crime with serial murder being the most fascinating crime out of all crimes. You see books, newspapers, television shows, and movies based on well-known killers like Ted Bundy and Andrew Cunanan who had the destructive minds that continually kill. Many of these accounts leave impressions that serial killers are different and distinct from other criminals. Our current knowledge on serial killers is based almost exclusively on a small number of cases studies and past investigations. So, our current level of knowledge on serial killers is at best, still a little sketchy. This knowledge might not stand up to more rigorous testing. This paper will review the definition of serial killing, demographics of serial killers, results of research on the killers and their motivations, and typologies that are used to classify these individuals.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), a serial killer is a person who commits at least three murders over more than a month with cooling off periods (Brogaard B. D., 2017). However, there is debate from criminologists about the proper definition of a serial killer. The term serial murder was becoming well-known in the 1970s by an investigator with the FBI. Several typologies have been advanced to classify these killers into discrete categories. One of the more popular typologies, the organized and disorga¬nized typology, was developed at the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit First, there is the organized and disorganized killer. The organized killer is the hardest to identify and catch. These killers are extremely intelligent and extremely meticulous. They must plan out every detail of the crime in advance and the killer takes every precaution to make sure they don’t leave incriminating evidence behind. It is common for this person to watch their next victims for several days to find someone they consider to be a good target. Once the victim is chosen, the killer will pick them up, usually through some sort of ploy to gain sympathy, and take them to another location to do the killing. Once the victim is killed, the perpetrator will usually take precautions and hide the body. A criminal like this take pride in what they consider to be their “work” and tend to listen and watch news stories about their crimes. One of their motivating factors may be just to attempt to stump the law enforcement officers who are trying to solve their crime. Killers like the BTK and John Wayne Gacy were listed as organized killers. Unlike the organized killer, disorganized killers rarely plan out the murders of their victims. Majority of the time, their victims happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. This type of serial killer usually strikes at random when they find an opportunity or a person in a vulnerable place. They take no steps to cover up their crime and tend to move to other towns or states regularly to avoid getting caught. Disorganized killers usually have low IQ’s and are extremely antisocial. They rarely have close friends or family, and do not like to stay in one place very long. These killers are prone to have no recollection of their deeds, or confess that they were motivated by voices in their heads or some other imaginary source. Examples of disorganized killers are Ottis Toole and Richard Chase, also known as The Vampire of Sacramento (Crime Museum, LLC, 2017). Then there is Ted Bundy, we can’t discuss serial killers without mentioning Mr. Bundy. He is a mixture of both organized and disorganized crimes. He does tend to have more organized crimes. However, based on the murder spree he did in 1978, he moved towards becoming more disorganized in his murders. His obsession for necrophilia also put him in the disorganized category (WordPress, 2017).

There is no single psychological or personality profile that all serial killers fit, but there are certain characteristics that have been found in serial killers. First, serial killers are more likely to have a history of criminal activity, often in the form of petty crimes, than a history of psychiatric treatment. Second, some serial killers exhibit tell-tale signs of a psychopathic personality. In several small studies, approximately half the serial killers satisfied criteria for psychopathy as measured by Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist. This may explain why some serial killers are good at dis¬arming their victims with little coercion and avoiding apprehension for an average of 4 to 5 years. Third, many (not all) serial killers have a rich fantasy life capable of fueling their appetite for murder, with or without the aid of additional facilitative conditions like pornography, alcohol, or drugs. Objects the serial killer collects from the crime scene or takes from the victim, commonly called trophies, not only help the killer relive the crime but can also trigger future killings. Several studies show it is not unusual for a person to have murder fantasies for several years before acting on them. A lot of the public’s knowledge concerning serial murders has something to do the Hollywood productions. Movies and television shows are created to heighten the interest of the public instead of accurately portraying serial killers. By the movie industry focusing on the atrocities inflicted on victims by these so called, “deranged” offenders, society becomes so captivated by serial killers and their crimes. The rarity of serial murder combined with inaccurate information and fictional portrayals of serial killers has resulted in a few misconceptions and myths regarding serial murder. First myth, majority of serial killers are not reclusive, social misfits who live alone. They may not appear strange. Many serial killers are very good at blending in with their communities. Serial murderers usually have families and homes, are employed, and appear to be normal members of the community. Because many serial killer blends in so effortlessly, they are oftentimes overlooked by law enforcement and the public. The Green River Killer, Gary Ridgeway, confessed to killing 48 women over a twenty-year time period in Seattle. He was married at the time of his arrest and was a truck painter for over thirty years. He also attended church regularly and frequently picked up prostitutes and had sex with them in between his killings. The BTK killer, Dennis Rader, killed ten victims in Kansas. He forwarded written communications to the news media over a thirty-year period taunting the police and the public. He was married with two children, was a Boy Scout leader, served in the U.S. Air Force, and was president of his church. Second myth, serial killers are only motivated by sex. All serial murders are not sexually-based. There are many other motivations for serial murders like anger, thrill, financial gain, and/or just seeking attention. Washington, D.C. serial snipers, John Allen Muhammad, a former U.S. Army Staff Sergeant, and Lee Boyd Malvo killed out of anger and thrill. They were able to terrorize the Washington, D.C. metro area for a month, shooting 13 victims, killing 10 of them. They even communicated with the law enforcement by leaving notes, and they even requested money to stop the shootings. Another serial killer, Paul Reid killed at least seven people in fast food restaurant robberies in Tennessee. After gaining control of the victims, he stabbed or shot them. The motivation for the murders was just witness elimination and financial gain. Third myth, serial murders are done by white males. Serial killers span to different backgrounds. There are white, African American, Hispanic, and Asian serial killers. The racial diversification of serial killers generally mirrors that of the overall U.S. population. Charles Ng, a native of Hong Kong, China, killed numerous victims in Northern California. Derrick Todd Lee, an African American, killed at least six women in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Rafael Resendez-Ramirez, a Hispanic, murdered nine people in Kentucky, Texas, and Illinois. Rory Conde, a Colombian, was responsible for prostitute homicides in the Miami, Florida (Federal Bureau of Investigation)

Research on the motivation behind serial homicide is complicated by the fact that motivation is often used to define serial murder and distinguish it from other cate¬gories of multiple murder (i.e., political terrorism, orga¬nized crime, military combat). It has traditionally been assumed that serial murder is driven by sexual motives, and in more than half of the serial killers interviewed, a clear sexual motive has been identified. Furthermore, in comparison with the emotional and social issues that frequently motivate single-incident homicide, serial homicide is more often motivated by sexual fantasies and desires. The relationship between serial murder and sexual motivation may be an artifact of how serial murder is defined. Future researchers must consequently avoid confounding the criteria used to define serial murder (i.e., motivation) with the pre¬sumed motivation for serial murder by defining serial murder using variables other than sexual motivation. Whether sexual motivation is one artifact of how ser¬ial murder is defined, nearly half of the serial killers who have been interviewed deny that there was a strong sexual component to their crimes. However, a small portion (4—5%) of serial murders appear to be motivated by psychosis, and slightly more are motivated by a strong profit motive. Revenge, on the other hand, may be a more powerful motive for serial murder than either psy¬chosis or profit. There is preliminary evidence, for instance, that some serial killers target victims who dis¬play characteristics symbolic of a group or person they despise. Ted Bundy targeted young women with long dark hair parted down the middle because these were prominent features of a woman who had spurned him years earlier. John Wayne Gacy preyed on young males as a way, perhaps, of venting hatred toward his own homosexuality. An even stronger motive for serial mur¬der is the power a person can derive from taking con¬trol of another person’s life. Forcing a stranger to submit to their every demand and then killing the per¬son with their bare hands, a knife, or a piece of rope can be highly reinforcing to a serial killer.

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There have been numerous attempts to classify serial killers into more descriptive typologies and categories. Another popular typology of serial murder was pro¬posed by Holmes and DeBurger. This typology consists of four categories: (1) visionary type; (2) mission-oriented type; (3) hedonistic type, which is broken down further into serial killers, the thrill killer, and the creature-comfort killer; and (4) power/control type. These typologies were created to link certain personality types and behavioral patterns with different types of serial murders. This helps law enforcement divide serial killers into certain categories based on their mental state and behavior they have during their crimes. According to Homes and DeBurger, the visionary type is alleged to be motivated by delusions and hallu¬cinations, is opportunistic in selecting victims, and leaves a messy crime scene. Hedonistic type is motivated by personal enjoyment, pleasure, or gain, these killers carefully select victims by their own criteria and usually try to leave a clean crime scene. The problem with the Holmes and DeBurger typology is that because the four types are so poorly defined and the boundaries that separate them so indistinct, there is a high degree of overlap between types—a fatal flaw in any typology. Furthermore, there is no empirical sup¬port for the typology either as an effective shorthand in describing serial homicide or as a mechanism for pre-dicting future behavior (Morton). Serial killers are not theoretically insane. However, many serial killers have been clinically diagnosed with some sort of personality disorder. The precise class of personality disorder is cluster type B, which is sociopathic or psychopathic. People diagnosed within this type of disorder are found to be emotionally unstable, self-centered and tend to be manipulative. Some psychology researchers have expressed there are a frequent amount of serial killers that suffer from other disorders like schizophrenia and multiple personality disorder. The origins of the serial killer have been misunderstood because of the different characteristics and framework that have been presented over the years. It makes it hard to understand the serial killer and the label of insanity is used to generalize each one (Bonn, 2019).

Research studies have also showed that people who are serial killers can slip through the cracks in the justice system. The field of psychology is not helped, then as most serial killers are sometimes put to death when caught and further research into this insanity definition is not found. Psychologists are constantly working to find reasons for these obsessions and drives that push these killers to the edge. In many cases, most research has found that the insatiability is the result of filling some type of void that the killer has within themselves. Additional research has found that the serial killer is stuck with violent fantasies that provoke their feelings to hurt and murder others. This is common for all serial killers within the typology mode. It is worth noting here that a large number of the most gruesome crimes were committed by psychotics, not psychopaths. Psychosis and psychopathy are different kinds of mental disorders. Psychosis is a complete loss of sense of reality. Psychopathy is a personality disorder, like narcissistic personality disorder. Personality disorders are potentially more permanent and less curable than psychotic illnesses. Psychotics and psychopaths can have traits in common, like blunted emotions, but they differ by whether they are in touch with reality. Psychopaths are more calculating and manipulative but they do not suffer from hallucinations or delusions. They do not hear the voices in their heads or hold false theories about society or their own lives. One hypothesis about psychotic diseases, like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder is that the glutamate system is dysregulated. This basically means the overstimulation of the person’s brains and emotions can lead to those manic phases, delusions and hallucinations. Therefore, the lack of stimulation creates the opposite affect with blunted or a negative thoughts or emotion. The overstimulation and lack of stimulation can happen at the same time at different receptor sites.

Childhood abuse is a factor that has received attention in the academic and psychology field with claims of many serial killers suffered child abuse through a parent or guardian. While evidence shows not all victims of child abuse grow up to be criminals or abusers, there is a increased risk with childhood trauma and behaviors for personality disorders and criminal activity in their adult life. A study carried out in Radford University in Virginia in 2005 explored the rate of child abuse in a large sample of convicted serial murderers and compare this against the rate of child abuse in the general population. The aim of this research was to see if there is a relationship between an abusive childhood and serial killing later in life. The prevalence of child abuse in serial killers is not a new topic. Researchers who study serial killers have noted that a large percentage have suffered childhood abuse and trauma leading to the suggestion that this could have contributed to their murderous behavior in later life. The term ‘abuse’ includes abuse personally suffered and/or abuse witnessed against another which involved violence or sexual acts. A number of studies have focused on some of the most well-known cases of serial murder and the serial killers who have reported child abuse in their history. John Wayne Gacy, Gary Ridgeway, and Ed Gein are three infamous serial killers who were physically and verbally abused as children by a parent. Other factors common in serial killers are abuse, trauma, insecure attachment, loss or abandonment of a parent or caretaker, antisocial behavior, head injury and low arousal levels.” Furthermore, Mitchell and Aamodt wrote, “Familial contributions include the physical absence or lack of personal involvement by one or both parents and alcohol or drug dependency by one or both parents.” Researchers also included data on the serial killer group when classified into organized, disorganized and mixed offenders and found no difference in the frequency of abuse across these sub-types. For example, those who suffered more psychological abuse did not become a more organized killer compared to a disorganized killer. Researchers are careful not to generalize these findings across all serial killers and note those included in this study were a group of categorized lust killers. Other types of killers may not show the same pattern regarding childhood abuse. However, the differences found in this study are indeed great. They do suggest, even with these various factors taken into account, that there is a higher prevalence of child abuse within the serial killer population when compared directly with the normal population. This is a finding of significant interest to criminologists and psychologists studying serial killers and the factors which may have contributed to their behavior (Guy, 2019).

Serial murder is a rare event, thereby making it difficult to research. Today, nearly all of what we know about serial murder is based on a few case studies con¬ducted on individuals who agreed to be interviewed by law enforcement and a handful of archived studies using information collected from newspapers, police files, and court documents. However, there is a need for more empirical research on serial murder. First, a gen¬erally accepted definition of serial murder must be found so that it can serve as the standard for future research. The use of divergent defi¬nitions of serial murder and confounding definitions with variables (like motivation) have slowed progress in the field. Second, theoretical models need to be created, tested, and updated. A good theory could reap tremen¬dous benefits by advancing research and practice in the field. Third, alternatives to the traditional serial killer typologies need to be found. One such alternative is the instrumental-affective dimensional approach in which instrumental and affective motives for serial murder can coexist. Finally, more research needs to be devoted to prediction—not just as a way of narrowing down the field of suspects in a series of seemingly related murders but also as a way of understanding the factors that lead to serial murder and how some of these features can be ameliorated, altered, or changed.

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Serial Killers: Definition, Demographics, Motivations, And Typologies. (2022, Jun 16). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 8, 2023, from
“Serial Killers: Definition, Demographics, Motivations, And Typologies.” Edubirdie, 16 Jun. 2022,
Serial Killers: Definition, Demographics, Motivations, And Typologies. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 8 Feb. 2023].
Serial Killers: Definition, Demographics, Motivations, And Typologies [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 16 [cited 2023 Feb 8]. Available from:
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